Shadow Of A Twisted Hand Across My House

Representations of abusive men and domestic violence in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks

A thesis presented by THOMAS CALDWELL to The School of Fine Arts, Classical Studies and Archaeology in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of BACHELOR OF ARTS WITH HONOURS in the subject of CINEMA STUDIES, University of Melbourne, SUPERVISOR: Dr. Mark Nicholls, OCTOBER 2000.

By combining feminist film theory and sociological research on domestic violence, this thesis will analysis David Lynch’s films Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and television series Twin Peaks as narratives about domestic violence and abusive men. The sociological research will provide evidence of how some of Lynch’s male characters can be read as abusive men, while some of his female characters can be read as displaying symptoms of having been abused. This thesis will explore how Lynch uses the surreal, narratives that involve supernatural elements, framing, non-traditional Hollywood narratives, and symbolism to adopt a feminist stance that regards domestic violence as a direct result of the patriarchal construction of masculinity.


Chapter One: “The evil that men do”

Chapter Two: “Now it’s dark”

Chapter Three: Who killed Laura Palmer? – “We all did”





Film director David Lynch’s painting “Shadow Of A Twisted Hand Across My House” is a simple childlike image painted over a dark background, reflecting the darkness and fear a child can experience within their home. Lynch’s debut film Eraserhead (1976) is a surreal nightmare about a dysfunctional family that concludes with infanticide, while later films such as Wild At Heart (1990) and Lost Highway (1997) contain, respectively, an abusive uncle and an abusive husband who commit their crimes within the victims’ home. When asked about the recurring theme of the house in both his paintings and films, Lynch replied that rather than being interested in issues such as global politics, he is interested in what happens in the surrounding neighbourhood. He portrays houses so threateningly because “the home is a place where things can go wrong” (Rodley 1997: 9-10).

Lynch is highly critical of the cultural construction of masculinity and holds it to blame for domestic violence. Lynch’s work reflects many concerns and beliefs of contemporary sociological research that has used feminism to locate the cultural construction of masculinity as the chief cause of violence against women. Through an analysis of the film Blue Velvet (1986), the television series Twin Peaks (co-created with Mark Frost 1990-1991), and the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), this thesis will demonstrate how Lynch’s portrayal of abused women and abusive men reflects sociological research on domestic violence.

The three texts examined are works in which Lynch explores the darkness and evil lurking under the surface of the seemingly happy and safe domestic bliss of small town life in middle class America. These evils include murder, sexual violence, incest, pornography, prostitution, rape and torture. Lynch locates these evils in the family home as extreme acts of domestic violence. The small town communities of Lynch’s texts represent society at large, and the acts of misogynist violence represent the forces of patriarchy that dominate society.

Chapter one first looks at how Lynch’s films and this thesis relate to feminist film theory. Chapter one will then examine the research done by the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce, written up by Mary Draper, Diane Kirkby, Christine Nolan, Liz Orr, Marilyn Poole, Tor Roxburgh and Barbara Shalit. Their report discusses how the patriarchy creates abusive men who cause domestic violence. Chapter one also looks at Alan Kemp’s work on the type of abuse that happens in the home, particularly child sexual abuse.

Chapter two applies the theory from chapter one to Blue Velvet. Using Laura Mulvey’s argument that the symbolism of Blue Velvet works to create a symbolic family, chapter two explores the character of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) as an abused wife, and the character of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) as an extreme example of an abusive male. The chapter contains Michael Chion’s summary of the psychoanalytic reading of Blue Velvet, and Barbara Creed’s study on Blue Velvet’s use of framing. Chapter two also examines analyses by Michael Atkinson and James Maxfield, exploring the character of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) who internally struggles against the potential to become abusive, which simultaneously horrifies and seduces him.

Chapter three looks at Twin Peaks as a story about incest using supernatural elements for a more critical attack on the patriarchy. By using Kemp’s and Sigler’s theories from chapter one, the character of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is analysed as an incest victim. Diana Stevenson’s reading of Twin Peaks as belonging to the genre of the fantastic is examined, as is Christy Desmet’s analysis of Laura Palmer as a modern day saint. Chapter three also examines Martha P. Nochimson’s argument that Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), free of culturally defined gender traits, begins the series rejecting his potential to becoming abusive but eventually succumbs to it.

Sociological research on domestic violence is closely aligned to feminism, so it is appropriate to develop a model for studying film representations of domestic violence within feminist film theory. This thesis does so by analysing Lynch’s films as to how they cohere to sociological research. The Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce’s definition of domestic violence is used which includes psychological, emotional, verbal, social and financial abuse, as well as physical violence such as murder, battery, sexual assault and rape, (Draper et al. 1994: xvi). Their definition extends to non-criminal types of abuse because they are examining all the ways in which men can threaten women.

Chapter One – “The evil that men do”

Lynch’s films suggest that the dominant cultural forces of the patriarchy have allowed situations to occur where male aggressors unjustly harm women. Furthermore Lynch has revealed that not only have culturally constructed gender roles harmed women but they have also denied men true happiness. The sociological work that has been done on domestic violence supports this portrayal of abused women and abusive men.

Before going into specific film analysis it is necessary to introduce the theory that will later be used to analyse the films. First this chapter uses some of the research by Annette Kuhn and Pam Cook to give a survey of feminist film theory to then argue the relevance of Lynch’s films. Next, are the findings of the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce on the relationship between domestic violence and the patriarchy, followed by Alan Kemp’s research on different types of abuse, and what little is known about the nature of child sexual abuse.

Feminist film criticism

Annette Kuhn argues that feminist film theory grew from a concern that men had created the image of women in cinema. Beginning in the early 1970s as part of the broader cultural movement of feminism, feminist film theory was developed to understand the relationship between women and film. Early debates included discussion by Molly Haskell, amongst others, on the stereotypical images of women in Hollywood film, where female characters were either entirely absent or portrayed as poor role-models who did not reflect real women’s lives (Kuhn 1990: 150).

British critics such as Claire Johnston and Laura Mulvey argued that cinema does not reflect reality at all, but it instead represents ideas about the real world. They argued that classic Hollywood realism is an ideological device employed by Hollywood to resolve contradictions that exist in patriarchal society. Johnston and Mulvey argued that film is a signifying system, and it is necessary to understand how the female image is situated within film language. This framework, of reading film as a signifying system, was elaborated by the notion of ‘progressive realism’ which suggested that within the dominant patriarchal discourse, there was some disruption where feminine desire and the female voice broke through (Kuhn 1990: 150).

The American journal Camera Obscura then argued that looking for transgressive moments in Hollywood films was misleading when trying to understand how the audience responds to the endless varied textual patterns of Hollywood narratives. Camera Obscura claimed that the pleasures of viewing a film and the meaning that audiences derive from it operate on an unconscious level. The unconscious is regarded as ideological since it has been culturally constructed through a process of repression. Hence ideas of sexual difference and sexuality have been shaped by the patriarchy which also creates false hierarchical categories of masculinity and femininity. As a result the feminine voice and feminine desire are repressed (Kuhn 1990: 151).

Kuhn believes that Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic concept of ‘the gaze’, used to understand how cinema operates on the unconscious level, was crucial to the evolution of feminist film theory. Mulvey’s article “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”, published in Screen (1975), argued that ‘the gaze’ is related to the pleasure of looking at the kinds of pleasures generated by Hollywood cinema. Mulvey argued that all Hollywood films are directed at male viewers, for the gratification of their anxieties and desire, and hence force the female viewer into a position of masochistic pleasure. Mulvey argued for a feminist counter-cinema that would attack traditional masculine cinematic pleasures, and mechanisms to develop a new filmic language (Kuhn 1990: 151).

Pam Cook believes that Mulvey’s position leaves little room for women to be consumers and active contributors to cinematic pleasures. During the 1980s feminist film theorists attempted to define the female spectator’s pleasure by examining contemporary films that contained new models of femininity. Due to increasing numbers of women working as critics and working in the film industry, contemporary films containing narratives about female desire, films giving women the enjoyable images of feminised men, and films about flawed masculinity were created. The critical work on these films revealed that male power was neither as monolithic nor as stable as had been once argued. Identification was revealed to be something much more fluid and it was discovered that cinema frequently contained images of male punishment. Male pleasure was as much about masochism as it was about sadistic voyeurism, and women gained pleasure in narratives about male identity crisis and men being stripped of phallic power (Cook 1993: xviii-xix).

Lynch’s work sits somewhere between the counter-culture cinema that Mulvey supports, and Hollywood cinema that is increasingly being made with the female spectator in mind. His narratives employ the use of the surreal and subjectiveness, challenging classical Hollywood narratives to explore how men can objectify women and to portray male identity crises.

Domestic violence and patriarchy

Feminism is used to develop strategies to understand domestic violence and to develop practical prevention methods. The Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce found that a previous disregard of feminist theory had prevented progress into understanding the causes and effects of domestic violence (Draper et al. 1994: xv). They concluded that as a result of patriarchal attitudes it was mainly men who acted violently and it is therefore a high priority to change social attitudes to combat the violence (Draper et al. 1994: iii).

Family violence is essentially a function of the excessive power which our history and our social structures grant to men, both in society at large and in the privacy of their home (Draper et al. 1994: xv).

Our society supports male domination over women who are culturally devalued and subordinate, leading to a perception that violence is a relatively easy way of controlling women (Draper et al. 1994: 21).

Possibly the most important finding of the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce was that violent behaviour is symptomatic of how culture defines what is means to be man.

An acceptance, even a glorification of violence is often considered as evidence of masculinity. However, murder, war, and rape are not biological facts or necessities, but rather they are social and cultural facts which are part of a masculine ethos which approves violence (Draper et al. 1994: 116).

Thus, violence often occurs in families that retain aspects of patriarchal authority where men live up to the myth of being strong, dependable, powerful and responsible. These men use violence to regain power within the family if they feel it is being undermined (Draper et al. 1994: 52).

Robert T. Sigler found that abused women tend to come from families that encourage the female family members to be passive and to control their emotions. Because of social standards these women assume responsibility for their abusive situation and have low self-esteem that leaves them feeling helpless and inadequate (Sigler 1989: 19). The false gender definitions that dominate patriarchal society not only allow some men to believe that their violence is justified, but also causes many women to accept their abuse as part of family life.

Types of abuse

Domestic violence is defined as any physical or non-physical force used by one member of the family to control another family member and undermine their wellbeing.

Violence may be defined as the use of force, implied or actual, to achieve control over another person. Family violence involves a range of violence behaviour, some of which attracts criminal sanctions and other which are not recognised as criminal behaviour but are nevertheless damaging to the victim. These behaviours include assault, sexual abuse of women and children of both sexes, and economic, social, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse (Draper et al. 1994: 62).

This definition recognises that because of male dominance, many types of abuse against women are not regarded as illegal and go unpunished.

Child sexual abuse is a key theme of this thesis as it is something Lynch directly explores in Twin Peaks. Alan Kemp argues that any sexual contact between an adult and a child is still defined as child sexual abuse. Even if the child participates, children still lack an understanding of the long-term effects of sexual contact and are therefore unable to consent and are being exploited (Kemp 1998: 6).

Kemp found that abuse tends to grow in severity and in the case of child sexual abuse it often grows slowly because the perpetrator is deliberately enticing the child into accepting more intimate behaviour (Kemp 1998: 10). Hence it is often difficult for a child to understand that they are being abused. When the abuse slowly builds the child has no gauge on what is right and wrong. By the time the child finally realises they are being abused, if they realise at all, they may block it out mentally or suffer a complete breakdown from the realisation.

…The immediate effects of child abuse are likely to include post-traumatic responses, distortions in thinking, thinking of self as deserving of the abuse and “bad”, altered emotionality, dissociation, and a damaged sense of self. Longer lasting impacts of abuse identified…include disturbed relationships, development of avoidance strategies (withdrawal, suicidal thoughts or attempts, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-mutilation, compulsive sexual behaviour, and borderline personality disorder – a disorder associated with concrete, black-and-white thinking, rage, manipulativeness, disturbed interpersonal relationships, identity disturbances, disturbed emotions, and issues of abandonment (Kemp 1998: 50).

Laura Palmer display these symptoms due to her abuse, which will be discussed in chapter three.

Attempting to understand child sexual abuse

There are no valid explanations of the psychological patterns of child abuse. People who have suffered child abuse do not necessarily become child abusers, and some child abusers never suffered abuse themselves. However, Kemp does identify a link between people suffering abuse and then becoming abusers due to what has been called the “social learning theory” (Kemp 1998: 52-56). If the child experiences the abuse as a socially acceptable part of patriarchal society, then their development of abusive behaviour is more likely. The tradition of the father/husband as the justified disciplinarian and property owner (of his family) increases the risk (Kemp 1998: 58).  The masculine ideal of being assertive and powerful over women is supported by traditional family structures and is passed down through each generation.

As the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce identifies, without the dominant patriarchal social structure the incidence of men abusing women and children would decline dramatically. Our culture needs to redefine what it is to be male so that men do not feel the need to resort to violence as the means of maintaining a sense of coherence (Draper et al. 1994: 117).

Other than the cultural construction of masculinity, there is still no definite understanding as to why some men sexually abuse women and children. Lynch represents domestic violence as almost unbelievable. The acts are so graphic and perverse that they defy explanation. However they represent crimes that happen in reality, and Lynch accordingly portrays them as something that is fundamentally evil.

Chapter Two – “Now it’s dark”

Blue Velvet is an exaggerated depiction of patriarchal society and a parable about domestic violence using the symbolic family of Jeffrey Beaumont, the child, and his parents Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens. By radically undercutting audience expectations, the conventional cinematic narrative of “boy solves mystery and wins girl” is presented not as something natural or fulfilling, but as something dark, challenging the audience to question their reactions to the standard material (Biga 1987: 44). The darkness in Blue Velvet is the violent use of sex to control people.

Nearly every element of Blue Velvet is a metaphor for what can happen in the ‘real’ world. This chapter shows how the portrayal of Lumberton, the setting for all the action, represents the ways in which the harmful elements of culture are hidden behind a facade of normality and social order. This chapter looks at Laura Mulvey’s analysis of Blue Velvet in terms of the Oedipus legend to examine how Lynch sets up Jeffrey, Dorothy and Frank as a symbolic family. Michael Atkinson uses this ‘family’ to argue that Frank’s attacks on Dorothy can be read as symbolic of domestic violence. After an exploration of how Dorothy’s situation and behaviour reflect the sociological accounts from chapter one of abused women, Frank’s character will be discussed as the ultimate example of an abusive male.

The remainder of this chapter will explore Jeffrey’s encounters with abuse. Although starting the film as a blank slate, Jeffrey begins to show abusive characteristics that he ‘learns’ from Frank, but eventually represses them after he becomes a victim of Frank’s violence. Blue Velvet ends with Jeffrey’s triumph over violence – both Frank’s and his own – but the happy ending is so drenched in irony that it seems artificial, leaving the audience with the disturbing suggestion that he still has the potential to be an abusive male. This chapter concludes with an analysis of this ambiguous ending.

Lumberton – Blue Velvet’s metaphorical setting

Blue Velvet opens with a hyper-real series of images portraying middle-class American small-town life. The audience sees colour-drenched roses, tulips and white picket fences, a fire-truck with smiling firemen, school kids at a street crossing, and Jeffrey’s father (Jack Harvey) watering the lawn. We then see Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) in a dark room watching a black and white film noir movie, hinting at something dark lurking behind the images of suburban bliss. We watch a montage of Jeffrey’s father collapsing as a dog in slow motion plays with the water hose, followed by the camera taking us into the grass where black beetles crawl over each other accompanied by a disturbingly intense industrial growl. This sequence introduces us to the primary layers of the film. Blue Velvet is about the evil hidden under the mundane and the “unstoppable natural forces at work under the careful veneer of small-town America” (Atkinson 1997: 20). However the hidden evil in Blue Velvet is not natural. This thesis argues it is the destructive violence that is potential in masculinity, something that is totally unnatural, which is why its effect is so devastating. Lumberton may appear pleasant on the outside, but the illusion is a fragile one.

One of the significant spaces that reflect the true ugliness of Lumberton is Dorothy’s apartment, in the Deep River apartment building. While the rest of Lumberton resembles an over-lit and colourful 1950s America, the Deep River is a decaying, trashy space filled with industrial noise. It is a realm of abuse and perverse sexuality, threatening to both women and children. Dorothy’s son is kidnapped there, and Jeffrey first encounters the horrors of domestic violence there.

When asked about the two different images of the world offered in Blue Velvet, the sleazy criminal world and the glossy suburban world, Lynch says:

I see it all as one world. That’s the weird part of it. There’s the surface and thing you discover hiding. It’s not a happy ending in Blue Velvet. It’s the same image as the start but you know so much more about them (Marsh and Missler 1987: 37).

At the end of the film the darkness of masculinity as expressed by Frank has not gone away. It has simply been glossed over again so that the violence against women and children can grow again and continue unnoticed and ignored. This idea is fully explored at the end of this chapter, where the final scenes of Blue Velvet are analysed.

Blue Velvet’s symbolic family

Laura Mulvey suggests that Blue Velvet creates the symbolic family through deliberate references to the film noir tradition, which suggests the Oedipus legend (Mulvey 1996: 138-139). Jeffrey represents Oedipus because he begins the story as a naive youth and through a series of adventures gains maturity and is able to claim Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) as his wife (Mulvey 1996: 141). Jeffrey is set up as the ignorant college boy who is on the verge of entering manhood. “Jeffrey’s character is truly innocent, a state which implicitly contains the capacity for corruption, the desire for experience” (Atkinson 1997: 25).

With his father in hospital and his mother glued to the television, Lynch gives Jeffrey two alternative parents to replace his actual ones. In terms of the Oedipus legend Frank is his father, being the villain that Jeffrey must defeat to restore social order, while Dorothy is his mother, the object of desire that he must rescue from Frank (Mulvey 1996: 141). By doing so he has defeated the villain within himself and has moved into the symbolic position of the father by acquiring a position of authority associated with a patriarchal function and the law (Mulvey 1996: 141).

By reading the dynamic of Jeffrey, Dorothy and Frank as symbolic of a family, the resulting violence can be read as symbolic of domestic violence within ‘real’ families. Frank’s violent acts reflect the different types of abuse within families, and the causes of his violence symbolise the causes of domestic violence. The control Frank has over Dorothy represents the hold an abusive husband has over his wife.

Dorothy – The abused ‘wife’

Dorothy’s dark, heavily made-up features and her flimsy lounge dress signify her as the forbidden but seductive mother figure of the oedipal narrative. At the same time she is an abused wife and mother (Atkinson 1997: 35-36). When asked about how she approached the part of Dorothy, actor Isabella Rossellini said:

In my mind she was a battered woman – someone who perhaps has Stockholm syndrome. But you can’t play that literally. David’s films are more of a sensation than a story. They’re not anthropological or psychological researches into character. They’re surreal impressions. Things are very transcendental. Blue Velvet has to do with a profound moral dilemma. That’s why the story is surreal. Dorothy masks herself because she is afraid of what she looks like. She’s shy and hates herself. The wig and the make-up and everything was because she wanted to look like a doll – perfect – to hide her madness. The more she becomes a victim not to elicit sexuality, the more she does. I played her that way: everything she did turned out to be something she didn’t mean! (Rodley 1997: 126)

Michael Atkinson describes Dorothy’s appearance and behaviour on stage as corresponding to the masculine created fantasy of the cheap woman at men’s disposal. She is subjected to the gaze of men, especially Jeffrey, and is the victim of Frank’s sexual fantasies. Although the men in Blue Velvet treat Dorothy like a sex object, she is never objectified as such for the viewer except through the eyes of the men (Atkinson 1997: 39). In her apartment we see that her appearance is a construct. Without her wig, velvet dress, and stage lights Dorothy is simply a concerned mother looking for her child.

Dorothy’s false external appearance of confidence and stability is common to abused women. The victims’ pain, fear of retribution, and humiliation often prevent them from speaking out. Also, many women believe that the abuse is simply part of married life (Draper et al. 1994: 65). Dorothy not only accepts the abuse but also has reached a point where she can no longer separate sex from violence. When she willingly has sex with Jeffrey she begs him to hit her, and when holding him at knifepoint she gives him oral sex. When encountering a willing partner she cannot help but bounce between natural sexual warmth and violence (Atkinson 1997: 44).

Abused women often do not leave an abusive relationship because they feel psychologically and economically powerless. Fear of shame, concern for children, and cultural pressures to maintain the family unit, especially in small communities, make it difficult for women who do not want to suffer the social isolation that would result (Draper et al. 1994: 81-82). By kidnapping her husband and child, Frank has a powerful hold over Dorothy that symbolises the hold abusive husbands have over their wives. Dorothy is dependent on Frank for her family’s well-being, and her knowledge that the Yellow Man (Fred Pickler), a policeman, is involved with Frank makes it impossible for Dorothy to turn to the authorities, symbolising the fear that abused women have of speaking out.

Dorothy also displays the psychological factors that prevent women from leaving abusive relationships. Long-term abuse can often leave women brainwashed into thinking that they are powerless to change the situation and that appeasing the abuser is the only way to stop the violence (Draper et al. 1994: 83). To appease Frank Dorothy fulfils his commands by preparing a glass of bourbon for him and then presents herself sexually for him. This ritual symbolises the domestic and sexual chores of an abused wife.

Dorothy is not simply a pathetic victim who has allowed herself to be preyed upon. When she finds Jeffrey in her closet Dorothy displays the strength and initiative of a fiercely independent person, quite justified in her anger for being spied upon. The strong will that she displays as she questions and undresses Jeffrey shows that she would not easily submit to abuse. Her submission to Frank is something that has been forced upon her and is totally beyond her control. When Dorothy forces Jeffrey’s submission while wielding a knife, the scene emphasises that power is something that is taken at the expense of another person.

Barbara Creed’s close analysis of framing in relation to gender reveals how much this scene challenges conventional Hollywood framing. The mise-en-scene of Blue Velvet emphasises voyeurism, so that whoever controls the gaze – the voyeur – has the upper hand. The scene starts with traditional framing, having a close-up of Jeffrey’s profile in the closet, then switches to a reverse shot of the object of his voyeurism, Dorothy, who is placed in the mid-ground of the frame. Traditionally women in Hollywood film have been shot centre screen, while the dominant male character is closer to the foreground and shot to the left or right of frame. This places the woman at the centre, therefore the object of the gaze that is constructed to please the male viewers (Creed 1988: 104). When Dorothy finds Jeffrey and threatens him with a knife, the power relationship changes. Dorothy takes on the curiosity and control of the voyeur, and Jeffrey is the one being looked at. Dorothy orders Jeffrey to strip and, mimicking Frank, commands him not to look at her. Jeffrey is still framed at the front-left of frame, while Dorothy is centre-medium. The result is that the whole scene is heavy with active and aggressive desire, where Jeffrey and Dorothy take turns having the active and aggressive role of masculine desire (Creed 1988: 106).

The framing positions associated with masculinity occur when a character is being an unwanted voyeur or wielding a knife. Emanuel Levy notes that this is an unusual role reversal since rarely in American film does a woman command a man to undress. As a result there is a contrast between Jeffrey’s naivete and Frank’s raw sexuality (Levy 1999: 70). The scene is confusing because for some of the time Dorothy has the power associated with abusive men. She gets to abuse the abuser. Of course it does not last. Blue Velvet symbolically echoes the real world, by refusing to allow women to have the upper hand for too long. Almost as soon as Dorothy has established power over Jeffrey, Frank arrives to re-establish male dominance once and for all.

Frank – The abusive male personified

Frank, Jeffrey’s symbolic father, is an “all-purpose sociopath, a raging, seizing, uncontrollable juggernaut of libidinal will and hate” (Atkinson 1997: 45). Frank is the ultimate patriarchal construction of an abusive male. His outward behaviour betrays the attitudes and violence lurking underneath the surface of other men who are attracted to abusing women. When asked about where Frank came from Lynch says:

Frank, to me, is a guy Americans know very well. I’m sure most everybody growing up has met someone like Frank. They might not have shook his hand and gone out for a drink with him, but all you’ve got to do is exchange eye contact with someone like that and you know that you’ve met him (Woods 1997: 75).

Frank is not that far removed from other abusive men. His extreme acts of sexual violence mirror other types of abuse, and the power he has over Dorothy mirrors the power other abusive men have over their family. Frank also conforms to the masculine construction of being aggressive, dominant, and using violence to enforce his control.

The scene where Jeffrey witnesses Frank’s attack on Dorothy has traditionally been analysed by psychoanalytic critics, such as Michel Chion, as representing Jeffrey’s primal scene, where Dorothy and Frank are the unconscious ‘mother’ and ‘father’ of Jeffrey, the oedipal child. Chion suggests that the sub-text of this reading is that the audience is the collective child, and are the ones witnessing the primal scene. When Jeffrey hides in the closet and watches Frank’s violent sexual attack on Dorothy the scene becomes a literal depiction of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the ‘primal scene’ described in Three Essays On The Theory Of Sexuality (1905). The child witnesses sexual intercourse between his parents and traumatically interprets the scene as a violent and sadistic attack of the strong father on the weak mother. Frank literally personifies the brutality of the father while Dorothy represents the mother’s vulnerability. Jeffrey’s position in the wardrobe gives him the status of the ‘infantile voyeur’ which moves the scene from being a primal scene to a scene of desire of the child for the mother (Chion 1995: 94).

For the purposes of this thesis the scene will be read to symbolise an extreme act of domestic violence. Atkinson describes Dorothy’s behaviour as that of a battered wife trying to appease her husband, while Frank’s behaviour fits that of the abusive husband (Atkinson 1997: 45). His first wave of anger comes from the fact that Dorothy has not fixed him his bourbon. The wife is abused for not doing a domestic chore. Frank’s insistence that Dorothy calls him “Daddy” reveals his pleasure in establishing ownership over her, and reveals his belief that Daddy, the man of the house, has the right to do whatever he wants.

Although Frank conforms to the dominant cultural construction, it still offers no comfort to him because it is a construction and contradictory to human nature. His acts of debasement and viciousness have a sad and pathetic edge to them. He is childlike, filled with frustration over needs that are not met (Atkinson 1997: 45). His abusive actions clearly offer no real or meaningful satisfaction.

Frank cannot achieve sexual satisfaction without it being violent. Like Dorothy, he cannot even distinguish between acts of violence and sexual acts. During the joy ride scene he says to Jeffrey:

I’ll send you a love letter. Straight from my heart, fucker. You know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker. You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever.

After the emotional and physical abuse that Frank heaps upon Dorothy, it is fitting that he would describe an act of ‘love’ as leaving you “fucked forever” (Maxfield 1996: 152).

James Maxfield argues that not only does Frank make sex violent but he makes violence sexual (Maxfield 1996: 153). When he beats up Jeffrey he speaks to him like he did to Dorothy, repeatedly calling him “Pretty, pretty”, and kisses him after smearing lipstick onto his face. As Frank prepares himself for the attack he also ritualistically goes through the same actions he does when raping Dorothy, by stuffing the blue velvet in Jeffrey’s mouth and then inhaling on his gas mask. Frank does this again at the end of the film as he hunts for Jeffrey in Dorothy’s apartment. Inhaling on his gas mask, Frank holds his phallic gun from the waist with a strip of blue velvet draped across it.

Frank’s use of the gas mask suggests that he is impotent. It seems ironic that Frank is obsessed with “fucking” but is unable to actually perform without chemical stimulants. Lynch establishes a link between impotence and being sexually violent which robs men of true emotional satisfaction beyond the realms of perversion. John Stoltenberg argues that by focusing all sexual energy into the penis as a tool for penetrating women, men have lost touch with true love and sensuality (Stoltenberg 1989: 39). Frank’s pained and desperate expression as he rapes Dorothy betrays a total lack of even physical pleasure, let alone emotional, suggesting his motivation is to enforce his dominance over Dorothy. His fetishism for blue velvet also betrays his desire to enforce his power at the expense of true feeling. Not only does he drool all over the blue velvet as a substitute for his lack of desire, but he also penetrates Dorothy with it. Forcing blue velvet into Dorothy has no purpose other than to demean and hurt her, and so Frank flaunts his masculine power.

Jeffrey and Frank – Inherited violence

Tracy Biga symbolically links Jeffrey and Frank together as father and son. Frank is associated with Jeffrey’s father when Jeffrey has a dream sequence of his distorted father’s reflection, immediately followed by a shot of Frank. Frank’s gas mask also recalls Jeffrey’s father connected to the medical equipment in the hospital (Biga 1987: 45). During the joy ride scene Frank says to Jeffrey “You’re like me” placing Frank as Jeffrey’s symbolic father who threatens him with sexual violence (Mulvey 1996: 143). They are mirror images of each other, Frank the dark side of Jeffrey that he would normally not want to meet (Woods 1997: 83).

Atkinson, however, argues that rather than view Jeffrey and Frank as opposites, it is better to view them as extreme points on a sliding scale between “virginality and terminal venality” (Atkinson 1997: 25). While Frank embodies the extreme characteristics of an abusive male, Jeffrey is a clean slate whose encounter with the horrors of patriarchy challenges him either to accept the myth of masculinity or to become a liberated man.

Frank and Jeffrey are not merely two sides of the same penny, or even neatly suppressed aspects of each other. Rather, Frank’s impulses lurk in controllable form within Jeffrey, and Jeffrey’s state of equilibrium is something Frank has lost (Atkinson 1997: 60).

Although it is difficult to believe that Frank was ever like Jeffrey, it is possible that Jeffrey has the potential to become like Frank.

Frank represents the aggression and violence lurking in Jeffrey, and lurking in all men who are brought up to believe in the myth of masculinity. Masculinity has been constructed through conditioning and social learning leading to an attitude that women and children are the property of men and it is the right of all men to have power over them and to control them (Draper et al. 1994: 116-117).

Although Jeffrey finds it difficult to admit this to himself, he really is like Frank. Underneath he shares the same sexual and aggressive instincts as Frank, who is not merely the oedipal father but a personification of Jeffrey’s own id. Just as all sons contain within them the potential to be the oedipal father, so in beholding Frank, Jeffrey is merely seeing his own latent instincts made manifest. And it is in dreams sometimes that instincts that we normally repress in waking like become unavoidably apparent to us – assault our awareness much as Frank assaults Jeffrey (Maxfield 1996: 153).

Jeffrey’s violent encounter with Frank exposes him to the ugliness of abusive behaviour, but it also tempts him, so that he too can exploit the power violence gives men over women. The fact that Frank is so internally tortured and so dependent on external stimulants suggests that this power comes with a heavy price to both society and the individual male. Although violence delivers dominance and power, it also leaves men feeling isolated from their true selves, and emotionally impotent.

“Baby wants to fuck!” – Jeffrey’s abusive potential

Jeffrey’s affair with Dorothy takes him dangerously close to being abusive. His desire for her and concern for her wellbeing become confused. His desire overwhelms him and when he returns to her apartment to have sex his “sensible college student identity has receded and his oedipal role as hormonally driven motherfucker has taken over” (Atkinson 1997: 50).

Chion argues that Jeffrey’s different types of desire for Sandy and Dorothy suggest the culturally constructed view of women. Jeffrey is drawn to the women because they both fulfil an aspect of the masculine ideal of how women should be. Between Sandy and Dorothy, Jeffrey has the dutiful domesticated women by day and the whore at night. Sandy’s and Dorothy’s worlds are traditionally divided – the blonde lives in the conventional daytime life, while the brunette lives in the fearful and shady night (Chion 1995: 91).

However Paul Woods suggests that Sandy is not as uncomplicated as Jeffrey or the audience initially thinks. Although Sandy is presented as the archetype of the pure-hearted and honest suburban schoolgirl – a WASPish anti-Dorothy – she is the one who emerges out of the shadows and pushes Jeffrey forward into the mystery, giving her an element of strangeness too (Woods 1997: 79).

Like Laura Palmer, Sandy is a Lynchian paradigm of conceptualised goodness, so pure it’s sort of weird, and in both instances the films around them reverberate with heartsickness over their inevitable confrontation with the destructive forces of the world (Atkinson 1997: 53).

Those destructive forces are abusive men. Atkinson suggests that Lynch might be very conservative in his portrayal of the pure girl growing up and being corrupted as a tragic event, while focusing on the importance of young men like Jeffrey enduring the rites of passage (Atkinson 1997: 53). But perhaps Lynch is expressing the tragedy that so many girls are denied happiness and freedom, by growing up in a patriarchal society.

Jeffrey’s abusive potential comes to a climax when he hits Dorothy, once in retaliation and then again for pleasure. Jeffrey has ‘learnt’ from Frank how to be a man. He resembles a boy being socialised into masculinity through the role models in his family (Kemp 1998: 52-56). As Jeffrey and Dorothy have sex the film slows down, becomes blurred, and the soundtrack is filled with industrial noise and animals screaming. Not only does this intensify the horrors of sex prompted by violence, it again associates Jeffrey with Frank. The industrial noises and animal screams had previously been heard during Jeffrey’s dream of Frank punching straight into the camera.

Jeffrey experiences first hand what it is like to be an abuse victim when Frank savagely beats him. Later Jeffrey breaks down in tears remembering how he had hit Dorothy, and how it felt when Frank hit him. Although he is burdened with his previous actions, Jeffrey tries to do everything he can to help Dorothy by having Frank arrested, and to rid himself of his own abusive potential.

Though Jeffrey’s gaze dominates the film, it’s a gaze that de-eroticises the female form even as it longs for its idealisation, a process closely tied to the experience of emotional maturation. Jeffrey, after all, comes to understand Dorothy’s ‘gaze’ by becoming the object of Frank’s assault (sexual and otherwise), and he locates little enjoyment in it (Atkinson 1997: 52).

The only time Jeffrey sees Dorothy after his beating is when she is naked on his doorstep. She is so deranged, vulnerable and frightened that it is difficult for the audience to look at her. Lynch refuses to ‘prettify’ Dorothy’s naked body, thus denying viewers scopophilic pleasure. Lynch does not make her trauma something enjoyable to view.

The End (Or is it a new beginning?)

Blue Velvet ends with order apparently restored, but hints that the evils of violence against women that had plagued Lumberton are still simmering under the surface of ‘normality’. As the camera zooms out from a close up of Jeffrey’s ear we get a sense of closure since his adventures began with the finding of an ear, but it also suggests that the last few scenes are his idealised way of viewing the world. His and Sandy’s family surround him, he is united with Sandy, his father is suddenly in good health again, and Dorothy is happily playing with her child.

However the appearance of the obviously mechanical robin, and the repeat of the glossy opening sequence suggest the artificiality of a happy ending. The ending literally depicts everything returning to ‘normal’ but it suggests that violence is still lurking behind the facade of suburbia, possibly in Jeffrey who has replaced Frank as the symbolic father. The mechanical robin devouring a helpless beetle hints that the darkness is still there even though Jeffrey has, for the time being, overcome it. Jeffrey may still have the potential to be abusive and it could be only a matter of time until he treats Sandy the way Frank treated Dorothy. Dorothy’s final glance into the camera is one of uncertainty and apprehension as she, like the audience, is not convinced by the sudden happy conclusion. Mulvey suggests that this last scene might be a suggestion that all may be well for now but the whole process is about to start all over again (Mulvey 1996: 148).

Chapter Three: Who killed Laura Palmer? – “We all did”

In the television series Twin Peaks and its prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me David Lynch most directly explores domestic violence and the abusive men behind it. The focus of both the series and the film is on Laura Palmer who had been sexually abused and then murdered by Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), her father. While the series uses her murder investigation to explore how the town of Twin Peaks remembers her and reacts to what happened, the film directly explores her emotional state of mind during the seven days before her death. Although many other storylines evolved during the television series, this chapter will focus on the relationship between Laura and her incestuous father, and the FBI detective Special Agent Dale Cooper.

Laura’s behaviour and psychology is examined with regard to the research done on victims of sexual abuse by Alan Kemp and Robert T. Sigler. This chapter then explores the controversial relationship between Leland and the demon BOB (Frank Silva), using Diana Stevenson’s reading on how Lynch uses supernatural themes to explore Laura’s abuse. Christy Desmet’s reading of Laura’s character as a modern day saint suggests that Twin Peaks is a ‘martyr narrative’ about a young woman who is punished by death for her rebellion against male authority. After establishing the uniqueness of the Twin Peaks narrative in focussing on a woman’s story, this chapter will examine Martha P. Nochimson’s analysis of Special Agent Dale Cooper. Cooper begins the series as a progressive male who rejects the conventional law and order of the patriarchy to explore alternative methods of investigation. Finally this chapter will focus on how the film differed from the series by offering a very subjective view of Laura’s suffering.

Sexual abuse in the Palmer family

Before it is officially revealed that Laura had been raped and murdered by her father, she is portrayed as a victim of incest. Her behaviour and attitude to life show typical symptoms of child abuse. Although research has established what these symptoms are, the connections between types of sexual abuse and symptoms are not certain. Kemp lists the range of signs and symptoms of a sexually abused child as: problems with concentration, nervousness, irritability and mood changes, withdrawal, wetting or soiling, regressive behaviour, trouble getting along with others, problems with emotions, personality changes, problems with depression and anxiety, post-traumatic symptoms, impaired sense of self, distortions of thinking, relationship problems, avoiding certain situations or people, use of substances or activities to reduce stress, sexualised behaviour, ritualistic behaviour, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and dissociation including “multiple personalities” (Kemp 1998: 122-123).

Laura displays most of Kemp’s symptoms, alienating her socially, but also alerting the viewer that she has been sexually abused. She is sexually promiscuous, constantly plays with the emotions of her boyfriends James Hurley (James Marshall) and Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), and sometimes sadistically hurts people closest to her. At one moment she is fragile and terrified of her own home, and the next confidently dressing up for the local brothel. She ritualistically writes in her diary, constantly cries, deliberately sets herself up in dangerous situations and often speaks about the lack of love and hope in the world.

Laura’s family also conforms to the model of an incestuous family. Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie), her mother, fits Sigler’s description of having low self-esteem, leaving her feeling helpless and inadequate (Sigler 1989: 19). She is weak and ineffectual and is no longer the focus of Leland’s romantic attention. Drawing from her own research into child sexual abuse, Christy Desmet argues that Leland fits the pattern of incestuous fathers in that he is capable of violent and jealous outbursts towards his daughter, yet seems harmless to outsiders (Desmet 1995: 107). Leland has the persistent and well-planned abuse patterns of a fixated paedophile who regularly attacks a victim who does not threaten him, to quell his sense of insecurity (Kemp 1998: 194). Leland’s patriarchal desire to control the women in his family is expressed in his abuse of Laura.

When Robert T. Sigler was doing his research, the dominant explanation for abusive behaviour was that the perpetrator had been abused.

The one factor that appears to be fairly constant is the inter-generational nature of child abuse. Child abusers tend to have been victims of child abuse. These learned patterns are passed on from generation to generation (Sigler 1989: 39-40).

Leland recounts a memory of his childhood where a man fitting BOB’s description used to torment him. This suggests that BOB symbolises abusive men because he becomes the figure that abuses children from one generation to the next. Leland becomes the same man who used to abuse him. Although Lynch seems to quite deliberately be using the generation to generation explanation of abuse, it is important to note that it is no longer used to explain all cases of child abuse (Kemp 1998: 52).

Kemp also acknowledges that with the exception of a tiny proportion of extreme cases, people with psychiatric disorders are still responsible for their behaviour. Having a disorder in no way absolves sexual offenders of their behaviour and their actions are rightly treated as crimes. There is no specific diagnosis for sexual offenders and somebody committing a sexual offence does not necessarily have to have a diagnosable disorder, in fact there are no direct relationships between the two (Kemp 1998: 192-193). Hence we should view Leland as responsible for his actions. Social and psychological pressures influence him, but they do not absolve him from his guilt. Lynch uses BOB to represent Leland’s abusive actions to emphasis that they are acts of pure evil beyond redemption.

BOB – The supernatural symbol of abusive men and the patriarchy

Diana Stevenson raises the important question of who is it that actually killed Laura Palmer. Was it Leland Palmer, a paternal psychopath whose dark side was symbolised by BOB, or was it the actual demon BOB who literally possessed Leland? (Stevenson 1995: 70). This question as to how much the supernatural theme of Twin Peaks should be taken literally is crucial in deciding how much Lynch was actually criticising the family unit as a potential site of hidden violence against women. George reads Twin Peaks as a supernatural narrative, and argued that Lynch severely compromised the issue of domestic violence by simply blaming demonic possession as the cause of abuse (George 1995: 117).

Stevenson defends Twin Peaks by defining it as belonging to the genre of the fantastic because it adjoins the uncanny – where weird things happen within the natural order – and the marvellous – where the supernatural is accepted as part of the order of things (Stevenson 1995: 70). The violence of Twin Peaks comes from the doubling of Leland and BOB. Leland is the traditional middle-class father/husband figure while BOB is a low-life criminal drifter from the spectral underworld.

That BOB the criminal drifter resides in Leland tells us that Leland harbours the criminal inside him, that the incestuous and the murderous are to be understood as part of his psychological make up; that BOB the demon possesses Leland tells us that anybody could be so possessed, that the incestuous and the murderous do not arise from inside but are constructed from outside (Stevenson 1995: 75).

This ambiguity of the fantastic is an expression of genuine uncertainty about our understanding of domestic violence.

The ambiguity between public and private spaces is also created in such scenes as the murder of Maddy Ferguson (Sheryl Lee). Maddy is Laura’s double and her murder by Leland recreates Laura’s murder. It takes place within the private realm of the Palmer household, yet Cooper finds out about it in the public space of the local tavern. As the information is given to Cooper everybody else in the tavern fades away leaving The Giant (Carel Struycken) on stage to communicate with Cooper in a private and intimate dialogue. This use of the surreal collapses the boundaries of private and public spaces (Stevenson 1995: 75).

BOB is not Leland’s doppelganger since he is seen by others and takes possession of others, nor is he created within Leland’s mind; he is an evil external force that influences Leland’s behaviour. In this sense BOB represents socially constructed masculinity that dictates the behaviour of some men, and threatens women. Leland falls prey to BOB’s possession just as some men, like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, fall prey to masculinity, becoming violent in order to assert their dominance.

During Maddy’s murder, Maddy, the audience, and Leland looking in the mirror, all see BOB taking Leland’s place, symbolising the way Maddy and Leland experience the violence. Leland sees himself as the powerful masculine ideal who must assert his authority, while Maddy experiences a split perception of Leland that is common to victims of abuse. As a defence mechanism they often split themselves into different personalities, but also split the abuser in a similar manner, usually as good and bad figures (Stevenson 1995: 76).

This defensive splitting is also captured in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me when BOB is having sex with Laura and suddenly transforms back into Leland. Laura had projected BOB as her attacker and to some extent been able to deal with it. It is only when she finally realises it is her father having sex with her that she starts screaming in horror and fear. Kemp describes this reaction as ‘dissociative disorder’, which will be discussed further at the end of this chapter (Kemp 1998: 127).

Stevenson identifies other parallel story lines in Twin Peaks that mirror Laura’s abuse, and are linked back to her, suggesting that the act of abuse from father onto daughter has influenced the whole town, generating an incestuous society (Stevenson 1995: 77). Leland’s associate, Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), and his daughter, Laura’s classmate, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), almost have an incestuous relationship at Ben’s brothel where Laura also used to work. Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) is routinely beaten by Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re), her abusive husband, but is also having an affair with Laura’s ex-boyfriend. All situations echo Laura’s abuse and all tie back to Laura as if the abuse has spread like a disease throughout the rest of the town. There is a constant threat that any woman may be a victim, and any man may become host to BOB.

Twin Peaks has been criticised for excusing the violence against women by suggesting it is something supernatural that the actual men involved had no control over. Diana Hume George argues that the creation of BOB as the “evil that men do” means that men are excused for their violent behaviour. When Leland is not possessed by BOB, he is a sympathetic character who cannot be held responsible for what happened to Laura. Likewise having Cooper finally possessed means that BOB must be solely to blame because there is no way the series most beloved and trusted character could be capable of evil. Finally George argues that the narrative device of BOB suggests that the evil behaviour originates outside of the self and therefore lets men off the hook (George 1995: 117-118).

George is correct in asserting that the evils of male violence against women come from an outside source, which is what BOB represents. Like Frank Booth, BOB symbolises all that is destructive in the culturally constructed myth of masculinity. This abusive behaviour is not inherent in male behaviour and that is why it is represented as unnatural and evil. Instead of suggesting that some men are simply born bad Lynch shows how overwhelming is the social pressures of conforming to a patriarchal ideal. BOB’s possession of Leland does not excuse his behaviour. During the series Leland is seen as sinisterly happy, violent, or pathetic. BOB is an external force but one that can be resisted. Cooper may be the most ‘decent’ character but his eventual possession occurs only after a series of hints that he too has a dark hidden past. Just as Leland hid his violent nature from the town, Cooper had obviously been hiding his from the viewer too. BOB is not a supernatural excuse – he represents the evils of violent masculinity that some men succumb to as a result of social pressures.

Theresa Geller notes that only the women of the series see the truth of patriarchy (Geller 1992: 67). Laura, Sarah Palmer, and Maddy all have visions of BOB, and are all subject to Leland’s authority. Cooper is the only male who sees BOB but only when he finally has the chance to take the final step to enlightenment and instead of resistance, falls prey to the temptations of the patriarchy. The women all resist BOB, refusing to become his whore even if it means losing their life.

BOB articulates Leland (the surface of patriarchy) as “weak, full of holes, with a large hole where his conscious used to be.” After BOB escapes Leland’s conscious and before he dies, Leland recognises his crimes and goes on to explain that Laura died because she wouldn’t let “them” (I read “them” here as patriarchal law) take her. “She was too strong for them,” says Leland. Leland’s confession saves Laura from the narrative that had to that point cast her as victim and sexual deviant (she liked ‘perverse’ sex, she advertised in porno magazines). Through Leland’s admittance to his weakness to violent patriarchal forces, Laura’s death is recast as resistance rather than sexual victimisation (Geller 1992: 67).

Therefore Laura is the real hero of the series. Her death after battling against the overwhelming forces of patriarchy makes her a modern day martyr.

Laura Palmer – The martyred female hero

Christy Desmet reads Laura to be a saint figure and hence her murder becomes a ‘martyr narrative’. Laura’s background conforms to the mythical narrative of medieval woman saints. She comes from a bourgeois family of social standing, making her eventual alienation and demise more significant. In particular Laura is characterised by her service to others. She tutors Josie Packard (Joan Chen) in English, cares for the mentally handicapped Johnny Horne (Robert Bauer), and organises the Meals On Wheels program. Like saints of other legends Laura is tortured ritualistically, having been stabbed in several places several times, having the letter inserted under her fingernail, and having her body dumped “wrapped in plastic” (Desmet 1995: 95). Although Leland/BOB intended to transform her into an object of desire and a personal possession, Lynch never portrays her this way to the viewer. Instead he focuses on the blueness around her lips, and her fingernails that have grown long since her death. He includes scenes of defilement such as Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) falling on top of her (Desmet 1995: 105).

Desmet describes the objects associated with Laura as prized by the town folk as if they were holy relics. Her broken necklace, her taped confessions to Dr. Lawrence Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) and her secret diary held by Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen) are all items that are obsessively sought after. Her presence is continually felt by the town through the appearance of her look alike cousin Maddy, her taped voice, the video tape of her in the mountains, Sarah Palmer’s visions, Cooper’s dreams, and the constant discussion about who she really was (Desmet 1995: 96). Like that of a martyred saint, Laura’s death leads to social justice because investigations prompted by her death discover and stop a hidden cocaine racket (Desmet 1995: 100). Although this justice does not directly avenge Laura’s death, it is for the greater good of the community as it leads to the punishment of other abusive men such as Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz).

It is through the stories told by the other inhabitants of Twin Peaks that Laura’s mythology as a saint is truly developed, argues Desmet. While villains such as Jacques Renault and Leo Johnson take for granted that female paragons are really whores in disguise, others obsessively examine the contradictions in her character. Like most female saints, Laura’s life is written by mostly devoted male disciples. Dr. Jacoby and Bobby Briggs recall her spiritual alienation, destructive behaviour towards others, and sadistic treatment of lovers. But they also discuss her desire to do good and her awareness of her wrongdoing, suggesting the mindset of a future saint. Later in the series Dr. Jacoby tells Cooper that just before her death Laura seemed “to have reached a kind of peace” and that she may have willingly allowed herself to be killed. Laura’s story hence begins as a story about murder, then suicide, and finally martyrdom. As Leland dies, with Cooper acting as a spiritual guide, he sees a beautiful and serene vision of Laura welcoming him into the light with all forgiven (Desmet 1995: 96-97). Desmet describes Laura’s image as eventually returning to where it began – the virginal Homecoming Queen whom everybody loved. The community erases her drug habit and sexual escapades, rewriting her life in a socially acceptable way that covers up the psychosexual realities. She becomes a female saint who was persecuted by BOB, the ‘pagan suitor’ (Desmet 1995: 98).

Blaming BOB, and not Leland, for Laura’s murder is a collective act of will which captures the social reluctance to face the realities of incest. “Little girls are not abused by their fathers; if they meet an unhappy end, the reason must be sought outside the family circle” (Desmet 1995: 98). Later when FBI forensic investigator Albert Rosenfeld questions the plausibility of a demon possessing a man, Cooper replies that it is easier to accept that supernatural theory, than to believe that a father could rape and murder his own daughter. Hence BOB not only symbolises “the evil that men do” but also represents the communal denial of what really took place between Laura and her father.

Desmet argues that Lynch uses the confused doubling of Laura and Maddy to reveal how the patriarchal division of whores and virgins is irrelevant. By using the same actress to play both roles and having the town adopt Maddy as a substitute Laura, they essentially become one person and share the same fate. Mythologically Leland kills Maddy for the same reasons he killed Laura:

Both must ultimately be destroyed in order to be controlled. The father’s role in saints’ legends suggests as well the patriarchy’s ambivalence not only towards female sexuality, but also towards virginity and the autonomy that freedom from sexuality can provide women. In the lives of virgin martyrs, fathers generally oppose their daughters’ efforts to resist marriage and to preserve virginity (Desmet 1995: 100).

Leland strongly conforms to the archetypal pattern of the father acting in the interest of the patriarchy by sacrificing both his ‘daughters’ and fulfilling his own desires. His motive in murdering Maddy is a desire for control rather than sexual. Maddy’s announcement that she is leaving Twin Peaks to go back to a life of her own represents her refusal to fill Laura’s shoes, and hence appease the community.

Female saints are characterised by their political subversiveness, according to Desmet, and Maddy’s stance echoes the traditional narratives of the saint disobeying her parents and refusing to marry. Laura would not conform to the image of the Homecoming Queen and then Maddy would not become the idealised Laura. Bobby’s statement that “we all” killed Laura is correct, since both girls were killed not only out of Leland’s incestuous rage, but also out of community outrage that they did not conform. Their sexual freedom and social autonomy is punished by death to destroy the threat against the patriarchal order (Desmet 1995: 100-101).

Laura’s and Maddy’s murder, as a result of their refusal to conform to the patriarchy, are extreme examples of domestic violence suffered by women who attempt to live a life beyond that of a ‘mother/wife’. The Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce found that violence usually occurs as a result of the husband’s expectations of his wife’s domestic work, his sexual possessiveness, and the allocation of the family’s resources. By behaving violently the man asserts his power of control over the woman whom he expects to meet his every demand and keep the house running in a way that suits him (Draper et al. 1994: 79). The social demand for Laura to conform to the image of the Homecoming Queen, and Leland’s demand for Maddy to conform to Laura’s supposed image, reflects the demands of abusive men for their wives’ to behave ‘motherly’ and to perform their sexual and domestic ‘wifely duties’.

Special Agent Dale Cooper – An initial male alternative to abusive men

Martha P. Nochimson argues that conventional Hollywood heroes are characterised as being able to attain knowledge and power through rational means that are traditionally character traits of masculinity. Although women are sometimes capable of such detective work as well, they are usually portrayed as phallic and not ‘feminine’. They become ‘as good as men’ and need to be masculine to succeed. The dominant portrayal of women shows that their natural urges do not provide the rational thought that men have. This femininity prevents them from achieving anything in the masculine world of detection. Lynch challenges this by representing phallic power with BOB, and making Cooper, the detective hero, ‘feminine’ in his investigative methods (Nochimson 1997: 88). By displacing gender traits this way, Lynch reveals gender stereotypes to be false and redundant.

Rather than using masculine logic and conventional evidence, Cooper employs his own brand of Tibetan spirituality to discover Laura’s killer. He uncovers evidence through games of chance, intuition, luck, magic and dreams. This places Cooper outside the dominant culture and links him to nature. Women such as Audrey Horne, Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn-Boyle in the series, Moira Kelly in the film), and especially The Log Lady (Catherine Coulson) are also crucial in his investigation, further debunking the myth of men only being capable of ‘solving the mystery’. Even Laura helps Cooper from beyond the grave when she whispers the name of her killer in his ear during a dream sequence.

Lynch suggests how useless traditional detective work is at the start of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The conventional FBI agents are totally unsuccessful in their attempts at solving the Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) murder, demonstrating that it is not the FBI who are so skilful in their investigations but specifically Cooper and his unique methods. The logic of authority cannot help Laura, since it is part of the dominant male culture that ultimately killed her.

Many critics, including Nochimson, believe the show lost its feminist sensibilities during the second series while Lynch was absent to film Wild At Heart. The major change that Nochimson highlights is the focus on the rivalry between Cooper and Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), which was literally depicted as a chess game. Hence the culturally transcendent detective narrative was abandoned for a showdown based on competing logic rather than intuition and spirituality. Culturally cliched female characters also appeared – the stereotypical blonde femme fatale, Evelyn Marsh (Annette McCarthy) who seduces and betrays James Hurley, and Cooper’s love interest Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), the virginal blonde who is responsible for Cooper going into the Red Room and being possessed by BOB (Nochimson 1997: 92).

When Lynch returned to rewrite and direct the final episode of Twin Peaks, he used its progression into a conventional narrative to re-enforce his agenda of rejecting the traditional ‘masculine’ logic. He did this by punishing the character that Cooper had become. By having Cooper possessed by BOB, he is revealed to no longer be the progressive character that he once was, having fallen victim to the temptations of masculinity. This happens when Cooper enters the Red Room to rescue Annie from Windom Earle.

The Red Room can be read as a space of cultural transgression. Once it has been entered, you will come out either enlightened and free of cultural pressures, or cursed by the destructive forces of a dominant culture that encourages violence against women.

To the show’s credit, it represents nothing easy about going beyond the cultural self. Not only must one surrender to the larger forces to gain individual vision, one must get beyond the selfish desire that all boundary crossing be in our own image (Nochimson 1997: 86).

When Cooper is in the Red Room he is no longer the intuitive person that he was at the start of the series, and doubts his ability to cope with the spirituality of the place. When The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) tells Cooper that he is going the wrong way, Cooper interprets this literally and walks in the other direction. The Man From Another Place really meant that by entering the Red Room with fear and doubt Cooper cannot gain entry to enlightenment. Cooper fails the ultimate test and his literal way of thinking destroys him. Cooper abandons his quest for cultural transcendence and is chased by an evil version of himself who eventually materialises back into the real world leaving the ‘good’ Cooper behind to become an ideal that no longer exists in reality.

BOB finally obliterates Windom Earle suggesting that the eventual fate of abusive men is self-destruction, since the culturally constructed myth of masculinity is so opposed to a person’s true nature. It is fitting that BOB says he is taking Windom Earle’s soul, since conforming to masculinity is so soul destroying. Cooper’s encounter with Caroline Earle (Brenda E. Mathers), his dead lover, suggests that he may have been directly responsible for her death. Cooper’s abandonment of spirituality occurs at a similar time as he starts dating Annie, suggesting that he is prone to being abusive when romantically involved with a woman. Cooper may have conquered other traits of masculinity, but romantic attachment brings out feelings of ownership and jealousy that could become violent. The series ends with Cooper possessed by BOB asking in mock concern “How’s Annie?” as if her wellbeing is secondary to whether or not she is still his.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me puts the viewer inside Laura’s mind. We experience the horror of her abuse in the same confusing and almost surreal way that she does. The only exception is the film’s prologue focusing on the investigation of Teresa Bank who was also killed by Leland/BOB. This prologue alerts viewers that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me cannot be read literally but must be decoded, like the appearance and ‘dancing’ of Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole) which are clues that the FBI agents have to interpret.

The prologue defines the film as a separate entity to the television series by inverting all aspects of the Twin Peaks television series. The death of Teresa Banks goes almost unnoticed with none of the emotion surrounding that of Laura, Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Issac) is the anti-Cooper – void of personality, the people of Deer Meadow are rude and unhelpful, the town is ugly, the police are hostile, and the food and coffee are bad. Most importantly, once the prologue has ended absolutely nothing new has been discovered (Chion 1995: 148-149).

The scene where Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) returns to the FBI headquarters serves to define the level of consciousness Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is operating under. It is a confused mess of images and sound appearing to have no narrative relevance or logic. Jeffries slips in and out of different dimensions, time and space break down when Cooper sees his own image on the monitor, and the audience has trouble understanding what anybody says as the shots of Jeffries are inter-cut with the supernatural characters. The audience must appreciate that the film is not working under normal narrative conventions, nor is it attempting to explain anything. It is working on the subconscious level of surrealism where dream logic has as much validity as waking logic. Emotions and the unconscious are being explored and defy rational explanation.

It is appropriate that Laura’s world is portrayed this way because incest does define rational explanation, despite the research done on its effects, and as a result her world becomes like a nightmare. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me fully explores the most extreme symptom of child sexual abuse – dissociative disorders. Some of these disorders include dissociative identity disorder (formally known as multiple personality disorder) where the subject develops a number of distinctively autonomous or semi-autonomous personalities to overcome the overpowering stress and anxiety of being sexually abused. Other disorders include dissociative amnesia where the subject losses their memory of the traumatic event, and depersonalisation, a disorder where the subject feels a chronic sense of being separated from their mind or body (Kemp 1998: 127)

Laura’s sense of separation from her body is captured in the scene where she enters the picture on her wall; her dissociative amnesia is the reason she is so shocked when she finally sees that it is her father and not BOB who is raping her; and her brief possession by BOB in Harold Smith’s house reveals that even she takes on BOB’s persona to deal with the trauma.

As an abusive father, Leland/BOB encapsulates the simultaneity of the dark and bright sides of cultural control. And his violence towards his daughter conflates the surfaces and depths of culture, we see that there are no comfortable places in ‘normal’ reality for Laura (Nochimson 1997: 176).

The boundaries between inside and out collapse to suggest the internal torment and confusion that Laura suffers as everything she trusted and had faith in begins to dissolve around her. Pictures on her wall open up into other dimensions, the ceiling fan becomes unnaturally loud to announce the arrival of BOB, the angel in her picture vanishes, and dead characters, characters from the future, and supernatural characters visit her.

Laura’s compulsive sexual behaviour is also a symptom of her abuse. Kemp found that the strongest individual behaviour signal of possible sexual abuse is age-inappropriate sexual knowledge and behaviour (Kemp 1998: 124). When Donna asks Laura why she prostituted herself Laura is unable to answer. She routinely snorts coke before any sexual act as if trying to numb the pain. Her manic episodes, drug habit, conviction that she is ‘bad’, death wish and difficulty in discerning reality from fantasy are characteristics of child abuse (Kemp 1988: 50).

In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me Leland shows more characteristics that fit him into Kemp’s fixated paedophile model (Kemp 1998: 194). He carefully plans his assault on Laura by drugging Sarah and is extremely insecure about her relationships with other men. He acts like a jealous lover by interrogating her about who she sees and getting aggressive when he sees the necklace James gave her. Laura was the perfect victim of his abuse in her traumatised state of denial, but when she identifies Leland as her abuser and commands him to stay away, he kills her in a mixture of jealous rage and self-preservation.

By totally abandoning realism Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me succeeded in doing what the series hinted at, within the restraints of the format and censorship guidelines of prime time television. The horrors of domestic violence are amplified by having a narrative about incest – possibly the most abhorrent type of abuse – and by depicting the experience though the eyes of the incest victim. Lynch deliberately makes it difficult for the viewer to watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me so that we can experience the same confusion, terror and betrayal that Laura suffers. Lynch creates sensations that cannot be easily forgotten, so that the abuse cannot be witnessed at a safe distance. This leaves the audience empathising with Laura and justifiably outraged at a culture that can tolerate the existence of domestic violence.


David Lynch’s portrayal of violence against women and children makes no apologies for being often graphic and always disturbing and upsetting. Rather than avoid the issue or simply use it as a convenient plot device, Lynch puts it at the centre of his narratives. He forces the audience to confront the reality of domestic abuse and generates feelings of dread, confusion and fear that give us some hint of what it feels like to be a victim. Lynch makes no attempt to explain or rationalise why domestic violence happens as there are few explanations for what causes some men to beat, rape and murder women. Lynch portrays it simply as an extreme act of evil that has been generated by a patriarchal culture that has created false divisions between how men and women relate to each other.

While it would be rare to ever encounter a man as deranged and psychotic as Frank Booth and improbable that a man could be possessed by a demon from another dimension, both Frank and Leland/BOB embody the destructive elements of masculinity that are present in abusive men. Their possessive behaviour towards women and their constant threat of violence articulate the attitudes of men who believe that their wives and daughters are their property to be handled as they please.

Dorothy Vallens and Laura Palmer are innocent victims of abuse. Both women display strong and determined characteristic but are victims of circumstance. Frank’s hold over Dorothy reflects the hold abusive men have over their wives. Many women stay in abusive marriages to protect their children, symbolised by Dorothy’s sexual subservience to Frank who has kidnapped her child. Laura’s inability to escape her abuse is symptomatic of an incest victim who has been so severely damaged psychologically in childhood that she has difficultly discerning reality from her own defensive mental projections. When she does finally realise that it is her father raping her, she is killed in retaliation.

Like Frank, domestic violence is perverse and ugly, and like BOB, it is unnatural and not welcome in our world. While the patriarchy continues to support masculinity as a dominating and aggressive position of power, violence against women and children in the home will continue. To understand and then prevent domestic violence we must first question our own notions of what it means to be male. Our idea of masculinity has been so successfully shaped by the patriarchy that it can be difficult to accept that it is not natural but culturally constructed in order to give one group of people power over another group of people.

This thesis seeks not only to establish Lynch as director worthy of feminist attention, but also to develop the analysis of the representations of domestic violence in film. There needs to be an increased willingness to discuss and combat actual incidents of domestic violence. While Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks series and film put issues of male violence against women into popular culture, the ugly and painful realities of domestic violence often go unnoticed due to our collective denial of its prevalence. It is disturbingly commonplace but not something people want to acknowledge. Not only because it is so horrific but also because it owes its existence to the dominant patriarchal culture.


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Blue Velvet, David Lynch, 1986

Eraserhead, David Lynch, 1976

Lost Highway, David Lynch, 1997

Twin Peaks (television series), created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, 1990-1991

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch, 1992

Wild At Heart, David Lynch, 1990

© Thomas Caldwell, 2000