On Wednesday night I watched Rosemary’s Baby with David and I was a bit blindsided by how uncomfortable it made me feel. This is a movie I have watched probably half a dozen times in my life. It is one of my favorite horror movies and yet here I am, watching it and feeling all sorts of feelings I have never felt before. This is not the first time I have felt uncomfortable watching the movie. Obviously there are the rape elements, combined with Roman Polanski as the director, which is more than enough to cause discomfort. This was a whole different set of uncomfortable feelings though.
Spoilers for Rosemary’s Baby ahead. Although seriously, if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? It’s 35 years old, people. Go watch it right now. It’s a great movie and it’s October. What an excellent month to watch it.
I assume it is because of the training that I have been going through that this was somehow the very first time that I watched this movie and realized that I was watching an abusive relationship. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I ever thought that Rosemary’s relationship with Guy was an okay sort of thing but I never recognized the cycles of power and control that were happening or the focus on Rosemary’s inability to break out of these relatively subtle and gradually increasing things. Rosemary is very, very isolated in this movie. She is kept away from her friends, which is a common sign of abuse. When she has a moment of “stubbornness” and insists on having a party for her friends, Guy tries to make it seem like she’s being ridiculous. When her friends gather around her and assure her that she needs support, needs another doctor, needs something, Guy tells Rosemary they are just “nosy bitches” and that she needs to not listen to them. He won’t pay for another doctor, what about her current doctor? He’s not going to hurt Dr. Sapperstein’s feelings. Rosemary is the one being irrational, she is the one being inappropriate. This is a common theme throughout the movie. Guy’s moods shift easily. He can be very kind and gentle with her one day, bringing her flowers often, apologizing for being so self-involved and not caring enough, and then turning on her and pointing out how crazy she has been acting. This is an incredibly common pattern in abusive relationship. Although we never see Guy actually hit her, we definitely get the sense that Rosemary does not feel safe with him, that she feels it is her job to placate him, to make him happy and content. When he is upset, she blames herself or explains that after all he is an actor, everyone knows actors are temperamental. The part he is working on right now is so difficult, it’s understandable that he hasn’t been himself. She is an expert at making excuses for him. When he comes home with flowers, apologizing and telling her he wants to make a baby and have the life they have dreamed of she is overjoyed to the point of tears. “Don’t cry, Ro,” he tells her. “No, of course not,” she says. Nothing that he is uncomfortable with, after all. His body language with her is possessive and often borders on threatening. When she is in incredible pain with her pregnancy, she hides it from him, even when it means going to the other room and sobbing silently. She doesn’t want to make him upset.
There is, of course, one of the most upsetting things to happen in their relationship which is the conception of the child. Although the truth is that Guy has allowed her to be raped by Satan, which is a much more pulpy and ridiculous thing, what Rosemary believes has happened, what Guy tells her has happened, is that she passed out and he had sex with her. He cheerfully tells her the next morning that he raped her while she was passed out. “Don’t worry honey, I filed down my nails. I didn’t want to miss baby making night. After this, only wine OR cocktails for you, not both.” Rosemary is clearly incredibly uncomfortable, tries to point out they could have done it this morning, could have done it that night. The window for making a baby, after all, is not merely a one night thing. Guy shrugs her off, says he was somewhat drunk too and anyway, it was kind-of fun in a necrophile sort-of way. Rosemary holds herself tightly and will never mention it again. Her husband, as far as she knows, has raped her but she will never bring it up again. He’s made it clear it’s a closed subject and she doesn’t want to rock the boat.
Rosemary is so nice. She is such a very accommodating wife, she is so gracious and quiet. She does not really like the neighbors but of course they can come in because she simply cannot think of a way to explain that no, she is not really comfortable with that. She has many things that perhaps on some level she wishes she could discuss with her husband but she wants him to come home to a happy environment, she wants him to feel good and pleased. She does not want to be the reason he’s angry. Her role is Wife. Someday soon it will be Mother and everything will be so wonderful. Part of being Wife instead of Rosemary means that you always open the door, even when you’re not feeling well. You always listen to the doctor, even when you are sobbing in pain for months. You sublimate your own feelings of hurt or worry because they are, by nature, less important than Guy’s feelings or the feelings of your very overbearing neighbor. You simply do not have it in you to combat someone with that much force of person within them. You haven’t found that within you yet. You are simply Wife. Neighbor. Soon to be Mother.
I watched this and I found myself so uncomfortable because I recognize that. I am so often overtaken by the belief that I am Friend before I am myself. Whatever role I see myself in, I feel it is so much easier to step behind that, to try to be gracious and step softly and be careful and be nice. I don’t mean kind because I genuinely believe that kindness is a different thing that is incredibly strong and comes from a truly deep core but nice is something that I do often because I am afraid. I am afraid of many things. If it is someone who I value a great deal, I’m afraid of losing them. I’m afraid of tipping the scales too far. What if I’m crazy? What if I am more work than fun and they get tired of that? What if my needs or wants are too much? I don’t have a good scale for these things, I don’t know how to measure them. It is easier to step back and try to sublimate what I need in favor of what they need. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have, as I have gotten healthier, surrounded myself with fairly incredible people who seem to care about me a lot and who are pretty persistent about not letting me do that. I’m learning slowly. With people I feel safe with, I am getting to a point where I can ask for what I need and, so far, it would appear that the world doesn’t fall apart when I do it. That said? I can completely see myself in a situation like Rosemary’s (probably minus the Satan cult of naked old people). It would not be hard to convince me that I was just being crazy.
It is much more complex when I am talking to people I don’t know or don’t feel safe with. When I am at a party or gathering with people I’m not close to. Last weekend I was sort-of hit on by a guy who called himself Ace. Whatever nonsense you just pictured when I said that? It’s probably accurate. We went out for a smoke and I let him tell me a lot of things. Partly because I decided that I was going to practice my reflective listening (since he was obviously going to talk anyway) and partly because I knew whatever he told me would amuse David when we got back inside and partly because I honestly wouldn’t have had the first clue about how else to respond. When people talk to me, I am nice. I don’t say that as a positive. There are absolutely times I think it would be healthier and better for me if I was just able to roll my eyes and walk away but I don’t want to rock the boat, I don’t want to break my role. I’m a Nice Girl, after all. I’m supposed to let them talk to me. Saying no is a complicated thing when I feel uncertain if I have the right to be uncomfortable.
I find myself wondering how you break this sort of thing. It is different than it used to be so I know I’ve made steps. I’m not the same. I’m much better with people I trust. Rosemary breaks some of her patterns by getting angry, by allowing herself to truly get angry about what’s happening. Of course, for her it is about protecting her baby and realizing something matters more to her than those patterns. I don’t have a baby (and dear heavens, hopefully I never will) and I’m not convinced that’s a solid plan to count on anyway but I do think there’s something to the idea of finding a way to access anger. It’s something I’ve always struggled with because anger does exactly those things that frighten me. It rocks the boat, it causes problems, it can make me seem crazy. Still, it is also the one thing that has sometimes gotten through barriers that nothing else can. What would it mean to be able to be angry? It would have to mean I believed I deserved a certain standard of treatment. It would have to mean that I trusted myself to recognize when that didn’t happen, that I believed that wasn’t okay, even if someone told me otherwise. I don’t think anger is ever a good place to stay, it’s a terrible place to be trapped in, but sometimes it can be a motivating force to move forward. Of course, knowing that still doesn’t mean I know exactly how to safely access that so obviously this isn’t exactly an answer but it’s about the end of where my thoughts are on this at the moment. I’ll call it a start.