Authority, Sharp Objects and the Catholic Church
Sharp Objects recently concluded right as it seems the regime of the Catholic Church has reached the beginning of the end. As I have processed both I have been left with a similar question concerning power and agency. The easy answer to Vigano’s letter is to malign the Pope as abusing ecclesiastical power for gain. It is easy to castrate the Pope for not metaphorically castrating child abusers, but I am not convinced that is all there is to it. It can never be that simple in a social structure as complex as the Vatican. Are not the Pope and those under his ecclesiastical authority both products of the same institution? It is fine if you wish to dogmatically state that the Pope is infallible and the preservation of apostolic authority, yet is it really such a silly notion to suspect that the Pope might be the voice and recapitulation of the formative practices he underwent in the church? I think not. Despite my Protestant leanings, I do not think I am wrong to ask what went wrong. Leaving aside conspiracies that are perhaps well-founded about Catholic Civil War on the horizons, I would like to explore the town of Wind Gap, a town still gripped with the memory of the Civil War. By exploring how Wind Gap led to formative practices that led to abuse, there might be an opportunity to explore afresh what happened in the Vatican.
Sharp Objects under the guise of a murder mystery really is thematically an exploration of power. In its microscopic exploration of the town it examines the extent those with power are responsible for the cycle of death under them. We arrive in the town of Wind Gap and explore it primarily through the eyes of Camille, a woman who has carved words into her entire body. Camille has grown up under the tutelage of Wind Gap but has left it to pursue journalism in the big city. Now she has returned home with much chagrin to report on the murder of two teenage girls. As she begins to report, she is intimately reacquainted with why she left. This town does not carry nostalgia for Camille but flashbacks of trauma.
The town seems to carry its own sort of trauma. Its Civil War wounds are covered up with a hefty dose of Southern Pride and Lost Cause ideology. Its citizens seem to carry this tradition in their bones with pride and act it out by grasping onto power wherever they can. Power dynamics in this town tend to divide along gender lines. Masculine power concerns itself with force and institutional strength, while feminine power trades in the currency of words and sex. Camille herself carries on her body these words, and internally carries the memories of rape. She has experienced how ugly power is in Wind Gap at every level. She carries these wounds around and in fact, unbeknownst to her, her editor has sent her to Wind Gap partly in the hope of getting over her trauma.
More than anything however, Camille is the product of her mother. Her mother cannot seem to bring herself to smile. Which makes sense, her daughter, Camille’s younger sister died as a teen. Camille too carries the memories of her sister and it seems to Camille and everyone else that her mother wishes it had been Camille instead. Camille and her mother’s relationship is fractured and Amma, Camille’s half-sister seems to have been a suitable replacement to Camille. Mother dotes on her to which Amma responds submissively. But as we wade through the season, we begin alongside Camile to see a different side to her half-sister, Amma. Amma is by all accounts rebellious. She participates in all the malaises of youth. Drugs, parties, `and alcohol are never far from Amma. She is an entirely conflicted character, whispering to Camille, “Don’t tell mamma” when caught.
As the series draws to a close, many mysteries begin to be tied up. Camille’s mother is found to have Munchausen’s by proxy, a fancy term to refer to the sick reality that she poisons her daughters in order to make her children need her protection. How's that for a metaphor? In fact, this is how Camille’s younger sister died. Camille watches in horror as Amma is poisoned and to distract Mother from killing Amma by overdosing her with rat poison, Camille begins to receive the care of her mother. She almost dies before her editor bangs on the door of the police station and gets the police to do something for once. Mother is arrested and is also indicted on the murder of the two young girls that had brought Camille to the town to begin with when some bloody pliers used to yank out teeth were found. And like that, it seems that everything is solved.
Camille whisks off Amma to the big city, but to her horror discovers the teeth of the girls composing an ivory floor in Amma’s dollhouse. “Don’t tell momma”, Amma whispers as the credits roll. The show ends with post-credits depicting Amma murdering the girls as well as a new friend she had made in the city. Now the question can be posed: who is responsible for Amma?
The simplistic and reductionistic answer is simply Momma. However, that is not satisfying. The author of the book on which the show is based, closes her novel with the line “A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.” True enough, but what poison are we referring to? Are we to believe that the medicinal poison itself is solely to blame? It even works to a certain extent. Camille took to self-harm to comfort while Amma took to harming others. Yet, it misses out on the actions of so many complicit in the town. The town itself is to blame and in fact this is the way power dynamics work. Perhaps the better question to ask is who is responsible for Mother?
It is a trademark of our age of individualism to assume that there are no brother’s and sister’s keepers anymore. But Sharp Objects exposes this farce for what it is. It is Amma’s father who drowns out the moans of children being poisoned with classical music who is to be blamed. It is the town itself, content to have a shack filled with hardcore pornography out in the woods and then turn a blind eye to the rape of their daughters by the football team in that same woods. Yet this town does not deal with its own sin by repentance but covers them up in the muck of power. The boys-now-men who raped Camille turn a blind eye to the happenings in the woods while eaten up inside by “Catholic guilt.” The women who are in the know rather than losing power by exposing those who are guilty of atrocities are content to deal in rumors and blackmail to maintain what little power they have. That doesn’t seem entirely culpable on an individual level, yet this tradition ends up in Amma.
If I may apply this to the Catholic Church, this indeed is what has gone wrong. Who is responsible for McCarrick and the 300 perverts like him? Like Amma, their responsibility cannot be diminished but it can be more involved than just them. If it is true that the Vatican and more specifically Pope Francis knew and let McCarrick travel the world in his name, then Father Francis is more like Mother. God have mercy on his soul. Rat poison indeed seems to be medicine of choice for him. Yet, just as mother was not isolated but a product of power dynamics in Wind Gap, so too Francis is a product as well. The Catholic Church must rid itself of the shacks in the woods filled with porn. We know what else happens there in the woods. Do we need more reports? The Catholic Church must lose those who are powerful in their secrets. Expose the deeds of the darkness. Francis is culpable but so are those who were content to blackmail for power. Cleanse the filth from yourself. Repent.
Much like the Catholic Church, we do not know what happens in Wind Gap from here. We do not know what happens to Amma. But as we look forward with our innocence as stripped away, we must not lambast Wind Gap and move on. There must be total reform. While Camille was able to escape, there are many who will not. Rome be warned.