(Credit: Adoring Sarah Gadon/Netflix)
In the opening scene of Alias Grace—Sarah Polley and Mary Herron’s Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name—Grace Marks stands in front of a mirror observing her own reflection. Through subtle shifts in the arrangement of her features and with unnerving ease, she becomes all of the women the papers have made her to be: “cunning and devious,” an “inhuman female demon,” an “innocent victim,” a “good girl with a pliable nature.” At the end, she asks, “how can I be all of these different things at once?” And in fact, throughout the story, the fascinating Grace Marks manages to be every one of those women, according to her needs.
Alias Grace follows the story—or stories—of Grace Marks, portrayed by Sarah Gadon, a 31-year-old woman who has been in prison for the past 15 years of her life after being found guilty of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his lover and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). Grace has spent her years between her small, barren prison cell and the governor’s mansion, where she works as a housekeeper and serves the superstitious guests as a freak show curiosity. After a minister takes interest in her story, he hires an American alienist, Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), to write a report that he hopes will eventually grant Grace her freedom. The true crime drama unravels in the form of interrogations carried out by Dr. Jordan, in which he tries to figure out just how much Grace remembers of the murders and how deep her involvement goes.
(Credit: Sabrina Lantos/Netflix)
But more than that, Alias Grace is a story about male abuse of power and how this system of abuse perpetuates itself through beliefs and institutions, leaving behind hordes of mistreated women filled with rage and silenced stories. Grace Marks is just one of these women. All her life Grace has been witness and recipient of the cruelty of men. After her mother’s death, her father hit her and propositioned her; when working in a prominent household, she saw her best friend die due to a botched abortion, after the man who had gotten pregnant turned back on his promises of marriage; during her stay in an asylum, she was raped by the doctors who were supposed to help her.
When Grace meets Dr. Jordan, she is already aware of her position of vulnerability and complete powerlessness with him: he is a man and she is a woman in a time women had no rights; he’s a doctor and she’s a patient, he’s a free man and she’s a prisoner, he’s wealthy and she’s poor. If he abuses his position, no one will believe her word. But her experience has taught her. It’s her who has kept her remaining currency safeguarded, while he, transparent, has revealed to her everything about himself through his questions. She knows her smiles, her feigned ignorance, and her beauty have the power to entrance him, and so she takes her newfound position further. She’ll tell him the version of the story he wants to hear, and for the first time in her life, she’ll control the narrative.
And that’s precisely what she does. Moving from one tale of degradation and abuse to the other, she mesmerizes Dr. Jordan, and he laps up her tales like a man parched for water in the desert. Although initially he seems to care more than most about her story and her mind, it’s not really the truth, subjective or not, he wants to hear from her. He wants the story of a fragile, innocent youth who has been assaulted and terrorized by other men far too many times but will still yield to his touch, give into him when the time came. The truth is, Dr. Jordan, in his morbid and sexual fascination with the violence Grace has suffered, is no different from any of the other men she had encountered—no different from the doctors who raped her in the asylum or from Jamie Walsh, whose only wish is that she weaves for him tales of her past suffering. But somehow, Dr. Jordan’s perversity runs deeper; it’s not just her body he seeks, but her story, her truth—the only thing that is entirely her own, and Grace Marks will never hand it over to him.
(Credit: Adoring Sarah Gadon/Netflix)
But why is it so important that Grace gets to tell her story and in her own terms? Simple: because no one else is going to tell it for her; because what is expected of women in her situation is silence; because that silence keeps men in power; because sometimes telling stories is the only thing you can do to keep the wolves at bay.
Although Alias Grace is set in 1800s it feels surprisingly relevant in 2017. While women are now afforded more rights than the women in Alias Grace, the same institutions control the freedoms of women, and the same stories of abuse and silence play out all around the world. Currently, Harvey Weinstein and many other important figures in the film and television industry are being accused of sexual assault, and are attempting to silence the voices of their victims. In the U.S. and other parts of the world, policies and religious rhetoric threaten women’s reproductive rights, leading to an increase in unsafe abortions that can lead to death and gender-based violence. In an era where women are still expected to keep silent about abuse, it’s critical that women, like Grace Marks, tell their stories in their own terms.
Perhaps what Alias Grace does best is not necessarily tell the story of Grace Marks, but remind us that this dark past of violence and abuse against women is not too distant—it’s in Harvey Weinstein’s efforts to silence the women he has wronged, in friends’ whispered tales of back-alley abortions, in a rapist’s silent mother, in a father’s possessiveness of his female daughters, in the aching, destructive patriarchal desire to possess that which does not want to be possessed—and there is still a power in the stories women tell. It is our responsibility to tell them, because she who controls the narrative has the power.