Why Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Is Too Painful For Me To Watch

Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix.
Last Wednesday night, my boyfriend and I finished watching the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, turned off the television, and went to bed. I didn’t sleep. He conked out in minutes; it was late, and we’d stayed up well past our weekday bedtimes to polish off the season. But I laid there feeling my heart stutter-stepping in my chest, my neck prickling with heat. I couldn’t get comfortable in bed, and every nighttime sound seemed amplified. I tossed and turned myself right onto the edge of a panic attack. But it wasn’t just anxiety, I suddenly realized. I was pissed.

Like many people who’ve dealt with trauma, I enjoy a lot of dark shit. Armenian Genocide documentary? I’m your girl. Munchausen’s memoir? Yes, please. Anyone wanna check out this new Holocaust museum with me? Of course, this is not an interest unique to folks with traumatic histories. If Serial and Making a Murderer are any evidence, then we all get off on some hard-core darkness from time to time. Certainly, among the millions of people consuming these series, there are those with far, far greater wounds than my own. But one thing I think we must have in common is our wall: the thing between us and anything that might hit too close to home. “Boundaries,” I think they call them.

Some people are good with boundaries. They know how to ride out emotional reactions, when to protect themselves, and when to let something in. For those people, the wall is more like a gate they can open and shut with ease — and I’m so fucking jealous of them I could scream. Me, I have the wall. It’s taller than anything as far as the eye can see and thick enough to deaden any sound that might otherwise startle. For years, I relied on the wall to keep me at a safe distance from things like self-reflection (scary!) and human relationships (SUPER scary!). The wall was necessary protection when I was a kid. But as an adult, I’ve spent a billion or so hours in therapy, drilling holes into it so I can participate in normal-grown-up things like friendships and dating.

But, holes or not, the wall is still there and it’s never more obvious than when I’m watching sad or upsetting media. I never cried at a movie until I was 25, and even then I was really trying. It’s not that I don’t have feelings. It’s just that an old, scared part of my mind knows what’s coming, and up goes the wall. With Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I didn’t see it coming.

For those unfamiliar, the series follows a young woman recently freed from 15 years of captivity, where, among other torments, she was continuously raped by her kidnapper. Season 1 occasionally touched on the effects of post-traumatic stress, but mostly it focused on the unbreakable part of Kimmy (Ellie Kemper). She’s resilient and giddy about starting her life again. Even when the first season did get dark, it did so in that familiar, 30 Rock style, so that even when she’s re-enacting a rape, it was wacky, brief, and concluded with a punch line. The comedy was so strong, you could avoid most of the horror if you blinked enough (a coping mechanism Kimmy herself would probably advocate — magical blinking!).
Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix.
Season 2, though, is all about the unavoidable. Kimmy’s past comes flying at her from every corner: The man she loves tries to kiss her, and she hits him with a telephone. Her friends walk all over her, and she lies right down to take it. “And don’t get me started on that peristalsis,” says Andrea (Tina Fey) — the alcoholic who becomes Kimmy’s reluctant therapist by day and blackout drunk friend by night. Referring to Kimmy’s odd new burping habit, she adds, “You’ve got some bad stuff inside, and your body’s trying to blast it out through your face’s mouth.” Haha, said my brain. But also: Oh, shit.

What happened to Kimmy didn’t happen to me. My story is far less extreme and familiar to many: childhood sexual abuse and a dual-diagnosis parent led me to grow up fast and build myself a wall against the terror. It’s not TV-show trauma, but it was bad enough. Like Kimmy, I was frozen for a long time. My body moved forward in life, going to college and getting a job, but inside I sat still and quiet, my back against the wall, feeling only its hard, cold security.

Like Kimmy, I developed coping mechanisms and destructive habits (see: my whole damn memoir). Dealing with those things is what forced me to face the underlying issues themselves. I hadn’t been trapped in a bunker, but somewhere around my late 20s, I started to claw my way free and back into the real world. And you know, I felt giddy, too. I was an inexperienced weirdo stumbling around in adulthood, but who cared? I was here, doing it, dating and feeling stuff! I cried at a second movie and was so proud of myself that I high-fived my boyfriend (MY BOYFRIEND!!!).

When Kimmy landed on the therapist’s couch this year, I thought, Yes, woman. Here’s where it really gets better. When she discussed her mother, I thought, Great, mom stuff. Done! You’re acing this! But then the season turned. Things didn’t get better. Andrea remains a drunk. Kimmy finds her mother but no conclusion. The season ends in a horrible cliffhanger when the Reverend, Kimmy’s kidnapper, calls her from prison letting both her and the audience know that he’s not going anywhere.
Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix.
I think part of what we love about TV, books, and films, is that they give us the endings we don’t get in life. At least, I love that about them. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt doesn’t do that. Through the lens of a rosy comedy, this series snuck through a hole in the wall, poking at wounds I cautiously protect. Outside, I laughed at Tina Fey’s drunk pratfalls, while inside I remembered the bottomless agony of loving an addict. As Kimmy’s absent mother, Lisa Kudrow perfectly exemplifies the kind of parent who loves her child deeply, but from a painful distance.

More than anything, it was the Reverend calling Kimmy that left me feeling as if I had hands around my throat and a voice in my ear: It’s not over yet, little girl. That night I lay in bed, reminded that the past can call you up at any moment. Each time I see a familiar area code pop up on my phone, I think, Hospital? Police station? Is someone dead or is someone coming for me?

It’s not over. The horror lives inside you, in your very DNA. It’s not something to be cured, it's something you have to live with. Trauma is like an injury, always waiting for you to trip and fall and fuck it up again. So you watch where you’re going and take care of yourself, knowing that you’re bound to get hurt again at some point, and — in the words so eloquently mocked by Tina Fey — it’s not your fault.

“There’s nothing I can say that will un-kidnap me, or fix my childhood... And I just have to accept that,” Kimmy says in the season finale. That’s the not-so-magic trick: not resolution, but acceptance. I knew that. I worked hard to know that. That knowledge in and of itself is a triumph. But what I forgot is that while you’re never quite done with your past, you’re never quite done learning that lesson of acceptance, either. Try as you might, something will always reach through the wall and scrape against that wound you wish would just scar over already. And that’s fine. You’ll hurt but you’ll survive. Hurt is a kind of feeling, after all — and I’ll take that over the numbness of scar tissue any day of the week. Well. Most days of the week.

I knew that, too. But I needed reminding.

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