I was going to write a completely different post but lately, reading all the theories and posts about whether Don should’ve chosen Faye over Megan or why Megan was a better choice, I became increasingly aware of just how incredibly irritated I was getting by the character analysis of either woman. There are camps, each dissecting the two women’s personalities and arguing about which one “is better for Don”. I thought about this irritation and finally I realized that the reason it bothered me so much was NOT just the implication that the right woman can save a man (because, let’s face it, that’s what this debate really comes down to, at least how I see it). And I’m not saying this just for feminist reasons because, truthfully, there’s a lot of fantasy (extremely dangerous fantasy) around the knight-in-shining-armor, Mr. Right, male side of the equation as well. I bristle at the idea that, ultimately, someone else can save you even when you yourself can’t be bothered to do so.
Let’s get one thing straight: Don’s happiness is up to Don. Yes, if you choose the wrong person you’ll be unhappy, this is true. But there is a deeper issue here that no post as of yet seems to hit upon. Don does not know how to be happy. And there is a very good reason he doesn’t know how. He was trained to feel that he was bad and that he didn’t deserve it.
What bothers me most of all is the complete lack of understanding of something that seems utterly crystal clear to me: Mad Men is a very incisive and dare I say, accurate portrayal of the aftereffects of an abusive childhood. In America we like to think that we can just “get over it,” that after a certain age, it all magically resolves itself. You grow up and, yes, it was tough but you go on. Would that it were so! In fact, Don’s story is an excellent analysis of just what happens when you choose that attitude, without dealing with the pain and the trauma honestly and bravely. You decide you will magically get past it if you can only run away. You say to yourself that your abuser already ruined your childhood and s/he is not going to ruin your adulthood.
Yet, weirdly, the more you refuse to face the past, the more you create situations that reenact that same horrific childhood in which you were trapped. This is how humans and other primates respond to trauma – we are actually wired to repeat it:
“During the formative years of contemporary psychiatry much attention was paid to the continuing role of past traumatic experiences on the current lives of people. Charcot, Janet, and Freud all noted that fragmented memories of traumatic events dominated the mental life of many of their patient and built their theories about the nature and treatment of psychopathology on this recognition… Many traumatized people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations reminiscent of the original trauma. These behavioral reenactments are rarely consciously understood to be related to earlier life experiences.”
“The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma –Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism”
Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD
In the moment of trauma you were not able to deal with the situation in a satisfactory way either because you were a child and didn’t know how or because the circumstances curtailed your response. Whatever your solution to the trauma then becomes your way of dealing with any situation that triggers the original trauma. If you ran away, then when you’re put in a situation that “feels” eerily reminiscent of this trauma, you will choose to run away again. I use the word “eerie” on purpose; when you’re in the grip of the past, you suddenly feel like you’re stuck in a repetitive pattern over which you have no control. Your fears are roused and hence the lizard part of your brain takes over. Later, when it is over, you wonder if it was all a terrible dream because you acted like a zombie. You are thrown back into feeling the deep shame of being “bad” — that self-same shame that you felt as a kid when your abuser terrorized you. And then you do it again. (Know what else is a great analysis of what it feels like to be stuck in a repetitive pattern? “Groundhog Day.” As many have pointed out, there’s a reason Weiner chose to end the finale with the same song that drove Bill Murray nuts.) Don married Betty, a cold, distant, self-righteous woman reminiscent of his cold, distant, self-righteous stepmother.
So as not to face the pain, the victim often finds an outlet or an escape. This usually takes the form of an addictive behavior. Alcohol, drugs, sex — any sensation that will obviate the pain. Some people who never had a loving, supportive parent will often resort to using relationships as an addictive mechanism. This is known as sex or love addiction and, yes, it is real. When you think that your happiness depends on finding the one person who will love you and understand you and put up with your neediness no matter how you behave or what you do, then guess what? You’re using your lover as drug. It is borne of a very real lack of love as a child. Does Don Draper act like a love addict? Let’s just run down a few of the behavioral patterns posted on the website for a 12-step group for love and sex addicts (for a full list click on the link):
- Lack of nurturing and attention when young
- Feeling isolated, detached from parents and family
- Outer facade of “having it all together” to hide internal disintegration
- Afraid to trust anyone in a relationship
- Presence of other addictive or compulsive problems
- Using others, sex & relationships to alter mood or relieve emotional pain
- Confusion of sexual attraction with love (“Love” at first sight.)
- Existence of a secret “double life”
- Refusal to acknowledge existence of problem
- Tendency to leave one relationship for another. (Inability to be without a relationship.)
Has Don ever been alone, truly alone without a woman somewhere in the picture? Is he capable of that? For someone like Don saying that Megan (or Faye or Betty or Rachel Menken or…) will make him happy is a little like saying that an alcoholic will be less of a drunk once he finds the right brand of booze. It doesn’t work that way.
Nor, by the way, does this mean that Don is hopeless or that he is, by default, utterly unable to be happy one day. Here’s the rub, though: In order to liberate himself from the demons, he must first face them. And that’s tough. It’s a helluva hard journey and it entails facing this outrageous, paralyzing fear that eats away at you: fear that you’re bad; fear that you are hateful; fear that you did something wrong and don’t know it, and you will be horribly punished. Fear in such outsize proportions that it takes over your life.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as choosing to be happy. To recover from abuse entails learning new ways of dealing with reality and that is extremely tough because our perception of the world often seems like the only right one. That lizard part of your brain is extremely sticky; it’s supposed to be, it was created to keep you out of danger without you having to think about it consciously.
You grow up in a world in which you can’t trust the people who were supposed to love and care for you (and with damn good reason!) and it becomes the only reality. You then go on to act based on that perception of reality and, sure enough, people will prove you right. You’re too blinded by the past to see that you yourself are setting yourself up.
As someone astutely pointed out in the comments, this is why Megan’s laid-back reaction to spilled milk was so revolutionary. It IS only spilled milk, a situation with an easy solution. That IS reality. You come from an abusive past in which every stupid little thing is blown so out of proportion that you fear for your life and you become the kind of person who overreacts or under-reacts to situations (you’re still in the grip of the past). I once developed a schoolgirl crush on a boss who laughed kindly and genuinely at a costly mistake I made. Oh, yes, kindness and gentleness are VERY powerful. Let no one tell you otherwise.
Still, as eye opening and revelatory as Megan’s reaction was, it’s not Megan’s responsibility to mend Don nor is it fair to expect her to carry that burden. If Megan is a whole and grounded person, she is not going to put up with the crap of being someone’s savior, especially if that someone won’t step up to the plate for himself. She might very well be the one to kick him to the curb (which would make for some very good drama).
It is a very very long haul to recovery and it takes a very long time. But the only way past it is through it. And that’s up to Don. Yes, Don, the past was not your fault. But as an adult it is your responsibility to confront it for what it was. Only then can you move on.