In the novel, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Lily runs away from home due to the abuse she receives from her father in search of a new life. Lily hopes to find a life where she can finally learn to love herself again despite the burden of guilt she carries from allegedly killing her mother. Lily, the protagonist, has been abused by her father T-Ray, the antagonist, for years.
She uses this abuse as motivation to find a better life for herself and come to terms with her mother’s death. Through the use of cruelty Kidd clarifies that one cannot simply escape the reality of abuse by physical separation , but must also learn to rid the mind of any misconceptions he or she may blame themselves for , and forgive the perpetrator for any wrongdoings bestowed upon them.
Through the first part of the novel, T-Ray would give Lily cruel physical punishments in an attempt to reign in Lily’s unbridled attitude (24). These punishments for Lily began to morph into the image of T-Ray himself and slowly wash away any hope she had of having a real father. This hurt Lily deeply because the loss of her mother left a huge hole in her heart.
All she wanted was to have a loving, accepting father who did not view her as a burden the Lord bestowed upon him. One of the cruel punishments T-Ray would use, was for Lily to kneel on the “Martha Whites” (a pile of grits) that he poured on the floor (24). Lily dreaded this punishment because the grits represented more than just punishment for Lily.
It represented the aching pain which resided in Lily’s chest to find closure for her mother’s death. These punishments in the long run affected Lily ,because children that have been “emotionally and physically abused may face severe and long term psychological consequences” (“ Child Emotional Abuse”). Lily struggled throughout the novel with physical and emotional pain until the end when she was finally able to surround herself with people that loved and supported her ( 213).
Not only did T-Ray abuse Lily physically, but he also abused her emotionally. His constant reminders that Lily killed her mother continued to feed into the thought that she was to blame for her mother’s death. Lily felt guilty most of her life because of T-Ray. Lily would often think about meeting her mother in Heaven and say “Mother, forgive. Please forgive” ( 5). This showed the guilty thoughts of Lily betraying her own mother dominated most of her conscious, and made Lily feel like she deserved all of the bad things that happened to her in life.
This seemed to give T-Ray power over Lily because abusive parents will usually try to say things to make the kids think they are in the wrong instead of seeing the reality as to where the parent is the one to blame (Gryphon). In Lily’s mind, it was her fault the gun went off instead of thinking that her father abusing her mother was why the gun was on the floor in the first place ( 3).
In this case, Lily is experiencing trauma related guilt which caused her to misinterpret the real events that happened (Kippert). Her memories are cloudy because of the constant reminders from T-Ray that Lily was the one to blame in the situation. After hearing the claims repeated constantly, Lily began to believe the lies of her father since she was too young to remember the tragic event that took place. In the end, Lily was able to come to terms with her mother’s death and begin to heal emotionally.
Lily tried her best to hide her emotional trauma from the outside world, but at times she seemed to falter. Lily occasionally showed signs of distress throughout the novel such as breaking down in front of her friend Zack over the worry of how nobody would want her in the future. This often happens with teens who have been abused because they experience symptoms of “anxiety and depression throughout their life” which leads to their lack of self esteem (Wilson).
Zack was able to help Lily throughout the novel by constantly reminding her of how much she means to him and how she makes the world a better place ( 36). Lily struggled to find her place in the world and to gain self confidence until she saw Rosaleen stand up to a group of racist men in Sylvan (20).
This ignited a flame in Lily’s heart that allowed her to stand up against T-Ray and gain the confidence she needed to remove herself from his toxic environment (25). Without the gain of confidence Rosaleen gave her, Lily would have most likely still been stuck in T-Rays grasp where he was taking out all of his anxiety on her. Just like Lily, T-Ray was experiencing the sense of guilt and fear, but unique to T-Ray was the fear of the unknown territory of raising a child on his own (et al Ehrhart).
T-Ray was trying to parent Lily in the way he thought she needed to be, but instead was taking all the confidence her mother and given her. Zack and his family were finally able to give Lily back the confidence she needed to get through life by accepting her for who she was and loving her through the pain that her childhood had inflicted upon her. In the end all Lily needed was a little time and love and people surrounding her who cared about her.
In the end, T-Ray’s cruelty towards Lily was just his way of dealing with his wife’s death just as Lily’s obsession with her mother was Lily’s way of dealing with T-Ray’s abuse. Abuse has a funny way of bringing out different emotions in people and everyone handles the stress of it differently. Lily eventually found out the truth about her mother’s death which showed that ridding the mind of any misconceptions is the first step in a long healing process that may one day bring Lily and her father back to together on good terms.
- “Child Emotional Abuse.”Prevent Child Abuse America, https://preventchildabuse.org/resource/preventing-emotional-abuse/.
- Ehrhart, Randi, et al. John Wilson PhD, 17 October 2013, http://johmwilsononline.org/2013/10/17/death-of-a-partner-how-age-affects-grief-and-grieving/.
- Gryphon, Rainbow. “Emotional Abuse Behaviors” Emotional Abuse Answers, 26 July 2015, http://www.emotionalabuseanswers.org/emoabu/about-emotional-abuse-answers/.
- Kippert, Amanda. “Trauma-Related Guilt is a Liar”, Domesticshelters.org, 8 December 2019, http://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/after-abuse/trauma-related-guilt-is-a-liar.
- Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. Viking Penguin Books, 2002.
- Wilson, Jen. “The Impact of Childhood Abuse on Women’s Adult Relationship. GoodTherapy.org Blog, 26 Feb. 2014, https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/impact-of-childhood-abuse-on-womens-adult-relationships-0925122.