16 July 2022
The theme of justifiable villainy that has resurfaced of late in the tales of Cruella DeVille and Maleficent (among so many others) turns up my lip at the corner. It’s not new, the idea of flipping the standard narrative on its nugget; Shelley became the queen of this when she placed us inside the head of a monster. It’s what put pennies in Byron’s purse. It’s what fueled my first literary crush on Rochester.
What’s new, rather, is something within me. Watching Cruella on the big screen, I identified in her the best parts of myself. As I sat in my plush, reclined seat, my chin notched downward so that I could watch her operate by peering up from the centers of my eyebrows. I ran my tongue over my canines to feel them sharpen and felt my heart change color: half black, half white. I took notes. There has always been a villain within me – my own monster. Since early adolescence, I’ve felt out the limits of my rage and have learned to keep it in check. It is this inner villain, in close control, that allows me to walk straight into the fires of life terrified but convicted – knowing that I can handle the heat.
In the past two years, I’ve done significant research into psychology and family systems. I’ve learned about the family roles assigned to children in the households of abusive parents. Some of these roles include (but are not limited to) the enabler/codependent, the golden child, the mascot, the lost child, and the scapegoat.
The family scapegoat is a fascinating concept to me – the most fascinating of these roles. Generally chosen because there is something in the scapegoat’s character that offends the abuser’s fragile ego or threatens their false self, this role is assigned as early as birth, infancy, or toddlerhood. The purpose of this family role is to serve as an outlet for the toxic family member’s rage. Some call this role the family’s emotional pressure release: through triangulation, everyone in the family can blame the scapegoat for all their interpersonal discord. With the scapegoat being perpetually at fault for all discomfort in the family, nobody else ever needs to take the blame, especially not an abusive parent. This is key.
I just finished reading the book A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer, which is about little-boy Dave attempting to survive in a house controlled by an alcoholic, abusive mother. In this memoir, Dave’s mother is the abuser, the father is the enabler/codependent, Dave’s older siblings are the golden child and lost child (or maybe mascot), and he, obviously, is the scapegoat. From about the age of four, Dave was told, in no uncertain terms, that he was a “bad boy,” whereas his brothers were “good boys.” Did he act differently from them? Perhaps it started that way. Perhaps he was bolder, more boisterous, less controllable. This energy needed to be controlled – so his mother quashed it. I won’t chronicle his abuse here, except to say this: Dave was banished to the cold basement, and his mother withheld affection, food, even basic hygiene needs.
In my own life, my rejection of my more minor role of scapegoat began young. Something within me knew that I couldn’t be all wrong all the time. I looked inward and did not hate what I saw there. I had a sense of self-ness apart from my family role. The more that I fought back against my placement in that role, the further and further I pulled away from my nuclear household, until I decided to go no-contact. I became a family outcast by choice. Thankfully, most of my extended family of origin has not judged me too harshly for the decision. In this, I am so blessed.
Then, out of nowhere (perhaps a synchronicity), I read, for the very first time, in Best American Essays of 2020 Gary Fincke’s essay, “After the Three-Moon Era” the archaic word, nithing. It’s not in my nature to pass up an opportunity for a vocabulary lesson, so I looked it up. The dictionary definition was disappointing: Merriam-Webster said, coward or poltroon. I tried Google instead and was less disappointed: Wikipedia calls it Old Norse, “a term for a social stigma implying the loss of honour and the status of a villain.” A nithing is not just a miser, as Fincke claims, no: nithing implies a fall from grace.
…and it struck me: Cruella’s story is my story is Dave Pelzer’s story is Lucifer’s story. We are all nithings!
After that, my imagination went off the rails filling in the blanks. Lucifer’s is such a fascinating story, isn’t it? Consider this narrative, for funsies: Lucifer as scapegoat; God as narcissistic parent; Adam as golden child; Archangel Michael as mascot. Check out this excerpt from Wikipedia outlining Lucifer’s motives:
Commentators have attributed Satan's rebellion to a number of motives, all of which stem from his great pride. These motives include:
· a refusal to bow down to mankind on the occasion of the creation of man—as in the Armenian, Georgian, and Latin versions of the Life of Adam and Eve. Islamic tradition holds a similar view: Iblis refuses to bow down to Adam.
· the culmination of a gradual distancing from God through rebellion (an idea of Origen of Alexandria).
· a declaration by God that all were to be subject to his Son, the Messiah (as in Milton's Paradise Lost).
Jonathan Edwards states in his sermon Wisdom Displayed in Salvation:
Satan and his angels rebelled against God in heaven, and proudly presumed to try their strength with his. And when God, by his almighty power, overcame the strength of Satan, and sent him like lightning from heaven to hell with all his army; Satan still hoped to get the victory by subtlety[.]
…and was Dante’s Inferno’s center ring so very different from Pelzer’s basement? Cold. Dark. Devoid of love. Allegory turned literality.
Yes. I did, in fact, say that perhaps there is a version of the story whereby the Christian God could be placed in the role of an abusive parent. Pelzer’s community thought that his mother was wonderful, that their family was healthy and intact. Because his survival behaviors countered social norms (he learned that if he wanted to eat, he needed to steal food from others), it was Pelzer himself that the world might’ve deemed the villain in that household, not his mother. Likewise, my rejection of my nuclear family depicts my own personal fall from grace as the unloving, ungrateful, unforgiving daughter who would not “honor her parent,." Then, I’ll let you stew on the irony of Wikipedia’s listed motives for Satan’s rebellion in this: “a refusal to bow down to mankind.” Satan was banished to hell for the exertion of his free will, just like we humans are, if we do not accept Christ as our Lord and Savior to absolve us of our sins.
Look, I’m not proposing my reader accept God as a villain, although some literary/Biblical depictions of his narcissism are blatant (don’t shoot the literary analyst), and many in this world do feel this way. If I’m the first to disillusion you on this, I’m so sorry. But that’s sort-of backwards and beside the point. Why unstick that label just to place it elsewhere? I’m asking my reader to re-cage their preconceived notions about villainy. Satan has got to be the originator of the villain trope. But what sane, widely-socially accepted person or group has entertained Lucifer’s perspective? If anyone has, how have I missed it? For if we can flip the narratives of Cruella, Maleficent, Shelley’s monster, Manfred, why not Lucifer’s? Looking at Lucifer as the scapegoat opens up space for curiosity and compassion. What were his motives? What did he actually want, and what is his perspective about that fateful disagreement between himself and God? Suddenly, I want to know! Why are we never offered Lucifer’s viewpoint within the Christian faith? Most poignantly, as my mind is ever-overencumbered by etymological musings, what is a nithing when villainy is questioned and the viewpoint is altered? Shit…does my openmindedness about Lucifer’s perspective place me in the same socially-rejected strata as Satan-worshippers?
That brings me to the part of that Old Norse definition that is subversively redemptive; being labeled nithing is predicated upon social stigma. Well, that doesn’t make it truth! In fact, I’d rather be Cruella than a hapless spotted puppy, even if puppies are more universally lovable. And Pelzer found the same: despite his wretchedness, deep within himself he found a monster with the will to fight for his survival – despite being labeled “outcast,” “thief,” or “shoplifter.” Who cares about social stigma? What has society’s acceptance ever done for me, anyway? Nah, I’m doing well enough over here sipping my nithing slow like a fine wine, Shelley’s monster by my side. We’ll be happy together here in the “hell” of our devising, if “hell” is simply society’s chosen name for ostracism.
what is good
and what is bad
with a tale
on its head?
is to ascend
is the character
whose story is
if ostracism is villainy
count me in