Holiday Torture Porn, Or Why I Hated "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

I’ve never had such a triggering public freak-out, and I’m not sure when I’ll get over it.
Publish date:
December 27, 2011
movies, holidays, sexual assault, triggers, torture porn

Torture porn wasn’t on my Christmas list. I just wanted to go see a movie.

On Sunday, my partner and I selected a 2 p.m. showing of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” It was an easy choice considering how much I’d been anticipating the film’s release.

David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. I like to look at Daniel Craig. Visions of rural Sweden soothe my displaced Nordic sweetie’s homesickness and even bring me a bit of comfort. He’s from small-town Denmark, and we both know how beautiful remote Scandinavia can be in the dead of winter.

The unusual thing for me about this particular film was that I have not read any of the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy books. I normally like to read something first when seeing an adapted film, but I’ve deliberately avoided the books because I’d read and been told that one particular rape scene is intolerably graphic.

The reason that I never read the book is that I’m a sexual abuse survivor. I really, really, really do not handle depictions of sexual violence well. As a rule, I don’t seek them out. I qualify this by saying that being a survivor is not a prerequisite for not wanting to watch or read this stuff. It’s just the main reason I dodge it.

I also get that the assault is an important part of the story, and I don’t think it should be excluded.

Some folks hail Larrson as a feminist hero, and I can see why illuminating the myriad ways men abuse women might make Larsson’s work redemptive and necessary. But there are alternative ways to handle such provocative issues that are, especially in film, worthy of consideration.

I should point out, if this isn’t already widely known, that the entire Americanized Larsson franchise is misleading. In Swedish, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is actually called “Men Who Hate Women.” Larsson’s title is a much more accurate description of the plot -- a troubled young woman who has been brutalized, a linage of crazed serial killer men who methodically, sadistically prey on dozens of women, and so on.

We went to the movie. Parts of it were lovely, even perhaps memorable. I assumed that a scene so graphic wouldn’t actually be included. I apparently forgot how much even Hollywood hates women.

I’ve never had such a triggering public freak-out, and I’m not sure when I’ll get over it.

When the scene began, I cowered in my seat as my partner whispered, “You’re going to want to shut your eyes and maybe cover your ears.” And I did.

But it didn’t work. I could hear everything, every gruesome scream. There was nothing I could do to block it out. Moments after the scene began, I was already sobbing from a mixture of anxiety, fear and deep sadness.

And then, I was suddenly on my feet, pushing over the people next to me, probably kicking several of them as I almost yelled, “Let me out of here! Let me out of here!”

I have no idea how much of a commotion I caused. I just knew I had to get out of there. And I did. I pushed hard, and I ran faster.

I made it to the hallway between cinemas and stood out there sobbing and trying to catch my breath. No one stopped to talk to me, for which I was thankful. I stayed huddled in the same spot for a long while and eventually started pacing, wondering what I should do.

Eventually, when he could promise the scene was over, my sweetie came to find me.

We stood in the hallway for a while, and he held me as much as I wanted to be held (which was a lot).

“Do you want me to get our things so we can go?”

Believe it or not, I didn’t. I knew I could leave again, and though distressing, I felt weirdly empowered that I’d gotten up when I did. Why the fuck should I sit through something that practically causes convulsions?

To the best of my knowledge, I was the only person who violently thrashed out of the theater during what can only be described as torture porn. When a crowded room of seemingly normal people watched a young girl chained across a four-posted bed against her will, screaming so loudly I could do nothing to block out of the sound except leave, they all sat there. I imagine most of them watched every gory detail play out larger than life.

I’m not here to hate or pass judgment. I’m truly not. I just can’t understand why in the world anyone deems this necessary. I need to understand why I’m the freak for running out.

I know it can’t just be because I’m an abuse survivor. There are plenty of women (and men) who can’t or won’t sit through something similar. In the past few days, several have told me so.

Am I naïve and this is supposed to be educational? Do people really not know that some men have a psychotic hatred of women? Do folks really not know that sexual violence is a pervasive problem on a terrifying spectrum?

As a society, do we need to publicly, collectively view sexualized abuse so that we are aware, so that we can somehow empathize with survivors?

Or is something else going on?

I know feminist types have been arguing about this stuff forever. I know I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said many other places before. But after an adulthood of rather judiciously avoiding obvious triggers, I finally encountered one that affected me on such a visceral level that a very literal flight response kicked in.

It isn’t like you can stay and fight a cinematic image or the social constraints that keep people seated through a movie.

As the credits rolled, we waited until the crowd had cleared out. I like to read the credits anyway, but I was also too ashamed to leave when anyone else was around.

It wasn’t even that I thought I’d done anything wrong. I just dreaded being recognized, being forced to smile or answer some sort of vague question or comment from the older couple down the aisle about how intense that was.

I mostly didn’t want to interact with anyone who might perceive me as dramatic rather than completely rational. I just wanted to be alone (or at least only with trusted loved ones) as I processed my horror and grief.

I didn’t fall asleep until late that night, long after my honey had thrown his arm over me and the cat had wedged himself between my legs, both of them making it impossible to move in their little cocoon of snuggly love.

I laid awake for a while, convinced I’d have nightmares, knowing they’d both be there if I woke up but hoping it didn’t happen. And somehow, it didn’t.

It wasn’t until nearly 24 hours later, with the cat passed out on my lap for a mid-day snooze and sharing his warmth, that I realized why I felt so betrayed, why such a deep sadness had pervaded my holidays.

I felt like everyone had let me in on a dark secret, that I’d somehow been witness to a wide-scale acceptance of the worst of our culture and our social values, the very worst misogyny that so many buy into without even acknowledging. In suddenly remembering this basic fact -- something I know too well and is certainly not much of a secret -- I felt ashamed of everyone, of being complicit in a collective value system that prioritizes a very select group of people and their rights.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way. I suppose it isn’t much different that witnessing other types of blatant cruelty and stopping to witness, to empathize, or even to intervene.

Sometimes I just forget for a while. Sometimes I allow myself to shut out realities that are just too tough to carry around every single day.

When I’m reminded, it’s that much harder to accept because I’m not actually naïve. I know many people aren’t perturbed by sexual violence. They never think about it. When they do, it’s on a screen, one they apparently don’t mind watching because it’s somehow removed from their reality.

In healing from such a triggering experience, I took things slow. I took a nice bath with my sweetie and one of those LUSH bath bombs. We cooked some warm food for the first time in too long. I read part of a sweet, sad Gail Caldwell book because it suited my mood without drawing me further down. We played some board games. I gave myself permission to write this, which feels sort of raw but also therapeutic.

Maybe in some weird way, this is what healing is. I’m not advocating that anyone go see the film who is upset by this sort of thing -- please do not do that. But in naming what rattled me and reacting as I did, I feel stronger and like I can do it the next time.

Next time, I also know better than to march intentionally into a potentially holiday-ruining film. Maybe I should give animated movies a second chance.