cw: mentions of relationship abuse (no explicit details)
On a whim, I decided to start “Harley Quinn,” the DC animated series, because I’d heard it was gay and I needed something new to watch. The series follows Harley Quinn after she breaks away from an abusive relationship with the Joker, and attempts to make a name for herself in the Legion of Doom. We can talk all about how this show is a perfect example of unpacking unhealthy relationship dynamics, but for now I want to focus on season one episode five of the series. In this episode, Harley is having a hard time deciding which house to buy. She can’t make a decision because she “doesn’t know who she is.” (Classic trauma-brain*amirite?) This dilemma sends her into an identity crisis that literally causes her whole body to freeze.
This is obviously a dramatization, but still, there’s truth inside this episode which made me reflect on my own experiences. I’ve been confronting my relationship with power lately; and more specifically, ways that I’ve been taught to doubt my sense of self, and in the process, give up my power to others. As someone healing from codependent relationships and dysfunctional family dynamics, hearing and trusting my intuition, and standing in my power has really been the work of my early twenties thus far.
When we experience trauma (e.g; emotional manipulation in childhood, unhealthy relationships, anti-Blackness, etc.) we’re taught that we have no power within ourselves. We’re taught that the people who are mistreating us are the external source we must look to for approval; we learn to shape who we are around them, and lose ourselves in the process. We are taught to forget the power we have to make our own choices grounded in a deep knowing of ourselves--our intuition.
What’s key here: we don't loose our power-- we forget it.
To fix Harley’s frozen state, her friends journey into Harley’s mind to “reboot her.” There, Harley and Poison Ivy discover that there’s a glitch in the camera footage of her origin-story; at the moment when she’s pushed into the vat of acid by the Joker, the footage skips. Harley and her squad journey to the “repressed memory section” of her brain to see what’s up. They find that Harley was never pushed into the vat of acid-she jumped. Harley is devastated by this. In trying to understand why her brain hid this from her, she comes to the conclusion that “this whole time I thought he pushed me, that it wasn’t my choice, but it was [...] it was easier to blame him than accept the truth [...] that it was always my choice. That I was in control all along...and I still am.”
Let me be clear and say that living through traumatic relationships, emotional manipulation or abuse is not your fault. This isn’t about placing blame: this is about healing mindsets and restoring power. Just because many of us have been taught that we need to give away our power, does not mean that people need to take that power and use it against us. In the same way that we had a choice, the person on the other side of that harm had a choice too.
This scene where Harley jumps made me think about the ways I thought I could only love, or be loved, through giving up my power. It made me ask myself; even in my freedom, how am I still recreating this narrative? That’s codependency. That’s unhealthy relationship shit.
Harley reminded me that in the past I have also chosen to become a version of myself that wasn’t real, in exchange for the promise of love and affection. She reminded me of how that taught me to forget my own power: I forgive myself for this.
If you’re reading and relate, I hope you forgive yourself too.
“I was in control all along.. and I still am.”
Like Harley, I’m realizing that there can be empowerment in choosing to leave old wounded narratives behind. In reckoning with the ways we have been taught to look outside of ourselves for love, and validation, we can now choose differently. What do you want? How do you need to honor yourself? It takes time, but the answer is probably already inside of you. Like Harley, I’m learning to make choices and experience Love** that’s rooted in the Love I have for myself; Love which empowers me to choose myself again and again.
* Trauma impacts the way your brain functions, and particularly one's ability to gauge risk, understand when a situation is or isn’t dangerous, and make decisions. Many survivors experience this and “trauma-brain” is a colloquial way of referencing this.
** Note the difference between capital “L” Love, and love here. In Bell Hook’s All About Love: New VIsions, she gives a concrete definition of Love, and says it’s important to have this definition in order to make it very clear that Love and abuse cannot coexist. I denote her definition with a capital “L,” because this is The Love we strive for. However I find it important to honor that love is also a deep feeling; it feels wrong to tell people that they don’t feel love simply because they’re still learning how to do it right. My solution: I denote this feeling as lowercase “l” love.
About the Author:
Sarah Nnenna Loveth Nwafor (She and They pronouns) is a queer Nigerian (Igbo)-American Poet, Educator, and Facilitator who descends of a powerful ancestry. They believe that storytelling, and poetry is magick, and they speak to practice traditions of Igbo orature. When they witness, her forebears are pleased. Sarah Nwafor has been writing for a minute and is learning something new about their voice each year, but something they’re proud to share is that; they have a chapbook forthcoming with Game Over Books! When Sarah's not writing; she's probably sitting under a tree, reading about Love, dancing with friends or cooking a bomb-ass meal like the true Taurus she is. They can be found on instagram (@sarahnwafor) or on twitter (@nwafor_sarah).”
Special shout out to Sara Mae who originally edited this piece!! They can be found on IG @sara_mae9 and on their website here. Her music and chapbook "Priestess of Tankinis" (published with Game Over Books) can be found on their website, their chapbook can also be found here.