Archives for Defense Mechanisms
Although Jim Carrey’s films are usually pretty zany, in some of them he tackles psychological themes. Yes Man (2008) is one of those. In it, he plays Carl, despondent over his divorce. He automatically says “no” to any question, request or offer that comes his way. A former co-worker tells him about a “YES” seminar in which participants are urged to make a covenant to agree to whatever is proposed to them. Carl becomes a “yes man” for a time with both pleasant and unpleasant results. When his new girlfriend, Allison (Zooey Deschanel), asks if he wants to live with her, Carl says yes, but not whole-heartedly. Here he comes to the crossroads where he finally learns discernment: to be free to answer either yes or no, depending on what he really wants or doesn’t want.
In Rachel Getting Married (2008), Anne Hathaway plays Kym, who is released from rehab in order to go to her sister Rachel’s wedding, which takes place at the home of her father, Paul and step-mother, Carol. The particular scene I’ve chosen illustrates what happens when a parent doesn’t or won’t acknowledge her feelings and/or proper share of accountability and responsibility, in today's terms "owning her own stuff." The child is then left holding the bag, so to speak, of the parent's unowned emotions.
I've been laughing myself silly all week, listening to the soundtrack (and watching YouTube videos) of the Tony Award-winning musical, The Book of Mormon. Its book, music and lyrics were written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) in collaboration with Robert Lopez, co-author and director of another successful Broadway musical, Avenue Q. While the melodies may be a bit generic, they're catchy and memorable; it's the lyrics that truly stand out, however. Profane and irreverent, they shed light on some of the more absurd aspects of Mormon theology. They also expose the type of guidance offered by the Church of the Latter Day Saints to members struggling with cognitive dissonance, as well as feelings they find unacceptable.
Further exploring various dynamics of the mother and daughter relationship [For the first part in this series click here], we’ll have a look at a scene from Postcards from the Edge (1990). This film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher (daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds). Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) plays the addiction-prone actress daughter of movie star Doris Mann (Shirley Maclaine). Doris is portrayed as overbearing, controlling, manipulative, competitive, narcissistic and self-absorbed; Suzanne is very much in her shadow. In a particular scene towards the end of the film [click here to watch], Suzanne is doing a voice-over for a film she’s just made. She has a heart-to-heart conversation with her director, fatherly Lowell (Gene Hackman):
I'd heard so much negative buzz about The Beaver (starring Mel Gibson and directed by Jodie Foster) that I stayed away from my local movie theater despite the film's interesting psychological subject matter. This past week, I finally saw it on DVD and was surprised to find myself appreciating it much more than I'd expected. While there's some truth to the criticism I've heard, The Beaver tackles a difficult subject -- suicidal depression -- with psychological insight and emotional honesty. It scorns the simplistic answers offered by pop psychology and rejects the widely propagated medical lie that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. The film doesn't really try to explain depression (although it offers some interesting hints as to its origins), or offer a solution that leads to the happy ending. Instead, it explores a peculiar form of splitting, a desperate attempt to "cure" depression when all else fails.
In Part I, we saw big changes in Pleasantville, now: the Mayor tries to regain control of the situation by organizing a town hall meeting. He represents the fascistic part of our Super-Ego clinging on to old value systems for dear life by rallying defense mechanisms. This part rejects, banishes, and excludes those aspects of ourselves that bring up unwanted painful and shameful emotions in order to keep things comfortable and “pleasant.”
Lady Gaga's music video for Born This Way begins with a creation myth about the origins of an imaginary Manichaen world. Her voice-over, accompanied by stunning visuals and set to portions of the magnificent Bernard Herrmann score for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, tells of the "infinite" birth of "a new race, a race within the race of humanity. A race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom." On the same day that this "goodness" came into existence, evil was also born. Lady Gaga's preamble concludes with a cryptic line: "But she wondered, 'How can I protect something so perfect without evil?'” Not from evil, mind you, but without it. If you parse the prolog, this "she" must refer to a kind of Mother Goddess, the eternal womb that gave birth to good and evil. "She" seems to believe that evil is existentially necessary in order to preserve perfection. If so, it would imply a kind of splitting, where we can only believe in perfect goodness if we balance it with perfect badness. The alternative would be a return to ordinary humanity and shades of gray, where all human beings are a mixed bag, in which pain, prejudice and judgment are unavoidable.
In Part I we left off with Pandora regarding the portrait that Hendrick painted of her. The way she is portrayed in the painting is not as she has ever been, but as she would like to be. She says, “It’s not me as I am at all. Why am I not like that?” This is tricky territory and requires psychological discernment. It’s helpful to start understanding the difference between wanting only the “good” or ideal parts of ourselves to be seen, perhaps getting confused with a grandiose compensatory façade. On the other hand, sometimes it is true that the Other brings out “the best in us,” qualities hidden even to ourselves, as in the case of Pandora.
This powerfully insightful film begins with a house in flames, and a man running from it with his own clothes on fire; for the next hour and a half, we're left to wonder how this incident relates to the life of Felix Bush (Robert Duval) who has spent the last 40 years as a hermit, concealing himself from the world and shunning contact. Only in the final moments of the film do we understand that Felix was the burning man who fled; for all the years since, the flames of guilt and shame have been consuming him. In the second sequence, a small boy throws a rock through the window at Felix's house; when Felix pursues the boy into the barn, his face remains hidden in shadow -- a perfect image for his faceless existence, a lifetime during which he has not wanted to be "seen." As do so many people crippled with shame and guilt, Felix defends against those experiences by hiding from view. At the same time, he lives in self-imposed exile as a punishment for the "crime" he committed. For years, he has tried to atone for his deeds through this imprisonment; now, at the end of his life, Felix finds that the only way to cool the flames of his conscience is to do the very thing he has avoided all these years -- to reveal himself in public. And so he plans a "funeral party," to be held while he is still alive. He hires funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) and his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) to mount the funeral.
In a post on my blog, After Psychotherapy, I've discussed how Charlie Sheen's behavior and comments in recent interviews illustrate the defenses against shame I've written about in detail. In yet another interview, this one on ABC's 20/20, Sheen continues in the same grandiose and contemptuous vein; eventually, however, he gives us some insight into his mania. The interviewer asks if he ever feels that his wild lifestyle gets "too close" to his kids and might hurt them, referencing the out-of-control party in a New York hotel room last year, with his girls asleep just across the hall. "You don't normally think about that in the middle of it," he replies. "Then people remind you of it and of it's 'Oh. SHAME. Oops. Move on.' I mean, what are you going to do, change it? Move their room? Can I go back in time and move their room? No!" Because he has no sense of how to make up for what he's done, he can't bear to think or feel anything about it. In a manner characteristic of bipolar disorder, all he can do is take manic flight into his vision of a perfect, "winning" and shame-free life. The Interviewer then asks whether he feels bad about that night. Yes, he acknowledges, but he's the kind of guy who apologizes and moves on. Again, he can't bear the shame he feels about himself and his behavior and must quickly distance himself from it.