Culture & Conversation Media

In Netflix’s ‘Alias Grace,’ Fiction Exposes the Violence and Beauty of Women’s Stories

Rachel Jamison Webster

The tale of Grace—an Irish immigrant and servant accused of a heinous crime in 19th-century Canada—is a story of women who endured sexual violence, back-alley abortions, life in a new land, and sometimes lived to tell their story. But sometimes, they lived out someone else's incomplete history.

The new Netflix series Alias Grace is based on an actual 1843 Canadian murder case, in which 16-year-old Irish immigrant Grace Marks and her fellow servant, James McDermott, were convicted of killing their “master” and his pregnant housekeeper-mistress. This crime festers at the center of the story, but the real subject of Alias Grace is storytelling itself, particularly the ways that women’s stories are framed and misconstrued.

Alias Grace is the third of Margaret Atwood’s novels to be adapted into a miniseries in 2017 after the children’s series Wandering Wenda and the Emmy Award-winning Handmaid’s Tale. Written and produced by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, it is made up of six episodes filmed with stark beauty, its violence not sensationalized but clear-eyed. It’s the kind of fiction that lets you see what was real.

It opens in Toronto, Canada, in 1859, after Grace (the mesmerizing Sarah Gadon) has spent 15 years in jail. Her story has been told by muckraking journalists, medical professionals, and lawyers. But now she has an opportunity to tell it herself to a new kind of doctor—a psychologist. Dr. Jordan (actor Edward Holcroft) must determine if Grace is sane, as she stitches together difficult personal history with societal insight. Telling her story is Grace’s last chance to establish her innocence—to prove that she was framed by a man; a victim of history and circumstance; or a part of shared, flawed humanity that is mysterious even to her.

The conversational set-up of the tale shares similarities with Atwood’s short story, “Rape Fantasies,” in which the reader gradually realizes that the female speaker is narrating her fantasies to a man at a bar, effectively giving him the tools to assault her. Grace evidences more self-awareness than that speaker, but both tales are voyeuristic. The audience witnesses conversational intimacy, then experiences the chilling realization that the woman is not just telling her story but using it to try to upend a dominant power dynamic.

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As Grace tells her story to Dr. Jordan, we see him simultaneously attracted to Grace’s intelligence and repulsed by her frankness. We witness his capacity for empathy alongside his complete ignorance of what women of the servant class have to endure. When she describes the slop buckets in the hold of the boat that brought her from Ireland, he gets up and opens the window. When he asks about her daily duties as a maid, we see a flashback of her feeding the hens, scrubbing the laundry, milking the cows, cleaning the slop buckets, and preparing the food, all before breakfast. “You really don’t know?” she thinks, and reflects on all that is done for him by servants in a typical day.

Grace is constantly at risk of offending Dr. Jordan’s sensibilities just by stating her reality. “Why should you not be allowed to go outside to the privy at night?” he says. “Because a girl should never let her guard down,” Grace answers. Meaning, I could be raped. Meaning, I would be raped.

Like many women accusing Roy Moore of harassment, Grace was a working-class teenage girl when she began deflecting sexual assault from powerful men. After her mother dies, Grace escapes her father’s rough kiss and attempts at incest, then finds work at a grand house, where she meets the friend of her life—the vivacious housemaid Mary. Their happiness is cut short when the young master of the house woos and impregnates Mary, who, having no other option, dies after a brutal back-alley abortion. After Mary’s death, Grace becomes the target of this young man’s unwanted advances, and it is only then that she moves to the country and her life takes its own tragic turn.

Watching, I feel connected to my ancestor Bridey, who, like Grace, came from Ireland in the stinking hold of a ship and worked as a maid. I feel a kinship to the women I have always sensed hovering behind me, aware that they had to endure incest, sexual assault, and sexual harassment as they scraped along in cities or labored on farms. I know that to be a woman is to be intimately connected to history because our lives and possibilities have changed with every decade. We carry those earlier women’s stories within us, physically, as a kind of untapped potential.

“I am so angry, Grace,” Mary says as she is dying. “So very, very angry.” Then she asks Grace to tell her a story, and Grace can only think of the stories Mary has told her. Together, they recite the end of Mary’s favorite tale about the brief 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada, in which farmers and other workers revolted against elite landholders.

“We didn’t lose. We just haven’t won yet,” the women say together—a wish for the future that is simultaneously about rights for the poor and rights for women.

As the women’s voices merge, Margaret Atwood gives us a clue to her writing process. She titled her 2002 book of essays on writing Negotiating with the Dead, and she remains one of our most accurate writers on the strangeness of writing fiction, in which one’s self and one’s voice opens to include others. We can see this multiplicity at work as Grace talks to Dr. Jordan, because Grace, like Atwood herself, is both consciously individual and subconsciously a channel for unfinished history.

Grace’s voice is not her voice alone, and this is what makes her innocence finally unrecognizable to Dr. Jordan. It is not her female suffering that he can’t believe, but the porosity of her humanity, the fact that she could become an instrument of someone else’s anger. Dr. Jordan is trapped in his own systems of reasoning—including a literalism of identity that denies the fact that we are made up of all the people we have loved, and all the people who have come before us. Dr. Jordan’s scientific mind fails to acknowledge the full power of empathy, that power that allows us to comprehend another, and for a time, become that other, which is what always occurs in a good story.

This fall, as the #MeToo campaign creates a crescendo of women’s voices, Alias Grace provides the perfect historical reminder that our stories are not ours alone. The idea that sexual assault, abuse, and harassment exist on a continuum has been recently criticized, but this series reminded me that there is always a continuum. There are continuums of privilege, suffering, and history. To acknowledge them is not to diminish anyone’s pain. Seemingly small moments of harassment reverberate because they signal our collective and historical subjugation as women. This connectedness was illustrated powerfully this week, when Time chose as its 2017 “Person of the Year,” not an individual, but a group of women that they called “The Silence Breakers.”

We are also connected to the Graces and Marys of today, the women who serve the class system that helped give the Silence Breakers the measure of solidarity and financial security to say #MeToo. There are many women who do not have the luxury to speak out against sexual assault and harassment, but who can still be remembered in this collective rewriting of history. These may be the women who paint our nails, here because of human trafficking; Black mothers, 71 percent of whom are the primary breadwinners of their families, although black women still make just 63 cents to the man’s dollar for the same job; or women who don’t have the resources to call out or escape violent men because those men have garages full of guns.

Margaret Atwood understands that we tell our stories to save our lives, and that we sometimes live out someone else’s incomplete history. Alias Grace—its beauty, clarity, and startling timeliness—suggests that history participates in the present, while the healing work of sharing our stories moves both forward and back.

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