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Friday, February 24, 2017

Half-Priced Manicures for Life: The Comfort and Optimism of Lemony Snicket

If it hasn't yet become obnoxiously obvious, Netflix's new NPH-led adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events has thrown me straight back into my college-years obsession with the book series. My two pieces last week were focused heavily on the two adaptations as adaptations -- whether they were successful, what they did right or wrong, and what their creative choices did to the story's various messages.

But re-experiencing them so vividly, especially a decade and more older, gives me some odd clarity that I didn't previously have. The series trades on being grim, unpleasant, and unsettling. The opening theme of the adaptation begs you to "Look Away." Even the narrator lets you know that characters will die or things will happen that you won't like, giving you ample time to disengage from the narrative.

And while there is a strange sort of rebellious enjoyment to jumping face-first into something we're told will upset us (and finding out it's quite true), clearer looks at the content show me a series that is -- at least for people suffering with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses -- surprisingly optimistic. Even comforting.

Separating Self-Worth from Circumstances

As a person who has dealt with severe anxiety and situational depression, there is one trap I constantly fall into when life gets bad: assuming that the things that happen to me are an indicator of my worth as a human being.

To some people, this will make no sense; to others, it will make far too much. Nothing seems to be working out for you. You're constantly sick. Or constantly failing at everything you attempt. Or you make constant mistakes. You seem to upset people on a regular basis. Your world is -- literally or otherwise -- falling apart. But as far as you can see, there's no reason for so much misery to be visited on one person. It makes no sense whatsoever.

In time, if the feeling of helplessness doesn't let up, the only way you can make sense of it is assuming you deserve it: that God or the universe or karma is visiting punishment upon you personally because, well, why else would things be so bad?

I have been in this mindset more than I'd like to say. In a way, it's almost comforting. Because if you just assume you deserve everything happening to you, you have an answer. An unsatisfying answer, but one nonetheless. Now the world makes sense. It's your fault. And you can exist within it, still miserable, but at least on (it seems) a steady footing because you know that you can expect nothing but unhappiness.

Attempts at cutting through this with life coaching or "the law of attraction" can come across to the depressed individual as a glaring flashlight right in their eyes. Yes, that's great. The universe isn't necessarily punishing other people who have it bad. But you don't know me. Because another part of being that far down is the assumption that yes, we are quite bad.

The Baudelaires are another alternative -- a friendly hurricane lamp in the distance instead of an uncomfortable penlight. The three of them are good, kind, intelligent people who, even at their worst, are probably more respectful than any of us would have the strength to be. We can look at Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, and agree that they do not deserve any of what they're getting. They didn't deserve to lose everything they loved. They don't deserve to be stalked by a money-hungry madman. They don't deserve to be disbelieved or hated or misunderstood based on preconceived notions.

And yet here they are, sharing a life so unbelievably miserable that they'd probably have been given several million dollars by strangers on GoFundMe by now if crowdfunding existed in the Snicket universe. We are regularly reminded and shown that they do not deserve this. They have done nothing that would call for punishment.

It's weirdly comforting -- where some may feel unsettled at seeing innocent people constantly in bad situations, those of us who feel as though bad luck is some cosmic high sign that we're bad people can actually find hope in their narrative. If three wonderful children had to go through this, maybe -- just maybe -- we can start to realize that if bad things happen to us, it isn't necessarily because we deserve it.

Relinquishing Strength in a Crisis

Anyone who's been through any sort of crisis -- an illness, a death in the family, a major loss -- will almost certainly hear people telling him how "strong" they are. As I battled endometriosis and waited for a surgeon to decide that my life was more important than my baby-making abilities, I was told daily what a "strong woman" I was. I understand in retrospect what people were going for... but it made me terrified to be weak. I started feeling the need to be as strong as people seemed to think I was, for fear that if the facade cracked, I'd lose friends.

One of the amazing things about the Baudelaires is how they go on -- for thirteen books -- in the face of murders, attempted murders, fires, thefts, lies, deceit, and secrets. But the stories, especially the television series, make it abundantly clear that they are not suffering their lot completely cheerfully. There are even points where the children accuse their deceased parents of abandoning them... not true, of course, but in our darkest hours such things can feel quite personal.

Again, this succeeds as much as it does because of how we are introduced to the children: strong, brave, intelligent, and friendly. If even they can occasionally be weak and cry and succumb to these thoughts, then clearly they are not bad thoughts that make us weak -- a lesson I personally could have used on many occasions.

The Reality of Life with Narcissists

While it's admirable and hopeful that there is so much material nowadays on identifying and protecting ourselves from narcissistic personalities, it's still very much a high-level feat. My mother once said, perhaps only partially jokingly, that she sometimes wonders if all narcissists are possessed by the same demon: they act the same, pull from the same playbook, even repeat certain phrases verbatim.

Identifying them via their guilting and gaslighting and peacocking is becoming easier, but coping is still a challenge. That's in a large part because narcissists have no perception of the fact that what they're doing is bad, and often no perception of what they're doing. It's almost an ingrained badness.

Now, let me interject and say that Count Olaf is not a textbook narcissist for one important reason: he knows and regularly admits to what he's doing. There's a sense that he acknowledges and even revels in his evil. The MO of the real-world narcissist is that they are deserving and misunderstood. And while Count Olaf will tell people that, he readily admits to absolutely everything he's doing when it's just him and the Baudelaires. Which is actually a very good way to teach people about narcissism.

Not only that, it's an exceptional metaphor for what life is like once you have discovered the workings of a narcissist in your life. Everything they're doing -- their games, their ploys, their outright lying -- is painfully visible to us as friends and family members blithely miss it, perhaps even telling us things quite similar to what the Baudelaires hear.

A friend who's a fan of the books said that his one real problem with them was that it baffled and bothered him just how unobservant the grown-ups were. While it's definitely an over-the-top telling, separating oneself from an abuser who has the rest of the world fooled can feel just like this. If you've ever suffered at the hands of a friend, family member, or partner who abused and gaslighted you, think about how hard it was to say something. Maybe you didn't because you feared an answer like the answers the Baudelaires get. Maybe you actually did speak up and got "Oh, that doesn't sound like them" or "Oh, they're not so bad" or even "Oh, that's terrible, but it's not like there's anything we can do about it."

Yes, Olaf is ludicrous and useless. Yes, an intelligent human being of any age could see his BS a mile off. But in the real world, this really is the degree to which people looking for help go "REALLY?" when their words are ignored or brushed off. This is how obvious the actions of bad people feel.

And in the end... how far off are Count Olaf's actions from those of a narcissistic abuser? He wants something the Baudelaires have, believe it should be his -- and to get it, he tries badmouthing them to others, separating them from the people who care about them, forcing a romantic entanglement, forcing them to do things that will make others hate them... the list goes on. Yes, his actions are seen through the lens of melodrama and he is a (terrible) melodrama villain... but taken at face value, this is literally just people trying to escape an abuser going through his bag of tricks to get what he wants.

Is it depressing? Yeah, kinda. But it also seems to be a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "No, you're not wrong. It really does look this stupid when people ignore you. You're not alone. It's okay to be upset and frustrated."

The Miserable Mill depicts optimism as something that is generally okay if that's your sort of thing, but not necessarily attractive. But buried under the layers of misery and unfairness, A Series of Unfortunate Events is, in itself, a very optimistic and comforting show. It tells people who suffer as the Baudelaires have -- from long bouts of misfortune, feelings of weakness, or the actions of an abuser -- that they are not alone. Their suffering is noticed. There is nothing wrong with feeling unhappy or frustrated. But this suffering also does not dictate who they are or what they deserve. Suffering isn't punishment. Abuse isn't deserved. And if three children who obviously deserve better are forced to endure thirteen books... maybe we're not so bad, either.