by Tony Domenick
Philosophical contributions by Emily Cameron
In episode 5 of the HBO mini-series Sharp Objects, the main character Camille’s mother Adora says out loud, very clearly, to Camille’s face, “I never loved you. I hope you find some comfort in that.”
Just before this, Adora explained her belief about Camille’s father, that he was so spiteful and cold that he unavoidably passed those qualities on to his daughter. In this context, Adora believes, it’s only natural to feel no love for her daughter; who could possibly transform the powerful spite of her father?
Obviously, this explanation does nothing to comfort Camille. She goes running for something her mother has never shown her: love. Acceptance, validation, or maybe it’s numbness or control that Camille seeks when she drives to detective Robert’s hotel room in the middle of the night, undresses him (while keeping her clothes mostly on), and has sex.
I love this show, Sharp Objects. It’s dark, depressing, and unsettling, yet I also found it to be so nourishing. Watching all 8 episodes sometimes made me sad, anxious, or frustrated, but it also left me feeling extraordinarily grateful for the power of love in my life and my relationships.
It is sometimes hard to definitively demonstrate, but I believe that even the private thoughts about others that we hold in our minds can have dramatic effects on the behavior and well-being of those very people.
Our expectations of others are often self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect a person to fail in some task, even if we don’t tell them this out loud, that belief can affect our other words and actions in subtle ways that actually make it harder for our fellow human to succeed. If we label them a failure or a disappointment, that label comes to define them; because our belief affects their actions, they fulfill our low expectations, and our belief in the validity of the label is confirmed.
When Camille is young, her sister Marian dies, and it effectively destroys her relationship with her mother. Afterwards, Adora doesn’t show Camille the same love she showed for Marian, so Camille grows distressed and lashes out with her behavior. This undesirable behavior starts to define Camille’s identity for Adora, so she withholds more love. Camille reacts again, Adora’s label of her daughter as a “bad child” is bolstered, Camille lashes out again, looking for love, Adora withholds, and the cycle continues, until Adora and Camille both believe their reality is inevitable: My mother never loved me. My daughter never loved me.
Now, complicating all of this is the fact that Adora suffers from mental illness, and Camille has had many traumatic experiences throughout her life. It’s very unreasonable to suggest these two women should’ve known better, or been able to figure out how to love each other without professional help. And, an important distinction is necessary: if you are the victim of abuse (as I believe Camille most certainly is), it is not your responsibility to respond with love to your abuser. You need to be removed from that situation and from that person, through your own volition, if possible, or with the help of others. Camille doesn’t get this help until much later in her life.
Since I’m lucky enough not to suffer from mental illness, Sharp Objects has made me think most about the relationship between Richard and Camille, and how it demonstrates the power my words and actions can have on other people.
When someone hurts you, it’s tempting to hurt them back. In episode 7, when the cops bust in on Camille and John in a hotel room bed together, Richard sees very clearly that Camille had sex with John, in the daylight, with more of her clothes off than she had with him a few nights ago. Of course, this has to hurt! And so Richard reduces Camille and all of her trauma to two words he throws at her: “Drunken slut.”
What blows my mind is that Richard has just gotten a glimpse of the suffering that Camille has experienced in her life through his day of researching medical records, and yet he still lashes out in anger, defending himself from a perceived attack. This is the power of anger.
I’m not saying that Richard should have gathered Camille into his arms and said, “It’s ok, I understand,” and just immediately forgiven her actions. Responding with love to someone doesn’t mean you condone all of their actions without question. It means you hold on to that person’s value as you express to them that their actions hurt you.
Richard could have chosen to say nothing; recognizing how angry he felt, he could’ve left the room and taken time to think before he decided what to say to Camille later. Maybe he would decide never to speak to her again, and that would be understandable.
I don’t believe we’re ethically required to engage with every person in our lives who hurts us. I just believe that it’s possible to engage with them in a way that will positively change our relationship, by acknowledging their value and their potential for change with our support.
Calling her a drunken slut is both inaccurate and unproductive if Richard actually wanted her behavior to change. In that moment, he doesn’t believe it’s possible to change her, hence the life-defining label that he hurls into the room. I think if we really understood how much our labeling of others affects what’s actually possible for them, we would be much more careful with the generalizations we make about people in our lives, whether speaking to their face, about them, or simply in our own heads.
Once you’ve learned about how mental illness can affect a person, about how their brain literally works differently than yours does, it’s easier to imagine how your behavior could drastically affect a person with mental illness, and thus easier to adjust your behavior towards all people. But I don’t believe you have to know all of this detail to start changing your behavior.
In the final episode, Richard stands by Camille’s hospital bed and says “I’m sorry for your…” he trails off, pauses, then finishes, “I’m sorry.” This moment made me cringe, and then heave a sigh of relief. Richard starts to apologize for some specific aspect of Camille’s life, but wisely stops and just apologizes, for his own behavior, for Camille’s pain, for everything.
I don’t think Richard really needed to see Camille’s scars to treat her more compassionately, to withhold the words “drunken slut,” but he would’ve had to have been practicing his whole life. Reminding himself every day that other people are carrying experiences and emotions that we literally know nothing about, and letting that inform his reactions to stressful or hurtful situations. This is actually possible, to remind ourselves daily that our expectations and labels for other people have literal power over their potential.
As each episode of Sharp Objects ended, I shuddered at the example I had just been shown of what can happen when a community fails to love one another. But then my heart was warmed as I looked around at my community, my family, my friends, and recognized the sheer luck of being in this loving environment. It desperately makes me want to share my abundant luck and my abundant love, and I’m grateful for stories that remind me just how important it is to do so.