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23 April 2024

Baby Reindeer understands the hidden reality of abuse

This darkly honest series is the best depiction I’ve seen of abusive relationships and their murky, unspoken dynamics.

By Megan Nolan

Someone told me last week to watch Baby Reindeer. Ugh, I said, must I? Netflix, stalker, crazy woman, blah blah blah. Sounds like another one-dimensional true crime cash-in, a genre I am guilty of partaking in but never feel good about. I am always asking people for television recommendations, which historically I have ignored in favour of compulsively rewatching the American reality series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. However, I recently quit drinking and therefore have many more hours in the day to fill than before, and am taking up almost all suggestions of any kind. I am antsy, anxious, nervy and odd right now. I have never abstained from drinking for this long in my life. I am also, in a classically newly sober fashion, insatiably hungry for emotional truths in a childish, corny way that has humbled me. In such a mood, I watched the trailer for Baby Reindeer and recognised something in the eyes of both stalker and stalkee that made me stick around. This was different – an important and shattering thing.

Baby Reindeer is a seven-part series on Netflix, starring and written by the comedian Richard Gadd, based upon his real-life experiences. It’s about a stalker – initially, primarily – and then becomes about so many other things, including Gadd’s history of being sexually abused. It is ostensibly the point of art to represent the more difficult, diffuse parts of life, those parts we aren’t able to summarise so easily, but it’s generally easier and more profitable to produce something blandly relatable instead. Not so in this work, which is deeply uncomfortable and totally truthful. Its portrayal of assault and abuse is the first I have seen that successfully captures how truly strange it is to be subject to someone else’s power; how embarrassing it is, and how alien when seen through any external perspective – including, after enough time and distance, your own.

I have also never before seen anyone explore just how mystifying the experience is. How a person with monstrous power over you is often not as impressive as you might imagine, or even wish, they were. How that person is often, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, just some vacuous loser driven by their own gaping, unfillable absence. And yet this loser has enough insight about your particular vulnerability that they can become the puppet-master to your marionette with a supreme, fluid ease – so slick you barely notice it happen.

Someone from my past once said to me that if I continued to describe every disturbing thing that happened to me, it would seem too many things – like claiming a series of implausible earthly crimes and then going on to claim that aliens had abducted me, too. And I sort of knew he was right, which made the numerous humiliating and painful things I was in fact subject to by different predatory people feel all the more irritating and unreal. What is missing from this observation, though, is that after a certain amount of abuse, subsequent abuse by other parties is not just further incidental bad luck – it is intrinsically bound to the other, historical abuses.

This can make the subject of the abuse suspect there is something inherently loathsome about them. Many other people exist without being abused, after all, so if you continuously attract menace, mustn’t it be because of some secret badness in you? That badness you have always felt throbbing inside, no matter how many people love you? That badness you have hoped to conceal but must be, if multiple people have singled you out for attack, visible to the outside world?

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This, despite being objectively insane, feels so obvious a conclusion to the abused party as to be beneath mention. But what I could see so clearly watching Baby Reindeer, as I myopically could not while watching the events of my own life, is the simultaneous extreme sophistication and extreme idiocy of the human mind as it attempts to cope with something unbearable. A very minor example of this is the way in which, while dating, those who do not appear interested in us become so enchantingly attractive even if they are not in themselves anything special. It isn’t, we must acknowledge, that the person who is ambivalent or disinterested also happens to be the most wonderful person alive, but rather that their negation is in itself maddeningly addictive. We rub against it, turning the unacceptable truth around and around, trying to make it something other than it is. In a much more serious way, when subject to abuse, we may return to its source or to other situations and people who remind us of it, trying to reframe and re-enact it as something that can be made acceptable to us. We try to save ourselves this way. 

A crucial, revelatory part of Baby Reindeer is the depiction of self-soothing with porn and counter-intuitive sexual fantasy. Gadd’s character watches violent, extreme videos in the wake of being raped by a man he professionally admires, and masturbates thinking about his stalker, Martha. This behaviour is, on the surface, inexplicable – why would you become aroused by the very things supposedly causing you misery? Such reactions are, in part, why there is such miscomprehension about how the victims of abuse behave: the classic question: “why did she/he stay?”, presumes that there must have been a part of the victim that enjoyed the experience.

In fact, as is made beautifully clear in Baby Reindeer, the truth is that human beings are not well-oiled machines who act with clean, comprehensible logic. Our drive to recover, to survive, in the face of such ordeals is astonishingly and admirably fierce, and it involves some strange, circular thinking. It’s maddening to observe in others, and soul-destroying to sense in ourselves, this incessant returning to the well of our own torment. Yet, watching it play out in Gadd’s magnificent script, I was relieved and heartened. Partly, this is simply because it is so novel to see the dramatisation of this trauma response, so common and yet so unspoken of, so shameful. But it also reveals the paradox of our humanity: how pathetically, endearingly incoherent and yet resourceful we are. How admiring, how fond I feel of our species, witnessing our inventive, ineffectual struggles – the myriad ways we persevere, and try to endure the unendurable.

[See also: Tom Hollander’s deliciously nasty Truman Capote]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger