“Maid” Details the Journey of Leaving Abusive Relationships
By Program Director, Megan Hennessey
Warning: triggers regarding domestic violence, spoilers for the Netflix series “Maid”
In October, Netflix released a limited drama series called Maid, which is based on a 2019 memoir called “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” by Stephanie Land. Within two weeks of the show being released, it was streaming in the number 2 spot on Netflix. In this series, a young mother named Alex faces numerous barriers as she attempts to leave her abusive boyfriend. If you have seen the series and aren’t familiar with domestic violence, you may be wondering just how accurate the show’s portrayal of leaving an abusive relationship is.
Several Resilience staff members will host a conversation on themes and barriers that are seen throughout the series. Some of the common themes that occur in Maid that we will be discussing in our Panel include:
DYNAMICS OF ABUSE
Escalation: The show does a wonderful job showing the escalation of violence and how domestic violence is not limited to physical and sexual violence. Violence does grow like mold. Escalation can occur slowly or suddenly, and survivors often find themselves faced with behaviors from their partner they never imagined they would do. Abusive behaviors often escalate when harm doers feel they are losing power and control over their partner or the relationship. Leaving an abusive partner is statistically the most dangerous time in the relationship and is the most likely time that bodily harm or homicide may occur.
Tactics of Abuse: Manipulation and minimizing the abuse are common tactics abusers use to control their victims, and Maid shows perfect examples of these in Sean’s efforts to get Alex to stay with him. He and other characters also blame his abusive behavior on his drinking. “Where are you going to go? I pay all the bills…I let you mooch off me. I do everything for you. If you walk out of here, you’ll have no one.” He’s attempting to make her believe she wouldn’t be able to survive without him. Later, he tells Alex that he gave her car back to the man who lent it to her. He cuts her off from transportation, essentially holding her hostage without having to exert physical power. Domestic violence is not caused by alcoholism, mental health, or anger issues. And for Sean and many other people who struggle with substance abuse and hurting their loved ones, his entitlement to exert power and control over her is still present when he isn’t drinking.
Challenges to leaving: The barriers Alex faces are not uncommon ones. Alex is faced with a pile of paperwork and rules she needs to learn at every goal: receiving benefits, finding childcare, fighting for custody of her daughter, and finding housing. She’s unable to get a landlord to agree to rent to her via a rental assistance program. In Ottawa and Allegan Counties, there are a lack of landlords willing to rent to survivors with rental assistance programs, and affordable housing is in short supply. Alex’s labor is exploited by the maid service she works for. She puts in an inordinate amount of work to jump through the bureaucratic hoops and setbacks that are blocking her from achieving safety and stability, just like many survivors in our community need to do. Alex is faced with a hard reality that many workers in America know; working hard and being employed is not a guarantee for getting out of poverty.
Returning to an abusive relationship: “What’s weird is that I felt myself rooting for Sean at points”, a friend of mine said to me after watching the show. The show lets us know from the first scene that Sean is abusive. Yet there are moments where you see that he is sweet to his daughter, he’s fighting to stay sober, and tried to help Alex take care of her mother. He promises to change. The audience starts to think that he may be able to change, and that living in his home must be better than being homeless…right?
“It takes most women seven tries before they finally leave” Denise says accurately. It isn’t a character flaw that causes victims go back to their abusers. We are wired to make and maintain relationships – it’s the best part of what makes us human. Alex, like so many other survivors, goes back to her partner with the hope that his behavior has changed, only to come to the realization that they haven’t and won’t.
THE EFFECT TRAUMA HAS ON OUR BRAINS
Brandi, another resident of the shelter in the show, tells Alex that “Our circuits are just fried when we first get here. I couldn’t remember what my favorite color was for weeks.” Most survivors who are at shelter have undergone something that threatened their sense of safety and being homeless on its own is traumatic. The brain has an internal alarm system to help keep people safe, and this alarm system can be overloading when something terrifying happens, especially if it has happened multiple times or is committed by someone you love. While this system helps keep people stay safe while they’re in danger, if it doesn’t turn off when the danger subsides it can create a variety of problems for survivors, such as flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, dissociation, difficulty concentrating, irritability and overwhelming guilt or shame. These reactions are normal, and can subside on their own, but trauma therapy, another free service offered at Resilience, can help with these symptoms.
LIFE IN A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SHELTER
The show also portrayed what life in a domestic violence shelter can be like. We found that while many aspects were accurate, there are some precautions taken in the show that aren’t necessarily steps survivors must take at Resilience’s shelter. For example, When Alex arrives at the shelter, her advocate Denise asks her to place her cell phone in a bin at the front desk and explains that Alex can take it whenever she would like, but that she must leave to use the phone. “Protecting the confidentiality of our location is our top priority,” Denise explains. Tracking a phone’s location is a common way harm-doers attempt to hunt their partners down after they’ve left. At Ginny’s Place, Resilience’s confidentially located emergency shelter, guests can keep their cell phones, though we safety plan and keep up to date on the location-based apps that abusers often use to track their victims and are willing to look through guests’ phone with them if they would like.
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