In my beautiful Brazilian film adaptations class, we’re currently working on Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, a 1966 novel by Jorge Amado and its 1976 film adaptation directed by Bruno Barreto. And I have been having a miserable time with it, even though the writing in the book is good and the movie is incredibly well-done.
I know that the violence against women is my huge hangup regarding Dona Flor. I didn’t read very far into the novel before we watched the film, but far enough to know that Vadinho, when alive, was an abusive shitbag of a husband to Flor. He stole her money, gambled away their savings and his own clothes, beat her, everything. Despite all that, he’s portrayed as being her one true love, and after he dies, she’s trapped in such a longing for him that eventually his spirit is forced from the grave and into her life once again. Every time I read anything about Vadinho, I just get sick to my stomach and can’t go on. In part, it’s me reliving my own experiences being with an abusive boyfriend several years ago, but it’s also got to do with one of my best friends who is in a relationship like Flor and Vadinho right now. Things between them are so volatile sometimes that I genuinely fear for her life, and the way Vadinho treats Flor is almost identical to the way my friend’s partner treats her. In this case, I can’t get past the abuse.
Watching the movie made it even harder. There’s this scene where Vadinho is after money from Flor, and she refuses him and refuses him, so he goes after a vase, and she grabs it, runs, tries to avoid him. He chases her and throws her and hits her, and eventually smashes the vase on the ground. Watching that scene play out was like a horror show. The fear, the panic, the danger. The longer Flor stayed with him, the greater her risk. It was a blessing in her life that he died during Carnaval.
Coming back as Flor’s personal poltergeist, Vadinho gets even worse, in my opinion. Now that he’s no longer living and can only be seen by Flor, he focuses all of his attention on trying to get her to sleep with him. And while it’s true that her sexual relationship with her second husband Teodoro is obviously lackluster, one of the first things Flor tells the undead Vadinho is that she won’t cheat on Teodoro, not even with her deadbeat dead first husband. What follows is Vadinho employing manipulative tactics like gaslighting and peer pressure over an extended period of time to wear Flor down. He constantly presses her boundaries to the point of sexual harassment, grabbing at her body when she’s explicitly told him not to, wandering around naked in front of her, watching (and mocking) while she has sex with Teodoro. All so that he can get her to the point where she would willingly have sex with him again.
And she does. Not surprised at all, to be honest, but so disheartened. I’m also taking a class this semester called Mononormativity in Portuguese, and it’s been great to develop more insight into monogamous relationships, polyamory, affairs, and their place within the scope of a human society. Dona Flor is a novel that would fit right in within the syllabus of that class; it was even brought up last Wednesday. I feel like most people who have a problem with Flor keeping Vadinho’s spirit around do so because of the whole “love-triangle” “cheating/affair” angle, but not me. I have a problem with it because Vadinho is abusive, and the fact that Flor can’t let go of that abuse in her current and healthy relationship is far too real.
It was that way for me, at least.
I haven’t dated much, but the first guy I dated after my abusive ex meant the world to me. It was the kind of relationship where you feel like the other person hung the stars in the sky, that time was irrelevant, that the universe existed solely for the purpose of bringing two souls together. Usually. Our relationship, especially in the stages where we were starting to become more intimate, was constantly marred by my baggage from not just the abusive ex but also the whole abduction thing that happened when I was 17. Some days would be fine. Other days, my decent ex would kiss me or touch me, and I would have flashbacks that led to panic attacks. Half the time, I bit the panic back and kept going, partially to prove I was beyond the fear and partially out of fear that if I didn’t, I would be left. I did plenty of things I didn’t actually want to do with my decent ex, without him ever knowing that I wasn’t feeling it, because of the baggage I carried from my abusive ex. (I’m certain my decent ex would feel like shit if he knew this, but we haven’t talked in years, so he probably won’t find out).
We see Flor react in a similar way before Vadinho comes back as a spirit, when Teodoro finds one of the places where she’d been hiding money. Flor reacts with panic and shame, and Teodoro comforts her (albeit a little patronizingly) and encourages her to open a separate bank account so that she doesn’t feel the need to squirrel her cash away in the sewing machine.
Teodoro gently begins to undo the damage done by Vadinho, but no person should bear that responsibility alone. If this story were set in a more contemporary setting, I would be hoping to see Flor seeking some kind of professional help to regain control of her life post-Vadinho, but the story is set in like the 40s, so oh well. (This, by the way, is rich coming from the girl who’s been out of therapy for less than a year and already almost as bad as before she started and still reluctant to go back, yeah).
To put it simply, there is no true liberation for Flor, and this is all too true of real women (and men) in in real circumstances with dangerous partners. Part of me wonders, can we really expect a man writing in the 1960s to seek liberation for Flor? But perhaps it’s even more important that instead Amado just tells it like it is, magical elements be damned. Flor will always carry Vadinho with her, just like I will always carry my abusive ex. When we see it laid out in another person, real or fictional, it can help us identify dangerous situations of our own before it gets worse. Could Flor’s curse to carry Vadinho become a real person’s liberation? That is the best we could hope for. That is the best I can hope for.
I want to like this novel, I really do. Amado’s prose is so strong, his characters so developed, his world so well-crafted. But for me, I just find the whole story really fucking triggering.
If you are in an abusive relationship, you should know that you do not deserve to be treated that way, whether you’re a woman, a man, nonbinary, anywhere in between. Men can be victims of domestic violence as well, and women can be perpetrators. Your gender has nothing to do with your right to a safe, happy and loving relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship, there are places you can go, people you can call, who can help. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the US. In my hometown, you can get in touch with Huntingdon House, or in the central PA region you can contact The Abuse Network. In the Southeast Coast region, you can get in touch with The Women’s Center, which has offices in New Bedford and Fall River, or SFS Family Centers. Please remember that you are strong and you are brave, and you deserve so much better, so much more.