Spoilers below. Triggers: mentions of child molestation.
The first aspect of Dolores Claiborne I want to talk about is its raw demonstration of what it’s like to be a woman abused by a husband. Joe is far from a criminal mastermind, and yet he manages to hold his wife and daughter in bondage to him, and the system helps him every step of the way. Abuse tactics are honed through generations of repetition, imprinted on child by parent so that even dim-witted alcoholics can skillfully terrorize their families as if by instinct.
Dolores stands up to him the very first time he hits her; he never hits her again, but that’s when he starts molesting Selena. Dolores saves money for an escape from Joe; the bank manager illegally gives it to Joe without a second thought because that’s the sort of thing men do for other men. Dolores has no evidence with which to go to the police. She has taken the steps we say she ought to take, and they didn’t work because Joe has the advantage of being unhindered by morals.
Dolores has an understandable reason for killing her husband: she knows he’s molesting their daughter, Selena, but can’t prove it. Even Selena is even in frantic denial. Without proof – and in molestation cases, that’s very tough to come by – Joe’s legal parental rights over Selena are identical to Dolores’. If she denies him access to his child, she could end up in legal trouble and Selena could end up with Joe as sole custodian. Almost any action she takes carries the risk of Joe finally flipping out and killing Dolores, and finally having Selena right where he wants her.
The only way Dolores can guarantee Selena won’t be harmed further by Joe is to kill him. And, rather than dutifully turn herself in for the crime and accept her punishment from the patriarchy (as so often seems to happen in TV shows), Dolores must get away with it so she can continue to raise and protect her daughter. She can either be a good mother or a good citizen, not both.
At this point in the story, it’s easy to sympathize with Dolores’ decision. But what about earlier, when Joe was verbally abusive to her? Or the one time he hit her? Shouldn’t she have taken those things as a clue and divorced him before things escalated to molestation? The story rebuts every one of these questions, making it very clear that Dolores made the best of the crappy choices before her at every turn, until she finally realized she had to reach beyond the law for a solution.
The story shouldn’t have to rebut those questions, though. We shouldn’t need a movie to clue people into the fact that even the law doesn’t have a magic solution to abuse problems, and therefore it’s ridiculous to assume there are obvious solutions abused women just aren’t bothering to utilize. Not all of our questions should be about the victim’s actions, either. Maybe if we spent as much time wondering how the Joes of the world select their victims and why they can’t function without someone to take out their frustrations on, we’d stumble onto some solutions. Why don’t we ask why Joe, who can’t erode Dolores’ self-esteem like he so desperately needs to, doesn’t leave Dolores and go find some weak woman with whom to father future victims of molestation? (If anything, perhaps we should be grateful Dolores killed him, as it’s pretty much guaranteed that if she and Selena had successfully escaped his clutches, they’d have been replaced by someone else, and this time Joe would know better how to choose his victim.)
Unfortunately we live in a society where sons are given less discipline and fewer consequences than daughters. We all grow up knowing that, women are held more responsible than men. We see the press’ burning hate for the mentally ill Andrea Yates of the world while pretty much every damn Christmas some poor overstressed but mentally functional guy kills his entire family. We have a name for these guys: family annihilators. We have a name for women who kills their families, too: bitches. For women to harm others is unforgiveable; for men to harm others is wrong, but understandable.
Until the murder, Dolores’ only triumphs are hitting Joe back; getting back the money the bank manager effectively helped Joe steal from her. Successful men are those who achieve things; successful women are those who recover from things. Why are we still having to explain the difference, and why it’s unacceptable and why “that’s just how it is” is not an answer?
And so, in answer to the questions posed about women in abuse situations, Dolores Claiborne puts the title character in a situation a father would find just as overwhelming and confusing. A father might well resort to Dolores’ solution (unless he had plenty of money to fund a successful escape and fight any ensuing legal battles). The story forms a bullet-proof rebuttal of indictments against abused women because it doesn’t depend entirely on gender, yet it invokes several gendered situations: Joe controlling the finances to keep his wife and daughter where he wants them, the bank manager enabling Joe, and Detective Mackey obsessing on punishing Dolores for her misdeed before some other woman gets a similar idea.
As wonderful as this aspect of Dolores Claiborne is, I think there’s an even deeper lesson to be learned from it. That will come up in my next post.