I've recently finished Alias Grace, a six-part miniseries that's riveting, engrossing and fascinating, and which you should watch right now if you haven't already. Based on the real-life arrest, imprisonment and eventual pardoning of Grace Marks for her involvement in the murders of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, Margaret Atwood weaves a story around the established facts of the case that explores (as you might expect) womanhood, storytelling, and how the perception of others can shape our lives.
This post is for those who have already seen the miniseries (or read the book) for it is an attempt to provide three possible explanations for the mystery of Grace Marks (as presented here) and the events that took place on that fateful day in July 1843 when Kinnear and Nancy were killed.
There are three possible scenarios that the show leaves us with:
a) the supernatural
Although the show has little in the way of overt paranormal activity, the idea is floated by Grace herself during the hypnosis scene: that she is sporadically possessed by the spirit of Mary Whitney.
There is some evidence for the existence of the supernatural at work throughout the story; for example, the premonitions that Mary and Grace make concerning their future husbands. As their game with the apple peelings foretold, Grace does marry a man whose name begins with a J, and Mary's inability to cut the apple in a similar fashion accurately foreshadows her premature death.
Likewise, Jeremiah's palm reading is eerily precise. He tells Grace that there is danger in the Kinnear household, that she will cross water three times, and that all will turn out right in the end. Her life unfolds exactly as he predicts.
The idea that Mary's spirit enters Grace's body after her death accounts for some of the strange occurrences that take place directly after her passing. Grace hears Mary's voice whisper the words: "let me in", and after she awakens from a fainting spell she believes that she is Mary. When Grace returns to herself, she has no memory of any of this.
It is not the last time she hears voices, and Mary often appears to her in visions and in dreams. Let's also not forget that Grace took on the alias of Mary Whitney during her initial escape from the Kinnear household, at a time when her grasp on reality was at its most tenuous and the holes in her memory the most pronounced.
Finally, the denouement reveals Grace now has a cat called Tabby and a dog called Rex, in a scene that intercuts with Mary voicing this exact desire so many years ago. Is this evidence of Mary's spirit still lingering?
Although Jeremiah is adamant that his hypnosis of Grace is based firmly in scientific method, it is Grace herself who introduces the idea of possession, speaking with Mary's accent and cadence while in her trance. According to Mary, she was unable to escape the room in which she died because the window wasn't open (a Catholic tradition that Grace first heard of when her mother died on the voyage from Ireland) and so entered Grace's body instead. From there, she admits to occasionally taking control of Grace and making her act in uncharacteristic ways, whether lasciviously or murderously.
She claims her motivation in killing Kinnear and Nancy was to ensure they did not get away with the crime that Mary herself died of: getting pregnant out of wedlock. For her, watching Nancy marry her employer and give birth to his child was an injustice she could not allow.
Yet despite this scenario accounting for much of the strangeness that follows Grace throughout her life, the idea of spiritualism (and the idea that Jeremiah's hypnosis turns into an impromptu séance) is mocked by the fact that the main advocates of this theory are a bunch of elderly women who clearly aren’t meant to be taken seriously.
Which leads to the possibility that the solution is:
b) mental illness
Doctor Simon Jordan utterly rejects the séance idea and instead floats another theory: that Grace suffers from what is now known as dissociative identity disorder, in which her darker impulses have been pushed into an alternate personality who can act out in violent ways without her full awareness.
There's plenty of evidence for this interpretation as well, as Grace often suffered from memory loss, sleep-walking and lost time. A mental illness accounts for her blackouts, how we see the same events play out differently, and even how her behaviour drastically changes when viewed from the perspectives of other characters.
The clearest example of her fragile grasp of reality is when she dreams of three headless angels sitting in a tree outside the Kinnear residence, only to realize the following day that they were three bedsheets blown into the branches.
A psychotic condition brought on by trauma and abuse is the conclusion Doctor Jordan settles on, believing that Grace's pent-up rage toward her father, George Alderman Parkinson, McDermott, Kinnear, and the countless other men who mistreated her (often in a sexual way) led to the creation of her split personality, with one half taking on the persona of her dead friend who died so tragically. It accounts for her genuine confusion and sincerity at different points of her narrative, and the incomplete memories she has of the day Kinnear and Nancy were killed.
A personality disorder explains the discrepancies in the flashbacks we're privy to: Grace watching the snails in the front garden and of standing alongside McDermott in the cellar as he strangled Nancy. It also accounts for McDermott's angry insistence that Grace was not an innocent lamb but an equal partner in the crime, since he was referring to his experiences with her Mary persona.
Or else it all could have been...
c) an elaborate deception
It could be that Grace was a fully cognizant murderess who was fully culpable in the deaths of Kinnear and Nancy – not only a willing accomplice but the instigator of the crime for the purpose of gaining financial security and revenging on herself on the world.
There are early clues as to her inherent "off-ness": that she has a passing desire to push her younger siblings overboard, that she never returns home to see how well they've fared, that she immediately reaches for a knife in her game with Mary – and it's apparent that she's dissatisfied with her life as a servant, understands the power she wields when she's telling stories, and is considered a good actress (or "one of us") by Jeremiah.
In her twisted mind, one informed by her Catholic upbringing and her resentment at her treatment at the hands of her employers, Kinnear and Nancy deserved to die: the former for preying on his employees and the latter for submitting to his advances.
If this is the case then her underlying motivations are rather sad: internalized misogyny. She believes that Nancy deserved the same fate as Mary for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, asking why her friend should die of this sin while Nancy prospers.
That Grace adopts the sexist values of the time is apparent when she hears the story of Susanna. On being asked what the moral of the story is, her response is: "don't bathe outside by yourself;" a clear case of victim-blaming. To her, it was Susanna's fault that she was threatened with rape by the Elders, just as she holds Nancy and Mary responsible for their pregnancies despite the relentless pursuit of George and Kinnear.
She admits to an underlying anger directed at both Mary and Nancy when she writes about how angry she is at them: “for letting themselves be done to death in the way that they did.” This is despite the fact she herself was the object of lechery from both men: George battering her bedroom door at night, and Kinnear leering at her, deliberately playing her against Nancy, and chasing her around the house at night (maybe?)
There's also her own admission that she bent the truth at times ("I may have changed some of the details of my stories to suit what I thought you wanted to hear; it did make me feel as though I was of some use in this world"), presumably in order to keep Doctor Jordan hanging on her every word, stringing out an elaborate tale like Scheherazade so that she might bask in his attention and heighten her chances of an early parole.
(This is the theory that her lawyer postulates, claiming she did a similar thing to him during her trial – though in his case it might be safe to assume it was only his belief that she had fallen in love with him; again you can see Grace's manipulation at work in making men believe what she wants them to believe).
These three hypothesises culminate in the climactic hypnosis scene, in which Jeremiah puts Grace into a trance and she speaks with the voice of Mary Whitney, which is either a possession, the emergence of a hidden personality, or a total fake-out.
Of course, a lot of our understanding of events also depends on whether or not we believe Jeremiah is a fraud. Could he really hypnotise people? Did he have untapped paranormal abilities? Or was he just a con-artist and actor? Any of these possibilities could be true and could explain Grace's behaviour, but in many ways he's just as much of a mystery as she is.
As it happens, hypnotism isn't that difficult to master (I have a work colleague who can do it, and has in fact convinced a girl she couldn't remove her hand from her forehead in the middle of a very loud party) so I don't think it's out of the question that Jeremiah could have reinvented himself as a quasi-respectable doctor who used genuine medical techniques.
But we also know he was a charlatan back in the day, of which there are echoes when he insists Grace's outstretched arm is immovable and can carry all his weight. That's pure showmanship right there. And yet we've also seen him make fairly accurate predictions as to what lies in Grace's future...
So three different things might be going on in this scene, aligning with any of the three outlined scenarios. Either Jeremiah deliberately set out to play an elaborate trick, only for supernatural forces to take over and Mary's spirit to speak through Grace in her fugue state, or else he did hypnotise Grace with every intention to unlock her lost memories and prove her innocence, only for a subconscious personality to emerge and gleefully declare her murderous instincts.
Both these options would account for the shocked look on his face when "Mary" begins to speak: either he doesn't think what's happening is possible, or he truly believed in Grace's innocence and was trying to save her through what he insists is a scientific procedure.
There's also a third interpretation: that he's a fake and wants to help Grace, and so tells her he'll pretend to hypnotise her so she can declare her own innocence. (We get a clear shot of them alone in the hallway, which gave them time to discuss the matter. As she says in one of her final comments: "I'll keep Jeremiah's secrets and he'll keep mine." It suggests they were initially in cahoots together).
Only it doesn't go according to plan – Grace instead takes the opportunity to rile the entire room and confess to the murders by pretending she's been possessed by Mary. It accounts for Jeremiah's shocked face (because she went off-script) and Grace's simmering rage.
Grace is clearly not a stupid person, and if the purpose of the hypnotism was to get her a pardon, then she could have easily tailored her monologue to achieve that goal. So either she wasn't in control whilst in her trance (because she was truly hypnotised into telling the truth; or truly possessed by Mary's spirit) or she deliberately confesses to the crime.
But why would she do all this? Having been abused by the world all her life, she lashes back in the only way she knows how: shrouding herself in so much mystery and intrigue that she literally drives a man mad in his attempt to understand her. From Jordan to McDermott to Reverend Verringer to the Governor's family (and eventually Jamie), people have projected their own ideas and understandings upon her.
Being acutely aware of this, she foregoes the chance to describe herself as a frightened bystander threatened by McDermott, and instead uses the stage to state her truth, to give voice to some of her anger. (This fits in with Jordan's "maybe hypnotism just allows women to express how they really feel" line of thinking). In this moment, she has the freedom to say whatever she wants – and she uses it to sow further doubt, gain further notoriety, and shroud herself in further mystery.
This is more important to her than securing a pardon (as she says when she is finally set free, she considers the penitentiary her home by this point) and grants her the ability to keep her audience in thrall. She commands incredible power because they've given her that power, and her main goal is to hold onto it no matter what.
But the bottom line is we're not meant to know what truly happened. There are so many accounts of what happened that day, and no single theory accounts for all the evidence; nothing matches up completely with everything we see. For instance, there's an early flashback that show the removal of Nancy's earrings, and yet Grace/Mary later states that McDermott didn't allow her to take them. Their true whereabouts are never accounted for.
It's this ambiguity that makes the story so fascinating: that any of these theories could be true, but that not one of them accounts for all the available evidence. Possession, mental disorder, or pure evil? The truth is wedged somewhere between all three of these possibilities, locked within an inscrutable woman's mind.