Diseased Hagiography: On Trauma and Twin Peaks
“She said people tried to be good, but they are really sick and rotten–her most of all. And every time she tried to make the world a better place something terrible came up inside her and pulled her back down to hell and took her deeper and deeper into the blackest nightmare. Every time it got harder to go back up to the light.” — Bobby Briggs
Act I — Symptoms
A girl runs screaming across the courtyard. The empty red chair in the classroom. Even before the announcement is made, everyone knows she is gone. “Everybody loved her”, the characters of Twin Peaks say of Laura Palmer. Everybody claims to know her secrets, to understand her best. But they never really do. The first time we see Laura Palmer her pale blue face is veiled in plastic, a saint perfectly preserved. Everyone loves a beautiful dead girl–but no one can really see her.
We can only re-assemble Laura’s life from scraps: excerpts from her diary, Dr. Jacoby’s fragmented collection of confessional audio recordings. The harder we try to understand Laura, what happened to her, the further away we find ourselves from the truth. She lives in a double-world. She’s a saint, the high school prom queen who participated in Meals on Wheels, but she’s also a sinner, addicted to cocaine, a sex worker. Her first diary doubles into a secret second one, two blast sites of confession that reveal a sinister sickness following her. The letter pulled out from under her fingernail confirms the presence of a darkness in Twin Peaks.
Act II — Diagnosis
When a virus infects a body, it survives by duplicating itself within its new host. Certain viral strains can lie dormant and undetected inside their hosts for long periods of time, until an environmental stimulus spurs the virus to burst out of its host and infect other cells. Until the evil in Twin Peaks is recognized, it repeats itself. Leland sexually abused his daughter for years and after he kills her, he brutally murders Maddy, places a letter under her nail, and wraps her bloodied body in plastic — an imperfect replication. Leland tortures and kills his daughter and drives his wife mad as a result. “What is wrong with you?” is the question we’re supposed to ask.
No one in Twin Peaks wants the answer. During these atrocious acts, Leland seems to be possessed by a sadistic, supernatural being named BOB, who even appears as the long-haired man to Maddy in her final struggle. Is BOB real? Or do we just want to believe that he is? We would rather blame some evil spirit for this horrific behavior than accept the reality that a loving, respectable father can become a murderous, sexual predator. “Maybe that’s all ‘BOB’ is,” Albert Rosenfield says, “The evil that men do. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call it.” So long as the ‘ordinary’ men of Twin Peaks remain in denial of the sexual violence they are capable of, BOB returns and the devastating cycle of trauma continues. It is these very same ‘ordinary’ men who attempt to canonize Laura. “It all makes some kind of terrible sense that she died…that someone killed her,” says James Hurley, her secret boyfriend, confirming the town’s desire to believe that innocent Laura had to be sacrificed (martyred) for some greater purpose. From her smiling photograph in the high school’s trophy case and the video tape of her dancing to Dr. Jacoby’s audio recordings, everyone wants their own saintly relic, to hide Laura’s tragic life behind plastic images, encase her tragic beauty in eternal amber.
Yet we cannot ignore the cavernous pain that radiates from the rotting Palmer home. This unspeakable pain stretches out over the course of the show’s two seasons. The emotional effects of these atrocities becoming almost too difficult to process, a sickening unable to be contained. Despite efforts to sanctify her, Laura was undeniably a victim of repeated sexual abuse by her father. Her ‘sinful’ drug abuse and promiscuity shows how many rape victims attempt to cope with the shame and guilt of their trauma. While the men try to obscure and beautify her wounds, the women of Twin Peaks see parts of Laura’s trauma within themselves. Norma and Shelly both spend most of the series trying to escape abusive relationships and domestic violence. In one of the few times the show departs from the boundaries of Twin Peaks, Aubrey Horne is nearly assaulted by her own father as she investigates a Canadian brothel Laura used to work in.
As with most cases of sexual violence, Laura’s story is left without closure. Her father is absolved of his crimes. They attributed to the mysterious ‘BOB’. For victims, time does not always heal all trauma. Sometimes memories become lost or fractured, at other moments they are too overwhelming. Victims can feel displaced from their daily life, unable to return to familiar routines. Lynch reproduces this disorientation across the landscape of Laura (both in spirit and body). Behind Laura Palmer’s innocent veneer, frozen in time: a haunting, undeniable history of violence unfolding across Twin Peaks. The criminal scab is peeled open. We cannot go back. We must all bear witness to the leaking wound.