“They’re Alive, Dammit! It’s A Miracle!” How Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Portrays Trauma

In March, Netflix released the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, an original series created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. I would probably watch anything involving Tina Fey and actress Ellie Kemper (who plays Kimmy Schmidt), so I settled in without knowing much about the plot of the series.

The show starts with the discovery of Kimmy and three other women who were held captive in an underground bunker by Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. Kimmy was taken by the reverend 15 years ago, when she was in the 8th grade. After the “Indiana Mole Women” are interviewed on a morning talk show, Kimmy decides that she will stay in New York City instead of returning to Indiana. From there, she works to start a new life by finding a roommate, getting a job, going to school, and even dating. She also keeps her story a secret from almost everyone around her.

As someone who has worked with many survivors of trauma, it caught my attention that this show has the ambitious task of sprouting a 30-minute sitcom out of such a traumatic event. With trauma impacting so much of the viewing audience, there needed to be a balance of quick-witted jokes while not ignoring or mocking Kimmy’s traumatic origin story. The show could not ignore that her past is part of Kimmy’s story, but making her past the only part of her story, or having her breeze by any obstacles from her past, would not be true to Kimmy’s character, or to others who have survived traumatic experiences.

I think that there are ways in which this series does very well at illustrating the impact of trauma on survivors, as well as their resiliency and ability to recover. In the first part of this three-part blog post, we will look at how Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt represents the symptoms a survivor may experience following trauma.                                              

Symptoms of Hypervigilance and Intrusive Thoughts

Early episodes blend in symptoms of trauma that could be found in the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). For example, Kimmy has recurring nightmares about her experiences as a captive, she gets triggered for unknown reasons by Velcro, and she has an exaggerated startle response. These scenes remind the audience of the ways that the traumatic experience can intrude into a survivor’s present and cause the survivor’s nervous system to be on overdrive, always alert for the next danger.

Avoidance of Reminders of the Trauma

Kimmy also makes several attempts throughout the season to avoid scenarios that remind her of her past. For example, Kimmy lives out the common experience of wanting to avoid memories of her past (not to mention an unjust legal proceeding) when she initially refuses to return to Indiana for the trial of her captor. Instead, she isolates herself and takes up a cult-like spin cycle class that idolizes its leader Tristafé, who is played by Nick Kroll. Initially, Kimmy is able to block out the negative news about the trial, and the pleas of her fellow captive to come testify, by cycling up to eight hours a day and looking exclusively inward. Kimmy states, “The only thing I have to do is follow my bliss, and Indiana is nowhere near my mind beach.” When Kimmy realizes that she is living in a re-creation of her trauma by following another inauthentic male authority figure, she is no longer able to follow her bliss and makes the choice to go to the trial. While it is natural for any survivor to want to avoid danger that they experienced in the past, the show repeatedly has Kimmy facing elements of her past in order to move forward.

A Sense of Feeling Different

Many of my clients have expressed that they feel “different” or out of sync with the world following their trauma. In Kimmy’s case, she has literally lost 15 years of her life, so smart phones are confusing to her and she misuses pop culture expressions such as “hashbrown no filter” instead of “#nofilter.” Beyond these direct ways in which Kimmy is impacted by her trauma, she also comes across as different or strange to others, particularly her nemesis Xanthippe Voorhees, played by Dylan Gelula, or to some of the men she attempts to date. Kimmy is aware and self-conscious of some of her weirdness and often works to hide it from others.

In addition, the show weaves in examples of how Kimmy’s very uncommon experience has taught her not to be caught up in fear. She tells her roommate Titus Andromedon, played by Tituss Burgess, that “the worst thing that’s ever happened to me happened in my own front yard”; therefore, staying in New York City and starting over is not something from which she needs to be protected. In another scene with Titus, Kimmy is laughing at people dressed as monsters in a theme restaurant where Titus works. She marvels at the type of things that scare people who have never been kidnapped and experienced the types of traumatic events that she has. In these instances, Kimmy demonstrates how survivors may be able to put risks into perspective.

While there are plenty of examples of Kimmy’s symptoms of trauma, the show also illustrates how Kimmy is moving forward in her life and the ways in which she has faced her trauma with growth. In parts two and three, I will outline some ways in which the series depicts resiliency and recovery.