Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video
I dated a lot of men in my twenties, and most of them were decent people. Only one ever turned violent.
By the end of our brief entanglement, he had unlocked my phone, stolen most of my passwords, and logged in to nearly all of my accounts, including my iCloud account via web browser. He was proud of it. He dropped hints I willed myself to ignore, casual references to my private playlists, old prescriptions, group chats, dating app messages, even rejected essays floating in Submittable limbo. But the pièce de résistance was a Twitter account that responded to my Notes app in real time.
Like these antics, the violence itself was wacky and premeditated, the kind of violence an infantile man commits because another woman—their mother or someone they perceived as a girlfriend—once made him feel small. What haunts me the most about the whole ordeal is that I ever felt tenderness toward someone who expressed his maladjustment in such a prosaically topical, tacky way.
Before it happened, I had thought I was lucky. I’d never met a man who knew so much about Mary Karr. It was easy to interpret his fixation on #MeToo as over-earnest allyship, his obsession with dictators and historical poisonings as a nerdy morbid streak. It was even easier to explain away his monologuing as a funny foible. I was going to show him that he didn’t have to perform for me. I’d turned every red flag into an endearing quirk, a minor imperfection I could overlook and even feel smug about overlooking, because that’s what adult women do, I’d decided; they overlook so that they can live.
When the panic attacks began, they seemed like more of a strange nuisance than a physiological fire alarm. Butterflies, I told myself. I resented those butterflies. My self-image was so poor, it had never occurred to me that I was being hurt, but only that I was too closed-off, too guarded, too stubbornly, irrationally unwilling to trust this person who was trying so hard to be my friend.
Perhaps this is why, while watching the second season of Fleabag last April, I fully expected there to be a glory hole in the confessional box. When there wasn’t, I was shocked—so shocked, I had to watch it all again just to make sure. Then I wrote a 2,700-word essay analyzing the Priest’s behavior and explaining why it was probably caused by a traumatic childhood.
The Priest isn’t a misogynist. He’s troubled, not malicious. The things I recognized in him were not the things people found attractive about him; they were the cracks in the façade through which I could see traces of my date’s self-aggrandizement, his cryptic asides that functioned as a kind of one-man elitism, inaccessible to all but himself. For him, the violation was a perk, but keeping and burnishing a secret was what really made him swell. That pathetic need to feel special was the thing I recognized in the Priest. That side of him we don’t talk about—the side that tells women to kneel, the side that’s only in it for the outfits—is what rang true for me.
My date’s paradoxical subordination to a fantasy life most people couldn’t understand gave him a similar sense of specialness. While the Priest took orders from the Church, my date took orders from what psychologist Sam Vaknin has called “the False Self,” a narcissist’s idealized version of selfhood, which he lives in constant fear of failing. Living by the rules of his rarefied world, he felt powerful and safe. The Priest externalized this impulse by joining the priesthood, but that need to feel both exceptional and protected was instantly recognizable to me, even without the anti-social streak. I was grateful for those similarities. They helped me process what happened. Comforting myself with Andrew Scott’s earthy charm, I used his portrayal of a decidedly benign nutcase as a proxy for the real danger I’d experienced. I could safely dwell in my unanswered questions without risk of empathizing with someone who had hurt me.
In spite of all this, I still think the Priest is a groundbreaking portrayal of how men struggle with untreated mental illness today. A cursory look at Fleabag Reddit last spring would have exposed you to people’s intimate personal reflections on bipolar disorder and alcoholism. So in that sense, I wasn’t alone. The Priest reminded me of someone I knew. But that was about it.
The beauty of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s work is that it isn’t afraid to make the darkness quotidian. It suggests that advancing the plot can be as simple as getting a counseling voucher for your birthday.
“I’d kill for one of those,” says her family’s new priest, who has mysteriously joined her family for dinner.
In this scene, we learn that the Priest needs this voucher even more than Fleabag does. Over the course of the dinner, he mentions that his brother is a pedophile and that his parents are alcoholics. The only reason he’s at this family gathering at all is that he’s “really fucking lonely.” Though never explicitly stated, the Priest’s anxiety disorder, which becomes apparent when he starts screaming at invisible foxes, gives us some clue as to the nature of his trauma.
So why doesn’t he get therapy? The easy answer is that he’d rather be the savior than the supplicant. A shrink’s couch isn’t so different from a confession box: both allow a paternalistic figure to listen to your problems and decide what’s really wrong. The early origins of psychoanalysis are inextricably bound to gendered power dynamics, with the ancient Greeks even going so far as to name hysteria after uteruses. G&Ts look a lot more dignified than CBT because of that cultural baggage, and that’s a problem, because they’re not.
The Priest doesn’t want to put himself in a vulnerable position, so he retreats into fantasy. He is, by his own admission, a “big reader with no friends.” It’s reasonable to infer that he spent his childhood seeking companionship through books. What other kind of person gets drunk in their office thinking about Winnie the Pooh? It can’t be mere coincidence that his favorite character is Piglet, the most endearing portrayal of clinical anxiety that exists in literature.
Celibacy aside, the Priest chose his job well. The Bible is full of stories. But while stories can help us understand our world, they can also keep reality at a safe remove. Dissociative fantasy is no replacement for real life, and when it surpasses real life, we call it crazy. My date wasn’t Voldemort or #God or a “demon,” as he alternately called himself on his alias accounts. Like most abusive men, he just wanted to feel powerful. Pretending at godly omniscience was his zany way of attaining that feeling.
The Priest’s reason for becoming a priest is only similar to the extent that it’s rooted in the fear of being vulnerable. The pulpit and the stage—in the case of this version of Fleabag, a fourth wall—are how these characters choose to seek human contact while remaining unreachable themselves. Naturally, they have a hard time communicating, and neither of them quite manages to tell the other their secret.
The first time Fleabag tries to ask the Priest about himself, he fires back with his own line of questioning. He even breaks her fourth wall to distract her, an act that’s been described as intimate in some recaps but is really a defense mechanism. The second time, he puts her in the confession box rather than talk to her as an equal. The third time, after she’s confessed, he goes to her house with the intention of similarly baring his soul. It seems as though he might finally level with her, that he is ready to treat her as an equal partner instead of a lost lamb.
“When I was a child, I—” he starts to say, before they are interrupted by a randy lawyer at the door. Fleabag tries to get the lawyer to leave. The Priest sticks around, but he doesn’t try to finish the story. The moment passes; he takes it as a mercy.
During this scene, the Priest references Fleabag’s now-famous confession box monologue, which is heavily informed by her conversation with her therapist. “I don’t think you want to be told what to do,” he says. “If you did, you’d be wearing one of these!” Nearly apoplectic, he points to his clerical collar.
The Priest has learned something about himself from her confession without sharing anything in return, making the exchange too one-sided to be true intimacy. As others haveguidance. What we watched was not engineered catharsis or sexy role-play. It was something that should make us uncomfortable., the power imbalance in the confession box scene is problematic because Fleabag went to the church that night to pray. She wasn’t there for sex, but for spiritual
The Priest made a lot of assumptions about what Fleabag wanted from him without stopping to ask.
In writing this, I am acutely aware of the risk of conflating my date’s outrageous abuse with the Priest’s mistakes. I’ve chastised myself for clinging to the notion that trauma might explain his actions, a self-soothing fable I told myself to protect my ego. By projecting my recent experiences onto the character of the Priest, I was trying to transform him my date from a sad sack with a grudge into a tortured soul. I was still trying to tell myself the story I wanted to hear. The story I could bear.
Trauma might explain some of my date’s actions, but it does not excuse them. His decisions were his alone. The pressure our society places on men to suppress their pain at all costs can’t be dismissed as a factor, but we must be careful to consider it alongside the harm it does to women. If we don’t, we risk forgetting that toxic masculinity is a danger to all.
suicides in the U.K. are male. women in England and Wales reported experiencing domestic violence last year. The numbers in the U.S. are equally if not more bleak, with DV-related fatalities . Something in our culture is very, very wrong, and has been for a number of centuries. We are only just beginning to fathom it.
The agender genius of Waller-Bridge’s creation is rooted in the question of how to seek intimacy in an unsafe world. By showing how these two extremely guarded characters cope with pain, she crafts a story about two people trying to do just that. The key is that the Priest wanted human connection more than he feared giving up control. That’s what makes it a love story.
Marianna Nash is a writer from Queens. Her work has apppeared in The Rumpus, Nashville Review, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Cosmonauts Avenue, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places in print and online. When she can stand it, she tweets @mariannanash.