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The Truths Told in Big Little Lies

“The Real Housewives of–”

Any sentence starting with these words prompts an eye-roll. Centered around the trivialities of suburban mothers, this reality television series is seen by many as distasteful and uninteresting. Wealthy to the point of detriment and harboring an abundance of free time, these women are at a distance from those most of us encounter on a daily basis. No message of real depth could be conveyed by such a crew, right? Anyone who tunes into The Real Housewives is doing so as a guilty pleasure. 

Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel Big Little Lies is centered around the mothers of Pirriwee Public, a beautiful, private elementary school situated on the fictional Australian Pirriwee Peninsula. Each woman calls to mind a specific attribute of the Real Housewives’ lives—attributes like wealth, cattiness, and opposition to indulgent food. Yet, the end of the novel conveys a message of female empowerment and an appreciation for the unity of women in a world designed to watch them fall. How does Moriarty do it? With brilliant authenticity.

Big Little Lies, a darkly comedic murder mystery, may sound far from realistic. The writing, however, captures both obvious and minute aspects of human nature that we all observe but rarely outwardly recognize. This goes for patterns observed among children and parents alike. Nearly five hundred pages long, Big Little Lies reads smoothly the whole way through because it is intensely believable. Switching perspectives from chapter to chapter, each female narrator is relatable, even to those readers who are not mothers themselves.

Of utmost importance to the plot are two seemingly separate instances of harassment: a sexual assault, and a case of ongoing domestic abuse. If the characters and their actions feel genuine, then it goes that these scenarios feel tragically plausible as well. This is not due to literary skill alone—though Moriarty’s shines through beautifully. This is due to the fact that sexual violence and domestic violence are not rare.

According to a 2015 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 36.4% of women and 33.6% of men “experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.” The role of an “intimate partner” is especially noteworthy here. Defined for survey purposes as “a romantic or sexual partner [including] spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, people with whom they dated, were seeing, or ‘hooked up,’” these numbers demonstrate the disturbing fact that those close to us can be perpetrators of horrendous acts of violence. The women of Big Little Lies receive violent treatment from different sources; for one, it comes from a complete stranger, for another, from her husband and the father of her twins.

Initially, Big Little Lies positions itself as a mysterious drama. Characters are introduced one by one, and Moriarty vividly outlines each character's personal vendettas and tribulations. However, no one expects these to include not one but two scenarios of deeply upsetting violence. The vivid description of these events and the catastrophic wake of victimhood speak volumes about the presence of sexual and domestic violence in society today and our obligation to those touched by it.

A central figure in the novel, Madeleine Martha Mackenzie, is twice caught off-guard when she learns that her closest friends have been burdened by the weight of these experiences. Her surprise and near disbelief are symbolic of society’s attention toward the subject. The prevalence of these crimes means that they could very well have happened to our close friends. The subject is a delicate one, and for that reason, it can be very difficult for many to open up as victims. Intimate partner violence can emerge in more subtle ways, which complicates labeling certain acts as “violence.” Psychological aggression, defined by the CDC as “expressive aggression (such as name-calling, insulting, or humiliating an intimate partner) and coercive control,” is delivered by intimate partners with a frequency comparable to physical violence. In fact, for women, the commonality is the same as physical at 36.4%, and for men, the number is just slightly over that of physical at 34.2%.

A major theme in Big Little Lies is the responsibility of women to protect one another, both during the trauma of sexual and domestic violence, but on an everyday basis as well. For both the male and female populations who have experienced intimate partner violence, as mentioned earlier, the events occurred or began before they turned 25 years old. This clarifies the fact that no one is immune to abusive behavior—college students included. Checking in on friends, especially those who seem to consistently exude perfection, is absolutely necessary. As Moriarty’s novel reveals, those in the deepest need are often quietly stranded, waiting for assistance to be offered.

Big Little Lies begins as a tale of amusing, cryptic women. I was prepared to walk away entertained, not necessarily changed or informed. Surprisingly, I closed the book feeling empowered. The somber nature of the plotline—even studded as it is with quips of humor—allows Moriarty to illuminate human shortcomings: an inclination to criticize, jump to conclusions, and perceive ourselves with vanity (or worse, without enough self-admiration). 

Following its publication in 2014, Big Little Lies was taken on by HBO as a print-to-screen project. The result was a series boasting two well-received seasons, with the door swinging open to a potential third. At the 2018 Golden Globes, the show won Best Television Limited Series Or Motion Picture Made For Television, and numerous cast members have received nominations and awards honoring their individual performances. With a cast including Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, and Meryl Streep, the on-set talent abounds. That being said, so many influential actresses would not have signed onto the same project if they didn’t believe strongly in the work being done and the messages being sent through the material. To shed light on sexual and domestic violence, a better troupe of female power figures could not have been elected. 

The end of the book Big Little Lies sees several ticking time bombs come together to create such shellshock that the characters, and their preconceived notions, are irrevocably shaken to the core. This is further proof of Moriarty’s characters separating themselves from the one-dimensional atmosphere of Real Housewives which the novel seemingly projects at face value. The narrow-minded trope of women turning against one another and demolishing bridges (as opposed to building them) is shattered in the face of true tragedy. 

As women, we carry enough on our own. Engaging with others should be a time to lighten the load of our friends, not to pile on stress in the form of pettiness and jealousy. Most characters from Big Little Lies reach this conclusion, though for some it takes all 486 pages to turn over a new leaf. Literature like Moriarty’s, well-composed and incredibly accurate, gives us the opportunity to explore areas of personal untapped strength. Every day offers the chance to fortify our female population with shared support.

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