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'Tiger King' Might Be Hard to Watch If You Are a Survivor of Narcissistic Abuse

Warning: This piece contains spoilers about the docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

Like many, I was looking for something to binge-watch while hunkered down this weekend to get my mind off of our world in COVID-19 crisis. The true-crime docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” is the number one show on Netflix right now, and I love cats of all sizes, so I started the show to see what everyone was so excited about. And… woah. Uh… I mean… Wow.

“Tiger King” is a seven-part documentary series that centers on the true story of Joe Exotic (real name: Joseph Maldonado-Passage), an egocentric, fame-obsessed “zookeeper” of over 180 big cats in Oklahoma, and his utter hatred for Carole Baskin, activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. There are no words to adequately describe this show, and if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. For those who haven’t, or decide not to, there’s murder plots, trafficking, drug use, dismembered limbs, polygamy, sex cults, gun violence, suicide, animal abuse, dubious political schemes, country music videos, unfortunate haircuts and a whole lot of sociopathic rage.

Joe’s co-workers, co-conspirators and co-lovers are a crew of colorful characters who often enable the many abuses that make up Joe’s tornado of darkness. Joe’s eternal out-of-control spiral comes to a head when, after years of condemnable behavior, he is finally arrested and sentenced to 22 years in prison for animal abuse, falsifying wildlife records and his plot to murder Carole Baskin. 

As entertainment, it’s the kind of show that’s so outrageous it makes your own problems seem insignificant by comparison. Perhaps this show is trending because we all could use a break from our own reality right now. There are no “good guys” in this story, which gives the audience permission to laugh at all the “madness and mayhem” the title suggests. However, there are a number of problems with this. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that this is not a scripted show. These are real people, those are real tigers, and they’ve all been living in hell. 

As someone who has complex PTSD (C-PTSD) from many years of narcissistic and emotional abuse, I couldn’t watch “Tiger King” without dissociating from my own trauma. For those who don’t know, C-PTSD can occur when a survivor is exposed to prolonged trauma over a long period of time, often during childhood. Dissociation is a common coping mechanism among trauma survivors, which often leaves us feeling numb and cut off from our own emotions.

For me, it happens whenever I see or hear narcissistic behavior, such as name-calling, threats, self-aggrandizing or shaming others — all of which are highlighted in “Tiger King.” If I don’t shut down by dissociating, I will experience a jolt of panic as my adrenaline surges and my body assumes the positions of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. I may experience flashbacks, as if I’m back in the room with my abuser who is attacking me. I may be jumpy and anxious for hours to days, and then I crash in exhaustion and depression. I may get a migraine, or my muscles might stiffen up from non-stop body armoring. I may have chronic nightmares and clench my jaw in my sleep. Usually it’s all or most of these things. I’ve worked hard to make sure my personal life is free from the kind of toxic people who trigger this response in me, but there’s a whole lot of narcissists doing horrible things in this world that I can’t entirely shut out.

Throughout the show, Joe exhibits classic behaviors of narcissistic abuse — perhaps the most prominent is his manipulation of others to get what he needs. For example, Joe is an openly gay man who lives in Oklahoma, a historically conservative state. In order to experience relational intimacy with other men, the documentary suggests Joe preys on young, vulnerable men. John Finlay and Travis Maldonado, two of Joe’s former husbands, were both young and addicted to drugs at the time they met (and married) Joe. In the documentary, Finlay shared he was actually straight, and other interviewees said Maldonado was also straight. Many commented that Joe provided drugs to these men in exchange for sex.

Joe Exotic is not the only one who exhibits narcissistic behavior in this show. Others in positions of authority, like Doc Antle for example — another big cat owner featured in the series — shows similar abusive behaviors. It’s sobering to see the trail of destruction and trauma these abusers leave in their wake.

“Tiger King” is highly entertaining, but it’s at the expense of our collective humanity. There is some pleasure in knowing Joe is behind bars. However, any victim of domestic violence can tell you that the abuse doesn’t stop just because someone is incarcerated. Many trauma survivors have to live with the consequences of abuse for years after — some even their whole lives.

People who show patterns of narcissistic abuse will continue to put their needs above others no matter what. In this respect, the footage and editing of this docuseries is pure mastery, but the exploitation of Joe Exotic and company doesn’t make our world better. Given that one in 11 people will get PTSD at some point in their life, now is not the time to give platforms and microphones to toxic and abusive people, no matter how much we may be amused by their antics. I give the show three out of five stars because of this.

Rating:  three stars

Have you watched “Tiger King”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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