Trauma Will Not Break Us
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite shows on the planet. I avoided it for 2 years after it came out because of my own traumatic experience with an actual cult. But when I was ready, I fell in love! In the beginning, despite being triggering at times (yes, that’s an actual thing that happened), it was also quite healing for me. Why? Well, first of all, I think it’s because it enabled me to laugh at experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to laugh at previously. Secondly, I think it was healing because it shone light on the utter bizzareness of the lies that abusers tell their targets—lies that we often end up believing because we’ve been manipulated and exploited when we’re vulnerable. It makes fun of the people who take it upon themselves to be God’s mouthpiece, so to speak, as they express their delusional, utter nonsense. This isn’t just the case with those of us who have experienced spiritual abuse. Whether it’s a pastor who has influence over their congregation members, a man who can use his physical strength as a threat to guarantee obedience from his partner, or parents who have complete control over their children, we all know that abuse is about the misuse of power in relationships.
Kimmy Schmidt was kidnapped by a narcissistic, delusional reverend when she was 15. She, another young girl named Cindy, and an older woman named Dona Maria were also kidnapped. A third young woman named Gretchen joined the group willingly (because she is, hmm, let’s just say not right). They become an underground, doomsday cult. The episode begins in a bunker, 15 years after they were taken. All 4 women are holding hands, and dancing around a Christmas tree as they sing “Apocalypse, apocalypse, we caused it with our dumbness” to the tune of the Oh, Christmas tree. Next thing you know, they are rescued by the police. The series follows naïve, colorful Kimmy as she acquaints herself with the world that she has been separate from for 15 years.
A Lesson From Season 1, Episode 1
Throughout their time in the cult, the Reverend brainwashed his victims into believing that the world had been destroyed because of God’s wrath. And that they were only saved because of him. The following is dialogue from a flashback to at time in the bunker.
Reverend: I was talking with my friend, God, earlier. We were talking about why he allowed his creation to be destroyed; the earth of the land, and the fowls of the air, and the sea monkeys of the sea. And do you know what He hath told me?
Gretchen (puts hand up): That we’re all dumb, and bad, and that’s why He let the world be destroyed?
Reverend: That’s exactly right, Sister Gretchen.
Kimmy: Reverend Richard, I was wondering: the whole world was destroyed, and everything died, right?
Reverend (patronizing laughter): Except for all you dumb dumbs here, yes.
Kimmy (angry): Then how come, when I was cleaning out the air filter earlier, I found this? (Holds up a live rat). If all the animals are dead, where’d this rat come from?
Reverend: Ew! Ew! Damn you, Kimmy Schmidt! I will break you!
Kimmy (with a big smile on her face): No, you won’t.
I didn’t have a bunker experience, thank goodness. But I did have a pastor who was as bonkers as the reverend. His character is hilariously insane, and she would have been, too, if she wasn’t so insanely dangerous.
What hits so close to home for me about the above scene is that it illustrates all-too-perfectly how abusers humiliate and degrade their targets in order to do the following:
3) turn them into a clean slate so that their identity no longer exists
4) rebuild their identity into a proverbial mirror: something that reflects how superior, smart, chosen, and deserving the abuser is
Gretchen is an example of the compliant, brainwashed target. She is the reverend’s supply of ego stroking and sense of power. Kimmy is an example of the defiant target—someone who the narcissist sees as a challenge. Because if the reverend can break the defiant target, it is a greater testament to how brilliant he is than being able to control the one who willingly gave their power.
But, of course, Gretchen and Kimmy are two extreme examples. I don’t think the experience of a target is ever that black and white. I was a bit of Gretchen and a bit of Kimmy throughout my time in the cult. I became more and more of a Gretchen as the years went on because I knew how scary and painful the consequences of being a Kimmy were—so I tried to avoid them at all costs.
Our True Selves Might Seem Long Gone, But They Are Still There
My will was broken through a tug-of-war kind of process: I pulled for as long as I could. But then it became exhausting. I was routinely publicly humiliated, punished, and alienated until I became too scared to disobey. So I fell in line. I became a magical mirror telling my pastor that she was the fairest of them all. It was a mask that I convinced myself I wanted to wear in order to survive. When this happens it is called a cult pseudo-personality.
But this is the thing about a cult pseudo-personality: it doesn’t replace the target’s original one. It layers itself over the top of the one that already exists—which means that who the target is, who the target truly is, still exists deep inside. And this is what the character of Kimmy Schmidt represents to me: she is the part of each survivor that truly is unbreakable.
So while we might feel broken, and that we are completely ruin, we have to remember that there is a grain-of-sand part of us that actually cannot be broken. There may be an infinite pile of collateral damage to pick through—maybe even for the rest of our lives. But people like you and me: we survive. It’s who we are, and it’s what we do.