All right, this is a game I’m pretty late to. I watched the movie seven years ago when it first came out, in one of my family’s favorite memories: we were picking something to watch together, my mom and my aunt both wanted to see the movie after reading the book with their book clubs. So the whole family settled in together for a truly disturbing time. During a pivotal scene featuring far, far more of Neil Patrick Harris’ body than I necessarily wished to see, my cousin Jake, then in middle school, looked at the assembled relatives and said, “You guys know I’m eleven, right? This is not appropriate.”
Well said, Jake. He still makes fun of us for that to this day.
But I can’t remember if I ever read the book, though I’ve had my mom’s old book club copy sitting on my shelf for years. This weekend I picked it up, and y’all?
I loved it. I think enough words have been spilled on the merits of Flynn’s tightly plotted, psychologically twisty writing, so instead I’m going to morph this into a bit of a thinkpiece on the book’s ideas. Alert, below here it’s spoilers all the way down.
Immediately after I finished reading, I texted my friend, who’s a big thriller fan: “Amy Dunne did nothing wrong, in this essay I will”. Here’s the essay.
Obviously, that was something of a joke. I mean, she kills a guy, that’s pretty bad. Of course, in spite of the fact that she presents herself as being in control, that guy was literally holding her hostage, starving her, and clearly making moves to eventually sexually assault her. Yes, she frames her husband for murder, which I guess I can’t ethically condone.
But she also makes a scintillatingly good point. Her urge to punish her parents for profiting off her entire childhood was… I can’t say relatable, as my parents are lovely and did not write a best-selling book series about me, but somehow deeply satisfying. After a lifetime of being objectified and narrativized, she starts writing the narrative herself, casting her entire family as supporting characters in the story of How Amy Was Murdered By Her Awful Husband.
And… he is pretty awful. In a boring way. He is the most pedestrian villain imaginable, a college professor who cheats on his wife with a student, a son who resents his dying parents, a failed writer who resents his wife’s success, a man who drags her away from her home in New York to the middle of nowhere and then emotionally abandons her. (I was once dragged away from my own home in New York by the idea of getting a doctorate in English, which took me to LA, where I was miserable. If I could somehow frame literary academia as a concept for murder in revenge, I would).
Amy is well aware that this is a terrible story, and she’s determined to write a different one. A better one. She is such a compelling protagonist at least in part because she knows we want to read things that are interesting.
More radical than Amy’s narrative proposition, though, is her political one. The people she torments (except for those in her distant past) are all misogynists. Her parents with the desexualized image of the perfect little girl. Desi, who is a straight-up sexual predator. Most of all, Nick, the asshole.
Amy proposes that the punishment for their misogyny ought to be death. Nick cheated on her, humiliated her, and tried to fit her into the unsuitable role of wife? He’ll get the electric chair. Desi held her prisoner and tried to force her to become a damsel in distress for his bizarre erotic fantasy? He gets murdered. The penalty for denying women their personhood is death in Amy’s world.
Yes, okay, that’s a little harsh. But what, the book asks, is the alternative? That the punishment for these crimes should be nothing? That Nick should be able to just walk away from Amy and their marriage? That Desi should be able to keep her prisoner forever?
The book’s most interesting commentary, to me, is in the relationship between Amy and Desi. Some of her most evidently sociopathic lies are after she is rescued. She hurt herself in some quite disturbing ways to make Desi look like a violent, terrifying maniac, so she could frame him for her own crimes.
But Desi really did kidnap her. He really did keep her prisoner. And he really did rape her: he had sex with a woman he was keeping behind a locked door and actively starving. That’s rape. It wasn’t violent in the way Amy depicts it, but all of those things really did happen, and she really had to kill him to get away. And she knows that if she tells the true story no one will believe it. To get people to believe in misogyny, it needs to be horrific, violent, shocking. The psychological manipulation and abuse she was a victim of aren’t enough for anyone to care, let alone believe she had to kill to protect herself.
Her actions may be wrong, but Amy is stunningly right about the world we live in.