Spoilers below. Triggers: child molestation.
Surprisingly, Selena St. George may be the least sympathetic female character in Dolores Claiborne even though she’s the victim upon whom the story’s events center. Fictional female abuse victims written by people who either don’t have a clue what abuse is like or think the audience wants it sugar-coated tend to go in one of two directions: they are a bit sad and tragic, but somehow happily married and working normal jobs, or they take on a tough job like police work or the military where their tough exterior blends in with everyone else’s. The latter is more likely than the former, but both tend to gloss over the realities of what sort of adults abused children grow up to be.
Not Dolores Claiborne. This story almost forces you to realize you’ve been close to abuse cycles all your life, perhaps without realizing it. Either some of the events resemble things that happened to you or a relative, or the characters uncannily resemble people you’ve known – people you never considered might be victims or abusers. It’s unsettling to realize how blind we can be, and Selena embodies that lesson.
Selena is, in the movie’s parlance, a “bitch.” She’s brittle, humorless and unsympathetic. She hasn’t found a nice man who loves her (Dolores: “You telling me there’s nobody?” Selena: “I’m telling you there’s a lot of nobodies”). She still loves her daddy, and when Dolores tells her about his abuse, Selena gets angry with her for spoiling “what few memories of him I have”.
Through most of the movie, I disliked Selena for being in denial and blaming a fellow victim because that’s no way to stop the abuse cycle. Someone else could just as easily dislike her for being brusque and nasty. Either way, she’s irritating and easy to dismiss.
Then a conversation causes Dolores to realize they’ve been talking at cross-purposes all this time: Selena actually doesn’t remember being molested. At all. This is the first hint we have that Selena’s denial may not be conscious, but rather the result of a desperate teenage mind’s coping mechanism. At this point, I still wasn’t prepared to like her but I had to grudgingly give her a fresh slate.
Then she blows it by accusing Dolores of lying about the molestation and leaving shortly thereafter, abandoning Dolores to attend the inquest into Vera’s death by herself. That was the end of my patience with Selena.
Or so I thought. On the ferry leaving the island, Selena has a flashback and remembers an incident where her father cajoled her, very much against her will, into giving him a hand-job “the way I showed you”. I can’t tell you how important it is that we actually see this event: like most molested children, Selena isn’t physically forced or even acted upon. Her father twists her love and dependence until she gives in. This is why molesters are often able to convince themselves the children are consenting lovers rather than victims. We watch the scene along with the adult Selena. We see the child Selena’s face go blank as she finally gives in to the inevitable and does what her father wants. We recognize that blank expression as one we’ve been seeing a lot on the adult Selena’s face.
And suddenly, for me at least, everything changes. Selena is as heroic as Dolores in her own way. As much as I admire Dolores for killing Joe to protect Selena, it’s obvious Dolores had no idea what Selena would need afterward. Dolores gave her daughter love and reassurance, and then did what most working class people in a town where you’re “lucky to have a job” do: she marked Selena’s success by her escape. When Selena tells Dolores, “I had a fucking nervous breakdown, Mother!” Dolores replies, “They don’t give full scholarships to Vassar to people who have those things!”
Of course they do. But Dolores wouldn’t know that. She would have assumed that because Selena got the hell out of Podunk, Maine, kicked ass at college and began a fantastic journalism career in New York, she must be fine. For Selena, the burden of recovery was hers alone.
In the end, when Selena finally really has all the pieces to her personal puzzle, she does the strong and unselfish thing even though she must still be in shock herself (right after her flashback to being molested, there’s a terrifying scene in which she looks into a mirror and sees the back of her own head). She goes back for the inquest and argues her mother’s case. She gets a young constable to go against Mackey and admit that when Mackey told Dolores Vera had left her everything (her supposed motive for killing him), Dolores appeared completely stunned. And then she takes her mother home.
In the end, Selena tells Dolores, “I don’t know how to feel about what you’ve done. But I know you did it for me.” And sometimes that – the collection of imperfect and even disastrous gestures of sisterhood and solidarity in a world designed to thwart them – is all a woman has to hold onto.