Even Trust Can Blossom in the Recreated Cult Survivor
Kimmy Schmidt is making strides. Episode 5 left us with an epiphany: normal doesn’t exist. Between Cindy’s visit in episode 5 and the Buh-Breezing, outside-in lifestyles exhibited in episode 4, the takeaway is to quit trying to be normal by other people’s standards, and work on the person YOU want to be. So in episode 6 Kimmy starts her GED and focuses on the future a little more than the past. Freedom! The entire show up to this point has been to establish a couple of things: since cult life is unarguably abnormal, to the cult survivor, the world outside of the cult must by definition be normal; and that, since Kimmy is a product of a cult, she’ll need to pretend in order to fit in with this normal, free, world. Serving to confirm her need to pretend (and adding to the feeling of isolation) is the fact that current pop culture norms are out of sync with hers. So it takes a few episodes of existence in this new world for Kimmy to catch on. Like cult survivors everywhere, it’s tough to transition into mainstream society for all these reasons. Not the least of all is acquiring self-love, love even of the self that was connected to the abnormal world of cult life. But I’m here to tell you, while difficult, the transition can happen. Even if Kimmy is an exaggerated version of reality, her example shows us that learning is possible, self-love is possible, and even trust can blossom in the recreated cult survivor.
So what does the recreation of the cult survivor look like? They say time heals all wounds. Well, cult survivors need more than time to cure their ills. They need experiences. Not even good experiences necessarily. Things that happen in their new life may sometimes look like harsh wake up calls, like learning about the free world’s frailties, like learning about lies even people undamaged by cult existence tell, but they are a necessary initiation. Before episode 5, Kimmy had put the free world on a pedestal. One that she wasn’t worthy to enter as herself. And when she thought of it this way, she had nightmares about being Cinderella where when the clock struck midnight, she was foully recommitted to the bunker. But, with new experiences showing her that normal doesn’t exist, the free world and Kimmy are put on a more equal footing. The playing field becomes level—because who Kimmy perceives people around her to be comes down a few notches, Kimmy’s past stops being such an impediment to joining life. If people everywhere are freaks, how can it be such a disability to have a freaky past?
Like a Butterfly Bursting from its Crystalish
So while viewing episode 6, I realized there wasn’t a whole lot to comment on. Except to say there wasn’t a lot of cult breaking down to do. I decided to watch a few and just like real life, a bit of time and a lot of new experiences has brought Kimmy a long way. In the arc of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s character development, episode 5 (see post) was a turning point. As Kimmy decides to get her GED and focus on the future, her flashbacks become nearly nonexistent. She begins episode 6 with Tituss dropping her at GED class and Kimmy proclaiming: “I feel like a butterfly bursting from its crystalish…” And in truth, entering the flawed world of the GED classroom is a metaphor for Kimmy actually engaging with life as herself, not someone she thinks she should be. She’s wiser than ever and when she asks a favor from Tituss and he stalls with “on Martin Luther King’s birthday?” Kimmy says “I’m not going to fall for that a fourth time.” And in episode 7, Kimmy helps Jacqueline with a party to expose Jacqueline’s husband, setting up a new kind of Cinderella metaphor (I guess Tina Fey can’t resist). In a new plotline for Kimmy, this time her Cinderella isn’t pretending not to be a cult survivor. It’s a more common rouse: in episode 7 her Cinderella is only feigning not to be Jacqueline’s employee. In episode 8 we reach the culmination of Kimmy’s new relationship with her life. In order that she may help Jacqueline be brave enough to free herself from her marriage, Kimmy reveals who she is. And interestingly, Kimmy shares the truth not because it sheds life on who she is, but because it will help Jacqueline realize how strong she can be. To help Jacqueline be brave. Indeed that is the closing of a chapter. Kimmy doesn’t reveal it as a scandal or anything she even needs to apologize for. It is just something that happened to her, and Kimmy has accepted it, allowed it to become a part of what makes her who she is, and even a part of what makes her worthy of good things. She tells Jacqueline: “I’m Kimmy Schmidt from Indiana. I do understand the world Mrs. Voorhees. It’s tough. But so are we.” The piece of the puzzle that kept her busy hiding from life is now the piece of the puzzle that gives her strength to live and strength to move on.
And so in this new incarnation of Cinderella, when Kimmy puts on airs and pretends to be Kimberly Von Lobster, the granddaughter of the man who invented the limousine, she doesn’t return to Reverend Richard in the bunker when the clock strikes midnight. Instead, she is pursued by Prince Charming who sees Kimmy as desirable even knowing who she is, and they happily make plans together.
Is this a sound representation of life for the cult survivor? The gist of it, yes. Though a bit broad and overly fortunate. But it describes an arc of development that hits all the targets for a recovering cult member. All the stages of grief so to speak. And from it, we hope, all survivors will be recreated enough to accept their pasts, love themselves, trust others. After all, we’re all freaks, or none of us are. But if they can endure long enough for time and experience to separate them from their history, it’s the cult survivor who knows they have strength for whatever life might throw their way.