This post contains spoilers for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a novel about a woman in a troubled marriage who goes missing, in a single sitting on Monday, and while I raced compulsively through the book, I was left with a rather empty feeling at the end. I hunger for stories about difficult women, sometimes even dangerous ones, and so I felt I should have loved Gone Girl‘s central twist, that Amy was not, in fact, a victim, but a psychopath who framed her husband for her disappearance. But instead, I was annoyed by the expectation that the twist itself was enough for me, that we’re still at a point where suggesting that a woman is a psychopath, or a killer, or even a bad wife or mother was supposed to be surprising and daring. Just as the anti-heroes of the last decade of great television tell us something about suburban denial, the difficulty of being a self-made man in the drug trade, or the costs of toxic masculinity, I wanted Gone Girl to tell me something else about marriage, or the Midwest, or being a woman than I felt like it actually did.
In Gone Girl, the revelation that Amy is not the Cool Girl she pretended to be, but rather, dangerously amoral and manipulative, is what brings Amy and Nick back together. “I couldn’t return to an average life,” Nick concedes to himself. “I’d known it before she’d said a word. I’d already pictured myself with a regular woman— a sweet, normal girl next door— and I’d already pictured telling this regular woman the story of Amy, the lengths she had gone to— to punish me and to return to me. I already pictured this sweet and mediocre girl saying something uninteresting like Oh, nooooo, oh my God, and I already knew part of me would be looking at her and thinking: You’ve never murdered for me. You’ve never framed me.” For Amy, it’s realizing that Nick is her perfect victim, someone who has truly wronged her, but also, who is too afraid of becoming his father to be much of a person at all. “I am a little too much, and he is a little too little,” she thinks. “I am a thornbush, bristling from the overattention of my parents, and he is a man of a million little fatherly stab wounds, and my thorns fit perfectly into them.”
Her psychopathy is the point. It doesn’t reveal anything else. The novel doesn’t really explore whether Rand and Marybeth, her parents, actually raised or exploited Amy in a way that contributed to her mental state. It’s not an expression of contempt for the world, as is Kevin’s boredom and suspicion of anyone who shows passion for an idea or activity in We Need to Talk about Kevin. And it’s not really an attempt to elicit a reaction from someone, the reason way Jo Gage (an incredibly scary Martha Plimpton), the daughter of a criminal profiler, becomes a serial killer in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Whether you find the uses of psychopathy—to compel the attention of an absent father, or to provide a situation so extreme that a mother who failed to bond with her son finally experiences maternal instincts—in either of those works compelling, the revelation of psychopathy isn’t where either story ends.
“Blind Spot,” the Criminal Intent episode that features Jo Gage, functions in much the same way as Gone Girl. In both the novel and the television episode, the assumption through much of each is that the person who kidnapped Amy or who is torturing and murdering women must be a man. In Gone Girl, the question is whether Nick kidnapped or murdered his wife, and if he didn’t, whether an ex-boyfriend Amy accused of rape, a high school ex who was obsessed with her, or an impulsive girl who Amy accused of stalking her is guilty. And in “Blind Spot,” for much of the episode, Robert Goren assumes that the person torturing and murdering women is either an old serial killer who has resurfaced, or a male copycat killer, despite the fact that the new victims have been sexually violated but don’t have semen on their bodies, like the old victims did. And in both cases, the dynamic of the narrative radically changes when it becomes clear that the narrative of Amy’s that we’ve been reading is a fabrication, that Jo, initially treated as if she’s a victim (she was the roommate of one of the women killed), is, in fact, the killer the police have been seeking all along.
Jo is stuttery and anxious when we meet her, traumatized by her roommate’s death. But her anger flares when her father, Declan, Goren’s mentor, arrives, making a beeline for Goren, who he embraces, ignoring his daughter, who is closer to the crime, and for a normal father, would be the natural focus of his attention. “Hi Dad. I’m fine,” she tells him, pointing out that he hasn’t asked. “Of course you are. I would have gotten a vastly different message” if you weren’t, Declan breezes past both her explanation of her mental state and her accusation. The story is about gender, to a certain extent. In the conversation where Goren talks Jo around to a confession, he tells her “He doesn’t think a woman could achieve the heights, or depths, that men do.” But that’s not actually a point of controversy in the Law & Order: Criminal Intent universe, where Nicole Wallace, a female psychopath and serial killer, is Robert Goren’s primary adversary. And once that’s resolved, Jo’s murderousness becomes a tool to tell a tragic story about her relationship to her father, and about the costs paid for the education that Goren benefitted from.
The story, even in a fairly efficient hour, is much more specifically about Declan’s neglect of Jo in favor of Goren and the killers he studied. “No one has ever listened to them. Their story. So I sit with them,” Declan brags at one point. “It’s unconditional. Five, six, ten days, twelve hours a day…They feel the relief of being understood.” He’s proud of that dedication, but only understands it as a means of solving crime, rather than of nurturing real human relationships. Jo describes a childhood of relative neglect, her only means of connection with her father cataloguing his photographs of crime scenes or letting him quiz her on mutilations. That exposure to violence had a very different impact on Jo than it did on Goren, who benefitted, perhaps, from the fact that Declan was genuinely interested in Goren as a person rather than as an amanuensis. Jo’s self-centeredness is a specific response to Declan’s neglect, to what she learned of what makes him pay attention to a person. “He’ll come to my cell, now,” Jo tells Goren after she confesses. “He’ll talk to me. He’ll listen. For as long as it takes.”
Amy’s rage seems more born-in, and less specific. “But I’ve always been jealous too, always— seven dead dancing princesses,” she explains of the still-borns and miscarriages who preceded her into the world because her mother had trouble getting pregnant. “They get to be perfect without even trying, without even facing one moment of existence, while I am stuck here on earth, and every day I must try, and every day is a chance to be less than perfect.” But even as she complains about risking imperfection in her parents’ eyes—though they do appear to love her—and punished people like the high school friend who saw her slightly lower grades, Amy has an extraordinarily high self-regard. “Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Amy,” she explains of her marriage. “Nick wanted Cool Amy anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your spouse, your soul mate, and having him not like you?” But who is Real Amy? Why is Real Amy? The only Real Amy we ever ever come to know is the sum of her badness, her psychopathy. Gone Girl is a dark fairy tale with Amy as its dark, unreliable princess. But she’s fundamentally empty, much in the same way Nick is. Two empty people realizing that their emptinesses vibrate along the same frequency is a somewhat interesting subject, but revealing Amy as a psychopath actually flattens her, and the book’s exploration of everyday misogyny, out. The flare of the twist gives way to a singed and empty box, rather than to a multi-layer cake.
We Need To Talk About Kevin works up to a similar revelation, that even though Kevin Katchadorian murdered his schoolmates, a teacher, his father, and his sister, though he and his mother have been alienated from each other since his birth when he refused to nurse, that she cannot help but be emotionally attached to him. Eva reflects:
We have fought one another with an unrelenting ferocity that I can almost admire. But it must be possible to earn a devotion by testing an antagonism to its very limit, to bring people closer through the very act of pushing them away. Because after three days short of eighteen years, I can finally announce that I am too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting, and if only out of desperation or even laziness I love my son. He has five grim years left to serve in an adult penitentiary, and I cannot vouch for what will walk out the other side. But in the meantime, there is a second bedroom in my serviceable apartment. The bedspread is plain. A copy of Robin Hood lies on the bookshelf. And the sheets are clean.
Eva and Nick are somewhat alike, in that they end the novels in which they live committed to spend their lives with alienating people who have done great violence to other people. Nick stays with Amy because he is afraid of her, and to a certain extent because that fear makes him sharper and gives him purpose in the vacuum of his life, a person to focus the hate he is afraid he inherited from his father. But Eva and Kevin come to love each other because of the substantive way the novel articulates in which they are alike. Kevin spares Eva because she, unlike Franklin, his father and Eva’s husband, sees Kevin for the psychopath that he is, and always has. Where much of Gone Girl is told in generalities—Amy’s quizzes are general statements of principals, her rants against Cool Girls criticism of archetypes more than actual details, Frito pie and thongs stand in for actual ideas—Kevin’s collection of viruses, the atonal music he favors, the company Eva built, Franklin’s embrace of American cliches, the deadening architecture of their house all make them very specific people. To a certain extent it makes sense that Gone Girl is painted with broad brush strokes. Fairy tales are about archetypes, after all. But after a certain point, fairy tales become less frightening than the real things we believe real people are capable of doing to each other.
And that’s why Jo frightens me more than Amy, why I feel more pain for Eva than for Nick. Turning Amy into a psychopath, and the way Flynn did it, meant that a frightening story of a marriage turned into a nightmare became a fairy tale, removed from real plausibility, the kind of damage people actually do to each other, even as it satirizes Nancy Grace and uses the familiar narrative of a missing woman. Jo and Eva’s stories take place in a world where psychopathology is a given rather than a shock. We know that there is a killer, just not that she is Jo. We know that Eva’s son has killed, but not who he murdered, or why. Gone Girl shocks us by plunging us into the dark woods when we don’t expect it, and the novel never really recovers from its reliance on that shock. Law & Order: Criminal Intent and We Need to Talk About Kevin are about what we can see when our eyes are accustomed to the gloom, about our capacity to spot the monsters, to understand them, and recognize them in ourselves.