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Modern Day “Death and the Maiden”

Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” was written 30 years ago about the Chilean regime. While it may seem specific, the play offers thematic elements that aren’t confined to the context of the play and are actually still relevant today. When reading the play, I felt that I had heard the story before, and I had actually seen it twice before reading what I consider the original. As a crime show fan, I’ve watched all of Criminal Minds and a lot of Law and Order SVU. Both shows pride themselves on using relevant topics for their content so I was surprised to realize that a play about Chile written 30 years prior was a basis for episodes from the shows. It proves to me that the topic of survivors finding a place in the law is still very much relevant today. 

The Criminal Minds episode “Unknown Subject” is about the BAU team trying to catch a serial rapist, not knowing that one of the former victims had kidnapped a man she believed to be the perpetrator. She believed him to be her attacker because he played a song that had been repeatedly played while she was raped, creating a physical reaction for her. This directly takes an element from “Death and the Maiden” because of the song. She uses a gun and kidnaps him to hear his confession, like Paulina does to Roberto. The discomfort with the situation of the “at home” version of the law is the same as it is in “Death and the Maiden”. The episode makes you uncomfortable because as the man is pleading his case to the survivor, he seems so rational and believable. This is very much like Roberto. He tries to outsmart her by throwing logical alternatives to her belief that he committed the crime. Like Paulina, the survivor is portrayed to be the one that is crazy. She seems overly aggressive and irrational- a contrast to the man who seems to be trying to bring reason in the situation. In Law and Order SVU, “Remember Me/Remember Me Too”, the situation is similar. The kidnapped man who the woman believes the perpetrator is believed. He is thought to be the rational one trying to bring reason into a situation created by the woman who he calls “a crazy bitch”. Because the man is portrayed as the rational one, both episodes are uncomfortable. This leads for me to the question of where the law provides space for survivors, especially female survivors. The reality is that in each of these works, the law does not offer an obvious place for women. So much so that the women believe that it is better to kidnap their alleged abuser rather than turn to the police. These women are angry. The law seems to be actively working against them and believing the perpetrators and so they believe that they have to find justice for themselves. This anger and frustration with the law is misplaced by the women which causes them to be portrayed as crazy and irrational. As discussed in Criminal Minds, the system is a revictimization of these survivors so they create their own system. The law is imperfect here. It does more to serve the perpetrators than it does for the victims so the victims get angry. Their credibility is destroyed with their anger because of how they seem, giving the credibility to the alleged perpetrator they have kidnapped. Even though the two shows were made much later than the play, the fact that they used the premise of the play shows that this topic is still very much an issue today and the law is still not giving survivors the space that they need.  

What is interesting about the episodes I watched is that both TV shows have a much stronger resolution that “Death and the Maiden”. In Criminal Minds, the BAU bursts in and convinces the survivor to put down her gun by telling her that the guy she kidnapped isn’t the perp. When he walks outside though, they arrest him for the 12 rapes. The man in Law and Order is also found to be guilty. We don’t get that same resolution or even an answer in “Death and the Maiden” and I think that is often the result of the law. I think the fact that these two modern takes end differently than the play proves that the law is moving more towards finding concrete answers for survivors. Maybe it is going to take a long time still and it is not going to be an easy journey, but the modern versions could be showing a shift in mindset of the people, which could lead to changes in the law. And this change could provide room for survivors in the law- something that each of these works prove is necessary for the success of justice.

Each of the works also prove how important a confession is to the healing of survivors. While they each change elements of the story, especially the endings, all of the survivors on the show want a confession. It is why each of them create their own “trials”. It shows how important the truth is for the law and for the healing of victims. These women need to hear their attackers confess and tell the truth so that they may start their healing process. The space in which they do this is their own because the law does not provide one for them.

One thought on “Modern Day “Death and the Maiden””

  1. Riley, I will need to watch these episodes! I have to admit that my fear, always, especially in network shows that tackle sexual assault in the criminal justice system, is that they’ll sensationalize the crime and relegate the victim to melodramatic overreaction at the expense of inviting viewers to interrogate what kinds of narratives about rape are and aren’t made room for in the criminal justice system. Sounds like perhaps these two episodes are especially smart about it…


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