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 Chinese herbalist Dr. Yang for help with a bad back. More than just curing the symptom, the doctor, through his various elixirs, helps Alice explore hidden parts of her psyche. [For a more detailed analysis of the whole film, click here]
The scene that I focus on below exemplifies a daughter’s idealization of her mother. In it, Alice meets her “Muse” (Bernadette Peters) who, in trying to find subject matter for Alice to write about, shows her the objective truth about her mother.
Muse: Now, what about your mother? … She was a movie actress for a while. Her story might be a good plot.
Alice: She was just in the movies for a very, very short time.
Muse: And she never made it. Losers are much more interesting.
Alice: Mom’s not a loser.
Muse: Look how defensive you are. It’s a good story. I know you idolized her, but be realistic. This is important.
Alice: She was in the movies. She made two or three movies, and then she met Dad. And… Dad persuaded her to retire.
Mother: No, Alice. I was never more than a pretty face. And when it began to wrinkle, the studio stopped calling.
Alice: No, there was much more to you than your looks. You could have done more with your life.
Mother: You flatter me. After the studio didn’t want me, I was lucky your father came along. I was so used to having someone look after me. I would have killed myself if it wasn’t for him. That’s why it’s so important to marry a substantial man …not some struggling left-wing artist in Greenwich Village.
[Notice here how the mother transmits a message to Alice about marriage which Alice adopted, forsaking her artist-boyfriend for the more substantial lawyer]
Alice: But then when Dad died, you drank yourself to death with margaritas.
Mother: I couldn’t help it, darling. You know I could never resist the taste of salt around the rim of a glass.
Alice: Oh, Mom. You were so charming. But so misguided. Why didn’t I see it?
Mother: When it came to me and your dad, you had stars in your eyes.
Part of the task of reconciling our relationship with our mother is to see her as human; that is, she is both good AND bad, and not either good OR bad. If we have demonized our mother, it helps to see her better side. Likewise, if we have idealized our mother, it helps to see her less positive side. Depending on family of origin issues, some of us end up not being able to tolerate seeing our parents in less than an ideal light. It can bring up too much unconscious anxiety around early childhood survival issues and dependence on our caretakers.
Not only does reconciling these two opposing sides improve the dynamics with our parent, developing a more adult-to-adult connection, it matures us by coming to terms with the defense mechanism of splitting. When Alice says, “You were so charming, but so misguided,” we see the seeds of her integration of both the “good” and “bad” aspects of her mother.
Another part of the process of working with idealization is the role of disillusionment, which, in the words of Buddhist author Jack Kornfield, can be our “greatest teacher.” As painful as it might be, disillusionment (and its paler cousin, disappointment) can serve to crumble our cherished, unrealistic beliefs about how we want people or things to be. It can point directly to what we’re in denial about in our lives (and with some self-inquiry, why) so that we can begin to see and accept things closer to how they truly are. When we have “stars in our eyes,” we can’t see clearly. In this way, disillusionment is the path to wisdom; we can’t keep hold of our illusions and become wise at the same time.
At their final meeting, Dr. Yang says, “I think Mrs Tate has better idea of who she is than before she came to Dr Yang. Who her friends are, or are not. Who is husband, lover, sister, mother. What are her needs, her limits, her gifts. What are her innermost feelings. May not know all answers, but has better idea. No? Now must decide which road her life will take.”
Throughout Alice, we see our heroine as a Pollyanna: gullible and naïve, always believing the best about people. Dr. Yang’s treatments cause her to see underneath her positive spin on her mother, as well as others in her life. As a result, she can assess both others and herself more realistically, her strengths and her limitations—necessary for individuation and self-actualization. In doing so, she is truly able to come into her own as an adult and grow into a more authentic version of herself.