Beneath the crime story in Gone Girl is an exploration of power balances within relationships. An outwardly respectable marriage hides the underlying struggle going on, the alternating roles of victim and aggressor, the way each manipulates the other in order to dominate the couple.
I don’t believe that this dynamic is as strong or as universal as Joshua Rothman writes in the New Yorker. I’ve always been a believer in (if not always a good practitioner of) equality and balance in relationships.
But his essay is provocative, especially in the way he defines losers as victims. They aren’t always so.
What is a victim? For me, it is someone who suffers, whether from physical, emotional, or social pain. I also associate victims with injustice, implying a cause behind their anguish. When another person is at fault, we have lot of words to describe them: aggressor, persecutor, oppressor.
But consider everyday suffering, perhaps caused by natural events, disease, or accident. Perhaps a friend or partner has been misunderstood, has failed to act, or is unaware of what they have caused. The pain could be entirely in the victims own head, with an external focus that is not actually the cause.
We still think of these people as victims. They have the same need for acceptance and support from those around them. And, often, their pain has a cause, even if an innocent one.
Is ‘victim’ even the right word for suffering that is unintentionally inflicted?
I don’t think that we have words for that pairing, and I can’t think of a good one. Sometimes the Dutch see things more clearly, but their words, slachtoffer/dader, also pair victim with perpetrator. It’s almost as if the two roles form an inevitable dual, where the existence of either one necessarily implies the existence of the other.
The drama thus plays out once a rescuer enters the mix, with default construction of a ‘Power Triangle’ (Karpman 1968). Characterizing the sufferer as a Victim, the comforter as a Rescuer, can result in the unjust demonization of the person seen to be at fault. This casts unwitting bystanders into willful roles, framing their (in)actions as intent, neglect, and (for Nature) Acts of God.
The novel and movie play with our sense of who is the victim, who is the aggressor. I wouldn’t hesitate to apply the word dader to people who inflict willful suffering onto others by intention or abuse, without guilt, regret or remorse.
But, in real life, when suffering people are cast as victims, however well-intended, there are consequences. Comfort leads to rescue, balance to identifying a cause, and justice to a judgment.
And, too often, that can create more victims.
Perhaps only for lack of a word?