Could You Detect a Coercive Controller Like Simon in ‘Alice, Darling’? I Didn’t—Until It Was Too Late.

Coercive control is the foundation of all domestic abuse—and anyone can become a victim of these sophisticated perpetrators.

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Wunmi Mosaku as Sophie, Anna Kendrick as Alice, and Kaniehtiio Horn as Tess in Alice, Darling. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

“He doesn’t hurt me or anything.”

If there’s one line that sums up Alice, Darling—and every psychological abuse victim’s inner chaos—it’s this one. Alice, played by Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect), makes this excuse for her boyfriend’s behavior out loud to her friends in the new thriller. I said it to myself when imprisoned in an abusive relationship too.

Why? As humans we long for love, stability and peace so if you’re kindhearted you can’t fathom that someone you love is out to destroy you. You doubt yourself—and the manipulator counts on that. You may reason that emotional abuse is not that bad because he hasn’t hit you. After all, our society reinforces that “abuse” means black eyes, bruises and scars. 

But Alice, Darling, which hit theaters Jan. 20, smashes that definition to smithereens. 

“He doesn’t hurt you?” Alice’s straight-talking pal Sophie asks indignantly, after witnessing the manipulation, mind games and controlling behavior that pushes Alice to the brink of a breakdown on a girls weekend that was supposed to be fun. Alice goes without her boyfriend Simon, telling him she had a work trip to escape. 

Kendrick admitted recently that she was a victim of psychological abuse and that experience helped her play this role. As an abuse survivor, I can tell you she nailed it.

In the beginning, we like Simon. He’s nice to Alice’s friends at his gallery art opening. Just like the start of every toxic relationship, predators are kind, charming and seemingly selfless. It’s called love bombing for a reason. 

In fact, his very name seems proof of his earnestness. Simon Love.

Rom-coms and fairy tales teach us women that it’s normal—expected—for men to bedazzle us. After other liars and cheaters, I thought I’d finally met a mensch. Then, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, the heat around me rose degree by degree. Lying, cheating, gaslighting, love bombing, repeat.

I could see that slow boil engulf Alice. It’s no coincidence that the movie opens with her underwater. Later, she nervously, almost maniacally, twists her hair. It starts after Simon’s texting interrupts her otherwise jovial meal with friends. She disappears to send him an obligatory bathroom topless selfie—on demand? At home, he startles Alice by hopping into her shower. 

She throws up on the side of the road after Simon texts on the way to the cottage getaway with friends Sophie and Tess. Once there, Alice runs outside to take Simon’s calls, answers his texts at 2 a.m. and has flashbacks of him forcing her into sex during the shower scene.

It’s all about control. In fact, experts say, coercive control is the foundation of all domestic abuse.

“I think a lot of times people talk about emotional abuse or psychological abuse when what they really mean is coercive control, which is a much broader term,” said Dr. Lisa Fontes, author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. “If you call your partner horrible names, that is psychological abuse and might happen only once or all the time. Coercive control is much more multifaceted. It involves isolating, which happens in the movie, tracking and monitoring, sexual coercion and sometimes—but not always—physical abuse.”

Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, the heat around me rose degree by degree. Lying, cheating, gaslighting, love bombing, repeat.

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(Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Coercive controllers set out to make you feel crazy. Gaslighting may be Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2022, but it got its name from the 1944 film Gaslight in which a husband tells his wife the lights aren’t flickering. His plan? Make her think she’s losing it. My abuser would lie to my face convincingly, use “word salad,” deny my reality and then claim to be my protector so well I became someone I didn’t recognize.

The same thing happens to Alice.

Perhaps most chilling is her obsession with a woman missing from the area near their cabin. They first encounter flyers on Andrea Evan’s disappearance along their drive. Then, Alice joins the search party and finds a lipstick (maybe Andrea’s?) near an abandoned home. A female searcher’s voice is heard off screen: “If she’s hurt, it’s probably someone she knows.” Yes, it is. 

It’s called femicide. Almost three women are killed by an intimate partner every day in the United States, according to the Violence Policy Center’s report “When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2018 Homicide Data.” During this sample year, 92 percent of intimate partner female homicide victims were murdered by a man they knew and 63 percent were killed by current boyfriends, husbands or ex-husbands. Most telling: A whopping 70 percent of femicide cases in high-income countries happen in America. 

It takes the average domestic abuse victim seven times to leave. Abusers are debonair, can seem repentant and have studied their victims’ vulnerabilities expertly. They’re often described as “great listeners” at the outset of a relationship because they’re gathering information on you they can exploit later. We’re on this rollercoaster ride with Alice—especially as she’s reaching the unspoken conclusion: if she doesn’t leave, she could end up like Andrea too. 

While physical violence can be part of coercive control, both Anna Kendrick and experts warn that psychological abuse can be emotionally, physically and financially devastating on its own. In fact, Kendrick reportedly felt strongly that her character not suffer physical harm—to emphasize that old definitions of abuse are dangerous.

There’s a growing movement to validate “invisible abuse” not just nationally, but around the globe. Australia, the U.K and even China have passed laws that redefine domestic abuse by including coercive control. Only a few states in the U.S. have such protections, but a grassroots crusade of survivors, advocates and policymakers are on a mission to change that. I’m one of them.

In 2018, 92 percent of intimate partner female homicide victims were murdered by a man they knew and 63 percent were killed by current boyfriends, husbands or ex-husbands.

How can you protect yourself from such covert predators in the first place? 

“There can be red flags that you can look out for. Look for a rush to commitment—whether a rush to say I love you or to move in together or blend bank accounts or get engaged,” said Fontes. “Boundary violations of any kind are another warning, like someone showing up at your workplace or house uninvited. Also, pushing for sex at times or in ways you don’t want. “

How does it end for Alice? (Spoiler alert!)

Simon comes to the cottage to retrieve her and she succumbs, getting into the car to return to their home, her prison. That’s when Sophie hurls an ax at the leaving vehicle, shattering the back window and giving Anna a chance to escape.

I asked women at the theater what they thought of Alice, Darling. Sherrie Onofrio of Connecticut was quick to pipe up. “I’m the friend with the ax 100 percent,” she said. “I have a few friends I’ve helped through situations like this and I think everyone needs a friend like that.”

I overheard another moviegoer whisper, “I mean it was okay but not great” to her girlfriend. Maybe she was expecting lighthearted entertainment. This movie is a five-alarm warning. 

“Where will you put your shame?” Alice says an inner voice keeps asking her.

“You can give it to us,” her friends tell her. The movie’s message is there is no shame—because anyone can be a victim of these sophisticated perpetrators.

In the end, Alice returns to the water. But this time, she’s not submerged. Instead, she’s swimming alone in the lake and rises triumphantly to the surface. Proof that some women can make it out – if they leave before it’s too late.

*

For anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now.

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About

Amy Polacko is a divorce coach and journalist who also runs a support group for single/divorced women. She worked on the Pulitzer Prize-winning team covering the TWA Flight 800 crash for Newsday. As a survivor of domestic abuse, she coaches women trying to escape and is writing a book on the family court underworld. Learn more about Polacko and her mission at www.freedomwarrior.info.