What Normal People teaches a Survivor.
Normal People premiered on BBC iPlayer this weekend, and it is no surprise just how much people love it already. I read Sally Rooney’s novel back in 2019, and finished it in one sitting; I was in love with it all, the plot, the setting, the characters. I could easily dedicate a whole piece just to how beautiful Connell’s eyes are, or how the backdrop of Dublin was perfect for the evolution of both characters and the relationship. Instead, I wanted to discuss Marianne, and how, as a trauma survivor, the lessons she has taught me. With Marianne as a focus point, the show tackles the difficult topic of trauma, and how this intertwines with self-opinion, and how we all allow others to treat us, especially through intimacy. Marianne is lonely. She comes from a family where her father hit her mother, her brother is manipulative and emotionally abusive towards her, and her mum takes a very passive position to it all. Always there, but never reacting.
And this undoubtedly affected the male treatment – such as accepting to be Connell’s secret.
Her compliance translates into the intimacy of her relationships, often being hit, or being an actual submissive, but always showing how detached she is from the situation. This isn’t the same kind of trap James fell into when writing Fifty-Shades; that an abusive past is the only reason you would enjoy a domination/submissive kink. Instead, Rooney highlights the link between the treatment of the men in her life, and what she thinks she deserves, but she doesn’t become obsessed with the idea; it’s more nuanced than that. Although not resisting the submissive position, Marianne is shown to be vacant, like she’s there for the benefit of the guy, not for herself. So when she asked Connell to hit her during sex, and become embarrassed when he declined, I wept.
My sexual assault and ensuing trauma meant that I settled in relationships, just like Marianne did. Her relationship with Jamie, defined by arguments and animosity, drew many parallels with the relationship I shared with my long-term boyfriend. The guy I thought that I would spend the rest of my life with. He never hit me but depended on coercive control to cause divides between myself and my parents and create an environment that made me dependent on him and his attention. He never hit me but he did lob my phone across the room when I tried to call the out-of-hours crisis team.
I was always very lucky with my family life, my parents were always kind to me and loved me. So it’s not the same situation as Marianne, but after I was raped, I didn’t become a submissive, but I became submissive. I never did it for my own enjoyment, even with guys I thought I loved, and would just prefer to get it done like it was a contractual obligation. I disassociate, and that was something that I did when I was raped because my body can’t deal with it. Sex is meant to be whatever you want it to be – casual, a way of assuring someone you love them, but as Marianne demonstrated, it is never something you think should be inflicted upon someone. Her love for Connell is one of the only things she is sure about, so when she thinks that the only way she can be intimate with him is by him ‘punishing’ her. And even after the break-up, when I was dating and talking to guys online, I would pretend to have an interest in being submissive because I thought it was the way I was meant to be, that it's all I really deserved.
By the end, even though their story is left to be imagined after deciding to part ways on their boxed-up, living room floor, Marianne is happy to get on with her life, she isn't tied to Connell with the fear that no-one else will love her, she’s confident in the belief that she will carry on her own path. When I first read the book, I was in a relationship with the guy I thought I was going to marry. This was a guy that I got into a relationship with, a mere month after being assaulted, so he was my safety net. Someone I would never separate from, because without him, how was I supposed to carry on with my life? Someone wasn’t going to love me because of how damaged I was.
So watching the series, nearly a year on after breaking up with my boyfriend of three years was never a position I thought I’d find myself in. And it was watching Marianne choose her own path, that showed me just how far I have come. It shows to any survivor how far they’ve come if they have confidence in their own decisions. Did that mean I didn’t bawl like a baby when they decide to go their separate ways? Nah, cried for twelve hours, but I understood it.
Demonstrated perfectly in both the book and the TV adaptation is the reality of carrying on with your trauma. It tends to be polarised; either your trauma is an indefinite burdening weight, or you use your experience to completely change the world. Marianne demonstrates the reality that both go hand-in-hand. Trauma will always linger, mine tends to appear whilst I sleep, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot harness it to drive you forward. Marianne chooses to live her life the way that she wants to, it doesn’t have to be this big announcement but just chooses to get on with her life the way she wants to be.
I think, as anyone who has experienced trauma, there are days being ashamed of it, and days of wanting to be this big middle finger to the world, and those that hurt you, but it’s okay just to live.