I Am Who I Am: Annalise Keating and the Power of Black Reflection

Four episodes into How to Get Away With Murder‘s inaugural season is the first time it happens. Annalise Keating sits down at her vanity, in her dimly lit bedroom, and takes off her armor: first, her jewelry, then her wig and followed by her eyelashes. She scrubs her face of every trace of makeup and comes face-to-face with her own reflection. Her armor gone, she’s as vulnerable as we’ve seen her. Without uttering a single word, Viola Davis changes our view of Annalise Keating, from this force to nature to a human being, susceptible to all the pain the world dishes out.

It’s the moment I knew for sure that Annalise Keating would be different, that How to Get Away With Murder would be different. I took it as a sign that HTGAWM would allow us to see black womanhood in a way we never have before. In hindsight, I should’ve seen it — she’s literally staring back at me in the mirror — but I was so enchanted with Viola Davis, I missed it: the pieces of Annalise Keating’s story that make her more reflective of me than any other character that I’ve ever seen on television.

I relish it, at first: there are fewer greater feelings in this world than being truly represented, particularly when you’ve been starved of that representation so long. But that triumph soon gave way to discomfort as Annalise Keating’s stories start to cut a little too close to the bone. The stories that have haunted me, the ghosts that I’d kept at bay for years, were now invited into my house, every week at 10PM. The show became, at once, difficult for me to stomach and impossible for me to turn away from.

At the root of my kinship with Annalise Keating is a shared trauma. Both of us, “black and from the damn Bible Belt,” were victimized as children by someone around whom we should’ve been safe. She doesn’t tell anyone — I don’t either, at least not at first — but, atop the shame she feels for drawing her Uncle’s attention, Annalise carries anger at her family for not having recognized what happened. She draws further away from them — changing her name, keeping her old life and her new life separate — and gravitates to the one person who sees her pain for what it is: Sam Keating.

“This thing that happened to me, what you ignore, is why I am the way I am,” Annalise angrily confesses to her mother.

I don’t share Annalise’s anger — though, as my therapist once pointed out, perhaps I should — but hearing her make my confession aloud, “This thing that happened to me is why I am the way I am,” stopped me in my tracks. She’d given voice to a thought I’d had over and over again… when I disappointed my parents by not embracing the dreams they had for me, when I prematurely abandoned relationships because I doubted anyone could truly love me. All I ever wanted to say is, “this thing that happened to me…is why I am the way I am.” But it was easier to deal with everyone else’s disappointment than to speak that truth aloud. I wasn’t strong enough for that. Annalise was.

The trauma of that thing that happened reverberates across our lives. We both seek an escape. We start first with temporary measures — drugs and alcohol, for us both — to dull the pain. Hers becomes an addiction that nearly ruins her career on more than one occasion, mine give way to the limits of my financial reality. But in the back of both our minds, thoughts of a permanent escape from the pain persist. In the years following my abuse, the only constant — no matter how deep I tried to bury the memories — were thoughts of suicide. Things would be easier if I weren’t here, I thought. I could finally stop hurting, I imagined. They were my quiet thoughts and then Annalise Keating went and shouted them out to the world.

In HTGAWM’s second season, Nate’s cancer-stricken wife, Nia, summons Annalise to the hospital, and begs her to hasten her suffering. Medical trials have kept her alive but this isn’t the life she wants, she wants to die. Annalise owes her this, after sleeping with her husband and pining a murder on him, the least she could do is supply the drugs to end her life. But even after Frank gets the pills, Annalise can’t do it: She’s done bad things but she’s not the person Nia imagines her to be. Annalise says, “I think about it a lot, killing myself. I have ever since I was a child. A lot of times, I think the world would be a much better place without me in it, but I don’t do it. You’re a better woman than me and if I don’t deserve to die, then you definitely don’t.”

Before the words are fully out of Viola Davis’ mouth, my tears spill out. I reach for the remote — so I can pause the show to regroup — and I can barely still my hands long enough to grab it. Even now, just typing about it, my body radiates with anxiety. Those are my thoughts, tied to that thing that happened to me. It’s me at my absolute weakest being broadcast to the world on some random Thursday night. But, as painful as it is to witness, when Annalise says, “I’m sorry you feel alone in your pain, but so do I,” I realize I feel a little less alone in my own.

With no obvious (or immediate) respite from the pain, we overcompensate.

Men take things, Ophelia tells Annalise, but women are made to give love, to nurture, to protect, to care for… and Annalise (and I) have been striving to be that ever since. The central conceit of the show — of helping them get away with murder — is based here: Everything stems from her desire the nurture and protect, in the way that no one nurtured and protected her. It’s why she became a defense attorney. It’s why she launched the class action suit. It’s why she risks it all for these kids, time and time again, even when they prove, time and time again, that they don’t deserve it.

Annalise: Every man I ever loved has hurt me, Mama. And I’m not you. I can’t forgive and forget. I tried, but…and I don’t want to let anyone else in. I just want to be alone.
Ophelia: How in the hell are you alone when I’m here?
Annalise: Because you’re packing up to go home, and I’m gonna be left here to do what? Save everyone else, even if it kills me? What about me saving myself?
Ophelia: Only by saving everyone else… can you save you.

While it drives me crazy to watch Annalise sacrifice her own safety and security, repeatedly, I get it… it’s what I do too. My days are lost to taking care of others and I don’t regret a second of it. That job everyone thinks I’d be perfect for? I’m sorry, I’m needed here. Those concert tickets you bought for my favorite artist? Sorry, I can’t make it, I promised I’d be here. Being in service to others, whether it’s becoming a homeschool teacher for my nephews, volunteering for campaigns, working in undeserved communities, it’s what I have to do. This is not altruism — I’m not interested in the clout. I sacrifice because only by saving everyone else can I save myself. This is how I stay alive.

Even as you chase a new purpose meant to erase the feelings of worthlessness that linger, love remains just out out reach. It’s one of the great cruelties of abuse, I’ve found: It leaves you both wanting to be loved so desperately and convinces you that you’re never truly worthy of it. I stopped trying a while ago — unable to see the utility of chasing something that I’m convinced I’ll never catch — but Annalise persists.

She chases after inappropriate men — Solomon and Emmett, her bosses; Sam and Isaac, her therapists; Nate, the married cop investigating her case — because that’s what she felt she deserved. But, one of the most interesting facets of HTGAWM’s final season is watching Annalise fully grapple with the reasons behind her relationships with men, all who have hurt her at one point or another, and attribute it to her desire to be normal.

“I was afraid to be gay. Should’ve stayed with Eve, loved her, but I wanted to be normal, I wanted to be accepted,” she confesses to Bonnie, after replaying her old therapy sessions. Sam was the life she’d dreamt about as a child — the princess that gets rescued by the handsome prince with an easy smile — when all she wanted was to feel like she belonged. After coming out to her mother, Annalise makes it more plain: “Maybe those men were just me running away from being different, Mama.”

Those old therapy tapes reveal a better version of Annalise Keating: being with Eve — who was the impetus behind Annalise going into therapy — helps her feel better about herself and makes her feel safe. As classmates at Harvard Law, they have fun together…”dinner parties at Al’s, dancing all night at that Brazilian bar.” Years later, when they cross paths again, they settle back into comfortable groove. They laugh, they dance, they have sex. Annalise never shines brighter than when she’s next to Eve. She doesn’t feel judged, she just feels safe. But there’s something unsettling about safety for Annalise — it always feels like a temporary condition — so, while Annalise loves Eve, she keeps her at distance, even urging Eve to chase love in San Francisco.

“You should go…You deserve it more than anyone,” Annalise tells her. What goes unsaid is that Eve deserves to be loved but Annalise, clearly, doesn’t believe that she does.

With Tegan Price, Annalise is full of doubt: constantly second-guessing whether Caplan & Gold’s Managing Partner is sincere in her efforts to help. No matter how often Tegan tries to prove herself, Annalise questions if she can trust her or if Tegan’s just another person trying to play her. But Tegan’s dogged by ghosts of her own — fear of abandonment after losing her parents in a plane crash and the collapse of her marriage — and so she keeps coming back, hoping to prove herself to Annalise and never pushing too far or too fast.

“[Annalise] makes me feel alive,” Tegan confesses. It’s the first time she’s acknowledged her feelings for Annalise out loud, despite the fact that everyone else can see right through her. But still, Annalise pretends not to see… if she doesn’t acknowledge Tegan’s feelings, Annalise won’t have to disappoint her. If she pretends not to see, she doesn’t have to be reminded of her own shortcomings.

It’s still to be determined what lesson I ought to take from Annalise: Is she a cautionary tale of engaging in a futile chase or is her journey evidence that there’s hope for me too? I cheer for the latter. I want that, despite myself.

They don’t write stories about girls like me. No one tells the stories of women of a certain hue… of a certain size… of a certain age.

For years, I convinced myself that it was okay. It didn’t matter that all of me wasn’t on screen, I could make due with just the parts. Even as I championed representation elsewhere, I resigned myself to the belief that seeing my own story didn’t matter and, by seeing myself in others, I’d grow into a more empathetic person. I convinced myself that it was enough.

Besides, they don’t write stories about girls like me and, in the rare instance that they do, they certainly don’t put them on television.

“I feel like, especially with women of color, nobody loves to embrace our mess. They don’t,” Viola Davis once said. “And what I’ve seen a lot of times, especially stories of people of color, is that they’ve been really filtered down so they don’t become an indictment for white people and they become very comfortable for us. But they’re never really who we are.”

With How to Get Away With Murder, Annalise Keating showed all my mess… and managed to be revelatory, aspirational and deeply uncomfortable in the process. She was who I really am and, as the show takes its final bow tonight, I’m profoundly sad and a little relieved to see her go.

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 400 articles for us.


  1. Natalie, this is one of the most profoundly powerful pieces of writing I have ever had the honor to read. Thank you for sharing so much of your own story with us and for juxtaposing it with one of — if not the — most important TV characters ever. I was speechless when I finished reading this, just sitting here with tears in my eyes and marveling at your craft. Truly, thank you.

    • Agreed. Thank you for sharing with us. This was beautiful, brought tears to my eyes and gave me goosebumps. I love Annalise, and I’m so glad she means so much to you. I’m going to miss this show, so, so much. Here is hoping we have more stories like these. You deserve to see yourself reflected in the media. Representation is so important.

  2. I had to stop watching the show after the episode where Annalise and her mom talk about the abuse– didn’t even finish the first season or get to the gay stuff! But I’ll try it again someday. Thank you for sharing what it meant to you

  3. This is so lovely, Natalie. It’s genuinely been a joy to sort of check in on your evolving feelings about this character and her world over the years. In watching the finale (no spoilers, I promise) I realized that, ultimately, all I’ve ever wanted for Annalise is to see her get to the point of not chasing or even coexisting with people who mistreat or abuse or even willfully misunderstand her. I just wanted her to realize that she deserved to be seen, and, beyond that, to be loved by someone who she could feel seen by, exactly as she is. I hope you find that, too.

    The show had its highs and lows, but I really will miss Annalise Keating.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

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