Movies and Mental Health The intersection of Hollywood and Psychology. 2017-06-27T20:33:51Z Joseph Burgo PhD <![CDATA[Final Post]]> 2012-03-12T16:23:56Z 2012-03-12T14:36:32Z As much as I’ve enjoyed writing this blog the past year or so, I’ve decided that my interests lie more in the clinical realm than in cultural commentary. John Grohol and I agreed that readers here at PsychCentral would also be more engaged in posts that focused on psychotherapy issues, and as a result, we’ve inaugurated a new blog called “Therapy Case Notes” that does just that.

I put up my first post today and plan to continue adding material several times per week. I hope you’ll visit the new blog and send me your comments! And thank you for supporting ‘Movies and Mental Health.’

Joseph Burgo PhD

Joseph Burgo PhD <![CDATA[Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” — The Perils of Living in Fantasy]]> 2012-02-25T20:16:07Z 2012-02-24T19:52:32Z eiffel towerFor years, I was a major Woody Allen fan, and to this day I adore many of his movies — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Stardust Memories, to name but a few. But after his marriage to Mia Farrow blew up following the affair with Soon-Yi Previn, I stopped going to see his films, mostly due to a kind of moral loathing.

Long years have since passed, however, and I’d heard so many good things about Midnight in Paris that I decided to set my moral objections aside and take another look.

With an ensemble cast that includes Owen Wilson, Kathy Bates, Marion Cotillard, Adrien Brody and Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen at his best. The opening montage is a kind of homage to Paris, in the way that the first few minutes of Manhattan express Allen’s love for New York City.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter from Los Angeles who considers himself a hack; he wishes he’d been born earlier and had lived in Paris of the 1920s, among literary and artistic giants such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and Gertrude Stein. The longing is so powerful that he’s actually transported back in time to that era and meets with all of his heroes, coming to know them on a first-name basis.

For Gil, it’s a dream come true, the fulfillment of his deepest fantasy wishes.

His preoccupation with this other era distracts him from the mess of his current life. He seems adrift, about to marry Inez (Rachel McAdams), who seems entirely ill-suited to him; he’s unable to decide what to do with his career and the novel he longs to finish. Back in the 1920s, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), an alluring young woman who has been the mistress, in succession, of all Gil’s idols, leading a life that strikes him as incredibly exciting and glamorous, at the very center of his artistic universe.

But Adriana sees nothing special about her life and wishes she could have lived instead during Paris’ Belle Epoque, the glamorous era that ended with World War I. Her failure to see the riches of her actual life, because she has idealized another era, finally wakes Gil from his fantasy. He realizes that romanticizing some other era and believing he would’ve been happy, if only he could’ve lived back then, means he’s ignoring his present day life, drifting without direction and blind to its hazards and potential beauty.

It’s a light but charming cautionary tale, about the perils of living in fantasy. Believing we’d be happy if only we were a celebrity, more beautiful, richer, etc. stops us from making the most of our actual lives. In its most extreme form, such a longing to be someone other than who we really are, especially when issues of shame are profound, may lead us to escape into a kind of false existence, pretending to be someone other than who we really are, embodying a kind of idealized persona instead.

Fortunately, Gil wakes up from his fantasy in time to avert disaster, breaks off his engagement to Inez and decides to stay in Paris to finish his novel.

Midnight in Paris seems like a sunnier version of another Woody Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, where Cecilia (Mia Farrow) disappears into the fantasy world of film in order to escape her bleak life. At the end of that film, Cecilia winds up disappointed and back in the movie theater, eating popcorn as the reel begins to play.

By contrast, Gil actually chooses reality over fantasy. I suppose it’s much easier to accept “reality” when it means a life in Paris finishing a novel, sustained by all the money you made as a screenwriter … and meeting an attractive bilingual Parisienne to boot. Cecilia understandably finds it much harder to accept being an unemployed, depression-era housewife with an abusive husband (Danny Aiello), and little she can look forward to. There’s only so much harsh reality that any of us can accept.

Photo by Glen Scarborough, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Joseph Burgo PhD <![CDATA[‘A Dangerous Method’: Misperceptions about Psychoanalysis]]> 2012-02-03T01:57:14Z 2012-02-02T22:49:14Z

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).

When Jung begins his psychoanalytic work with Spielrein, however, helping her to find relief from what was then called hysteria, she’s entirely conscious of and recalls with perfect clarity the sexual excitement she felt the first time her father beat her. With little prompting, she relates in great detail the history of her masochistic pleasure throughout childhood.

Jung does nothing to help her uncover lost memories and makes no connections for her; all he does is listen. In reality, for the “talking cure” to be successful, it wasn’t enough for the client simply to talk about her conscious memories. Unconscious memories needed to be recovered, and this usually involved active participation by the psychoanalyst.

My other objection is the way dream interpretation is represented. By 1905, when Freud published his pioneering classic The Interpretation of Dreams, he had already developed the technique of free association as an aid to deciphering the dreams of his clients. In that work, he gives many fascinating examples of how a chain of associations led him to an understanding of the dream’s meaning — his own dreams as well as those of his patients and friends.

In this film, however, Freud operates more like a psychic who specializes in decoding dreams. He never asks for an association, never tries to find the dream’s meaning by deciphering its context within a chain of mental associations. It’s as if he has a code book with a key to all the symbols and their meaning.

The epilog to this film describes the fate of all the principle historical figures, concluding with Carl Jung. It states that Jung went on to become the greatest psychologist of the world, which greatly overstates his importance and betrays a certain bias. However valuable Carl Jung’s ideas and contributions were, it was surely Sigmund Freud who was the greatest psychologist of the 20th century. So many of his seminal ideas have become basic assumptions of modern culture, an integral part of our vocabulary and the things we say to one another — You’re so repressed, Why do you always gets so defensive?, Stop projecting! and You’re in denial, to name but a few.

Apart from the collective unconscious, which few people truly understand, Carl Jung’s language remained the specialized vocabulary of his devotees without the culture-shattering effect of Freud’s contributions. Given this bias, I suspect that the filmmakers were less interested in portraying psychoanalytic method accurately than in depicting Freud as an ideological tyrant and Jung as the true genius who suffered under him. If you believed this film’s version of events, you’d think that Freud was a timid little thinker who didn’t contribute much and stifled the true genius of his protegee Jung.

A couple of other issues that bothered me. First, the tired old meme about the patient having more passion than the repressed psychotherapist. Sigh. It might have been a compelling idea 40 years ago when I first saw Equus on stage, but it’s getting a little old.

Even worse, the conclusion of this film tells us that what truly matters in life boils down to romantic passion. In their final meeting, Jung tells Spielrein that his love for her was the most important experience of his lifetime, helping him to understand who he truly was as a person. More important than his marriage, his experience of fatherhood, his fascinating work with other clients, his ardent study of the occult, and so on.

For a man who explored vast regions of the human mind, our spiritual life, the unconscious symbolism that unites us, and so many other interesting phenomena, this seems a remarkably banal thing to say. I would have expected more from David Cronenberg.

Joseph Burgo PhD <![CDATA[Lady Gaga’s ‘Marry the Night’ Video and the Transformation of Shame]]> 2011-12-28T12:52:46Z 2011-12-27T13:26:50Z Lady Gaga's Marry the Night Video and the Transformation of ShameIn an earlier post about Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance video, I discussed her particular way of overcoming shame. Based on Sigmund Freud’s idea of the artist as someone who retreats from hated reality but finds a way back through his or her artistic gifts, I suggested that Lady Gaga “has managed to take profound shame and make it into something aesthetic and compelling. By putting her shame on display — she’s not afraid to make herself look ugly, or to expose herself in ways that other people might find ‘shameless’ — she has in a sense triumphed over that shame.” In Lady Gaga’s ‘Marry the Night’ video, she returns to this theme and elaborates upon it. Although her latest effort ostensibly deals with the issue of trauma, dig a little deeper and you’ll see it’s really about shame.

Lady Gaga begins the video with an explanatory monolog:

“When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened; it’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest because I invented it. Clinical psychology tells us that trauma is arguably the ultimate killer. Memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics. They can be lost forever. It’s sort of like my past is an unfinished painting, and as the artist of that painting, I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again. It’s not that I’ve been dishonest; it’s just that I loathe reality.”

Many artists might describe their lives as an unfinished painting, but few would go on to define the artistic process as one of filling in the “ugly” holes. As I discussed in that earlier post, she often talks about feelings of personal ugliness and of being a “loser” — it’s one of her central themes. Although she doesn’t always use the word, she’s usually talking about shame.

Lady Gaga’s ‘Marry the Night’ video next explores the question of beauty and ugliness with alternating scenes: a naked Lady Gaga suffering a sort of nervous breakdown in her apartment, after hearing the news that she has been dropped by her label, with Lady Gaga as ballerina, performing to Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ sonata. Ugliness vs. beauty is surely the central theme of her life and work: how do you take something ugly and painful (here, the sense of being a rejected loser) and transform it into a work of art?

As she explains in her interview for MTV, when discussing that breakdown scene, “it was intensely important to me that it not be too beautiful”; once again, she’s not afraid to make herself unattractive. The ballet sequence is “twisted and strange,” she tells us — not a complete denial of ugliness, but rather an infusion of beauty with the underlying pain. “I was never the perfect dancer, I was always the broken bird in the background. The video is about the broken bird being brought to the front of the class.”

Lady Gaga’s entire career is about the broken bird being brought to the front of the class. Instead of running from shame and the sense of her internal damage, she puts it center stage. It’s not a form of denial because her creations aren’t purely beautiful, as if to cover over and hide the underlying pain. Instead, Lady’s Gaga’s ‘Marry the Night’ video, like all of her videos, is “twisted and strange”, exquisite and ugly, painful and uplifting. With a sense of humor and with honesty, she faces her shame, the humiliation of rejection, her sense of inner ugliness, and then transforms them into art.

For Lady Gaga, the healing of shame doesn’t mean some idealized sort of recovery where you completely erase that shame and its effects; instead it involves acceptance of your damage and internal darkness (“marrying the night”) and then making the very best of it you can.

Joseph Burgo PhD <![CDATA[Citizen Kane: Before We Called It Narcissistic Personality Disorder]]> 2012-01-11T09:56:01Z 2011-12-04T12:43:44Z <a href="" rel="noopener nofollow" target="newwin">LinkedTube</a>

A new 70th anniversary edition of Citizen Kane, first released in 1941, was recently issued. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss why I think this film is great. When film historians and critics write about Citizen Kane, they mention its innovative camera angles — the way director Orson Welles plays with shadow and perspective — or its groundbreaking departure from chronological narrative.

While I admire these features, what I appreciate most about the film is its psychological portrait of Charles Foster Kane. Long before the label narcissistic personality disorder entered our lexicon and people routinely discussed the narcissistic behavior of their friends and family, Orson Welles gave us a character unable to feel empathy for other people; who craves, even demands attention from the entire world, and who becomes enraged when he can’t have what he wants. These are the features we have come to associate with the narcissist.

Charles Foster Kane — or Charlie, as he is known to his friends — was born to parents who operate a simple boarding house in Colorado. When mining stock given in lieu of payment by a boarder makes his mother (Agnes Moorehead) wealthy, she consigns Charlie to the care of a wealthy banker for his education.

In the scene when she signs the necessary papers, Mrs. Kane at first appears emotionally detached; but when her husband threatens to beat Charlie for pushing the banker into the snow, she says, “That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.” This scene, with an emotionally remote mother and an abusive father, offer the only clues to the origins of Charlie’s personality and later difficulties.

He grows into a charismatic young man who decides to run a newspaper because it would be “fun.” His paper crusades on behalf of the underprivileged and Charlie views himself as their champion, using his generosity toward “the poor” as a kind of narcissistic feed. As his best friend Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) remarks, “You talk about ‘the people’ as if you owned them, as though they belonged to you. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve talked about ‘giving the people their rights,’ as if you could make them a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered.” As accurate description of narcissistic grandiosity as you’re likely to find.

Charlie falls in love, as narcissists do, with a woman who reflects well upon him and feeds his own idealized self-image. Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick) is the niece of a president and an important socialite. Charlie adores her, until her perfect admiration for him begins to wane.

In a brilliant montage of scenes over the breakfast table, we see their mutual idealization slowly transform into alienation and contempt. Charlie never truly cared about Emily, any more than he cares about his second wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). In the scene when he first meets Susie, he seems most concerned with the fact that she “likes” him. When he tries to make her an opera star against her own wishes — again as a narcissistic feed for his grandiose view of himself — he cares nothing about her feelings and proves himself incapable of empathy.

She finally attempts suicide in order to escape his relentless narcissistic drive: “I couldn’t make you see how I felt, Charlie, but I couldn’t go through with the singing again. You don’t know what it means to know that people are … that a whole audience just doesn’t want you.” Charlie replies, “That’s when you’ve got to fight ’em. [pause as she incredulously gazes back] All right, you won’t have to fight ’em any more. It’s their loss.”

He experiences Susan’s failure to win over the public as both personal shame and narcissistic injury; he blames “the people” rather than himself, and blame is one of the core defenses against shame. In order to bolster his narcissistic view of himself, he then builds a monument to his own greatness — Xanadu, a grandiose castle and the largest private home ever built in America. He fills it with treasures and art works collected over a lifetime; he and Susie live immured in this castle without human contact, a perfect symbol for the beautiful false self the narcissist often erects to disguise the shame they feel about their internal “ugliness.” When Susie finally walks out on him, he explodes with narcississtic rage and savagely destroys her bedroom.

As an old man, Jed gives the best summation of Charlie’s character, and one of the most insightful descriptions of the narcissistic personality you’ll ever find: “I suppose he had some private sort of greatness but he kept it to himself. He never gave himself away. He never gave anything away, he just … left you a tip. He had a generous mind. I don’t suppose anybody ever had so many opinions. But he never believed in anything except Charlie Kane. He never had a conviction except Charlie Kane and his life. I suppose he died without one. It must have been pretty unpleasant. ‘Course, a lot of us check out without having any special convictions about death but we do know what we’re leaving. We believe in something.”

Charles Foster Kane believed in nothing but himself and his self-image; he spent a lifetime craving the narcissistic feed that would give him an inner sense of meaning and value, but in the end, he died a lonely, isolated man. Such is the ultimate fate of all narcissists, because they lack the ability to feel love or empathy and thereby to form meaningful relationships. Their worldly endeavors are geared toward earning praise and admiration, and for this reason, nothing they do has real depth or purpose.

When he dies, Charlie’s final words tell us that nothing has mattered in his life since he was that child who was separated from his mother. He developed no personal relations of any depth; he accomplished nothing that meant anything to him and dies dreaming wistfully of the sled he owned as a boy.

Marla Estes, MA <![CDATA[Exploring Authentic Yes and No in “Yes Man”]]> 2011-11-02T14:29:52Z 2011-11-02T00:45:23Z Advertisements for Jim Carrey film YES MAN in Seoul subwayAlthough 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.

The film 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.

Both reactions are in relation to something external, instead of getting in touch with what we truly want or don’t want. In both instances, we are either going against or going along with something or someone and are therefore controlled by forces outside ourselves. Either one of these knee-jerk reflexes can interfere with our authenticity and true individuation, in other words, expressing who we really are deep down.


I want to focus here on those of us who tend to automatically go along with things. Since I myself am so inclined, this is something to which I’ve given a lot of thought. I hear the same self-reflection from many women; it seems to a large extent we’re conditioned as females not to “rock the boat,” to be nice and to put the needs and wants of others before our own. (This is not to say that some men aren’t under the same influence).

For some of us, it can be difficult to tolerate potential conflict. We don’t like to risk upsetting or disappointing others, or hurting their feelings. We want them to feel at one (merged) with us, even at the cost of not feeling “at one” with ourselves, preferring to suffer the conflict inside rather than outside. We sever the relationship with ourselves rather than risk severing our relationships with others, abandoning ourselves. We might be rejected if our opinions or what we want is in opposition to others, or we worry that the status quo might be disrupted if we express what is true for us.

The irony to all of this is real closeness and connection develop when we tell the truth, even an unwelcome one. Otherwise, a “false self” is making the connection, leading to feelings of isolation, alienation and aloneness.

[Auxiliary to this: how can we trust those who always agree with us? Back to the movie, when Allison realizes Carl’s yeses were made on auto-pilot, she doubts his sincerity about their relationship.]

A character in Alice Walker’s novel, Now is the Time to Open Your Heart, says: “… we try not to know what we know because we do not yet understand how we are to negotiate change.” The difficulty with the truth of our Yes or our No is that once we admit it to ourselves, we have to decide what to do about it. We may have to change our normal (and safe-seeming) patterns and risk that which we have feared.

When our response is “I don’t know,” when we’re unclear or confused, it can alert us to a possible inner conflict between ourselves and the other person. Another trap is second-guessing, doubting and giving ourselves reasons for not saying no: “I’m being petty,” “I’m wrong about this,” “I’m resisting or avoiding something I ‘should’ do,” making it easy to override a No.


The word “resistance” particularly triggers me. One definition is “opposition to an attempt to bring repressed thoughts or feelings into consciousness.” I picture myself in analysis with Freud, as he strokes his beard, interpreting my every No as “resistance.” What is the difference between resistance and respecting our own inner knowing, timing and pacing?

What I’ve come to realize is that I often resist my No. There is a “yes man” in my psyche. What I really want and what is best for me in the moment is then sacrificed. This can be as simple as saying yes to a social invitation because I feel obligated, not because I want to. Or not weighing in on a family discussion where mine is the only discordant voice.

Sometimes a No is a result of our anxiety when we find ourselves up against a personal threshold: a growth edge outside of our comfort zones or facing something we would rather avoid due to unresolved issues or trauma. Whether the No is for something that really doesn’t work for us or whether we’ve come to a growth edge is a matter of self-inquiry and discernment. If we find ourselves at an edge, we may not be quite ready to handle the anxiety which arises, or we may chose to push the envelope and explore new options.

Understanding why I say yes when I want to say no is crucial to my growth. Learning to know what is right for me and when is an art.


When is self-discipline in fact an overriding of our No and not a true Yes? We can make a decision to do something based on logic or practicality or some kind of pressure. A clichéd example illustrates: A woman becomes a doctor to please her parents, only to find in mid-life she really always wanted to be an artist. We can force ourselves to do a lot of things we aren’t whole-hearted about, and sometimes that’s necessary. But it’s important to come to a decision or a compromise that is consciously informed, to access a deeper truth about what we need and what is right for us versus a choice based solely on the balance sheet of reason.

When does self-discipline interfere with our spontaneity? We can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and knuckle down to accomplish all manner of things. Not a bad thing when necessary. But when does it become such a habit that we simply reinforce the disregarding of our No? One example is when we need rest. Author Natalie Angier writes, “One reason for human diligence is that we, unlike other animals, can often override our impulses to slow down. We can drink coffee when we may prefer a nap, or flick on the air conditioning when the heat would otherwise demand torpor.” Further, when we can’t say no, sometimes our body has to say it for us. Gabor Mate, in his excellent book When the Body Says No, writes about this at length and how it affects our health.

What I am talking about here, ultimately, is our ability to make choices through becoming consciously aware of our automatic responses, and the capacity to sift through and discern our deeper motivations for our Yes or our No. This process ultimately leads to more and more empowerment towards living our life more authentically.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Todd Mecklem

Marla Estes, MA <![CDATA[Exploring Women’s Anger in “The Upside of Anger”]]> 2011-10-24T14:47:26Z 2011-10-24T01:15:25Z Yotsuba & Aaaaargh!In The Upside of Anger (2005), Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is described by her youngest daughter, Popeye (Rachel Evan Wood), as having been “the nicest person I ever knew. She was the nicest, sweetest woman that anyone who knew her ever knew.” Terry’s husband disappears one night and she jumps to the conclusion (unconfirmed) that he has run off with his Swedish secretary and left her and their four daughters without a word.

Terry goes from being the nicest woman in the world to becoming angry, bitter and cynical. The pendulum swings from seeming Stepford Wife behavior to uncensored rage fueled and abetted by alcohol. We can guess that Terry was really not all that nice and that she was covering up all her “darker” emotions, until events triggered and released her fury. Although the characters don’t show particularly mature or skillful ways of expressing their anger, in my classes I’ve found this film to be a powerful way to start talking about anger.

Women’s anger is 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.

Anger, however, is a normal, instinctive feeling. One needs only to observe babies or infants when they are frustrated to see this. As with hatred, another taboo feeling, the point is not to “get rid” of an emotion, but to accept and acknowledge it, to use it as a point of self-inquiry (“how come I feel this way?”) and to use its energy in a skillful way.

Among other things, the “upside of anger” can:
–    Show us when unresolved issues from the past are present
–    Let us know when our boundaries are being crossed
–    Point to unmet needs (ones we may not consciously be aware of)
–    Show us when injustice is present
–    Help us effect change
–    Help us turn aggressive impulses into assertiveness
–    Point us to what is really true for us

Many women either “cave in” and cry, covering their anger with hurt, or impulsively lash out [Harriet Lerner does a good job with this topic in The Dance of Anger]. And sometimes depression is a sign of anger turned inward.

Another part of the “upside of anger” is that it can express authenticity. Terry’s boyfriend Denny (Kevin Costner) remarks, “You know what it is I like about going over to your house, Terry? I like how it smells. Something’s always cooking. My house doesn’t smell like that. And I don’t even mind going over there when there’s tension, and there’s a… there’s a fucking lot of it, you know? Somebody is always mad at somebody. Doors are slammin’. Fur’s flyin’. Even when no one is talkin’, it’s…it’s loud. But at least it’s fucking real.”

In the closing narration, Popeye says, “Anger and resentment can stop you in your tracks. That’s what I know now. It needs nothing to burn but the air and the life that it swallows and smothers … It’s real, though…the fury, even when it isn’t. It can change you…turn you…mold you and shape you into someone you’re not.”

I would qualify these statements with anger and resentment that haven’t been understood and processed. We can get stuck with these feelings if we don’t work with them. Additionally, anger that has been consciously dealt with can point us to what’s true beneath all of our “niceness” and to what our real values are. In that way it can help us become more of who we really are.

Recommended Resources:

The Gift of Anger by Marcia Cannon, PhD

The Fierce Face of the Feminine, Ted talk by Chameli Ardagh

Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Liberty Photos

Marla Estes, MA <![CDATA[Emotional Ownership in Parenting in “Rachel Getting Married”]]> 2011-10-17T00:07:04Z 2011-10-16T02:19:38Z IMG_1472In 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.

Throughout the movie, Kym is portrayed as mostly unstable, reactive, and at times hostile. Her mother, Abby, is shown to be distant and reserved, and not very involved with the wedding plans. The night before the wedding Kym shows up at Abby’s. We’ve learned through the back-story that when Kym was 16, already a drug addict, she was left in charge to baby-sit her infant brother, Ethan. High while driving, she got into a car accident and Ethan was killed.

Kym confronts her mother. It seems to be a conversation they’ve never had up until then:

Kym: Why did you leave me in charge of him? You knew. All of you knew.

Abby: Kym.

Kym: People told you. I was a junkie. I was a crazy drug addict. I stole from you.

Abby: Yes.

Kym: I lied to your face. I weighed six pounds. My hair was falling out. I spent every dinner in the bathroom.

Abby:  Honey, you were sick. That was an illness.

Kym: You know what I was. I stayed in my room for days. I passed out all the time.

Abby:  No, no.

Kym:  What were you thinking?

Abby: No.

Kym: Why did you leave me?

Abby: I was there. I didn’t leave you.

Kym: Why would you leave me in charge of him?

Abby: Because you were good with him.

Kym: Mom, Mom, why would you leave…

Abby: No, you were…

Kym: …a drug addict to watch your son?

Abby: No! You were good with him! You were the best you were with him! Listen to me! Listen! I didn’t expect you to kill him, sweetheart! You were not supposed to kill him!

At this point, Abby physically attacks Kym, pushes her down on the couch, shakes her by the shoulders and then slaps her across the face. Not only can we imagine all the pent-up emotion that Abby has been feeling, but her attack is a metaphor for her own defense system of denial, a way of saying that there is no way she is going there, down into her deep, profound anguish.

If Abby had been able to shoulder her part of the responsibility for the accident, Kym wouldn’t have had to take on the entire emotional burden. But for Abby to do so, she would have had to be able to tolerate her own feelings of guilt, remorse, shame, grief and self-hatred.

Situations such as this are extreme, but the same dynamic happens on a much subtler scale in other ways in our families of origin. The child is stuck with what the parent won’t deal with. A personal example may serve to illustrate.

It was late at night and I was helping my son with his math homework, a word problem. It was complex; there were lots of factors, so the task was to figure out which facts were relevant. I became frustrated “with him” and shamed him for not understanding the problem. Suddenly I realized that it was me who felt ashamed because I was unable to understand it. My defense of superiority had hijacked me into projecting my own shame onto my son. I felt a horrible sense of shameful incompetence, took a time out, had a good cry, and apologized to my son. I told him I was having difficulty with comprehending his homework, and that I could understand how frustrating it must be for him. By my taking ownership of my own bad feelings, he didn’t get stuck with them.

Creative Commons License photo credit: number657

Joseph Burgo PhD <![CDATA[Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’: Consolation for the Grieving Process]]> 2011-10-10T15:33:37Z 2011-10-10T09:33:49Z

Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, comes out this week on DVD. Beginning with its opening quotation from The Book of Job, through its 15-minute visual history of the universe, to its cryptic ending, this is a film that invites questions about “meaning” as well as the writer/director’s intent.

Admirers and critics have written extensively about the film’s “message” — search the Internet and you’ll find hundreds of comments that describe particular scenes and discuss their symbolism. While many viewers seem perplexed by this movie, to me it offers a fairly straight-forward New Age message about life, death and the source of true consolation during the grieving process.

The opening quotation from Job reads as follows: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” As you may recall, Job is the story of a righteous man whose faith God consents to let Satan test by (among other trials) killing all ten of his children. Job endures his enormous grief without cursing God, despite encouragement from his friends to do so, though he eventually comes to curse the day he himself was born.

This story has received various spiritual interpretations over the centuries; the one that resonates most powerfully for this film concerns the ineffability of God’s intentions, the inability of man to grasp God’s larger plans, and the part played by humility and an acceptance of such limits in true religious faith. The film’s opening quote suggests that God thinks on a time and celestial scale vaster than man can comprehend, infinitely larger than any one individual’s joy or grief.

By including the long sequence that runs from the Big Bang, through the creation of Earth and the origins of life on our planet, up to the story of the O’Brien family in 1950s rural Texas, Malick places his story within this larger context. While the family drama may consume its members, their individual passions, guilt and grieving process are minuscule within the larger universal context. Their journey is about gaining perspective on their actual place within that universe, a journey from solipsism to transcendence.

This journey is best exemplified by Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) in her attempt to reconcile personal grief with her belief in a Christian God’s mercy and grace. Early in the film, she learns that her 19-year-old son R.L. (Laramie Eppler) has died, and various people attempt to offer consolation during her grieving process.

The grandmother lists off a whole slew of platitudes: “You have your memories of him. You have to be strong now. I know the pain will pass in time. You know, it might seem hard, my saying that, but it’s true. Life goes on. People pass along, nothing stays the same. You’ve still got the other two [children]. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away and that’s the way he is. He sends flies to wounds that he should heal.” Then her minister offers more rote consolation — “He’s in God’s hands now.”

Mrs. O’Brien replies, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” If God is good and cares about us, why does he makes us suffer?

In voice-over, as she turns to scripture for consolation, her doubts intrude in the middle of a verse: “What did you gain?” she asks, presumably of God. She later asks, “Was I false to you?” — as if there is a reason why her son has died, as if the God of her personal faith is concerned in the minutiae of her life and has punished her for some infraction. “Lord, why?” she then asks. “Where were you?”

Malick’s answer to that question is the following magnificent sequence in which he unfolds the history of the universe. To me, it exposes the irrelevance of her personal concerns within the vastness of time. It also says that to ask such a question is entirely solipsistic and vain, to believe that you matter so very much. In this way, while apparently framed in terms of Christian theology, the film’s message is more spiritual than Christian. Especially in the final sequence, where Mrs. O’Brien emerges from the grieving process by giving her son over to God and the universe, she has come to understand that she is a part (only a tiny part, but a part nonetheless) of something much larger: The Tree of Life. To appreciate the beauty and goodness of that larger whole, to feel a part of it and to rejoice in that beauty is to transcend individual pain and suffering.

The Tree of Life also includes a message about the importance of love and forgiveness in its debate between “grace” and “nature.” Mr. O’Brien’s story (Brad Pitt) exemplifies the futility of nature, which “only tries to please itself,” while Mrs. O’Brien seems almost angelic in her selfless and loving acceptance of those around her.

At first blush, it may seem as if these are Christian virtues, but within the film’s larger context and her personal evolution, it seems that “love” is less about what one feels for others than what one feels as an integral part of the universe itself (an aspect of self-love as I’ve discussed elsewhere). This, in the end, is the film’s core spiritual message: that fulfillment in life comes neither from individual, solipsistic striving nor from adhering to Christian virtues, but rather through a kind of rapturous merger with life as a whole, the joy that springs from an appreciation for the beauty of something much larger than one’s individual self.

Only this kind of “grace” allows us to endure the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of our brief lifespans; attempts to discover the meaning of our personal existence, or to decipher the illusory intentions of a God supposedly concerned with the minutiae of our lives, in the end yield scant consolation.

The Tree of Life is a deeply spiritual movie but not a religious one. Its beautiful, ardent imagery argues for the existence of God; but this God, it tells us, is everywhere, in everything, less a discrete being unfolding an ineffable plan for us than one embodying the vast and awesome beauty of the universe as a whole. Feeling oneself to be an integral part of that universe is the ultimate consolation for the grieving process, as well as for the existential pain of being alive.

Marla Estes, MA <![CDATA[Exploring the Oedipal Triangle in “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”]]> 2011-10-05T23:53:21Z 2011-10-05T21:26:07Z Sandra Bullock

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 [click to watch]  which gives an insight into Vivi’s relationship with her own parents (Sidda’s maternal grandparents).


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.

Upon receiving the ring, Vivi says it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen in her life. Excitedly, she says to her mother, Buggy, “Mama, it’s gorgeous! Did you pick it out?”

It seems like the gift is a complete surprise to Buggy, and she clearly disapproves, saying to her husband, “Mr. Abbott, that is not a proper gift for a girl.” Taylor responds, “That’s right. But it’s a perfect gift for a young woman. A beautiful young woman.”

Buggy, with venom in her voice, whispers in Vivi’s ear, “Aren’t you just the luckiest little girl God ever made?”

Later that night, Buggy enters Vivi’s bedroom, where she’s having a sleep-over with girlfriends. She forcibly takes the ring off her daughter’s finger and hisses, “Whatever you did to make your father give you this ring is a mortal sin. May God forgive you.” To her friends, Vivi proclaims her innocence to this tacit accusation of incest.

Taylor comes back on to the scene dragging Buggy, yelling, “Now do it, Buggy! Do it! Give the girl the goddamn ring, you pathetic Catholic idiot.” He pries open Buggy’s clenched fist and the ring falls to the floor. He intimidates his wife, cowering and crying, into bending over and picking it up.

In a completely different tone of voice, Taylor lovingly says to Vivi, “Give me your hand. Viviane, I gave this ring to you. It’s yours. It’s from me to you. You understand?” Then he further humiliates his wife by saying, “What do you have to say? Making a fool of yourself in front of Viviane’s friends?”

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.

The usual way of thinking about the Oedipus conflict is from the child’s point of view; that is, the child competes for the attention of the opposite-sex parent. Another way to look at it is as a system wherein the parent also vies for the love or attention of the child. In this case, there is  rivalry stemming from the mother, Buggy, to her daughter, Vivi.

Further, what does Vivi learn about being a woman from her mother? Buggy was a disempowered and humiliated figure. Vivi may have learned to form alliances with men instead of identifying with women, in order to have some sense of her own empowerment, even if it was only through a man’s reflected power. Hence, she may use her femininity as a way to bond with or have power over men, at the same time despising herself as a woman.

When Sidda is told the above story by her mother’s friends, she responds, “How horrible to be so hated by your own mother.” As I’ve mentioned in another recent post on mothers and daughters, a mother’s bad feelings – jealousy, envy, hatred – towards her daughter are considered taboo, even though they are normal human emotions.

Nancy Friday, from her book My Mother, My Self, writes, “I have heard daughters say that they do not love their mothers. I have never heard a mother say that she does not love her daughter. Psychoanalysts have told me that a woman patient would rather consider herself crazy than admit that she simply does not like her daughter. She can be honest about anything else, but the myth that mothers always love their children is so controlling that even the daughter who can admit disliking her mother, when her own time comes, will deny all but positive emotions toward her children.”
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Triangulation, in this case magnified, if not created, by the father, serves to pour gasoline onto the fire. Whatever feelings of low self-esteem Buggy may have had is worsened by her husband’s attention to Vivi, the attention she no doubt would like for herself. Then to be used as an object of humiliation because of and in front of Vivi shames her further, and gives fuel to her jealousy and envy, turning Vivi into an object of blame and hatred.

Lastly, this clip gives us a glimpse of one form of covert, psychological or emotional incest, which can shape the nature of a child’s later adult relationships. Although this example is rather extreme perhaps, there are often much more subtle nuances of the rivalry between mother and daughter for father found in many families.


Creative Commons License photo credit: Doctor Hyde