Sharp Objects, The Sinner, and the Trauma of Mothering & Being Mothered
By Rivka Yeker
Warning: This essay contains spoilers for The Sinner and Sharp Objects
A person bleeds from the side of their mouth sometimes when they bite their gums too hard. When a mother squeezes her child’s hand, it’s out of protection. In an article I read about Munchausen by Proxy, the writer said that they once asked a mother why she was strangling her kid and she said, “I thought I was just tickling his chin.”
In HBO’s new one season hit TV show adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects, Amy Adams’ character Camille unravels deeply uncomfortable realizations about the way her mother has treated her and her late sister. Her perception, drunk and blurry, exposes quiet Southern secrets with each turn. Whether it is the cryptic blue bottle disguised as medicine that always appears when least desired or the droplets of blood that flash through her mind like bolts of lightning when she sees any object she used to hurt herself with. In contrast, the first season of USA crime drama The Sinner, Cora Tannetti, consumed by disassociation kills a man in broad daylight. These two main characters share a similar experience, though their relationship to violence looks different. Camille self-inflicts harm consistently, while Cora brutally stabbed someone for the first time in her life. Regardless, both women’s actions and pain stems from the trauma of their childhood, and more specifically, their mothers.
I took a Psychotic Women in Horror Film class in my second to last quarter of undergrad. In it, we watched a lot of films that had mothers as main characters. Mothers who lost their minds, mothers who wanted to kill their children, mothers who couldn’t seem to grasp how to mother. I began empathizing with mothers, through the eyes of Amelia in The Babadook (2016), her own exhaustion and trauma building as an undeniable force, a monster that couldn't be contained. I saw it in an Iranian horror film called Under the Shadow (2016), where a mother had to protect her child amidst war and stress, something out of her control, yet a task that was entirely her responsibility. There are horror classics where the mother is a source of both love and evil, like in the slasher film Psycho (1960) where Norman Bates will do anything for his mother, so much so that he continues to live as if she is still alive, enacting murder under the notion that this is what both he and his mother need. There is also the less obvious Alien series where we witness the deep connection to the thing that birthed us, regardless of the pain, suffering, and violence it may cause us.
The similarities between Cora in The Sinner and Camille in Sharp Objects are distinct. For instance, they both have sick sisters who die, and both women feel guilt because of it. Both women are from rural areas with abusive mothers and complicit fathers. Both women end up moving to larger cities to escape their past, though Cora’s situation is a bit more complicated since she didn’t actually make that decision herself. Both women are also unreliable narrators; Camille is a drunk and Cora has been drugged so intensely that she cannot remember an entire duration of time, from when her sister died to how she ended up in the town she’s living in now.
One of the most important similarities is that because both women’s sisters were sick (Cora’s more naturally than Camille’s), they never receive the same kind of love as their siblings, or perhaps any at all. Cora wore guilt like a cloak, being told by her mother that if she sinned, her sister would die. This meant that if she took a bite out of a chocolate bar, her sister would die. This meant that if her mother found out, she’d force her to bury it in the ground and repent for her sins while her sister watched. In Camille’s case, her guilt is more abstract. She feels guilty for not stopping her mother, from not protecting her sister from her mother’s poison, while she rejected her mother’s “love.” Perhaps that rejection is what caused her mother to kill her sister, perhaps she had too much “love” to give. This similarity is important because both women seek to be motherly figures, Cora being one herself, and Camille eventually believing she will be her sister Amma’s caretaker.
Just like Camille isn’t in the show to solve the crime, I’m not here to dissect it. I am more so concerned with the real focus in Sharp Objects and Cora’s cryptic background in The Sinner. In Sharp Objects, there are moments where the history of her mother Adora’s relationship with her own mother is revealed. It is especially prevalent in the end when Adora is looking Camille in the eye, justifying her abuse without outright saying it, and telling a story about her mother when she was a child. The story includes waking Adora up, driving her to the woods, and leaving her there. Adora ends the story with saying that once she finally found her way home, her mother looked to her and nonchalantly said, “Oh, you’re home.” This story paired well with one we had previously heard in the show from her husband Alan about Adora’s mother pinching her in the middle of the night without warning, just to see if she was awake. Adora justified her behavior in her mind, and it wasn’t rooted in hating her daughter, but loving her in a very unhealthy and abusive way. These moments where we learn about Adora’s own trauma are intentional; they are ways for us to see why she is doing what she’s doing, without necessarily forcing us to feel badly for her.
While there are less specific details and flashbacks for why Cora’s mother is so deeply religious, it is safe to assume she comes from religion since her relationship with guilt is strong and all consuming. She forces her daughters to live a life of repression and confinement, but it isn’t because she hates them, but rather because she is trying to protect her dying daughter from death. While it may seem that her and Adora’s ways of handling their daughters are different (one is poisoning her to make her sick so she can be taken care of, one is already sick and does need to be taken care of), they’re actually quite similar. Both mothers feel it is their responsibility to protect their children from whatever it is that could kill them first, even if that means killing them first or not letting them enjoy life at all.
The older sisters Camille and Cora get the brunt of their younger sisters caretaking because they ended up being unloved. Camille refused the poison her mother tried to feed her and refused everything her mother told her to do. She was rebellious and she stuck to her guns, something Adora couldn’t handle. Ironically enough, Adora tells Camille, while Camille finally lets her mother feed her poison, that out of all the daughters she’s had, Camille is most like her. In contrast, while Cora was vengeful and secretly rebellious, she did what her mother told her to do. Both women didn’t gain the love their sisters got because their mothers decided they didn’t need it as much as their other daughters. Personally, One of the most shocking moments in Sharp Objects isn’t the reveal of the murderer (though it is horrific), it is when Adora tells Camille the she never loved her. In that moment, I could feel the gruesome pain that Camille’s swollen heart felt. Adora didn’t love Camille because Adora claims that Camille didn’t let her. Cora’s mother deprived her of love because she blamed her for her sister’s illness. All the daughters in these shows either ends up dead or severely mentally ill and traumatized because of the manipulative ways their mothers positioned their “love.”
It is an interesting phenomenon to see media that depicts the complicated ways trauma affects our behavior, especially trauma that is designed so intentionally by the people who birthed us. These shows expose the ways developmental trauma will impact life choices while simultaneously triggering mental illness because the body doesn’t have the capacity to protect itself anymore. The body no longer finds anyone or any place safe, including the place in which it lives, and so it causes the brain to wreak havoc. The most nuanced and difficult part about the trauma instilled by mothers like these is that they too have their own trauma. There is this concept that traumatized people inflict abuse on others and I don’t think that’s necessarily true as long as those people do the intense work (that they shouldn’t have to do) to unlearn and move past the trauma, so that their learned toxic behavior can be quieted. In the end of Sharp Objects before the reveal, Camille reflects that she is afraid that there’s a potential for her to repeat the cycle of abuse she learned from her mother. It is an earnest fear, one many people who have suffered from familial abuse know extremely well.
These shows craft excellent stories that give insight into women who are traumatized by the hand of their mothers, but also by the men in their lives who either perpetuated violence or quietly looked away from it. These are shows not just about murders, but about the ways in which trauma is a dark, twisted thing and often destroys our abilities to cope in a way that is healthy until we are forced to reroute the ways our brains have been wired since birth. Sharp Objects and The Sinner don’t empathize with their abusers or their killers, they merely expose their stories and sometimes I think that can be harder for viewers to grapple with. Sometimes I think that can be harder for the person being abused to handle.
Rivka Yeker is a Chicago-based writer, bookseller, freelance publicist and event coordinator. She enjoys saving little to no time for relaxing, but mostly they're forming new theories on communication + media theory, absorbing and critically assessing film, reading comics, asking too many questions, and yelling poetry in front of strangers. Follow them on Twitter &