Unforgiven: Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”
Since Valentine’s Day is looming on the horizon yet again, I decided to reread several of my fave romance novels just like I did last year. But this time, I’m reading literary books rather than trashy ones to prove the point that romance can be written about in a literary way. That means you lucky people get to hear even more of my innermost thoughts on the subjects of love and romance, only classier.
Author’s note – contains spoilers for the book and movie Gone Girl.
Last year, as a part of my series on the larger meanings of romance novels, I wrote about forgiveness. Men forgiving women, specifically. I reread a couple of cheap, little known romance novels (Once in Every Life by Kristin Hannah, and The Endearment by LaVyrle Spencer) in which a man forgives a woman for wronging him. This was an intriguing plot to me because I knew thanks to Science (™!) that men generally have a harder time forgiving women than the other way around.
Science aside, I think forgiveness is a theme that resonates with a lot of women because we find it so hard to come by IRL. As I put it in my original piece Forgiveness is Divine:
This year I reread a book that seems entirely different on the surface of it but touches upon some similar themes – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
Now wait, some of you may be saying, that book isn’t about forgiveness at all. Gone Girl is about this psycho chick named Amy Dunne who fakes her own death and frames her husband Nick (who has some pretty major issues himself) for it, only to change her mind midway through the charade and come back and want to live happily ever after. Amy changes her mind partly because Nick figures out the key to her personality is appealing to her narcissism and launches a televised mission to publicly flatter her and promise to behave himself, and partly because she encounters some people who are even worse than Nick. She decides that maybe she wants Nick back after all even though he’s no prize pig, and so she frames some other guy for her kidnapping. Oh and she also murders him.
Amy Dunne is not a good person, but then again, neither is Nick Dunne, and in case you were wondering, neither is the guy she murders.
Gone Girl, unlike many other wildly popular books that are terrible but got turned into movies anyway like The DaVinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey, is actually a good book. The first time I read Gone Girl, I couldn’t put it down, and the second time I read it, I also couldn’t put it down. If you’ve not read this book thinking that it can’t possibly live up to the hype, it’s worth your time, especially if you like character-driven psychological thrillers with some scathing social commentary tossed in for good measure.
I’m going to take a moment before I get back to discussing forgiveness to give a shout out to the controversy about Gone Girl (which probably deserved its own piece but there are only so many hours in the day and I got a lot of good stuff percolating right now, stay tuned). A lot of people found Gone Girl to be misogynistic because it features a woman who assumes a false personality to entice a guy to marry her, ruins her husband’s life out of spite, sets up two other guys for rapes they didn’t commit, and then steals her husband’s sperm from storage at a fertility clinic to force him into a happily-ever-after scenario. It’s like the entire saga was ripped from the MRA playbook – women are constantly-lying phonies who trick men into marrying them under dishonest pretenses, trick them into pregnancies, and falsely accuse men of rape.
I see how Gone Girl could be interpreted that way. I really do. I don’t love it when there’s a fictional portrayal of any of my ingroups that I find to be totally stereotypical. To be fair, much of this criticism is more properly levied at the movie than the book where you get far more of Amy Dunne’s inner life, but regardless, I see it even in the pages of the book. Amy Dunne is like the embodiment of every one-dimensional female villain, lacking only a manufactured charge of sexual harassment to complete her bona fides.
Author Gillian Flynn has stated that she finds the “you go girl” feminism ubiquitous in modern fiction to be woefully inadequate and not particularly feminist (as do I) and favors a wider array of female characters, in which some of them are not perfect paragons, and are allowed to be actually kind of bad. By bad, Flynn means complex, nuanced, and multifaceted in their villainy, rather than the very simplified Harley Quinn type of female villain, where she’s bad because bitchez be crazy or Daddy is mean and not because she’s actually getting anything out of it.
Amy Dunne is getting something out of it. She’s bad, she’s not just drawn that way.
I had the very great misfortune to be befriended by a female sociopath. It was an awful experience in which my online life was blown up by this person, she could very easily have blown up my actual life as well by making false criminal allegations against me (I have reason to believe she seriously considered doing so but didn’t only because she thought it would make her look bad before our mutual friends). She cyberstalked me for years afterwards, attempting to wreck my reputation both socially and professionally by saying I had a miscarriage from drinking while pregnant (it’s probably not necessary to say that this isn’t true, but I’ll say it – NOT TRUE). I’ll lay a solid 10% odds she’s reading this piece right now. You may think I’m taking a huge chance by potentially aggravating my former nemesis in this fashion, but like Nick Dunne, I have come to learn that narcissists love nothing better being the center of attention and it will undoubtedly thrill her to the core to know that I’m still thinking of her ten years later.
Rarely, Melanie, very rarely.
Even if she reflects badly upon women, Amy Dunne is an incredibly realistic character, I know because I met an Amy Dunne and she thought the way Amy Dunne did and behaved much the same as Amy Dunne did, just thankfully to a lesser degree or I’d be writing this from the state pen. She made false accusations, created evidence to damn innocent people, forced gifts onto people they didn’t want not only to curry favor but so others would think the recipients were taking advantage of her generosity, enticed people into situations where they revealed secrets that could later be used against them either openly or as blackmail, and masterfully stirred up interpersonal arguments between people behind the scenes so no one talked to each other and thus no one could ever compare notes. As she wronged people (while I was the first in our circle of friends to fall victim, I certainly wasn’t the last) we tried to tell others about her, yet our warnings went unheeded because she was just so good at her game that WE ended up looking like the aggressors (just like Nick Dunne did). I remember a mutual friend saying “I can’t believe she’s in the wrong here, Kristin, because she’s been kinder to me than my own family” and I couldn’t help but think “Is that NORMAL? Is it normal that a total stranger on the Internet would be nicer to you than your own family?” And it wasn’t. It wasn’t normal.
My unforgivable sin was the same as Nick’s – not loving my friend as much as she thought she deserved. This woman who I had only just met expected me to turn my life upside down and inside out for her, expected me to put her before friends I had known for years and liked far better, expected me to put the fulfillment of her smallest whim before even my own children’s needs, and she even thought that she should come first in my heart before my own husband. She expected me to take her side without question over innocent people she had wronged in every argument she got into (which was a good many arguments) and demanded that I never question any of the incredibly messed-up things she did. While I gave her the benefit of every doubt for far too long, I eventually learned you can never love a narcissist enough for their liking, you can never be a good enough friend to them, they will always want more and more even when what they want from you is insane and unreasonable.
I cannot even imagine what her husband’s life must have been like. One time she told me, “He’ll go along with whatever I say, because I have all the power in this relationship,” and by that point I had seen enough of her that I believed that and I felt very, very sorry for him.
As I read Gone Girl I completely recognized my former friend in the character of Amy Dunne. Amy Dunne represents an archetype of a person who actually exists, and thus it is not misogynistic to write someone like her. It can’t be misogyny if it’s REALITY. This type of person is 100% real, and I’ll wager they are not exclusively female. We as writers have a responsibility, indeed, an obligation, to reflect reality, warts and all, even if warty ol’ reality makes us gals look bad and plays into toxic beliefs that some effed up MRA jerkwads happen to have.
But we’re here to talk about forgiveness, not feminist representation in literature.
In the bounds of relationships, people hurt each other. Maybe they don’t carry things quite as far as Amy Dunne, or my erstwhile friend Melanie, but they do hurt each other. Truly, madly, deeply. I know I have inflicted my fair share of emotional turmoil upon my husband and he’s certainly inflicted share his upon me, although I don’t think he’d admit that as readily or as publicly as I do.
I can admit my guilt without the slightest qualm because I forgive easily, not only other people, but myself. My frenemy came back after a year and I forgave her instantly even though I had been legitimately afraid of her turning me into the police. I was willing to entertain the possibility of us becoming friends again, until she started pressuring me to put in a good word with our old Facebook mutuals on her behalf, whereupon I remembered she was an Actual Bad Guy. And that’s just one of the many times over the course of my life I forgave someone who had done something to me that was really quite superduperly uncool.
Long story short, I am easily taken in when it comes to forgiveness. I don’t just forgive, I forget. And like I said, I forgive and forget my own foibles practically as easily as I do other people’s. My husband sometimes perceives this as a lack of contrition, but I am contrite, I’m just not haunted by guilt. Ain’t nobody got time for that!! Life is short and my attention span is just not long enough for brooding and hairshirts and self-recrimination. I have the ability to pick myself up, dust myself off and say “well, that was a clusterf*ck, do better next time, stupid!” I’ll admit it, and happily, when I’ve done things wrong, but in the very next breath I know, I just know, I’ll do better the next time. And I believe that others will too.
But I find, at times to my very great surprise, that most other people hang onto things longer, and in many cases for a very long time, in a way that I can’t really fathom. They cut people out of their lives over nothing, hold grudges over situations that were basically misunderstandings, and bring up ancient history that happened decades prior. This is simply not how I’m wired. Relitigating things in perpetuity is not only painful and patently unfair, it’s also incredibly boring.
Please understand I am not saying my way is “right” and other people’s is “wrong”, it’s just different. I truly believe one of the biggest problems in this world is people seeing others who do things differently from oneself as being “wrong”. It’s just that I hold myself to a different standard, which is easy because that different standard comes naturally to me.
My husband is a person who hangs onto stuff for a long time, and by “long time” I mean in the glacial sense. He’s not wrong to do that, it’s just different from the way I do things, and it is something I’m not quite neurologically capable of comprehending, let alone anticipating. Despite this profound mental disadvantage, I try very hard to see things through his eyes and since I also instinctively believe in any conflict other people have the right of it and I am probably being unreasonable, I usually see his point. He hangs on and I let go; on some level I think that he’s right to hang on so long, that there’s probably something inherently wrong with me that I don’t inspire forgiveness.
As a general rule, he agrees with me.
You don’t get to having been with a person for 29 years, which will happen for us on February 14, 2020, without both of you doing a lot of sh-tty stuff to each other. I must admit I have been greatly disillusioned to learn that this is the case, it’s the tragedy of my entire life, but it seems to be so, at least for us. We hurt each other, and it’s a shame because otherwise we get along so well. My husband tends to prefer the Chinese Water Torture approach of an unremitting stream of small wounds that crush my soul and periodically drive me insane, whereas I tend to save it all up for a few furious bursts that without exception happened because I got to some point of no return where I was willing to do anything to eke out a safe space away from the constant dripping.
Even though I think our mutual marital suicide pact is partially his fault, I forgive him easily, a hundred times a day some days, because I love him and I forgive everything, even from people I don’t love. He doesn’t forgive me because he doesn’t think he did anything really wrong to begin with, and because the scale of my offenses is greater, even though they number far, far fewer. And because he doesn’t let things go, he doesn’t think I’ve suffered enough, and he probably never will. We’re spending two different forgiveness currencies, I’m pesos and his the Hope Diamond. But their value is equal.
I have come to see my husband’s reticence to forgive me (or at least admit it, if he has, which I like to think he has) much as the characters in the trashy novels about forgiveness. Over time, the harm he has caused us by not forgiving me is so much greater than what I did to start out with that I don’t really think they’re even a little bit comparable.
But maybe I’m an unreliable narrator, like the characters in Gone Girl. Maybe I don’t deserve forgiveness. Maybe my husband sticks around because like Nick Dunne, there are children involved and he doesn’t want to leave them in the hands of a madwoman.
Maybe my husband is an unreliable narrator, and when he bemoans my lack of contrition what he’s really calling for is penance. And I don’t think I deserve penance, or maybe it’s that I think I’ve already performed enough of it by living with Chinese Water Torture for 29 years.
Maybe we’re both unreliable narrators.
The end of Gone Girl was a revelation to me. Nick and Amy, over the course of their self-induced nightmare, come to know each other, really know each other, the bad and the good, and as crazy as it seems, we the reader must agree that there’s something about them that kinda works. They are — both of them — crazy, but their crazy is mutual and complimentary. Amy remains hopeful they can work things out, a hope I found as a reader I was surprised to find I shared, even though I despised both Amy and Nick violently and what Amy considers working it out seems an awful lot like my former friend’s relationship with her husband. He’ll go along with whatever I say, because I have all the power in this relationship.
But still, it was a hopeful ending. Surely if there’s hope for Amy and NIck Dunne there’s hope for all of us whose sins pale in comparison to theirs. Most marriages are not battles for existential control waged between passive-aggressive douchebros and narcissistic harpies. Most marriages are not between the Joker and my poisonous former friend Melanie. Most marriages involve meaningless power struggles over pitifully paltry stakes between decent people who don’t actually WANT power, who just want understanding and maybe a little space to breathe. Our sins are minor in scale compared to the characters of Gone Girl, although they can hurt just as bad.
But will Nick ever FORGIVE Amy or will he just make the best of being stuck with her? And of course what I really mean is not Amy, but me? Will I ever be forgiven or does forgiveness require something of my husband that he is not neurologically able to provide, just like I am neurologically incapable of not forgiving? It seems to me the core of unhappiness a whole lot of marriages involves people who refuse to forgive even situations they had a hand in creating. Thus it shouldn’t surprise me to find myself in one of them, but it does anyway because holding grudges against one person for a situation two of them created doesn’t make sense to me. Marriage takes two, baby, me and you, and a person put into a sh-tty situation they are ill-equipped to handle makes sh–tty decisions sometimes.
I hang onto the idea that maybe, just like Amy and Nick, sometimes two terrible people can find each other in this crazy world and maybe, just maybe, might find, even if it takes them 30 years, that they’re both so uniquely awful that they kind of deserve each other. Maybe the struggle comes from trying to change things that should have simply been accepted in the first place, from wishing you married someone else instead of seeing the beautiful monster beside you.
We’re different, but different doesn’t mean wrong. I’m messed up, you’re messed up, can’t we be messed up together? It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to hope for.
Maybe sometimes even unreliable narrators find happiness.