Victimhood, Responsibility, and “I, Tonya”
Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, I watched “I, Tonya.” It elicited a strong reaction in me, which I think is a good indicator that it was a good film for me to see. As a starting point, it was good for me to see enough of her actual story that she become humanized. I don’t see how that’s ever really bad; it doesn’t, for me, have to mean “She doesn’t bear any responsibility for what happened with Nancy Kerrigan.”
Assuming the film gets most of the “what happened” correct, I don’t think she should have been banned from skating, though. And that’s doubly sad because Harding’s skating was one of the gifts she has to offer the world, i.e. we were ALL punished (mostly because the media was so sensational in their overage of “the incident). A short-term suspension probably would have been more appropriate, and the reason I say that is because I think Harding’s responsibility was moral and relational, not so much professional or legal.
As I watched, I thought of Paul Thomas Anderson and his film, Magnolia. Even in science, it’s incredibly difficulty to establish causality because it’s so complicated and multi-faceted. In this way, the layers of story are almost more appropriate when something like the Kerrigan incident happens. You have to get the recent situation, but you also have to know what happened earlier in the characters’ lives. The big difference, for me, between Harding and Kerrigan in terms of responsibility, and this is why Kerrigan is the victim of Harding and the goons and not the other way around, is that Harding chose her ex-husband and the bodyguard, not just once, but several times, over a long period of time, despite their obviously poor character. How we judge character, and who we let into our lives is a pretty good indicator of our own character. If you bring a puppy home, it is not reasonable to expect that the puppy will never shit on the floor. If your partner is a clown, you shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to spend his time juggling at the circus. If you are friends with someone who avoids substantive conversations, you’re probably not going to be able to count on that person when it matters the most. If you’re dating someone who abuses you, he probably isn’t going to change that behavior just because the two of you get married. The relationships were a huge mistake on Harding’s part, and of course she payed for it for a long time. Now, there might have been some pressure on Harding to be more posh for the skating world, but I think she could have been transcended that by skating well and an absence of incidents like cussing out judges and bashing in Kerrigan’s leg. In other words, I don’t think, other than her own psychology, that she “had” to stay in the marriage. Obviously in the long term she figured out how toxic it was for her, and to her credit, she left the relationship. It’s an interesting counter-factual question, though: if she hadn’t lost skating, would she have stayed in the marriage longer? Or would they have just come back together?
But of course this is where Harding’s mother, who was really awful, comes in. The kind of dysfunction and chaos that’s described in the film can be, quite literally, addicting. It was the abuse from the mother that made the goons all but inevitable in Harding’s life because Harding didn’t have the benefit of knowing other ways of living than that kind of chaos. The mother actually reminded me of Andre Agassi’s father in his memoir, Open. Maybe the Hardings poorer, and maybe Agassi’s father was even more of the driver of athletic success, but the two parents were similar in terms of the power they had over their kids and the lengths they were willing go to make them “great.” I’m sure if we went farther back, we’d probably find the mother’s abusers as well; this is how crazy systems work.
So how do we find your way out, how do we transcend a system like that? I don’t know, exactly, other than it requires a ton of inner excavation and that it almost certainly involves finding a new set of influences with radically different rhythms. I also suspect that the deepest redemptions in Harding’s life will still come through two people: her mother (“you wounded me unimaginably”) and Kerrigan (“I played a part in wounding you in ways you didn’t deserve”). This could mean reconciliation but it doesn’t have to; what I really mean is that she will have to deal with those internally, to grieve them and heal, to let them go, now a radically transformed person for having gone through what she went through.