Co-Ed Call Girl. Baby Monitor: Sound of Fear. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? These were the many fine selections of made-for-TV movies that aired on the Lifetime channel that my best friend Denay and I obsessed over as children. Though the hyperbolic titles were amusing enough, it was the characters that fascinated us most.
In My Stepson, My Lover, a woman has an affair with her husband’s son from another marriage after discovering her husband lied about wanting to start a family. In Twisted Desire, Melissa Joan Hart fucks an ex-con in her parents’ bed, convinces the guy to kill said parents, then rats him out to the cops in an elaborate ruse to get back with her ex-boyfriend—all because Mommy and Daddy wouldn’t let her go to a concert. Indeed, the citizens of the made-for-TV movie universe, with their excess of face-slapping and blazing house fires, seemed cursed to only make bad decisions. And as angsty teenagers, watching them made Denay and I feel better about ourselves.
Because I was a gothed-out punk kid and Denay was constantly transferring between different schools, we weren’t particularly popular high school students. We were never invited to drunken parties hosted by the wealthy, pretty teens whose parents left them alone for the weekend with multi-story homes complete with swimming pools, expensive sound systems, and cabinets filled with oxycontin. So we occupied our time talking on the phone, staying up late into the evenings trading movie recommendations the way others gossiped about their friends.
“Have you seen No One Would Tell?” I asked into the receiver. “It’s the one where Candace Cameron dates a high school wrestling star played by Fred Savage, who beats her and ends up killing her.”
“Oh god, yes!” Denay gushed. “There’s also that movie where Tiffani-Amber Thiessen plays a small town slut that gets raped by a football player and no one believes her, not even her own mother. It’s called She Fought Alone because… she has to fight the town alone.”
These were the lives of other students at our school, Denay and I speculated. This is what we were missing out on. It was as if these films gave us temporary passes to enter our peers’ natural habitat and observe them like animals from a safe distance.
To me, Lifetime movies were like fables: fantastical two-hour tales that imparted important morals to live by. The Three Little Pigs teaches us that putting in hard work will result in something sturdy that can withstand catastrophe. Cinderella espouses that being persistent and virtuous will help you triumph over oppression. And Death of a Cheerleader taught me that you should never kill anyone, even if they are an asshole in the form of Tori Spelling.
Despite our mutual love of the art form, Denay and I gravitated towards different types of made-for-TV movies. I favored those about ‘Teens in Crisis,’ while she preferred stories of the ‘Women in Peril’ brand. From mothers who married serial killers to chemistry teachers being stalked by their students—Denay was inspired by these women’s resilience against victimhood, often literally screaming at and clawing against all obstacles. But whereas I saw these films as cautionary, Denay romanticized them. She didn’t simply normalize the love life of a woman in peril; she held it up as a standard to strive for. In the eighth grade, she wrote a manifesto outlining her future marriages (and divorces): her first husband would be for wealth, her second husband would be an exotic foreigner who would give her beautiful babies, and the third and final husband would be young, pretty, dumb, and did whatever she commanded.
As we grew up, Denay never managed to turn this childhood dream into an adult reality, though her predilection for the melodramatic remained. She pursued a career in corporate sales while I, partially inspired by my love of ‘Teens in Crisis,’ worked as a mental health counselor. We were sitting in a cafe, discussing the latest gripes at our respective jobs, when she solicited my advice for her most recent romantic endeavor.
“Two of my coworkers are really into me,” she said, “They’re both best friends and roommates, and they don’t want the other to know. Which one should I sleep with first?”
“Neither!” I said. “Don’t complicate things like that. If you want to move past the sexual tension you should either avoid them or directly communicate what your boundaries are.”
Sipping on her mocha, Denay considered my words. Two weeks later, over lunch, she spoke of a fist-fight that had broken out between the two men because she had fucked them both. “I wasn’t sure if it was a bad idea or not,” she said in her defense.
I sighed and shook my head at her incorrigibility, saying that only television characters acted this way. This had become our ritual: Denay would seek guidance for problems I thought of as easy choices, then ignore what I had to offer. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that our dynamic gave me a sick sense of importance. After all, my friend came to me of all people for advice. Because I was an expert! I was the smart one who could see the bigger picture of what constitutes healthy behavior!
I worked for a health service nonprofit organization that barely paid its employees more than the monthly government assistance checks that our chronically homeless clients survived on. Our office featured a free clinic, a drop-in center that had to be regularly fumigated due to bedbug infestations and was located in a rough San Francisco neighborhood where pedestrians were on constant alert of stepping in the human feces littering the sidewalks. For professional development, my boss sent me to trainings and seminars led by seasoned mental health providers. The male instructors were always in three-piece suits to project authority, and the women invariably wore hemp pants with stacks of beaded jewelry to give an air of granola. I was taught an arsenal of techniques to use when working with clients: cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, the transtheoretical model of change. Even if I didn’t fully comprehend what I was doing, the emphatic jargon made me at least feel intelligent.
During a group training on working with clients with histories of abuse, my instructor Amanda gestured toward a circular diagram divided into quadrants projected onto the wall. Her bangles clinked as they slid down her wrist and she carefully plotted her words with chamomile-soaked tranquility.
“This is The Cycle of Abuse,” she said, “It typically follows these four stages. First is the Tension Building. Then there’s the Incident, where the abuser violently acts out physically. Or Verbally. Or psychologically. Third is the Reconciliation between the abuser and the abused. Then comes stage four, Calm. Or what we call The Honeymoon Phase.”
I held one-on-one sessions with clients in counseling rooms surrounded by motivational posters pinned to the walls as a white noise machine whirled outside the door. I worked with a young transgender runaway to identify the barriers that were preventing her from leaving survival sexwork. I helped a crystal meth addict process the complicated reasons he self-medicated, how it made the world shift to a comfortable distance and blurred his self-loathing so that he finally felt confident enough to experience intimacy. The communication and solution-finding tools I used with my clients translated well into my personal life. Because if Denay was hellbent on whipping up as much drama with her lovers, I would have none of it with mine.
Between how guarded Lifetime movies made me and the holistic philosophies of my work, I had somehow managed to coast through my twenties on a winning streak of healthy long-term relationships. I would date a man for years, exercising my conflict resolution skills to settle disputes through deescalation, amicably winding down the relationship when we mutually came to the understanding that things wouldn’t work out due to issues for which no one was at fault. A tragic death in the family forced David to move out of state to take care of his widowed mother. Chris couldn’t find a job in the Bay Area during the recession and so he had to remain on the East Coast. Unlike Denay, I was able to gloat about maintaining a friendly relationship with all my exes.
And then there was Khoi.
I ended up with Khoi probably the same way Denay ended up in all her turbulent situations: you meet a beautiful man, someone you think is out of your league, someone charming, who is attentive to your needs, who makes you feel attractive. Then you start losing all the magical abilities that made you powerful.
He didn’t start off abusive. Like in most toxic relationships, it happened over time, after the honeymoon phase, when I was distracted by how new and sparkling the romance was. What drew me to Khoi was how familiar he felt. Like my own parents, his were also refugees from Vietnam. As children of immigrants, we could take turns swimming in each other’s pool of double consciousness. He also made me feel wanted and vital, a sense of dizzying importance that distracted me from his attachment issues—like Shannen Doherty in the made-for-TV movie Obsessed. And soon after, like Shannen Doherty, he began picking fights with me whenever I wanted to spend time with my friends. The first instance was when I made dinner plans without him. He sulked, then screamed, because dinner was supposed to be our time, all the time, every night.
In hindsight, I broke the seal by placating him then, giving into his demands instead of recognizing his outburst for what should have been obvious to any fan of Lifetime movies: a sign. The sign. The kind of sign that appears in the first fifteen minutes of the film. But what choice did I have? We were offspring of people who were marked by displacement and war and trauma. Growing up, my father was prone to fits of violence that came out of nowhere, resulting in smashed coffee tables and sandals that flew at my face. Episodes that taught me how to appease his rage by accepting fault, making myself small and agreeable until I coaxed the peaceful version of my father back. And Khoi’s father, a soldier of the fallen South Vietnamese Army, survived a concentration camp after the war. He was forced to labor in the jungle, starved, and tortured. Upon his release, Khoi’s father fled the country by way of a tugboat drifting off into the Pacific Ocean, and then abandoned his family by way of a mistress. I wanted to resent his father the way I did mine, but the man was so dehumanized that I could see how romance with a strange woman would have been a selfish yet emotionally and physically healing experience. Still, this made Khoi skeptical and suspicious, fearful of desertion. And so I offered him the only thing I knew I could: I loved him. I tapped into all the empathy I had as a counselor. And when I saw Khoi reach for me as if I were a lone life raft at sea—even though I felt claustrophobic—I was compelled to reach back and cradle that small damaged boy and make him happy.
But once, I woke up in the middle of the night to see him going through the text messages on my phone because he had become paranoid that I was secretly dating someone behind his back. Another time, I returned to my desk from a meeting at work to find seven voicemails, each progressively more heated, cursing me out and accusing me of ignoring him because I clearly lied about going into the office that day. When I asked him to stop hacking into my email account, he threw all my clothes into a garbage bag and ejected it out the window of his apartment. Soon, Khoi was breaking up with me every other week—but without the clarity of a clean break. Because his breakups were actually tests: he expected me to chase after him, begging him to take me back. If I didn’t, he would scream that my indifference was an obvious sign that I never cared about him or the relationship to begin with.
One of the most satisfying things about watching a Lifetime movie is the superiority you feel as a voyeur, admonishing the protagonist through the TV screen for all their mistakes. What the hell, Melissa Joan Hart, your ex-boyfriend isn’t interested in you anymore! No, Denay, don’t respond to that guy’s advances if he’s doing it behind his wife’s back! If I had watched the way Khoi shoved the made-for-TV movie version of me down the stairs, I would have smugly shrieked, Bitch, why’d you go back to him to begin with?!
But I didn’t need some meta-level perspective to recognize what was going on. I could hold my relationship up to the Cycle of Abuse diagram and graph the movement of his fury. And yet I stayed. I stayed because I thought I could right that ship. I stayed because I was convinced I had the skills and self-awareness as a counselor to steel myself, to not be a victim. I stayed because I felt compelled to forgive his refugee upbringing, to validate the fact that our people pass trauma down through our veins so that, for generations, our emotions come out sideways and wrapped in barbed wire. I wasn’t Candace Cameron in No One Would Tell, right? And yet there I was, not telling anyone what I was going through, not even Denay.
There’s a scene in Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? where Tori Spelling’s character is being held captive in a cabin by her homicidal boyfriend.
“You drugged me…” she slurs, waking from her torpor.
“I love you,” he responds, as if that’s a direct answer to her accusation.
“This is kidnapping!” she says, to which he replies, “No! This is just a guy and a girl away on a romantic weekend, that’s all.”
This exchange of cognitive dissonance reminded me of the Incident Phases of my cycles with Khoi, when I would try to talk him down from his fiery state by stating the obvious.
“I was late coming home because of the bus was running behind.”
“I wasn’t ignoring you. My phone died, so I couldn’t text you back right away.”
“I did not cut my palm open, you forcefully ripped the keys from my hand when you pushed me.”
But presenting facts doesn’t always work. This is something that all counselors know. You can underscore all the known data and try to contrast it with the paranoid thoughts of the unknown that a person might be hanging from a ledge by. But it’s not up to you to decide for them how they must proceed; you should simply make yourself available and listen, validate their feelings and hope for the best. The problem was, I had become an over-validator who felt obliged to help people with misalignments, especially my lover, to stick by him no matter what. On one hand, I was motivated by a certain level of generosity. But on another hand, I was selfish—and self-damaging—in that I was unwilling to admit defeat. Because maybe, just maybe, I could be that shining knight, a stable force that could finally fix him.
It took me nearly two years to leave Khoi. And during those two years, I learned to buy bouquets of flowers, each destined to wither and die, which I offered to him as apologies every time he judo-flipped the situation by getting angry at me for getting upset at him to begin with.
In most Lifetime movies, flashbacks that occur within the story happen in two ways: the character is floated back in time where they’re inhabiting the body of their younger self as they re-experience the abuse. Or, they’re suddenly transported back to the incident, but the world is black and white and grainy, and they have to watch their younger self go through the abuse from the position of a helpless third-person witness. My flashbacks are murkier, shapeless, silent. I don’t find myself teleported back in time where the setting fills in around me. Instead, his voice will suddenly creep up from the southern corner of my mind while I’m babysitting my baby nephew or scanning a display of bananas at the grocery store. Soft at first, until it’s loud enough to give me pause. His screams or bullying text messages that I deleted from my phone after the fights to convince myself they never happened. We’re going to have a talk tonight, asshole. Or, Come pick up your shit on the sidewalk and go to hell.
Sometimes I respond right in the middle of walking through a parking lot by letting out a long heavy sigh, as if I’m pushing the bad memory as far out of my body as I can. Sometimes, like Gollum at war with himself, I’ll literally mutter words out loud, under my breath. “Shut up,” I’ll say, to which my confused nephew looks up from his Legos at me and shrugs.
It’s is not quite l’esprit de l’escalier, but it’s something. A ward, perhaps, attempting to shoo away images of kicked open doors, of torn apart birthday presents, and threatening messages scrawled into the dust that layered the windows of my car. A defensive posture towards the question of “Why did I allow this all to happen?” that fills me with embarrassment, self-pity, shame. A non-answer for all the times I should have fought back for myself but didn’t. If Lifetime were to make a movie about me, it would be called Girl, You Don’t Love Yourself: The Danny Nguyen Story, starring Scarlett Johansen.
The resilience of the protagonists in ‘Women in Peril’ type of made-for-TV-movies is probably the most important feature of their melodramas. The heroes are never killed; they fight back, they survive, then the peaceful piano outro music plays while the credits roll. But what happens to them after?
When I was in that training on the Cycle of Abuse, our instructor Amanda asked the class: “After breaking from this cycle, how long do you suppose it takes for the victim to recover from their experiences?”
One of my classmates raised her hand. “Depends on the type of abuse and how long it lasted,” she said.
Another person said, “Depends on the support they receive afterwards.”
“Danny…” Amanda asked, “what do you think?”
I didn’t know how to respond then, and I don’t know how to now. The answer has yet to find me.