There’s a scene in the second-to-last episode of the HBO series “Sharp Objects” in which Richard, the detective played by Chris Messina, says something that reveals a common and devastating misunderstanding about what the scars of trauma can do to a woman, to a human.
Richard has just caught his lover, Camille Preaker, played to heartbreaking devastation by Amy Adams, in a motel bed post-coitus with the lead suspect in the case of two murdered teen girls he has been investigating.
He also just discovered that Camille’s mother, Adora, might be responsible for the murder of Camille’s younger sister.
Over eight episodes, the dark HBO drama takes pains to show us how Camille is haunted by her sister’s death, which she had thought was caused by an illness.
Camille turns her pain inward. She cuts herself to the point that she cannot wear short sleeves or a dress without showing her scars, literally closing herself off to exposure or human contact. She drinks herself to a blurred reality. And as a St. Louis newspaper reporter sent home to Windgap, Missouri, by her editor to probe the case Richard is investigating, Camille also maybe isn’t doing her best as a journalist.
With the exception of Adams’ cascading waves of glorious hair ― this is Hollywood after all ― Camille, in her daily uniform of jeans you can practically smell through the screen, is, as the kids say, a hot mess.
Richard arrives at the motel armed with information he knows will exacerbate Camille’s already overwhelming emotional pain. But stunned by what he perceives as her betrayal, he lashes out.
As she begs him not to leave her, not to hate her, he spits out, “I don’t think you’re bad, OK? I think one bad thing happened and you blame the rest of your shitty life on it.”
But of course, for victims of abuse, it’s never just one thing. In real life, one bad thing happens, and more bad things follow. And “Sharp Objects” chases this idea right up until its closing credits, when the true horror of what Adora has done makes itself known.
It’s an idea that resonates in this moment, perhaps more than any other, as victims of sexual harassment, abuse and assault come forward with their stories ― and then face backlash when it’s revealed that, well, they’re not perfect.
Ultimately, no one escapes trauma without damage, without scars — literal ones in Camille’s case. Not all victims harm only themselves. Monsters aren’t born; they’re created, as “Sharp Objects” shows us. Before Adora became an abuser, she was subject to horrific abuse, as she admits in last Sunday’s episode.
As the season finale shows (watch what happens during the closing credits), victims turn their hurt and their rage outward. They hurt others.
Yet for observers, like Richard and Adora’s husband and most of Camille’s hometown, there is a deep, driving need to not consider the complexity of trauma, to view victims as pure and good.
The show hammers this mistaken belief home by offering up complex, mostly female heroes and antiheroes.
These include a teenage Civil War-era rape victim who is annually glorified at a festival called Calhoun Day. The girl refused to reveal the location of her husband to Union soldiers, who raped and killed her in retribution. Annually, the town’s teenagers re-create this gang rape for entertainment ― glossing over how she might have experienced that moment of horror. She’s merely a glorified and simplified victim.
It’s a stark reminder of how the town has institutionalized violence against women while failing to grapple with what that history of violence might mean.
There is a deep, driving need to not consider the complexity of trauma, to view victims as pure and good.
Camille’s family is infected by inherited trauma. In the same episode, she refers to that teenage rape victim as a “great-great-great-grand-victim.” Her stepfather at one point asks her to have sympathy for Adora because she, too, has been suffering from past abuses.
It’s not hard to grasp that the experience of being abused could make a victim more likely to abuse others. Yet because of the driving need to see victims ― particularly female victims ― in a sort of purist way, it comes as a shock to learn that the person who murdered those girls was not a man.
Time after time in the series, police dismiss the idea that the murderer they’re looking for could be female. Girls and women are innocents. They wear white in Windgap, especially in Adora’s house. They’re either sweet and pure or they’ve fallen from grace by becoming drunk and “slutty.”
But they’re certainly never murderous.
Of course, that’s all wrong.
It’s a lesson that can’t be told enough these days, as purists push storylines about heroic, innocent victims and evil perpetrators that dominate segments of the ongoing Me Too conversation.
This month The New York Times reported that Asia Argento ― a leading voice of the movement ― tried to cover up a sexual relationship with an underage boy by paying him hush money.
Much hand wringing ensued. How could a victim become a victimizer?
As “Sharp Objects” makes clear, the more fitting question is, How could one not?
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated which person Camille refers to as a “great-great-great-grand victim.”