Most professionals who go to see films that fictionalize their own field often object to Hollywood’s blunders and distortions. I remember my first-year associate friends howling at the movie theater, many years ago, when Glenn Close in Jagged Edge told her senior partner that she “already had a case” — as if an associate at a law firm worked on only one case at a time!
As a psychoanalyst, I have some problems with David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method, starring Viggo Mortenson as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein. Although the background history was clearly researched with great care, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and presumably director Cronenberg know little about how psychoanalysis actually proceeds.
What bothers me most is the absence of the notion of an unconscious mind. Although in their conversations, Freud suggests to Jung that he has murderous impulses toward him, presumably unconscious, when it comes to Jung’s work with patient Spielrein, the idea of unconscious memories, impulses or ideas is entirely absent.
In those early years, Freud and his followers believed symptom relief came from abreacting traumatic memories, either by recovering the lost memory and putting it into words, or working through that memory by bringing it into relation with other conscious thoughts, memories and feelings. Abreaction occurs as a normal part of our daily experience, but in trauma, the memory is not abreacted and instead remains unconscious.
According to LaPlanche and Pontalis, “The effect of an absence of abreaction is the persistence of the group of ideas which lie at the root of the neurotic symptoms; they remain unconscious and isolated from the normal course of thought” (emphasis added).
The film “Yes Man” invites exploration of our “default switches,” which serve as defensive strategies. Some of us tend to comply and accommodate by always saying yes. Others tend to rebel and shut down to new experiences by always saying no. Neither rebelling (by an automatic No) nor complying (by an automatic Yes) are real ways of establishing either independence in the first case or closeness in the second. Rebelling mimics autonomy and compliance mimics merging.
The 2005 film “The Upside of Anger” is a good starting point from which to discuss the issue of women’s anger, nearly taboo in our society. In men, anger can be considered forceful, assertive, or powerful, where in women it may be judged as aggressive, bitchy or irrational. In general, women have been conditioned to be “nice” and not to make waves; often their anger has gone into their “shadow” (the hidden, unconscious parts of ourselves). In addition, current ideas about “thinking positive thoughts” don’t leave room for our more unpleasant emotions, potentially resulting in a feeling that something is wrong with us if we can’t change the way we feel simply by will-power.
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 his or her proper share of accountability and responsibility; the child is then left holding all of the guilt, until such point that as an adult, the child comes to her own inner understanding as to how things really were.
The main storyline in the film The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) has to do with the relationship between mother Vivi (Ellen Burstyn) and daughter Sidda (Sandra Bullock). I want to focus on one particular scene here which gives an insight into Vivi’s relationship with her own parents. This scene takes place at the birthday party of 18-year old Vivi (played by Ashley Judd). Her father, Taylor, gives her an extravagant diamond ring. The narrator says “Taylor Abbott treated his horses better than he treated his wife,” and that Vivi “got caught in the crossfire” between them. There are a number of aspects to analyze in this clip. One is the creation of a Daddy’s Little Girl. Not only does Taylor treat Vivi more like a beloved wife (vividly seen through the symbolism of the ring) than a daughter, he also devalues his real wife, Buggy. Winning the Oedipal conflict in this way usually creates much confusion for a young girl, as well as guilt and shame. As special as she may feeling because of her father’s inappropriate attention, she also feels guilt because it’s at her mother’s expense.
Woody Allen’s film Alice (1990) is a kind of heroine’s journey. In it, Alice (Mia Farrow), married to a wealthy attorney, goes to a Chinese herbalist, Dr. Yang, for help with a bad back. More than just curing the symptom, the doctor, through his various elixirs, helps Alice to explore hidden parts of her psyche. In this piece, I focus on Alice’s idealization of her mother.
Further exploring various dynamics of the mother and daughter relationship, 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 and self-absorbed; Suzanne is very much in her shadow.
In this next series of posts, I’m going to take scenes from a number of films to explore various aspects of mother-daughter relationships. It can be helpful to take stock of how we were mothered, how we’ve complied with and/or rebelled against the woman who raised us (or was supposed to and didn’t). Also it is useful to identify the beliefs and messages that get handed down to us, often coming down through generations. Not only can these realizations help point the way to our own individuation (becoming fully ourselves), it can also help us to not pass on our “family legacies” unconsciously.
Rebecca Miller’s “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” (2005) presents an intimate look at how father-daughter relationships can cross the line into covert or emotional incest. Rose (Camilla Belle) is the 16-year old daughter of terminally ill Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis). They have been living in isolation, just the two of them, on a small island, the site of a failed commune; Rose’s mother had long since left. From the start, we get the feeling of a complicit, intimate, and closed system between father and daughter. Not only has Rose taken the role of “wife” in the household, but having home-schooled her, Jack has shut her off from developing relationships with others.
Like many good films, books or conversations, independent filmmaker Doug Block’s “The Kids Grow Up” can stimulate our own self-inquiry, leading us to ask ourselves questions about where we are with the topic presented. More than supplying answers, these kinds of works elicit personal examination, much as Block did in his excellent documentary, “51 Birch Street,” examining his parents’ marriage. In “The Kids Grow Up,” he provides an interesting road map of the terrain of one of mid-life’s milestones: when our kids leave home. One of the many questions this film poses is what our lives as parents are going to be like after this bittersweet passage.