Sharp Objects and the long-acting poison of childhood trauma

Commentary: Episode 8 of the HBO miniseries revealed the murderer, but the real killer is the long-acting poison of abuse. Major, major spoilers ahead.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
4 min read

Despite being unspeakably abused, Camille (Amy Adams) taps unprecedented internal strength.  

Anne Marie Fox/HBO


It's hard to think of a more detestable character to appear on our TV screens in recent years than Adora Crellin, the cruel, controlling mother in HBO's Sharp Objects who damages her three daughters in unthinkable ways. Yet there's a scene in Sunday's eighth and final episode where it's tough not to feel at least a tiny bit of empathy for her. 

It's when she's tending to her daughter Camille (Amy Adams), who's hunched over in the bathtub, sick out of her gourd from the poison her mother's systematically been spooning her along with doses of feigned concern.

Adora's own mom, she tells her pale and writhing elder daughter, once woke Adora in the dead of night when she was 7 or 8 and took her outside barefoot, in her nightgown.  


Patricia Clarkson as Adora: some scars are far harder to spot than others.  

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

"I knew better than to open my mouth when Joya was punishing me," Adora, played to chilling perfection by Patricia Clarkson, says in her deep southern drawl. "It was the same whether I'd done something wrong or not. She drove me to the woods, walked me in deep, sat me down and left me. Took me hours to get home."

Based on the Gillian Flynn novel of the same name, the Sharp Objects miniseries revolves around the slowly unfolding mystery of two murdered young girls in the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri.

It's a nail-biter of a Southern gothic tale that's spawned detailed theories on the killer's identity. Anyone who watched the finale through the post-credits scene now knows it's Adora's precocious teenage daughter, Amma. After long being poisoned by a mother who desperately needs to feel needed, she turns into a monstrous murderer capable of pulling out her victims' teeth with pliers.   

But Sharp Objects is more than a murder mystery. It's a powerful reminder of the ways childhood trauma can kill people off in slower, far more subtle ways. And ultimately how some, like Camille, find the fortitude to turn pain into strength and bravery, while others inflict their suffering on others -- in the case of Adora and Amma, in fatal ways.  

Before the finale, Adora's husband Alan shares that her mother Joya was impulsive and sadistic, but getting the disturbing details from Adora herself as she's in the very act of terrorizing her own child paints a vivid picture of psychological trauma getting passed from generation to generation. Joya poisoned Adora's mind and spirit, and she in turn has passed that poison to her daughters, both metaphorically and literally.

"We all have bad childhoods," Adora says. "At some point you have to forget it. Move on. Anything else is just selfish."

Of course, few forget bad childhoods -- or ever completely move on from them. Camille has left Wind Gap and become a successful big-city reporter, but her sad, wary eyes and the self-inflicted wounds etched across her body show her professional success and baggy black clothes can't ever truly cover her scars.

Still, unlike either her mother or younger sister, Camille somehow manages to emerge from her horrific past armed with a steely determination to do what's right. She heroically risks her life, swallowing Adora's poison so she can expose her mother's Munchausen by proxy, a mental disorder that drives people to make up or cause symptoms in others to get attention and sympathy as caregivers. 

Then, once Adora is behind bars, she takes her younger half-sister Amma in, intent on doing her best to give the care and security she's lacked. (We'll save Camille's pivotal dollhouse discovery for another day).  

At the end of the finale, when Camille writes an article about discovering and enduring her mom's Munchausen by proxy, she displays a profound awareness of the maddening tension between who we want to be and who past demons do their best to make us be.

"Am I good at caring for Amma because of kindness or do I like caring for Amma because I have Adora's sickness? I waver between the two," she writes, "especially at night when my skin begins to pulse. Lately I've been leaning toward kindness."

"It's beautiful," her editor tells her after reading the piece. "Really beautiful." That someone as wronged and damaged as Camille can break the cycle of childhood trauma and choose kindness? Coming from a show as dark and creepy as Sharp Objects, that's a beautiful lesson indeed. 

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