“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (1968) is based on Carson McCullers’ novel of the same name, starring Alan Arkin as deaf-mute John Singer. His best and perhaps only friend is Spiros Antonapoulos, also a deaf-mute.
Due to his growing lack of impulse control because of mental illness, Spiros is institutionalized by his cousin/guardian. Singer moves to a town near the institution to be closer to his friend.
Singer gets a job as an engraver and rents a room in a boarding house. He befriends several of the townspeople, two of whom are Dr. Copeland and Mick Kelly. The doctor is an embittered African-American. Singer, through their relationship, helps him to soften his attitude towards whites. Singer also connects with Mick Kelly, the teen-aged daughter of his landlords, and fosters her love of music, going even so far as to purchase a record player and classical albums which he himself can’t hear. There is a poignant scene when Singer pretends to conduct along with the music and continues making hand motions long after the music has finished.
Both confide deeply in Singer, and, as is the case with the two other main characters (Biff McGuire and Jake Blount), seem to feel soothed by doing so. We are led to believe that all of them can share with Singer things they don’t or can’t with anyone else. In the novel, McCullers writes: “Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.” In other words, using Singer as a blank slate, they each projected on him those things they wanted or needed him to be.
What these characters have in common is that they all felt understood and accepted by Singer and yet knew nothing about him. And it was actually unclear as to how much he understood them. He became a receptacle for all that they felt and thought, and the relationships were not reciprocal. As an educated and nearly militant black man, the doctor felt unlike the others in his milieu, especially his sons and daughter, who seemed content with their lot in life as uneducated minorities in the South. Mick’s family didn’t understand her love of music and her aspirations to have a more fulfilling life than they themselves had. In their loneliness and with their feelings of isolation, Singer seems like the perfect “holding environment,” in psychological terms, an unconditional container for all their feelings; asking nothing for himself, the relationships were all one-sided.
By the same token, Singer feels “held” by Spiros, even though Spiros doesn’t seem to understand or even care much about Singer, too busy binge eating in manic states to even “hear” what Singer has to say.
Another way to look at “holding” is through the ideas of “container” and “contained.” Some of us have a tendency to play the role of container or holder, sometimes to escape our own sense of neediness by taking care of others. And some have a tendency to crave and bid for containment or holding, perhaps due to early childhood deficits. As we mature psychologically, a play seems to emerge between being a container, being contained and cultivating self-containment as well. [Joe Burgo, PhD covers aspects of these ideas in his article Narcissistic Behavior and the Lost Art of Conversation]
Ironically, although both those who act as “container” and “contained” are seeking to assuage their loneliness, fundamentally it keeps them out of the realm of “real,” truly connected and more reciprocal relationships (not always giving and not always taking).
In the end, Spiros dies of kidney disease and Singer shoots himself out of his own despair and loneliness, forcing the other characters to realize that they knew nothing about him after all; his suicide remains a mystery to them. At the gravesite:
Mick: “Why did he do it? I keep asking myself that over and over…”
Dr Copeland: “None of us really knew him, not really. We all brought our troubles to him never thinking he may have troubles of his own.”
Mick: “I feel worse than that about it. He was always there when I needed him. When he needed somebody, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even thinking about him.”
Using this movie, we can ask ourselves if there is a role we usually play in our relationships, romantic or otherwise. Container or contained? Is there a tendency towards this imbalance? Does it change in different contexts? With different people? Can we can play with changing our dynamics? Notice if feelings of discomfort arise. Is it uncomfortable to take the other role and if so, why? What feelings get brought up? Shame? Anxiety? Dread? Anger?