The Villains We Can’t Read About

Through no planning whatsoever, the last three books I’ve read included elements of domestic violence. Seeing them all together like that got me to thinking about how certain characters–abusers, in this case–are portrayed. In Mercy House, by Alena Dillon, they are universally terrible people with no redeeming features. The abuser in Blue Flowers, by Carola Saavedra, he is more ambiguous but still pretty awful. In Thunder Bay, by Douglas Skelton, we’re back to a completely awful, no bones about it, terrible man. I understand why this is. Who would have the gumption to write a story in which an abuser gets even the tiniest bit of the reader’s sympathy?

Ethel Porter Bailey

Two years ago, I read Inge Schilperoord’s Tench. This book takes us into the mind of a convicted pedophile as he attempts to rehabilitate himself. I’ve never read anything like it, before or since, for two reasons. First, few authors would have the guts to write characters like the eponymous Tench. Second, I really don’t want to spend time in the head of a character who deliberately and irreparably hurts others. There was a time when I had to give up on gory mysteries for several years because I was so weary and upset at all the violence I was seeing on the page.

We’re only just recently, as a society, starting to fully understand the cycle of abuse and change our narratives about the experience of people who survive abuse. One of those narratives is that the abused person must have provoked their abuses, which I think explains why it still seems like it’s too soon to see stories that show abuse from the perspective of the abuser in any great numbers. Seeing things from the abuser’s perspective might lead to sympathy—and land us right back into the victim-blaming myth that survivors of abuse must have done something to deserve their abuse.

The only reason I’m even thinking about what it might be like to see things through the eyes of a perpetrator in fiction at all is because I still think about what I learned from Tench. Just as novels like Mercy House show readers the variety of experiences of survivors of abuse to raise awareness, the perspective of an abuser might help us to understand their behaviors. Understanding these behaviors, I would argue, might help us solve the problem of domestic violence and abuse by preventing it or rehabilitating abusers. Knowledge is power, right? All that said, I have no idea if characters who commit domestic violence and abuse others will ever be portrayed as anything other than the starkest, most unredeemed villains any time soon. To be honest, I shudder to think what this would look like.

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