Dolores Claiborne: a woman’s options in a man’s world

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.

Posts in this Series

  1. Dolores Claiborne (first post in series)
  2. Dolores Claiborne: a woman’s options in a man’s world
  3. Dolores Claiborne: entitlement
  4. Dolores Claiborne: recovery

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    Shouldn’t she have taken those things as a clue and divorced him before things escalated to molestation?

    Because women are always believed in these situations :eyeroll:. Any attempt to reach for the law would have at least as great a chance of taking Selena away from her and leaving her alone with Joe.

    The patriarchy places the father as protector, and resists seeing him otherwise: but its the messenger that’s blamed in this; the woman who presents this other image, not the man who embodies it.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Exactly, Nick.

    I was considering a fifth installment in this series, called “Dolores Claiborne: The Patriarchy’s Cheerleader”. I may eventually write it, but the gist of it was about Mackey, the detective who is determined to see Dolores punished for her crime.

    In my experience, in these cases, people usually disbelieve women and children because if they admit that if the patriarchy’s rules for women can frequently imprison women and children with abusers instead of making everyone safe and happy, they have to admit the patriarchy doesn’t work even half like it’s advertised. Which means we’d need a whole new system.

    That terrifies people. Because it means thinking and working, and those are two things human beings will absolutely avoid unless their emotional need for what the work could accomplish outweighs their instinct to be lazy.

    To avoid all this, people look for ways the victim didn’t follow quite all the patriarchy’s rules, which then disqualifies her case in their mind. Or, when that fails, “she must be lying” is a convenient fallback.

    Actually, the re-victimization is IMO more damaging than the victimization. For example, if a loved one is murdered and you get a whole culture saying, “That sucks! We feel for you! Get better soon!” recovery is very possible. If you get abused, however, and the whole culture is saying “I don’t want to hear that! I want you to make up pleasant lies when I ask you about your family and childhood! Don’t tell me the bad stuff!” you just feel so isolated and abnormal, you think there’s really something wrong with you, and it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  3. says

    Successful men are those who achieve things; successful women are those who recover from things.

    Damn. I hadn’t quite articulated the broad truth you express here. It’s…really depressing.

    you just feel so isolated and abnormal, you think there’s really something wrong with you, and it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Yes. Yes it can. There’s an added amount of work to maintaining daily life in the face of a crisis that involves having been recently raped or leaving an abusive partner, because you’re not allowed to talk about it. You have to fear judgment and navigate the expectation that you’ll have something to be ashamed of or justify. How do you ask for time off work, say, in that context?

  4. MaggieCat says

    Successful men are those who achieve things; successful women are those who recover from things.

    What’s really disturbing is just how long that dynamic has been in place. There’s a series of novels that are retellings of classic fairy tales, and in the editors’ forward from the one Tanith Lee wrote there’s a very part that sums up about 97% of folk and fairy tales- “Unlike [men] who set off to win their fortunes, who are journeying toward adventure, the [women] are outcasts, running away.” And then points out that generally, men get to make a triumphant return, but the women are typically exiled forever for disobedience and for leaving. I’d never really crystallized that thought at that point, but then realized that it isn’t from stories that are centuries old- it’s still in heavy rotation today.

  5. scarlett says

    I didn’t pay much attention to the Yates thing when it happened, but reading the link was just… so sad. That can get me started on a whole other tangeant of not giving mentally ill people the support they need/culturally recognising that people ARE mentally ill, DO have problems (including the wife-hitting, daughter-molesting kind).

  6. says

    There’s an added amount of work to maintaining daily life in the face of a crisis that involves having been recently raped or leaving an abusive partner, because you’re not allowed to talk about it. You have to fear judgment and navigate the expectation that you’ll have something to be ashamed of or justify.

    People think I’m crazy for making myself vulnerable in this way, but this is exactly why I do not shy away from telling people about my own experiences of abuse and crazy people when the topic comes up. The silence has got to be broken, and I’m just anti-social enough to do it. ;)

    That can get me started on a whole other tangeant of not giving mentally ill people the support they need/culturally recognising that people ARE mentally ill, DO have problems (including the wife-hitting, daughter-molesting kind).

    Oh, yeah, that’s a whole other issue here. Unfortunately in this case, Joe is a textbook Narcissistic Personality Disorder (even the incest is characteristic of this disorder), and that’s not treatable. May never be treatable, because it’s the result of the brain desperately employing some natural defense mechanisms at such an early age that the personality development goes way off the rails. Therefore, any “cure” would require eradicating the personality, and most of them would never agree to that, because they think they’re so wonderful. In fact, they don’t seek treatment, so basically it would take ordinary people learning about narcissism in order for people to protect themselves.

    The other problem is that narcissism is not just a mental illness, IMO: it is the logical extension of the male privilege our culture has created. NPDs always inherit their society’s values, which is why they are all uniformly (and tellingly) misogynists and many of them are other kinds of bigots as well.

  7. says

    BetaCandy

    Awesome series so far. If my TBR pile wasn’t miles long already…………..

    MaggieCat

    Have you read any of Jack Zipes’ work on fairy tales? One of the things he talks a lot about is how the versions we think of as “classic” fairy tales tend to originate from the early industrial revolution, and were often (re)written by members of the new middle class in response to what were considered upper class excesses. This is part of why they have such a strong patriarchal bent and tend to do so by favoring masculine ingenuity and punishing feminine vanity.

    Little Red Riding Hood, for example, was changed from a story about becoming a woman, to a cautionary tale of that lays the blame for what happens in the story at the feet of Little Red Riding Hood. In many of the tales that seem to be what Perrault and Grimms used as inspiration, there is no caution from the mother to not stray from the path. Instead, Red is faced with the decision of taking either the path of pins or the path of needles, which some think represents puberty and adulthood. The wolf is not a wolf, but a werewolf. (Which I especially love, because even as a child I though Red must be especially dumb.) Once arriving at her grandmother’s house, Red (unknowingly) eats the flesh and blood of her own grandmother, symbolic of the younger generation replacing the older. She also not only climbs into bed with the werewolf, but escapes from his clutches through her own ingenuity. (She uses the “I need to use the potty!” trick. Yeah, that’s how old that one is.)

    Part of why I find this so funny and interesting and ironic is that these “original” tales have more in common thematically with “twists” on the “classic” tales, such as the movie Hard Candy, than with the “classic” tales themselves. Hard Candy is just awesome, btw, in case anybody cares. And my half finished analysis would totally compliment this series. So this is still on topic! :)

  8. sbg says

    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.

    Ah, yes, the “why didn’t she just leave him or divorce him or do something before he got so out of hand?” mentality. Because it’s all the victim’s fault, really, and not the abuser’s. It revolves around some fault in her which certainly must have provoked his actions, or her inaction that enabled the situation to become so abusive.

    Stephen King has another story (Rose Madder)of an abused woman who does run away. She steals the money and actually gets away with it, and in the process finally begins to know herself. Her husband, who mistakenly thinks he’s the wronged party, the victim in the situation, comes after her, finds her and terrorizes her.

    He was a cop, and she was powerless to seek help from authorities (a cop doesn’t turn on a cop!) and running away didn’t work. So he, like Joe, ends up dead because that was really the only viable solution.

  9. SunlessNick says

    I was considering a fifth installment in this series, called “Dolores Claiborne: The Patriarchy’s Cheerleader”. I may eventually write it, but the gist of it was about Mackey, the detective who is determined to see Dolores punished for her crime.

    Watching Dolores Claiborne again, something struck me about Mackey. that he doesn’t really act (in the film, can’t speak for the book) any differently from hero cops: he doesn’t harass Dolores any more than Columbo does the people he knows have committed murder; he doesn’t sneer any more than Horatio Caine (perhaps a bad example, as I don’t like Caine, but he is unequivocally positioned as CSI Miami’s hero).

    That’s an important aspect, because it rebuts another of the objections to Dolores seeking outside help – that not all cops are like the bad ones. Because Mackey doesn’t mean to be a “bad one” – and if it were someone other than Dolores he was pursuing, we might well not think he was either. And yet he’s still a door firmly shut against her – more than he probably would have been against an “interested male party” who had taken it upon himself to kill Joe.

    Because of course, the “interested male party” would still have followed the man-as-actor scheme, and been a less … frightening … way for a woman to reach a position of greater safety.

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