The Invisible Man and His Visible Victim

Posted in: Criminal Law

A couple of weeks ago, my family rented a movie listed as one of the best of 2020, The Invisible Man (“TIM”). The preview shows a woman played by Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men and A Handmaid’s Tale) attempting to escape from an abusive boyfriend. The boyfriend then dies, but his spirit appears to haunt the woman, an invisible ghost terrorizing her in ways that seem imaginary to her friends and family. It sounded like a creative premise for a fun, scary movie. TIM turned out to be a revelation, though. The movie brings clarity to domestic violence and abuse almost without showing it on film. The story in this movie offers exciting possibilities for envisioning accountability for domestic violence and other crimes that too often receive dismissive treatment under the heading of “he said/she said.”

The Plot (Spoiler alert)

At the beginning of the film, we see the main female character, Cecilia, played by Moss, tiptoeing around her bedroom and closet in the dark, trying not to wake her boyfriend. She is gathering documents, and she is trying surreptitiously to leave the man who sleeps in her bed. She has a moment in the garage when her dog Zeus appears. He looks at her as though he expects to leave as well, but she tells him sadly that she cannot take him, removing what appears to be a shock collar from around his neck. As I have suggested elsewhere, dogs take abuse from their owners without ever abandoning or turning on them. Outdoors, Cecilia’s sister Emily drives up to Cecilia, who hurries inside the vehicle. Then a man who we can only assume is Adrian (Cecilia’s boyfriend), approaches the car, screaming, and smashes the front passenger window, though the two women manage to get away before he does any further damage.

Cecilia stays hidden at her friend James’s house, where she lives with him and his teenage daughter Sydney. When she and her friend learn that her boyfriend Adrian is dead of suicide, her friend James assumes that she no longer needs to be afraid and can begin to live like a normal person again. But she remains scared, and her fear proves to be well founded. Her boyfriend is invisible, but he is in the house where she is staying, playing malicious mind games with her (by texting “surprise” and by moving the ladder that she used to climb up into the attic). He fights with her (physically), and she fights back, though the audience sees only her. He also emails her sister from Cecilia’s account and asks that the two women have no more to do with each other, saying among other things, that Cecilia wishes Emily were dead. And he attacks Sydney, James’s teenage daughter, in a manner that leaves the impression that Cecilia was responsible.

In a scene in which Cecilia and her sister have dinner at a restaurant (because her sister is giving her another chance, despite the hostile email), the invisible boyfriend shows up with a knife and stabs Emily to death, leaving Cecilia looking guilty of the crime. In addition, moreover, Cecilia looks delusional because she keeps insisting that someone else—someone that only she can see and that acquaintances believe is dead—carried out the lethal attack. Police accordingly bring Cecilia to a locked room on a locked ward, and the doctors’ response to her agitated insistence that someone else killed her sister (whose suspicious death seems consistent with the hateful email) is to give her an injection of what is perhaps a major tranquilizer (like Thorazine, an old anti-psychotic medication aimed at hallucinations but sometimes used to sedate difficult prisoners), and she is out like a light.

I will not describe the ending of the film in its entirety. I am hoping you will want to see the movie yourself because it is both riveting and potentially transformative. I will say, however, that the audience meets the boyfriend for a short time, and he is not the image of an abuser that most people probably carry in their minds. He is very attractive, sweet and self-deprecating, warm, charming in an understated way, and seemingly earnest as well. He is focused entirely on how he can please his girlfriend Cecilia. He has, for example, brought her food from a variety of restaurants so she can choose what she wants for dinner. Word to the wise: an abuser who offers gifts after victimizing his partner may be manipulating her into returning to the relationship.

I somehow forgot (briefly) that he had smashed the window behind which his girlfriend sat, terrorized but hopeful. Observing Adrian with his girlfriend during the scene, I imagine that some audience members thought to themselves, “Could he maybe be innocent?” and “Does she have to be so mean to him?” Though some reviewers say the ending was ambiguous, I disagree. I believe that whatever mode of interpretation one applies to the film will yield the certain knowledge that Adrian, as fetching as he might be, is guilty of domestic abuse.

Why The Invisible Man is Revelatory

TIM is a remake of a 1933 film based on the book by H.G. Wells. In the 2020 movie, however, we learn a fact about domestic violence that can sometimes go unnoticed. In the movies, the audience often plays the role of omniscient viewer that has therefore watched the accused inflicting abuse upon the accuser. Indeed, I found myself initially quite surprised to watch a movie that begins with the victim fleeing her abuser rather than enduring the very abuse that motivates her to leave. At first, it seemed like I was walking into the middle of the drama rather than watching it from the beginning. How are we supposed to sympathize with Cecilia if we have not had the opportunity to watch Adrian hurting her? The answer is that we watch and listen to Cecilia, and that is how we know what Adrian did to her, and that is also why we sympathize with her. As in court, none of the people testifying about the abuse is a disinterested third party. It is, as those who believe we lack enough evidence to convict like to say, “he said/she said.”

I have written in numerous venues (for example, here, here, and here), about the lie that is the “he said/she said” framing of rape cases and some domestic abuse cases. Briefly summarized (with an invitation to read my other work if you want to know more), the victim of a crime is a witness, an eyewitness. We generally understand this truth when the victim is unacquainted with the assailant. We don’t call the prosecution of a mugger “he said/she said,” for instance, despite the presence of two witnesses, one of whom says guilty (the victim) and the other of whom says “innocent” (the accused), though we actually have considerably greater reason to be skeptical of stranger identifications due to the prevalence of memory errors. Meanwhile, in the acquaintance rape and violence cases, the accused has a systematic motive for distorting the truth: the desire to win an acquittal and avoid punishment. The victim, on the other hand, has no systematic motive to lie because unlike the defendant, whose role in the proceeding is unchosen, she did not have to come forward at all. That does not mean that accusers never lie, of course. Even without a systematic motive to lie, an individual can have her own reason for doing so. But just as it is always possible that a witness is lying, the risk is nowhere near what we face when we believe the words of an accused, which sample juries seem to understand implicitly are entitled to little or no credence.

Notwithstanding what we know about the credibility of criminal defendants, we still have this expression, “he said/she said,” which treats particular types of acquaintance assault cases as though they are uniquely unsolvable and impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Some prosecutors refuse to even bring a case of acquaintance rape, as though it would require them to prove guilt based on pure speculation. Such selective epistemological doubt is destructive. If prosecutors act dubious of such cases, then victims will get the message and stop coming forward. When victims, in turn, decide to stay quiet, then potential perpetrators rapidly learn that they can get away with their misconduct. And this lesson disinhibits the behavior, thereby teaching the population that violence against an intimate is relatively innocuous and also impossible to prove.

That’s when The Invisible Man comes in to announce an important truth. The audience does not see Adrian abusing Cecilia. The film begins with her escape from his cruelty. And yet we know that it happened. We understand this because we see her reactions to it, both what she says and what she does in response. That is how, in the real world, people are able to determine that an accused committed violence against an accuser. Perpetrators do not generally commit their violence in view of a room full of spectators. Audiences have to accept that we will not see him commit his offense, and neither will other disinterested witnesses. Cleverly, even Adrian’s violent assault against Cecilia that we “witness” entails our seeing only her reactions because he is invisible. And yet the audience as well as the various characters in the film know, by the end, that Adrian is guilty of attacking his girlfriend, and Cecilia has the confidence to act decisively upon that information. With films like this one, we may come to understand that every domestic rapist and abuser is The Invisible Man.

So the next time you hear the words “he said/she said,” you might consider replying, “The Invisible Man.

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