Alias Grace: Giving wronged women a voice

(Originally published on the Ethos blog)

Alias Grace is the latest television series to stem from the vast repertoire of Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Like her recently televised modern classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Gracefeatures a strong, beleaguered female protagonist resisting the oppression of upper class men. However, a key point of difference is that Alias Grace is historical, rather than dystopian, fiction.

Grace Marks is an Irish immigrant and inmate of Kingston Penitentiary in 19th Century Canada, infamous across North America for conspiring to murder her former employer. Her youth, fragile mental health and air of humble melancholy have attracted a movement of supporters who believe she is innocent and who are working to secure her release.

We learn about Grace’s troubled past through a series of interviews conducted by the young, handsome Dr Jordan, a psychiatrist recruited by Grace’s supporters to help build the case for her innocence. We discover, along with Dr Jordan, a history of abuse and traumatic loss that gives us an increasing compassion for, and understanding of, Grace’s present predicament.

The story hinges around Grace’s alleged crime: the murder of wealthy farmer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and lover Nancy Montgomery, for whom Grace worked as a maid. Grace’s memories of the event shift and change and Dr Jordan, increasingly drawn into Grace’s retelling of events, begins to wonder whether her account is truthful.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of historical fiction, period drama and psychological thriller, with a touch of horror. The series has been composed in such a way that Grace herself (played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon) is mesmerising, to the viewer as much as to the increasingly confounded Dr Jordan (Edward Holcroft). She is diminutive, calm and conservative, frequently quoting Bible verses in her soft Irish brogue, while also conveying an utter tenacity and intensity of spirit that is, at times, intimidating. She comes across as a character that could be at the same time guilty of anything, or of nothing at all. The suspense is thrilling. Did she do it?

Like The Handmaid’s Tale series, Alias Graceconfronts the complexities of class-based, religiously justified power play, and the elusive nature of truth. Most of all, like its on-screen predecessor, it interrogates the implications of such environments for the ordinary women who are often their most pronounced victims.

Alias Grace was released on Australian Netflix in September 2017, just ahead of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that sparked the outing of toxic cultures of sexual misconduct across the entertainment industry. The series also arrived in the midst of ongoing exposure by journalists Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson of domestic violence undercurrents in the church. Not long after, the final report on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was released. Alias Grace could not have been aired at a more appropriate time in Australia; a time when the voices of abused and oppressed women and children, like Grace and her friends, were being heard with compassion and outrage.

Watching Alias Grace as a Christian also raises timely questions about what faith offers to those who have experienced injustice. Grace interprets many of her experiences in light of quotes and principles from Scripture, and appears to hold to a genuine Christian faith that brings her guidance and comfort. And yet, her alleged actions in relation to the crime she is accused of are difficult to reconcile with this, as are her disturbing spiritual – or are they psychological? – experiences portrayed across several episodes.

The resounding message I took away from this addictive and brilliantly delivered series was that allowing abuse and oppression to go unaddressed can have serious personal and societal consequences. While faith can be a critical factor in enduring and overcoming these experiences, we must be careful not to use Scriptural principles, religious traditions or church structures to bury difficult emotions, gloss over the truth or live in denial.

We must allow victims to make known the injustices to which they have been subjected and to seek redress. We must give people permission to experience and express the difficult emotions that result, and respond with holistic and non-judgemental support. We must give individuals who have the courage to speak out the benefit of the doubt, not automatically disbelieving their uncomfortable claims, as has so often happened in the past.

To me, it is fitting that the protagonist of this absorbing series is named Grace. Atwood’s compelling narrative, based on a true story, confronts us with the need for us to receive the stories of wronged and wounded individuals with mercy and generosity of spirit, even if some may argue that they don’t deserve it.

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