Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Playing the Victim

‘Victims are very powerful,’ a woman once said to me in a creative writing workshop.

I didn’t think about it too much at the time, but I was reminded of it recently when a friend was talking about her relative. She said he victimises himself to get what he wants. The middle-aged man is unreliable, disrespectful, and always has people loaning him money. The reason he gets away with it is because he never fails to mention his unhappy childhood

'Everyone knows someone like this,’ my friend said. And after a little think I realised that I did. At university I knew two girls, Donna and Tracey. Both went through similar problems in their childhood yet as adults behaved in very different ways. They had both gone through the divorce of their parents, both had a dysfunctional relationship with their father and both had suffered an eating disorder. Tracey did lots of volunteering for young people and would organise arts workshops and festivals. She also volunteers in East Timor and South America. Tracey confided her past to me after years of developing a close friendship. Donna, on the other hand, told a group of us she had only known for two weeks in a university tutorial about her eating disorder. Instantly we felt sorry for her and gave her sympathy. She also used the divorce as an excuse for her commitment problems and to explain why she treated men badly. Again we pitied her and hoped she would one day feel better. She began to push boundaries even further and would be friendly to people only to say nasty and untrue things behind their backs. She was unkind to most women, and especially women she felt threatened by. The thing is that we all let her behave this way, and allowed her to treat people badly because she had been a victim of an unhappy childhood. This girl continues to play the card of, ‘Poor me, I have issues being friendly and social with people and I was anorexic ten years ago.’ When she publicly writes about her social anxiety in her blog, readers and friends always describe her as brave even though she has hurt more people, burnt more bridges and has more ex friends than she’s had hot dinners. Yes it’s true. Victims are very powerful.

What manipulating ‘victims’ are there in literature? If society is full of people like this, then where are they in the books we read? I think of film characters such as Aaron in Primal Fear and Roger ‘Vebal’ Kint in The Usual Suspects. For me, what made these films great was the twist. That moment when it hit us that we had all been duped and manipulated by these ‘victims’ who in actual fact were cold-blooded killers. The characters all had a kind of handicap such as a stutter or a limp which was something to make us feel sorry for them. For Donna her handicap is her self-claimed social awkwardness due to an unstable past. I think for a powerful and manipulating victim, the handicap is a strong and vital device as it makes us feel sorry for them and for us to view them as vulnerable.

So there are some interesting examples of characters who play the victim in film but what about in books? What are some memorable and strong book character victims? Perhaps Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in the book Perfume, although I never felt pity for him or duped by him. The only other interesting book ‘victims’ I can think of are both in Capote books. Holly Golightly is a fascinating character, a young woman who left her loving husband to run away to New York. Her way of paying rent mainly was to get money of rich men. Still, I felt sympathetic towards her at times and also found her playful and lively personality appealing, maybe even enough to excuse the way she used and manipulated men. Audrey Hepburn may have dealt with her commitment issues by the end of the film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffanys but that wasn’t what happened in Truman’s novella. The other interesting victims were the killers in In Cold Blood. As a reader we felt sorry for them, especially Perry Smith. Sometimes even forgetting that they brutally murdered a family of four for a quick buck

I do think victims are powerful, and that we allow them to get away with more than they should. And, if everyone really does know someone who plays the victim for power and to manipulate others, then perhaps it is an avenue which can be more explored in writing.

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