Welcome to What We Saw & Family Law, a monthly (ish) blog series where we explore family law themes and topics in pop culture.
Today I am discussing the novel “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” by Stephanie Land, which was recently adapted for a Netflix Limited Series. I came across the series on Netflix and read the book after finishing the series.
Before jumping in, the themes for this post include family violence. If you feel like these topics may be triggering for you, then you may want to stop here and join us next time. Please view this post with discretion.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
By Stephanie Land
Maid is a story about the author, Land (played by Margaret Qually), mother of young daughter, Mia, who experiences family violence in her relationship with Mia’s father and as a child herself. It is also a story about living in poverty, and in many ways the intersection between poverty and family violence.
Only four months into her intended short-term relationship with Jamie, Stephanie finds out she is pregnant. As they raise their daughter, Jamie becomes violent. Following an argument in which Jamie is intoxicated and throws something at the wall, Stephanie leaves the family home (trailer) with Mia. With the help of a women’s shelter and her caseworker, she eventually moves into government funded housing and she starts cleaning homes for work.
Stephanie shares her very raw journey through family violence, poverty, single parenthood and much more, to happily moving with Mia to her dream town of Missoula, Montana where she pursues her bachelor’s degree and ultimately becomes a writer. Within her personal story, Land weaves in her insightful observations about the homes she cleans and what they tell her about the owners. To her surprise, despite having significant financial resources, many of her clients do not appear to be happy.
There are so many aspects of Maid that I could talk about. For the purposes of this blog post, I will be focusing on some aspects of the domestic violence portrayed in the book/series which stood out to me.
Examples of Family Violence
I thought Maid did a great job of (1) capturing the multitude of ways that domestic violence is perpetrated; and, (2) dispelling common myths about domestic violence, such as “domestic violence is always physical” and “if someone is really being abused, they would just leave” (see our previous post MythBuster: Domestic violence is always physical).
Land’s story sheds some much needed light on the kind of conduct that constitutes coercive control. Some examples of the violence that Stephanie endured includes:
- Yelling/screaming tirades
- Throwing objects during arguments
- Punching holes in windows/doors/walls during an argument
- Threating to take Mia when she told Jamie she wanted to separate
“‘I’m not gonna pay you child support,’ he said evenly. ‘You should be the one paying me!’ His voice grew louder as he spoke and paced back and forth. ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ He pointed to Mia ‘I’ll take her so fast it’ll make your head spin.’ With that, he turned to leave, releasing a yell of rage as he punched a hole through the Plexiglas window on the door. Mia jumped and let out a high-pitched scream that I had never heard before.” (p. 25)
- Harassment and intimidation through repeated phone calls
- Overhearing a physical altercation between her dad and stepmom and seeing bruises afterwards
“I hear doors slamming in the main house. Dad and Charlotte were having a fight, and I heard a series of crashes and thuds. Then silence… In the kitchen, magnets from the fridge were scattered on the floor. The table had been moved out of place. There was an uneasy stillness. And then I heard them on the back porch. My dad was crying but now apologizing to Charlotte over and over again…” Charlotte goes on to tell Stephanie that her father has never done anything like that before and shows Stephanie deep purple bruises on her arms. (p. 48)
When Stephanie tries to tell family members about what her dad did to her stepmom she states “When I tried to confide in my aunt and brother about the bruises Charlotte had shown me, Dad had already talked to them and told them I’d made it up for attention, that I’d made everything that’d happened with Jamie up for attention, too.” (p. 49)
- Financial control
In a new relationship Stephanie has in the book, she explains that she would work with her partner on the farm, but he never shared any profits with her. When Stephanie asked to get some of the proceeds too, she states: “‘What do you need money for?’ he snapped. ‘You don’t pay any bills.’ I stifled tears from the built-up humiliation and managed to squeak out that my car needed gas. ‘Here,’ he said, flipping through bills and handing me a twenty.”
- Repeated name calling and put downs
“‘No one’s ever going to love you’ was his favourite line… When I lived in the trailer, he’d call me ‘stupid nut job’ or ‘crazy bitch’ but now he only said those when he really wanted to hurt me.” (p. 167)
- Threats to manipulate Mia when she gave notice of move to Montana
After Stephanie provided Jamie notice that she wanted to move with to Montana with Mia, Stephanie receives a phone call from Mia while she is in Jamie’s care. Stephanie could hear Jamie and his mom (Mia’s grandma) urging Mia to speak. Mia blurts out “I don’t want to move to Montana.” Jamie later takes the phone to talk to Stephanie. She states: “His voice was between a growl and a whisper. ‘I’m going to tell her you’re moving her away from me so she’ll never see me again.’ he said to me. ‘I hope you realize that. That you’re so selfish you don’t care if she never sees me again. She’ll see. She’ll hate you for it.'”
These examples stood out to me because some of them may not be commonly recognized as family violence. Some of the examples may even sound common place or minor to some readers. Even for victims, it can be difficult to identify and accept that you are experiencing family violence – and of course it is, much of this conduct has been accepted and normalized in our society for so long.
Land talks about the fact that the abuse she suffered was not readily seen by others stating “[m]ost of Jamie’s rage had been invisible. It didn’t leave bruises or red marks.” (p. 25). In the series, in conversations with the shelter worker, Stephanie also downplays the abuse she suffered and does not, at first, consider herself to be a survivor of abuse. She struggles to compare her experience to that of someone who was physically abused.
Some of these examples taken alone may not constitute family violence. For example, one single incidence of punching a wall when angry (or rare name calling, put downs, or yelling tirades) may not constitute family violence if there is no other violence happening. However, when you look at these examples all together, it paints a very different picture. There is a clear pattern of repeated behaviours and various tactics used to control Stephanie. That is the essence of coercive control and it does not matter whether the perpetrator intends to control or cause fear for the victim or not.
It is critical that we recognize signs of coercive control and take it seriously. In many instances where coercive control is present, the violence escalates and continues even after separation (as was the case for Stephanie).
Something that I appreciated about Maid was that Land acknowledges the fact that her story is the experience of a cis-white woman and that she was afforded certain privileges that many other individuals are not. Land specifically refers to her experience growing up in a white middle-class family helping her escape poverty by providing a basis for her to always believe she could achieve better (p. 242).
For me, this was important to reflect on.
It is not just who experiences violence but how victims of violence are perceived and treated (though those statistics tells us loads about intersectionality and family violence also, the magnitude of which is beyond the scope of this post or my expertise). For instance, Land points out that no one perceived her, a “plain faced and white” woman, to be in her circumstances and people generally tended to feel bad for her. Whereas, she recalls that people often spoke to her about individuals accessing government assistance programs as “those people” in a negative way, as if they were not as deserving of assistance. She notes that use of the term “those people” was not used to describe someone who looked like her. Rather it was used when referring to immigrants, or people of color, or white people who were referred to as “trash” (p. 157).
As a cis-white woman, this was helpful to me in calling attention to my unconscious biases and tendency to adopt a white feminist lens, and the work I still need to do to in that respect.
Revictimization in Legal Process
Another aspect of Maid which jumped out to me was Land’s experience in the legal system. Land writes:
“It was like Jamie’s lawyer and the judge thought I preferred it this way, like I thought raising a child without a stable home was okay. Like I didn’t think every single second about how I needed to improve our situation, if I had the ability to. Somehow, it reflected badly on me that I’d removed Mia from a place where I was punished and brutalized until I was curled up on the floor, sobbing like a toddler. No one saw that I was trying to give my daughter a better life – they only saw that I’d taken her out of what they considered to be a financially stable home.” (p. 27)
This quote stuck with me for a couple reasons.
First, it demonstrates the crucial need to consider experiences of family violence in determining the best interests of children . The context of the family violence here is important to understanding the child’s needs. If the reason for so called “instability” is leaving a violent situation with little to no financial resources, that must form part of the context of the discussion and analysis. Family violence has to be acknowledged and addressed to reduce the risk of family violence continuing after separation.
Second, the quote reminded me of the ways in which the legal system, and lawyers themselves, contribute to revictimization. Parents who are able to leave a violent situation, physical or otherwise, should not be shamed or made to feel as though they are a bad parent because they removed their child from a violent home and are financially struggling after having left.
As a lawyer, I was saddened to read this was her experience and it is my hope that we, lawyers, judges, the courts and other law officials, do better to protect victims of abuse from revictimization in the legal separation process.
The changes to the Divorce Act are a positive step towards this and there is more work to be done.
For more information about the changes to the Divorce Act regarding family violence, see our post Expanding the Definition of ‘Family Violence and visit the Government of Canada Fact Sheet on Divorce and Family Violence.
By Rhoni Mackenzie
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