Science Fiction Wisdom: Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace – Battlestar Galactica (2000s)

The spiritual lesson from science fiction that I’m going to write about this week is not as simple, clearcut or easy to apply as the Litany Against Fear.

In fact, it’s downright disturbing, so disturbing that, if you are triggered into dissociation, PTSD, anxiety or any other unpleasant and life-limiting experience by talk of physical and mental abuse of children or (possibly) delusional mental states, I suggest you don’t read it.

It also contains spoilers for seasons 3 and 4 of BSG, so if you’ve not watched that far yet, you might want to bookmark this post to come back to when you have.

Now the warnings are out of the way…

What we know about Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace

Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace’s story through the five seasons of BSG is not a pretty one. For all that she’s a strong and in many ways admirable character, she is also seriously messed up. As far as I’m concerned, this messed-up-ness reached its apotheosis (reference intentional) in season 3 episode 17 (Maelstrom).

Kara’s story is long and convoluted. At this point in the series, we know that she has been captured by Cylons twice, and subjected by them to mental torture. We know that her mother subjected Kara to repeated physical, mental and emotional abuse from an early age, and that nothing Kara did was ever ‘good enough’.

The ancient mandala.

We know that a picture that Kara has been painting since she was a child is a close copy of a 4000 year old mandala of concentric rings, connected to the fleet’s mission of finding Earth. We know that she has been told by the Cylon Leoben Conoy – who is also one of the Cylons who subjects her to awful mental torture – that she has a special destiny, for which her mother, through the abuse, was attempting to prepare Kara. We know that Kara did not visit her mother in the two months before her mother’s painful death from cancer.

Destiny, vision or delusion?

The eye of the storm.

Near the beginning of the episode, while the fleet refuels, Kara, ‘Hotdog’ and Lee Adama fly over a gas giant planet, where Kara sees a Cylon raider, invisible to Lee and the crew back on the Galactica. Kara chases the Cylon fighter, which may or may not exist in reality, over the eye of a storm, which is identical to both Kara’s paintings and the ancient mandala. On a second visit to the planet, with Lee Adama flying on her wing, Kara again sees and follows a Cylon raider invisible both to Lee and to the instruments of the Galactica.

This time, her Viper is hit by the Cylon raider, and she is knocked unconscious. A series of dreams, memories and visions/delusions, guided by someone or something with the form of Leoben Conoy follows, focused around her mother and her death.

Kara’s painting

Kara goes to her mother’s deathbed, and holds her hand as she dies. Next to her mother on the bed a scrapbook of Kara’s life: all of her childhood drawings, school certificates, every single record of evidence of achievement in Kara’s life, large and small is there. Kara’s mother – according to this vision, or delusion – abused her daughter and withheld her approbation in order to make Kara strong enough to face the challenge of this moment, in which Kara finally faces and accepts death, flying down into the planet and allowing her Viper to be crushed, with her inside it.

Abuse and forgiveness

And that is what I find so disturbing about this particular and (almost) final episode in Kara’s story. How many times have abusers told children that what they are doing is “for your own good”? Is that ever true? No. Even if the abuser genuinely believes that, does it ever justify the abuse? Absolutely not. Even if the abuse leads the child to develop survival tactics, skills or other aspects of themselves that are useful and important in life, does that make the abuse okay? No, no, and no.

In Kara’s case, her experience could have been a genuine spiritual visitation, both from her mother’s spirit and from whatever spiritual agent was using the form of Leoben Conoy. Her experiences of Leoben and her mother could have been constructs created by Kara’s own mind, to make sense of and reconcile her past in the face of her destined death. The whole experience could have been a series of delusions allowing Kara to give in to suicidal urges.

Whatever the case, I am left questioning the message the writers intended us to take away. This is clearly a make or break point for Kara’s soul, one to which the rest of her life, all of her experiences, good and bad, and all of her own actions, effective and mistaken, have led her. The inner experiences she goes through immediately before she is crushed by the planet’s gravity seem to enable her to forgive both her mother for the abuse, and herself for her abandonment of her mother in her painful, lonely death to cancer.

But that does not make the abuse okay.

Too often, looking for the meaning and lessons in the difficult events that happen in our lives can become a way of side-stepping the very real experience of pain, loss, anger and grief which they raise within us. Forgiveness is vitally important, but it does not mean that what was done to us was okay, or, as Marianne Williamson puts it, that we need to go have lunch with an abuser and make nice.

Forgiveness and levels of experience

At the level of our day to day experience of pleasure and pain, and our childhood memories of the same, we are a separate being, acting on and acted upon by other, separate beings. There is individual praise, recognition, fault and blame, and individuals can and must be held accountable for their actions and inactions. At this level, forgiveness does not make sense unless it is accompanied by regret and remorse on behalf of the individual who has caused pain, and/or who is responsible for it.

At the level on which all beings are not only interconnected, but inseparably part of each other, forgiveness is a matter not of accepting another’s apology, but of cleansing and healing a wound in the body of the whole – there is no separate self to be attacked and hurt, no separate self to be singled out and held responsible and accountable.

At the level of Spirit, the meaning of forgiveness is different again. At this level, forgiveness is a recognition that the truth of who and what we are, individually or interconnected, has not been harmed – indeed cannot be harmed – and that therefore there is nothing to forgive; forgiveness becomes a recognition of the reality of wholeness, regardless of physical, emotional and mental circumstances.

But great harm can be done by trying to apply this Spirit-centred forgiveness to the other levels of our experience. To tell a victim of childhood abuse that not only should they forgive their abusers, but that in reality ‘nothing happened’ is to silence them and invalidate their experience.

Conversely, to try to bring someone who is working on the Spirit-centred level of reality back to an experience of victimhood and blame that they have already successfully worked through is deeply inappropriate and potentially harmful.

And to leave out work on our collective wounding and healing, which manifests itself through institutions, groups and interpersonal relationships, is to leave in place systems which have a tendency to encourage abusive and harmful behaviour even in individuals who are focusing deeply on personal responsibility and inner work, allowing blindspots around, for example, racism, sexism and able-ism to stay in place.

Kara’s situation

Coming back to Kara Thrace, given her reappearance later on in the BSG saga, I am willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt that Kara was, indeed, being guided by a force greater than herself to a destiny necessary for humanity as a whole; that in the face of such a destiny, forgiving her mother became a matter not only of necessity, but of simple acceptance of the truth of the situation. But I wouldn’t want to use Kara’s experience as a primer on forgiveness.

What is your take on Kara’s story? What is your experience of forgiveness? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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