The Invitation and navigating grief

the invitation

The opening scene of The Invitation is a perfect introduction to the movie. A man named Will and his girlfriend Kira are driving to a dinner party when they hit a coyote with their car. Will gets out of the car to check on it, and when he sees the coyote is beyond help, he kills it with a tire iron.

When they arrive at the dinner party, thrown by Will’s ex-wife and her new man, Kira tells the story of the coyote. The hosts agree: Will’s actions were a gift, he a benevolent god who showed mercy to an animal who wouldn’t have been able to survive.

But one man’s mercy is another man’s murder.

If the coyote had been healthy, if it were able to speak its will to live, if an emergency vet were on hand nearby, people may not be so quick to call Will’s actions merciful. But the coyote was going to die anyway. Will killed it because he believed he was sending the coyote to a better place—not heaven necessarily, but a state where the coyote couldn’t feel pain longer than it had to. Because of this, the quick finality of death was better than a slow and tortured life.

I had to make the same decision as Will when my cat got sick. A tumor in his throat, Cisco could no longer eat. Treatment options to extend his life would have only meant more frequent visits to the vet, which he hated, before the cancer would come back anyway. For Cisco, I decided that a quick death at home with me was better than a slow and painful life spent on cold metal tables with strangers.

But what happens when death comes quick to the young and healthy? Or to a person who voices the desire for more life? Or to a loved one you couldn’t bear to live without?

The Invitation is the story of people struggling with these questions, as everyone must struggle with them eventually. It began with Will and Kira and their encounter with the coyote. But The Invitation, like all of director Karyn Kusama’s movies, is about a woman.

Will’s ex-wife is named Eden, and she has found a paradise to help her deal with the death of her and Will’s young son a few years earlier. Her relief comes in the form of a cult, called the Invitation. According to the Invitation, negative emotions like pain, grief, and anger are chemical reactions in your brain that are not necessary for living. By accepting the Invitation, all of those emotions can disappear.

I don’t belong to any church, but I understand grief. After I saw The Invitation, I thought about my own small, recent tragedy. I let myself remember the feel of Cisco’s fur, the sound of his meow when he begged for ham from the refrigerator, the way he felt when I picked him up—not when I held his frail body at the end of his life, but when he was healthy and fat and heavy in my arms. And for a moment it felt real. And for a moment I felt happy, and at peace.

Of course, a cat is not a person. A pet cannot love you the same as a person can, it cannot talk back to you and tell you its desire to live or the peace it’s made with death. A cat is not a young boy who was killed in a freak accident at his fifth birthday party, like Will and Eden’s son. The death of a sick cat and a young boy are not equivalent. But grief has never been logical or fair, and depression has never been reasonable.

I fell into a depression after Cisco died and then slipped further when I felt guilty for allowing the death of a pet to hit me so hard. He was not a person. He was not a son I had wished for and raised and tried to protect. He was not a child who told me his plans for the future before that future was cruelly cut short.

But even so, the idea of being with him again was so complete and so real, it scared me. In the middle of my worst days, when I cried for no reason and every reason and hid my tears from the people who loved me, I could see myself wanting that relief. I could see why the promise of reuniting with someone you missed could be enough to make you believe in doing something awful.

The belief system in The Invitation claims that death is relief from pain, and that death will bring you together once more with those you love. After sending something I loved to death, I had to believe that, at least a little bit.

I’ve never let myself imagine Cisco as clearly again, maybe for the fear that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I am not in danger of wanting to die to see him in the afterlife, but I am in danger of remaining forever in that dreamlike state, in between living and remembering the loved ones I miss.

This is where The Invitation takes place—trapped between the present and the past. Eden still lives in the home she shared with Will, but she lives there now with her new partner, David. When Will enters the house for the first time in years, he can’t help but see visions of his past life, as if the ghost of his young son were a guest at the party. The scenes of his memories are hard to distinguish from the scenes of the dinner—they look the same, except the memories of his son and his happy life with Eden swim in a golden, brighter light.

When Eden comes into view for the first time, she floats down the stairs in a long white dress. It calls to mind not the mirth of a wedding gown, but the gravity of a burial shroud, as if she is preparing to be sacrificed. Though she seems calm and grounded at first, as Will spends more time with her, Eden’s unstableness begins to show. Will tries to navigate the woman he no longer recognizes, just as he tries to navigate the house he once lived in. It looks so familiar, but it’s not the same. Walls appear in rooms where he knew doors used to be. Similar to the effects of grief itself, Will can no longer find his way in the life he once knew.

The cult offers Eden and David a way to move forward from this state of limbo. They both used the Invitation to ease their debilitating grief: David had lost his wife, and Eden her son. They feel the Invitation saved their lives, and they use the dinner party to preach its teachings to their friends. When they evangelize their newfound faith, their friends turn skeptic—too polite to openly mock them, too familiar with their pain to fault them for finding a way to manage it.

Eden implores Will to join in her happiness, but he is stuck in misery. Will resents Eden for appearing to move on from the death of their son; his constant pain feels like a monument to the child he couldn’t save. Will’s discomfort with the woman who used to be his wife increases as the night goes on. Will notices bars on the windows that weren’t there before. He sees David lock the front door after a party guest comes inside. He starts to believe that Eden and David are hiding something, that their calm personas belie danger within. Will’s paranoia culminates in knocking glasses of wine out of his friends’ hands, convinced that Eden and David had poisoned them.

He was right. Every single glass that Eden handed to her friends contained a liquid that would kill them with a single sip.

Eden and David had planned the dinner party as a way to kill those they loved most, and then kill themselves. They meant everyone to die together, toasting to life one last time. But when Will interrupts the toast, they go after their friends with guns, knives, and whatever tools they have.

The brutal killings in The Invitation are terrible to watch. Kusama uses whispers and silence here where other directors would use tense music or screams. She does not glamorize death the way other horror movies do, by making each death a contest in increasing outrageousness. Instead, she slowly and carefully shows that victims feel pain and fear because they want to live. She focuses on faces of the people being hurt, and the camera lingers on Eden’s doubts when it doesn’t go to plan. The gravity of these deaths indicates that Kusama has felt the pain and grief of death, too.

The religion in The Invitation leads to disaster because it smothers that pain instead of helping someone through it. Acknowledging someone’s pain is to recognize their humanity; the Invitation instead treats humans like animals. Like the coyote, Eden and David see themselves and their friends as something to be put down instead of truly seen and understood.

The final scene of The Invitation highlights how pervasive this need for recognition is—or perhaps it shows how many of us are broken without it. After the rampage, the survivors leave the house and see a red lantern in the yard. The red light acts as an omen, a signal of the horror that happened within. As the sound rushes back to their ears, the friends hear sirens all around. When they finally look away from each other’s horror struck faces and into the hills of L.A., they see that red lanterns glitter the landscape, each one indicating another house where followers of the Invitation held their own violent dinner parties. The red lights are too numerous to count, sick stars in the night sky that form a constellation of destruction.

It should be hard to see why Eden and David turned murderous toward the ones they love most, but it’s not. They believed death would be a way to bring peace to their friends and save them from the pain they had experienced. It’s easy to see why they made that choice, and why they chose to believe in a religion that allowed them respite from the hell they’ve inhabited, even as it preached of death.

In beginning of the movie, Will chose death for something else, killing the coyote as a kindness. At the end, Will chooses life for himself by deciding to carry his grief with him as he moves forward. He doesn’t let go of or escape his pain, but he is able to make room in his heart for hope in spite of it. Like him, I have chosen faith in life over faith in death. But I can’t help but pray for grief to ebb, and to see those I love again.

What I learned from Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted was my favorite book when I was 12, is my favorite book right now, and might be my favorite book forever. As a lover of fairy tales, balls, and evening gowns, every version of Cinderella was a treat, but this one felt like it was made just for me. Because in this version, the girl doesn’t need to be a princess, actually gets to know the prince, and then saves herself.

In the fairy tale land of Frell, there are giants, elves, princes and curses. Magic is real, and so are mean girls. Ella is under a curse to always be obedient, so she has to follow every order anyone gives her. Every “go to your room,” every “go jump in a lake,” everything. She meets a prince, because this is that kind of story, and they fall in love. But she knows that her curse would put the prince and her kingdom in danger, so she gives him up. Her mother dies, and she knows of grief and fear. It is that kind of story, too.

I revisited Ella Enchanted recently and wondered why I ever read any other book when everything I need to know was already in its pages.

This book is what taught me that men will always give you grief if you want to do something all on your own. In Ella’s case it’s when she runs away from finishing school and asks for directions to a giant’s wedding. Upon hearing she wants to walk her journey alone, sometimes at night, the shopkeeper laughs at her. In my imagination, he gives her what I’m sure is the same exact look the guy at work gave you yesterday when you said “No, actually, I’ve got this.” Ella continues her journey and doesn’t think about the shopkeeper again. I think about him often.

Later on, Ella meets a different kind of man. Her father loses all his money when he gets caught trying to swindle a client. To gain back some of their fortune, he decides to marry Ella to a rich old man. He orders her to eat drugged mushrooms (our fairy tale’s version of ecstasy, perhaps) to lower her guard and make her more “flirtatious.” When this skeezy old man, who ends up not being rich enough anyway, learns that Ella is only 15, he says “You have a loving heart. I see that. More woman than child.”

And that is when I learned that gross old men will always make excuses to justify preying on young women.

There are some good guys in Ella’s life too, but while reading her story I learned even the good guys can disappoint.

Prince Char is an undisputedly good guy. He doesn’t fall for evil stepsister Hattie’s shenanigans, and his faults are things like “loves his family too much.” But all it takes is Ella dumping him for him to conjure up names for her that certainly wouldn’t be allowed in polite, princely company. Names like minx, flirt, harpy, siren, enchantress, temptress, and monster. Char is a good guy, yes, but he is also the epitome of princely privilege. When Ella dines with him (this is a fairy tale, remember, so she doesn’t grab dinner with him, she dines with him), everyone in his company waited to eat until Char began eating. “It was so natural to him I doubted he noticed,” Ella thinks. That’s as good a definition of privilege as I have ever heard.

The lesson from Ella Enchanted that took me the longest to learn–that I am still learning–is the one that Ella also struggled with the most. Ella had to follow orders because she was cursed. I follow orders because I am a people pleaser and fixer in a world that teaches women to be people pleasers and fixers. Following the rules is how I made my way through life: I did my homework, I read the directions, I didn’t stay out past curfew.

Ella was my first fictional example of a woman who knew that following the rules wasn’t best for her. She followed orders, technically, because she had to, but she did everything she could to fight back. In my world, doing anything to make yourself more difficult was revolutionary. When her dancing instructor at finishing school told her to raise her feet higher, Ella raised her legs above her waist. When her stepsister told her to clean up a dustbunny, Ella picked it up and then shoved it in her sister’s face. She rebelled in any way she could, over, and over, and over. She was my first rule-breaking role model.

I have had other rule-breaking role models in real life, and they have been invaluable to me. When I see another woman decide she doesn’t have to wear what’s appropriate, or be nice when people are rude to her, or stop everything to answer an email, I get a little stronger, and saying no becomes a little easier. Ella had to learn how to say no to break her curse, but we both had learn how to say no to survive.

I extremely proud that I make my own money and pay all my bills. I work hard, and I’m good at what I do. I am a grown woman, and I can do whatever I what. But sometimes, still, I forget I can say no.

The other day, a complete stranger told me to do something I didn’t want to do to make his life easier. And I, a grown ass woman, said “Do I have to?”

Ella says the same thing, when she wants someone to reconsider their order, if they said something hastily or sarcastically. Ella had to obey. I do not.

I quickly gained my composure and remembered that this man I do not know has no power over me, but it was scary to realize how easily I slipped back into the dynamic of a man giving orders, and me following them.

In the year of Shonda saying yes, I kept the word “no” on my lips. Like many young women in a mostly male workplace, I was often taken for an assistant instead of a peer. Workplace dynamics are tricky anyway, and when you want to be seen as someone who is helpful, it is very easy to end up doing everyone else’s job and not your own. So I said no. No to small tasks that I knew I could do, and to big tasks I knew I couldn’t. Like bullies on a playground, eventually the boys I worked with stopped trying to push me around.

It’s time consuming, to say no. I have to weigh my options, who is asking, if I sound too aggressive, if I really want to do it, what will it look like if this email gets forwarded. Sometimes I thought I would crumble under the weight of saying no, but instead it built me up.

Now I say no, all the time, just for fun. I’m horrible at board games because I never follow the rules, I just make up my own. I don’t participate in karaoke. I don’t answer all my emails or texts. If I don’t like the way someone is speaking to me, I hang up the phone.

I recognize that, like Char, I have privilege that allows me to say no often without real threat to my life or livelihood. I hope that, unlike Char, I notice when others don’t.

Ella noticed. Ella noticed everything. She was kind, but not always nice. Ella broke the rules and broke some hearts. Ella married a prince and then refused to become a princess. In saying no to one happily ever after, she created her own. And that is what I am most grateful for learning.