One Hour Photo was both a commercial and a critical success. Williams’s performance earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor.
Indeed, it was gratifying to see him in a dramatic role for a change, finally going against his usual typecasting as a zany character in such superficial, feel-good films as Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. In playing a mentally-ill man in One Hour Photo, Williams demonstrated the range of his acting talent; if only he’d done roles like Seymour “Sy” Parrish more often.
Sy is a lonely photo technician in a one-hour photo in a big box store called Sav-Mart. He has no family, friends, or partner. He values his job above and beyond anything else in his life, believing he’s providing a “vital service” to his customers in developing quality photographs. This job gives his life meaning in the absence of loving human company.
Photos are of extreme importance to him for reasons to be discovered in full by the end of the film. At the beginning of the story, he idealizes photography, insisting that one takes pictures only of the happy moments in life, never the sad ones. By the end of the film, though, we discover that this idealizing of taking pictures is a reaction formation against the fact that, as a child, photos were taken of him in extremely unhappy, traumatizing circumstances.
He also points out that no one takes pictures of the banal, mundane, “little things” that we don’t normally pay attention to…yet at the end of the film, after he’s revealed to Detective James Van Der Zee (La Salle) the source of his trauma, we see his recently-taken pictures of such banal things as the objects and furnishings of a hotel room. It seems that, with these pictures, he’s sublating the thesis of happy photos with the antithesis of traumatizing ones.
The trauma he suffered as a child was to have been exploited as a participant in child pornography photography, exploited by his own parents. This trauma explains his loneliness: his parents betrayed his trust at such a tender age, and so he has distanced himself from them. Since one’s primary caregivers are, as internal objects, those blueprints, so to speak, for all subsequent relationships in life, this alienation from one’s parents tragically leads to social alienation in general.
Still, Sy must try to pull himself together, to rebuild some sense of psychological structure, since with such extreme trauma as he’s suffered, the threat of psychological fragmentation is never far away. Heinz Kohut‘s model of the bipolar self is useful for understanding Sy’s personality. One pole is that of the grandiose self, which we see in the pride Sy takes in his photo developing. The other pole is that of the idealized parental imago, which he can’t get from his own parents, of course, so he has to do a transference of them onto the Yorkin family.
Nina (Nielsen) and Will Yorkin (Vartan) are Sy’s idealized mother and father transferences, and their son, Jake (Smith), represents the kind of happy boy Sy wishes he had been when he was a kid. His idealizing of the Yorkin family comes from all the ‘happy’ photos he has developed for them over the years…while keeping a copy of each one for himself to put up on a wall in his apartment, too.
This wall of Yorkin family photos is Sy’s altar, so to speak, where he can worship his idealized conception of the family he wishes he had. The photos, as idealizations, are collectively a metaphorical mirror reflecting his love of them back to himself. This ties back to his job as a mirror of his grandiose self.
Recall the scene of him in front of the bathroom mirror in SavMart, where he looks at himself, and words on the glass remind him and all other staff to “check [their] smile” at work. He internalizes this capitalist ideal for the worker, and so it becomes his Lacanian ideal-I. This ideal-I is extended to photographs in how he takes Nina’s camera and, not wanting to waste a shot, takes a picture of himself for the Yorkins to add to the family photo collection. His ‘selfie,’ as it were, is a metaphorical mirror adding himself, “Uncle Sy,” to the Yorkin family.
These images, frozen in time, of the Yorkins on Sy’s apartment wall are thus, as a collective metaphorical mirror, Sy’s reconstruction of the Imaginary, his need for narcissistic acknowledgement and recognition. “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” Lacan once said, a desire to be desired by other people, for recognition from other people. This is what Sy needs from his idealized conception of the Yorkins, and this is why he obsesses over them.
His idealization of them is, of course, an illusion based on wish-fulfillment, for the Imaginary Order, established by the infant when seeing itself in front of a mirror for the first time, gives form to an illusory ego. As a narcissistic psychological state, the Imaginary’s setting up of the illusory ego, the ideal-I one strives one’s whole life to live up to but ultimately never succeeds at, is seen in an extreme form in Sy’s idealizing of his job as a “vital service.” His job is his narcissistic False Self.
Another part of his False Self, a defence against fragmentation, is his persona of mild-mannered innocence (a defence against the molestation he suffered as a child), given physical, symbolic expression in the predominantly white and light grey colours we see him wearing. This whitish innocence is extended to his light blond hair (we can see how dark-haired Williams most obviously dyed his hair, to the point that it seems as if Sy dyed his, too) and the whites and light greys of his apartment and car, as well as the predominant whites and light greys of SavMart, his idealized place of work.
When he leaves SavMart to go home one night, though, we see a greenish-yellow light (colours of envy and jaundice) as he goes to his car, the windshield glass of which is smashed. This reflects the bitter reality of his life, which hides behind his idealized fantasy world.
Like Lacan, Buddhists understand that the self is an illusion, for the world is too fluid, transitory, and impermanent to include the existence of permanent souls or egos. Sy’s False Self is just such an illusory ego, and those frozen moments in time, his photos of the Yorkins, are also such illusions, making us forget about the eternal flux of life.
He’s nowhere near as good at his job as he imagines himself to be, not by his boss’s standards, or by any reasonable standards. The photos he gives Nina early on in the film are larger than what she wants, and the SavMart manager, Bill Owens (Cole, who here plays a kind of serious version of Office Space‘s Bill Lumbergh), is full of complaints about Sy.
In Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins, his collection of copies of their photos means he’s printed far more photos than have been ordered and paid for, a discrepancy that Bill cannot tolerate. Sy has also spaced out on the job, taken ninety-minute lunch breaks, given Jake a free disposable camera for his birthday, and had a loud altercation with the repairman for the photo developing machine, an altercation heard by the customers all over SavMart.
While some of Bill’s complaints reflect real faults of Sy’s work performance, others reflect the kind of conflict between boss and employee typical of what Marx described in his theory of alienation. Sy’s job is practically a religion for him. It gives his life meaning, it’s part of his species-essence; whereas for Bill, Sy’s mundane job is just one among many to be overseen in SavMart; Sy should just do it right and not make waves. Bill’s pragmatic attitude to Sy’s job-as-mission thus alienates Sy from his species-essence, which only adds to Sy’s alienation in general.
Bill fires Sy, which devastates him because not only can’t he do the Yorkins’ pictures anymore, he’s also lost one of the two poles of his self that give him psychological structure–he’s lost his grandiose self, that False Self of the photo developer performing a “vital service” to customers like his idealized Yorkins.
Sy has been a victim of capitalism through his conflict with Bill as described above, and he was a victim of it as a child when exploited and commodified by his parents through kiddie porn photography. The commodification of photos links both experiences for him in how photos are fetishized commodities. The customer sees the finished product and pays for it, but he or she doesn’t see the process the workers went through to produce the commodity.
In the case of kiddie porn photography, the drooling pervert masturbating to the disgusting pictures sees only the fantasy that’s presented in them; he doesn’t take note of the pain and fear in the naked children’s eyes as they’re forced into doing the shameful things they do in front of the camera. Similarly, and in reverse fashion, though Sy is the seller, not the buyer, he sees only the happiness of the Yorkins in their photos; but he knows nothing of the very real problems in their far-from-ideal family. Of course, he’ll learn of those problems soon enough.
When Maya Burson (Daniels) shows up at SavMart and gives Sy her photos to be developed, he recognizes her from somewhere (actually, in one of the photos in his Yorkin ‘altar’). He later flips through them and discovers some of her with Will Yorkin, having an affair. His whole image of the ideal Yorkin family has been shattered. The other pole of his self has been compromised. He’s now in danger of fragmentation.
Because of the extreme abuse he suffered as a child, Sy would have engaged in the defence mechanism of splitting from right back in those early years. This means that, instead of regarding his parents in the normal way, as a complex combination of good and bad traits, he’d have seen them as just the bad father and bad mother. No grey or white, only black.
Sy nonetheless needs to believe in the idea of the good father and good mother, for the paranoid-schizoid position that he feels himself permanently trapped in demands a white, or at least light grey, area to counterbalance the black area that he cannot deny.
This counterbalancing is what the Yorkin parents are meant to personify in Sy’s fragile inner mental life. Other ways in which he tries to achieve this white counterbalance include the old black-and-white photo of the pretty woman he buys; significantly, he later shows it to Nina, of all people (the good mother of his transferred idealized parental imago), telling her that this woman is his mother. This would be the good mother meant to offset his emotionally neglectful bad mother, who allowed Sy’s bad father to take those obscene photos of him as a child.
His notion that photos are always of happy occasions, never of things we want to forget, is his white counterbalancing of those black photos taken of things that he most intensely wishes he could forget. All of this black vs white opposition is a reflection of his psychological splitting, the paranoid-schizoid position, as Melanie Klein called it. “Schizoid” refers to the splitting into absolute good and bad, or black vs white; “paranoid” refers to the fear that the rejected, bad internal objects will return to persecute Sy again.
Since Will has proven to Sy that he isn’t the good father Sy needs him to be, in his paranoid-schizoid mental state, Sy can regard Will as only the bad father. Of course, we the audience have known of Will’s faults almost from the beginning: we saw his argument with Nina about his emotional neglect of her and Jake. Since he rationalizes his preoccupation with his work at their expense (and there’s some truth to this, though he can carry this excuse only so far), we see again how capitalism contributes to the problem of alienation (i.e., he has to work to pay for everything to make his family’s life more comfortable).
His mistress, Maya, however, cannot be included in his excuses for not being as emotionally available to his family as he should be; hence, Sy deems him a bad father, and he scratches Will’s face off of all the photos on his ‘altar.’ Not only has Will become the bad father, though: photography for Sy has changed from being a white source of happiness to a black form of predation.
Indeed, Sy discusses the origin of the term “snapshot,” which he says wasn’t at first associated with photography, but with hunting–that is, quickly firing a snap shot from a rifle at an animal without taking the time for careful, preparatory aim. Sy’s camera has become his weapon, his gun…just as his parents’ camera was a weapon used on him as a child.
Now that Sy can no longer hide behind his False Self as the white-and-grey-clad, mild-mannered photo developer doing a “vital service” for customers he can no longer work for, and now that his system of white idealizations has been sullied by Will’s black adultery, Sy must face his own darkness, all that blackness inside himself that he’s been repressing, splitting off and projecting outwards.
First, he gets a little revenge on his former boss by taking predatory photos of Bill’s daughter. This taking of photos of her–though she’s fully dressed, playing innocently with her dolls, and is insouciant of any voyeuristic danger–nonetheless anticipates the revelation of, and cruel meaning behind, the photography of Sy when he himself was little and defenceless.
Since Sy can no longer use his grandiose self and idealized parental imago to shield himself from his childhood traumas, he must find a way to release and eject the emotional tension he feels from that trauma. A common way to do that is through projection, and projective identification, which ensures that those who receive the projections internalize and embody them.
So Sy steals a large knife from SavMart, a phallic symbol representative of the rapes he suffered as a child. He tracks Will and Maya down to a hotel where they’ve planned to have a sexual encounter, and there he’ll use his camera on them the way his parents used their camera on him: to shame the adulterer and his mistress by capturing their sexual encounter in a set of pornographic photos.
Sy not only forces Will and Maya to pose nude and simulate sexual acts; he’s also verbally abusive in the orders he gives them, behaviour diametrically opposed to his usual, mild-mannered False Self. This verbal abusiveness, it is safe to assume, is derived from the verbal abusiveness he as a child must have received from his photographer father. Sy must release all this pent-up pain by taking it all out on Will and Maya, by projecting it onto them.
After taking the photos, he leaves his traumatized victims and goes into a neighbouring hotel room he’s booked for himself. There, he lies on his back on the bed and looks up at the ceiling; he seems temporarily relieved, having gotten so much of that tension and pain off his chest.
He’s also taken photos of such banal things as a closeup of the rings on the curtain rod on his room’s shower curtain, as well as closeups of taps on the bathtub and bathroom sink. After all the good photos of the Yorkin family, then the bad photos of Will and Maya, he needs to take these neutral photos, to sublate the good vs bad dichotomy. This sublation is part of his healing shift from the black-and-white duality of the paranoid-schizoid position to the grey neutrality of the depressive position.
Switching from paranoid anxiety to depressive anxiety–the fear and sadness coming from losing our internal objects–is crucial for Sy’s healing process, and it’s related to the grey sublation of the black vs white mentioned above. The depressive position involves acknowledging how our caregivers are actually a complex combination of good and bad, and we must accept both the good and the bad in them. One must also mourn the abusive parents who failed us as children, our lack of good parents, as when we see Sy break down and cry when revealing to Detective Van Der Zee how he as a child was sexually abused.
Sy cannot see any good in his parents to counterbalance the bad, nor can he see any good in Will Yorkin. He can, however, still see Nina and Jake as good people (even though he’s frustrated to see her not showing anger at Will after seeing the photos of his affair with Maya). He also feels convinced that Van Der Zee must be a good husband and father. So these conclusions are enough for Sy to reconcile the good and bad in parents in general.
Now we can end the film with him looking at his banal photos of closeups of bathroom objects, their banality being his resolving of ideal vs shameful pictures.
Though called a psychological thriller, One Hour Photo actually has a rather sad tone, for though we would never condone what Sy does, we can’t help feeling empathy for him and the troubled life he’s lead. This kind of empathy, even for those who do ‘creepy’ things, is important for us to be able to heal collectively from all of our own traumas, for we all need to help each other process our grief. (Recall how Williams suffered from depression and committed suicide.)
Here’s a new poem by my Facebook friend, poet Jason Ryan Morton, whoseworkI’velookedatmanytimesbefore. As usual, I’ll put his writing in italics, to distinguish his words from mine. Here’s the poem:
frenzied and lost a shadow of what i was lost in a second fulfilled at any cost
the parallel lines turn to parallel lies I keep seeking the divine but fall between the divide
answers hurt to questions unasked i bathe in the glory of a chemical axe waging war within
that is a sin as it goes beneath the skin to drown me deep within and without just another day that passes far too quick
leaving me trembling shaky and sick what was a vision of mortality is now a passage of doubt and i’m lost again
too many yesterdays still portraits crawl with the rotten stage falling through my anger
and i just want to turn the page to burn the magazine tie up all my aspirations and burn the stage
winter is here and it is clear i am not wanted here too many disharmonies to ever sleep without fear
i close my eyes and say goodbye no more goodnights no more lullabies
only the rage the justifications an empty gun and a permanent vacation
And now, for my analysis.
Jason is speaking of the struggle to find happiness, including spiritual enlightenment. We sense his frustration with the difficulty of attaining this in the first verse.
The “parallel lines” seem to represent, on top, the spiritual path of God above, and on the bottom, Jason’s attempt to emulate that path below, on the Earth. The problem is that parallel lines never meet, so try as he might, Jason cannot reach God, no matter how hard he may try to conform to the Christian way.
He learns soon enough, though, that those parallel lines are lies, an effective pun. The lie is the failure to attain spiritual enlightenment without “Christ,” which translates actually to not attaining it without first conforming to the catechism of the Church; hence his “seeking the divine,” and falling “between the divide,” another effective pun. The “questions unasked” of the Church, that is, the taboos of questioning and doubting Church authority, lead to “answers hurt.”
Other attempts to heal pain, the alternative of the “chemical axe/waging war within,” sound like the illusory euphoria of psychiatric drugs, with their chemical compounds: this medication never cures mental illness–it only keeps it under control. It “is a sin/as it goes beneath the skin/to drown [him] deep within.” The pills are “invisible handcuffs,” as Charles “Haywire” Patoshik (played by Silas Weir Michell) calls them in season one of Prison Break.
Realizing the hard truth of these false paths to happiness leaves Jason “trembling/shaky and sick,” “a passage of doubt/and [he’s] lost again.” Then there are his painful memories: “too many yesterdays/still portraits.” He just wants “to turn/the page/to burn the magazine,” to get rid of the past, to destroy all of it.
He feels the “winter” coldness of alienation and loneliness; he is “not wanted here/too many disharmonies.” He’d go to sleep and escape the cruel realities of daily, waking life; he’d “close [his] eyes/and say goodbye/no more goodnights/no more lullabies.” He feels “only the rage”…a rage brought on by “the justifications” of the Church that once betrayed him? He has “an empty gun” from having already fired out all of that rage.
His “permanent vacation” could be anything from indefinite disability leave to the dream of an eternal state of nirvana…or maybe even enjoying listening to Aerosmith!
Here is poem #7 from Diverging Paths, the collection of writing by my Facebook friend, Jason Ryan Morton, whose poems I’velookedatsomanytimesbefore. As usual, I’ll be putting his words in italics to distinguish his writing from mine. Here’s the poem:
Staring through, The eye of the needle, Where is god now?
Staring with perspective, At the death before me, Where is god now?
Watching my life, Fall into pieces, Where is god now?
“The eye of the needle” reminds me of Mark 10:25, when Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” One of the reasons we cannot seem to find God, if He even exists, is that the rich are allowed, for the most part, to do whatever they want with impunity. How many more centuries do we have to wait for justice to be done, if He can dispatch it with omnipotent ease?
Faith can often blind us from perspective at all the death before us: deaths from war, disease, poverty, etc. Perspective helps us see beyond the lies and propaganda. Again, the poet asks where that divine personification of justice is.
Watching his life fall to pieces, the poet can be easily speaking for the millions of people in our world suffering trauma, abuse, and all the other injustices we see everywhere around us. Again, where is God now? God, as the personification of justice and goodness, is nowhere to be seen, and is needed now, more than ever.
If we cannot find this Supreme Being to be anything more than just a theoretical construct, a theory put into practice by a corrupt Church that has failed us throughout history, then maybe we need to take things into our own hands and fix the world ourselves, instead of waiting for an invisible man in the sky to fix it for us.
Here I’ll be looking at Poem #6 from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection, Diverging Paths. Recall that I’velookedatmanyofhispoemsin previous posts, if you’re interested in looking at some of those. As usual, I’m setting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:
This isn’t real this is a dream, When I wake I swear I will Never sleep again, Every waking moment a sin, God knows I’ve tried, But I’m lost in this, Magick and emotion, Turning down the podium, To stare into the heresy, Spiral unreality, Shadowing in moments lost, A vision of Holocaust, Sadly no divine intervention, Only death, And God a blemish,
And now, for my analysis.
The speaker, I suspect, is someone other than the poet, since, though I know the poet to be someone going through some difficult times emotionally, I don’t think he’s experienced a psychotic break with reality, as seems to be the case with the speaker here.
The speaker seems to be rejecting both dream and reality as too painful to bear. By a rejection of all, I mean a refusal to take in and accept any forms of stimulation from the outside world, Wilfred Bion‘s beta elements. In Bion’s theory of thinking, raw sensory data from outside, initially irritating, has to be processed (through what Bion called alpha function) into detoxified material acceptable for thought (alpha elements). In layman’s terms, this means that emotional experiences have to be processed in order for the brain to cope with them. (Click here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)
If external stimuli aren’t processed and made into thoughts, one cannot sleep, dream, or even experience waking thought. Without this ability to process thought, one becomes psychotic.
Bion explained it thus: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha-elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)
I discussed this issue in my analysis of The Machinist, in which the main character, Trevor Reznik (played by Christian Bale), goes through a psychotic break with reality when he refuses to process his own emotional experiences, namely, his guilt over having hit and killed a child in a car accident, then driving away without taking responsibility. As a result, he doesn’t sleep for a whole year, descending into madness.
To get back to Jason’s poem, the speaker rejects what he’s experiencing, calling it a dream. He says he’ll never sleep again upon waking, since what he’s experienced is so intolerable, so impossible to process and turn into detoxified thought. Yet, “every waking moment [is] a sin,” so waking moments are as impossible to process as unconscious ones.
He’d rather be in a world respecting old ways and old gods, one represented by such archaic spellings as “magick.” Such an idealized world is one the speaker feels lost in, since it’s so much better than the painful one of today. He finds himself “turning down the podium” (i.e., not wanting to go up, be seen by an audience, and communicate with them). He’d rather “stare into the heresy” of an alternate reality not accepted by mainstream society (i.e., the Church), which is seen as “spiritual unreality,” but also the unreality of not wanting to face the painful, but real, world. “Moments lost” are shadowed-in traumas, that is, erased from memory, hidden in the darkness of the mind, repressed.
The pain of a trauma so severe that it must be rejected is seen as a “vision of Holocaust.” There’s “no divine intervention,” either of the Judeo-Christian or pagan kind, when psychosis has replaced coping with reality. So one experiences “only death,” and God seems to be only “a blemish.”
Note that “God” can represent an authority figure, like a stern father. So as a blemish, this harsh authority figure could be the root of the trauma that has caused the speaker to want to run away from painful reality, and to reject all stimuli and all thinking that makes a connection with the world possible.
I’m no expert in the art of loving, and I’m far from practicing it ideally myself, but I do know it’s something more specific than “what you want it to be.” Love isn’t just a sentimental, ‘nice’ word that we can throw around any way we like. It actually means something.
I believe it’s potentially dangerous to toss this word around like a panacea to any relationship problem. We can’t just say, “I love you,” or “We love you,” and expect conflicts in families or with intimate partners to be resolved, as if those three little words were like saying, “Abracadabra.”
Again, I’m not anywhere near giving the final word on what love is, or how it’s to be properly given; but there are some fundamentals that are indispensable. I bring up the issue because narcissistic and other toxic people tend to sidestep these fundamentals:
Love is accepting people as they are, and not demanding that they conform to how one ‘should be.’
Love is wanting what is right for you and actively trying to help you achieve that, not wanting what I merely claim is what is right for you.
Love is speaking well of you and focusing on the good in you, not speaking of and focusing on the bad, or merely speaking of loving you to make oneself look good.
There are other things one could mention, to be sure, but I’d like to focus on these three, since as I said, narcissists and other toxic types don’t do these three, while hypocritically claiming to be loving.
II: Accepting People as They Are
While those who love you may need you to change certain aspects of yourself because they’re genuinely bad for you (drug abuse, alcoholism, criminal behaviour, etc.), these people don’t go around trying to mould you into what they’d like you to be: a mirror of their narcissistic selves.
A narcissistic parent, for example, may manipulate his or her children into conforming to particular roles, like the golden child, the lost child, or the scapegoat. My late, probably narcissistic mother (she was never diagnosed) did such manipulating of my elder siblings and me.
I’m sure that Mom rationalized her tactics by imagining that my sister, J., as golden child was merely being guided into being the best version of herself that she could be. She also would have justified her making of me into the identified patient (through a bogus labelling of me as autistic, or having Asperger Syndrome) by claiming that identifying what’s ‘wrong’ with me will be the first step to helping me get ‘better.’
The point is that neither J. nor I should be what our mother merely wanted us to be–in J.’s case, an idealized version of our mom, and an extension of Mom’s narcissistic self; and in my case, a projection of everything Mom hated about herself. J. and I should simply be ourselves.
And because Mom tricked J. into being her notion of the ‘ideal daughter/sister/mother/aunt,’ tricking her into thinking that that manipulation was for her own good (i.e., a form of love), J. tried to make me into her idealized version of a younger brother, thinking that doing so was also an act of love. It was nothing of the sort.
III: Wanting What is Right for You
Granted, even the best and most loving of families and other relationships will have their share of frustrating moments. Sometimes, what they think is right for you is at odds with what you want or know to be right for yourself; sometimes, they are utterly wrongheaded in thinking that this or that is right for you, in spite of having the best of intentions.
But at least these loving people have good intentions!
They aren’t trying to drag you down, they aren’t subjecting you to emotional abuse, and they aren’t using the most vicious of tactics, as a habit, to express their own frustrations with you. When the bad moments inevitably happen, when the fights happen, you are assured that there will be apologies later, and there will be far more good times with them, affectionate times, to compensate for the bad, and by a wide enough margin to render those bad times insignificant in comparison.
If, for example, you were being bullied at school when a kid, your loving elder siblings would have wanted to help you build up the courage to stand up to those bullies, and they would have done all they could to help you. They certainly wouldn’t have jumped on the bullying bandwagon and reinforced your sense of learned helplessness, as my two older brothers, R. and F., did (J., too, in spite of her claims to want to help me with such problems)!
Elder siblings helping you learn to assert yourself would include them actually listening to you assert yourself when you need to tell them they’re angering you. They won’t just pay lip service to how you should fight back, then when you try to do so, they double down on their own bullying and silence you, because they’d only intended for you to stick up for yourself against bullies other than them.
J. used to be hypocritical with me in this way, when preaching that I should be assertive and tell her, R., and F. off when they were giving me a hard time. But when the time came for me to stand up to her, did she step back and listen? Virtually never. Instead, there was usually some excuse why ‘now’ wasn’t the right time to speak up. Apparently, I was too late with it; apparently, there’s a time limit for asserting oneself. One should speak up more or less immediately, in her opinion. (No logical reason was ever given for the need to be so quick with one’s sticking up for oneself, of course. It was just manipulation on her part to silence me with her ‘speak now, or forever hold your peace’ tactic.)
Wanting what’s right for you also includes wanting you to grow into the best version of yourself. Well-intentioned parents, for example, might occasionally speak inadvisedly, and accidentally say things that hurt their children. But how is a mother telling her adolescent son that he is “only good at things that don’t make money,” spoken calmly and matter-of-factly, an accidental comment? My mother once actually said that to me when I was a teen.
Similarly, back in the mid-1990s, when I, in my mid-twenties, told her that two psychotherapists, each of whom I’d been seeing over a period of several months, told me they saw no autistic symptoms in me, she seemed rather unhappy about the news. After arguing with her over a lengthy time that doubt had been established over whether or not I am on the autism spectrum, Mom–having none of the authority or expertise in psychiatric matters that those two men obviously had–insisted she was right and they were wrong. She clearly wanted me to be autistic, or at least make me believe I was: what loving mother wants that for her son?
IV: Speaking Well of You
Finally, for my purposes here, a minimal requirement of loving you will include having kind words to say about you. Again, there will be a time and a place for critical words, when one genuinely needs to hear them; but such times should be a minority, not a majority, of the time.
The critical words should also be controlled, not wild, thoughtless, and abusive. Even anger can be expressed in measured ways. People who love you are not going to be making a game of regularly insulting and belittling you. I say this because, though it should be obvious to most people, victims of emotional abuse and gaslighting are often confused by traumatic bonding, with its switches back and forth between nasty to nice.
My mother and J. used to rationalize the horrible things they used to say and do to me, as well as what R. and F. said and did, through victim-blaming (i.e., making out every conflict with me as if it were always exclusively my fault for getting them mad, without considering that maybe they could have tried reacting to my faults in a manner that actually has a bit of loving in it), giving me long-winded speeches supposedly meant to edify me, when these speeches typically went far off-topic (e.g., J. reacting to my accusation of our mom lying to me by talking a load of irrelevant nonsense about Mom not being able to handle every problem ‘perfectly’), or saying the meaningless words, “We love you,” when the last thing I’ve ever felt from any of them is real love.
Saying you love someone isn’t about pointing out how good you, the giver of love, are; it’s about seeing the good in the receiver of your love. Narcissists fail–or rather, refuse–to grasp that simple fact. If you see no good, or never mention any good, in the person you claim to love, then why do you claim to love this person? Is it just out of family obligation (i.e., if this person wasn’t a member of your family, wouldn’t you hesitate to abandon him or her)?
There’s no doubt in my mind that my mother and J. would say, or would have said, that they love(d) my cousins, L., S., and G. You wouldn’t know this, however, to hear how Mom and J. (have) spoke(n) about them. My mother in particular bad-mouthed our cousins in the most vicious ways over a period of decades, especially G., the youngest. On one occasion, she said G. “was being his usual boring self, talking and talking, and we all wished he would just go away.” On the other side of the coin, over all those decades, I’d never once heard her or J. say a kind word about him. Not even one. It’s not as though it couldn’t be done; Mom and J. simply didn’t want to.
People don’t love other people for no reason; they do so because they value those they love, which means seeing the good in, and therefore speaking well of, the beloved. Providing food, clothing, and shelter for someone, and only these three–without also providing loving words of comfort during sad times, encouragement during challenging times, and congratulations during successful times–is merely fulfilling material obligations, treating the receiver of ‘love’ as a job to be done. The loving person fulfills these obligations with joy; he or she would never regard the receiver of love as a burden.
My family heaped a mountain of verbal abuse on me over the decades. Words of kindness were a small minority, and they were generally insincere. Their insistent words of “We love you” sounded a lot more like them flattering themselves than making me feel valued. Such talk isn’t love. Now, I’m no expert on love, but at least I know what love is not.
J., just a week before the publication of this post, found me on Twitter and tweeted me a happy birthday wish, hoping that my wife and I are doing well. I didn’t respond, because I know this kind of graciousness from her is superficial and meaningless, given all I’d endured from her and the rest of the family for decades before. Her message was an obvious case of hoovering, and I’m not going to fall for that. She’ll have to do a lot more than send me birthday wishes if she hopes to get back in my good graces. She, R., and F. must confront the wrongs they’ve done to me over my life, and I know they don’t want to do that.
As I said above, how I’ve defined love is pretty obvious except to those who have been abused, then subjected to the gaslighting that it was all done “out of love.” My definition is far from exhaustive, and while it isn’t made up of the sufficient conditions, it certainly has some of the necessary ones.
If those who ‘love’ you aren’t accepting you as you are, and are demanding that you be someone else, whom they prefer (I’m not talking about changing a few bad habits as necessary), they aren’t loving you.
If those who ‘love’ you don’t want what’s right for you and aren’t, on at least some level, trying to help you achieve what’s right for you (I don’t mean what they merely say is right for you, but what actually is right for you), they aren’t loving you.
If those who ‘love’ you either can’t or aren’t willing to do such a simple, straightforward thing as to speak kindly to you and emphasize the good, rather than the bad, in you (I don’t mean that loving people should never criticize you, but that they don’t harp on criticism constantly), they aren’t loving you.
These three things are fundamental and indispensable. If they aren’t there in the relationship, it doesn’t matter what other good things the person who ‘loves’ you does (i.e., such superficial things as buying you stuff or meaninglessly saying “I love you”). Other good things ought to be added to these three, but the three must be present.
Remember: loving you isn’t about how great they think they are, but about how great they think you are…despite your faults.
Carnival of Souls is a 1962 independent horror film produced and directed by Herk Harvey, from a story by him and John Clifford, the latter having written the screenplay. It stars Candace Hilligoss, with Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, and Harvey as the main ghoul who torments Hilligoss’s character throughout the film.
Carnival of Souls was shot on a low budget, using guerrilla filmmaking techniques, in Lawrence, Kansas, and Salt Lake City. It was Harvey’s only feature film. It has a unique film score, played solely on a church organ and composed by African American composer Gene Moore.
Here is a link to quotes from the film. You can watch the whole film here.
The ending of Carnival of Souls seems to indicate that Mary Henry (Hilligoss) didn’t survive the car accident on the bridge at the film’s beginning, and that her nightmarish existence throughout the middle of the film has been her soul’s unwillingness to let go of her physical existence, comparable to the hell Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) goes through in Jacob’s Ladder. I, however, will interpret the car accident and her survival/’death’ metaphorically.
The film starts with her and some girlfriends in a car; they meet some young men about their age in another car, and these boys want the girls to race them. They reach a bridge where their cars are going neck-and-neck, crowding each other on the bridge, and the girls’ car falls off and into the river. Only Mary (so it seems) has survived the car crash; she emerges from the water not remembering how she’s survived.
One thing that is immediately apparent about Mary is that she’s unsociable. She has apparently always been this way, since the organ factory worker says, “She’s always kept pretty much to herself.” She drives out of town without wanting to stop to see her parents; in fact, when asked if she wants to see them, she reacts to the idea with considerable agitation. Right from the beginning of the race, Mary never smiles–her face shows only anxiety, and I don’t think this is just because of the potential danger of the race.
I consider the car accident to be symbolic of a deep-seated trauma, or many traumas, stemming from her relationship with her parents, especially her father (more on this later). A troubled relationship with her parents would explain how distant she is from other people, for our object relations with our parents, the first major people to come into our lives, are blueprints, so to speak, for our relationships with people in later life. If we don’t enjoy our parents’ company, we’re far less likely to enjoy the company of anybody.
This car race, with her bunched together with the other two girls, feels claustrophobic, especially with those boys’ car trying to ram past them. The sense of competition with others can be most distressing to someone as sensitive as Mary. So a near-death experience in such a social context can be seen as symbolic of trauma causing social anxiety.
It’s fitting that these repressed bad objects that come back into Mary’s consciousness should do so in the form of ghouls, or evil spirits; for Fairbairn likens these returning bad objects to evil spirits that possess the suffering psychiatric patient (see page 6 [or 67, from the copied book] of the above-linked pdf, Part 5–‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects’).
Another symbolism for this water that kills, and from which ghouls emerge, is Lacan‘s notion of the Real, an undifferentiated mental state that cannot be symbolized (i.e., put into words–Mary can tell Dr. Samuels [played by Stan Levitt] about the main ghoul, but she cannot conceive of whom he symbolizes; could he be her father, or a minister, who may have sexually abused her when a child?), and thus is traumatic.
Her driving out of Kansas to start a job so far away, in Salt Lake City, represents her wish to get away from her trauma. She tells the organ factory boss that she’s never coming back to Kansas. She can try to run away from her problems, though, but she’ll never succeed, because her problems aren’t outside of her…they’re inside.
Another fitting thing about this films is its organ soundtrack music, which apart from occasional diegetic music makes up the vast majority of the music heard in the film. Its eerie dissonance provides so many of the atmospheric chills in the movie, and of course Mary is an organist. It’s as if she’s the one playing the soundtrack to her own story. The creepiness of the organ music, especially in the later scene when she’s in a trance, playing dissonant, “profane” music in the Utah church and she gets fired, represents her fear. It is thus a reminder that her problems stem from within (i.e., past trauma), not from without (i.e. literal spooks).
During her long drive to Salt Lake City, she looks at her reflection in the passenger window to her right. She looks there again, but sees the main ghoul, who looks middle-aged, old enough to be either her father or a minister of the church who may have molested her as a child. (Since this film was made in 1962, when the Hays Code was still censoring movies, indications of sexual abuse would have had to have been made most indirectly, subtly.) Seeing his face instead of her own in the reflection makes him a symbol of an internal bad object; seeing him again in front of her as her car is approaching him is her projection of him outside. The shock of seeing him makes her drive off the road and into a ditch, a traumatic reaction that parallels the other car falling off the bridge at the beginning.
She drives by a large pavilion near Salt Lake City that she is immediately fascinated with. What could this building mean to her? I suspect it represents in her mind a church, a cathedral she’d attended as a child. Its draw on her represents a wish in her to revisit her place of childhood trauma, to process those painful feelings and therefore cure herself of them. The place is on the shores of the Great Salt Lake–water, the symbol of her unconscious, where her bad internal objects lie, the Real, the centre of her trauma, which must be confronted.
After Mary finds lodgings, she takes a bath there one night while waiting for the proprietress, Mrs. Thomas (Feist), to bring a sandwich and coffee up to her room. It’s interesting how, when she’s been in water again, a knock on her door reveals not Mrs. Thomas but the only other lodger, the lecherous John Linden (Berger), whom she’s embarrassed to meet with only a towel to cover her nakedness. Shortly after repelling Linden’s “neighbourly” ways, his thinly-disguised sexual advances, Mary goes out into the hall and is terrified to see the main ghoul looking up at her from the ground floor.
This juxtaposition of Linden, who ogles her through the door crack while she’s replacing her towel with a bathrobe, with the appearance of the lewdly smirking ghoul–a figment of her imagination and an internal object of hers–contributes to my theory that the ghoul represents someone who once sexually abused her. She is frightened of Linden’s lecherous designs, which have triggered the traumatic memory of another man’s lecherous designs.
Later that night, she can’t sleep, so she gets out of bed and looks out the window to see the pavilion so far off. Her fear of the main ghoul makes her want human company, so Linden’s appearance at her door again the next morning is welcome. He’s surprised to learn, as is her boss the minister (Ellison), that her work as church organist is purely professional, with no spiritual interest in it whatsoever.
Since Western society, especially American, was much more religious in the early 60s than it is today, we must wonder why not only is Mary not interested in meeting the congregation of the church she’s playing organ for, but isn’t interested in the religious meaning of the music she’s playing (small wonder some think her playing lacks “soul”). Such disparities reinforce my speculation that she feels somehow betrayed by the church, making her lose faith in it, while nonetheless staying near it as a professional organist–a nearness that suggests the traumatic bonding of one who was molested as a child by her minister.
She feels relatively safe in the daylight, during the waking hours when the conscious mind is dominant, but frightened at night, during the darkness of which the unconscious is given free reign. As she tells Linden, “It’s funny… the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.” During the day, she can repress her fears; but at night, the repressed returns, in forms she fears, because she can’t recognize their true meaning.
She isn’t, however, necessarily free in the daytime, either. After getting rid of Linden, she goes shopping and tries on a black dress. When changing back in the fitting room, though, we see what looks like a rippling of water before her eyes (water, symbol of her repressed unconscious, is bringing her repressed trauma back to consciousness for her); after this, she temporarily experiences a kind of derealization. She cannot hear anything, especially people’s voices, and these people don’t acknowledge her presence–she seems invisible to them.
The sense of disconnect from other people is a symptom common in sufferers of C-PTSD, caused not by one, but by many traumas. Since Mary is experiencing such a disconnect, I suspect her car accident is really a symbolic abbreviation of many traumas she suffered in childhood.
The many traumas that result in C-PTSD make the sufferer feel as though he or she is completely, irreconcilably different from everyone else, and this in turn results in the sufferer’s withdrawal from society and into isolation, since he or she feels safe only without others around. Hence, C-PTSD can be an accurate diagnosis for Mary, who feels so different from others that, on this and again towards the end of the film, she can neither hear others nor be acknowledged by them.
Terrified by her temporary deafness and invisibility, Mary leaves the department store and ends up in a park. Standing under a tree, she hears the chirping of a bird, symbol of freedom, and so she’s back to normal…by her standards, at least.
She goes to a fountain for a drink of water, and she hallucinates that the ghoul is standing before her. She goes into hysterics and runs into Dr. Samuels, who offers to help her. She goes with him to his nearby office…him with his hands creepily around her.
He isn’t a psychiatrist, but he seems to have dabbled in psychoanalysis, for he hints at some insights as to who the ghoul may be–Mary’s father, or some kind of guilt (i.e., shame associated with having been raped) she has buried deep down in her mind. Her vehement denial of these interpretations should, if anything, help convince us of their correctness, for her denial, calling such ideas “ridiculous,” is a typical example of the patient’s resistance to insights that uncover a deeper pain.
She has her resistances and denials, but also a conflicting desire to cure herself, and her fascination with the pavilion is part of that desire. So she runs out of Samuels’s office and goes straight there.
Now, facing one’s trauma is crucial to curing oneself of it, but one should be guided by a therapist. She thinks she’ll rid herself of the stalking ghoul by entering the pavilion and exploring it; but there’s still that part of her that doesn’t want to face the darkest of her pain, so when she looks around the place, it’s a generally peaceful experience.
The main ghoul is sleeping in the water, symbolizing how her trauma is still there, however hidden it may be. At one point during her walking around, she sees a mattress gliding down a slide. There’s no reason for it to be there, much less slide down by itself, so it must symbolize something in her unconscious–perhaps a mattress on which she was once sexually abused.
The association of her trauma with water is again reinforced when she passes a sign saying, “Salt Water Bathing,” shortly after having seen the mattress on the slide. Maybe as a child, part of her seduction by her father, or by a minister of the church (maybe her father was the minister), involved bathing her, then bedding her.
My point in all of this is that the whole film could be seen as an extended dream, chock-full of symbols related to her trauma, but presented in a distorted manner that makes them unrecognizable to her conscious mind. The root of the trauma is still buried, like the ghoul sleeping under the water.
She goes back to her rooming house and agrees to a date after work with Linden because she doesn’t want to be alone at night. When practicing the organ at church, she goes into a trance, for night has fallen, and the ghouls are seen coming out of the water of the Great Salt Lake.
Recall that all these ghouls represent the bad internal objects hiding in Mary’s unconscious (i.e., sleeping in the water) during the day, but coming out at night, when the unconscious mind is freer. These internal objects would be not only her molester (the main ghoul we always see), but also family and community members who either turned a blind eye to the abuse she suffered, or perhaps even participated in it. Their dancing, in this connection, is symbolic of sex, pairs of men and women holding each other and moving around to a rhythm.
This reliving of her trauma makes her play creepy dissonances on the organ (which she cannot hear, as with her temporary deafness in the department store scene) that her employer, the minister (whose hands grab hers, making her stop playing, and happening immediately after she, in her vision, has seen the main ghoul approach her, his hands out to grab her), regards as “profane, sacrilege,” so he dismisses her. She leaves the church and goes with Linden to a bar for drinks.
He’s drinking while she just sits there, still practically in a trance. He’s annoyed at her unsociability: she won’t drink, talk, or dance. After having just had a vision of the ghouls dancing in the dark pavilion, how could she dance? Young men and young women dancing in a pub aren’t necessarily planning to be sexual, but in the context of dating, they are exploring sexual possibilities. Such possibilities are scary enough for Mary.
They go back to the rooming house and into her room. Linden’s hopes of getting some with Mary are dashed when he realizes how “off her rocker” she is. She looks in the mirror and sees the main ghoul again, who, recall, is a projection from her own mind onto the external world. Such hallucinatory projections are what Wilfred Bion called bizarre objects.
After Linden leaves in frustration, she tries to use the furniture of her room to block all entrances, in a futile attempt to keep the ghoul outside. Of course, she cannot succeed at this, because the ghoul is in her head; no matter how hard she tries to project him outside, he’ll always return, for he is a bizarre object she’s created.
The next day, she packs her things and leaves the rooming house. She’d leave Salt Lake City, too, imagining that leaving the city, just as she’s left Kansas and isn’t going back, will rid her of her trauma. Of course, that will never happen, because her trauma is within, not without.
She drives her car to a mechanic, staying in her car as it’s raised up; she nods off a bit. She then experiences the following set of terrors. First, she imagines someone, the ghoul, presumably, entering the mechanic’s garage and lowering her car back down to the ground. After running out of the garage and into a bus station, we see those waves on the screen again, as in the department store fitting room: she goes deaf again, unacknowledged by others, until hearing the chirping bird in the park; she also sees the ghouls in a bus she hopes to take to escape from the city.
Next, she is in Samuels’s office, but sees the main ghoul instead of the doctor in his chair. It’s interesting how the ghoul tends to stand for men who are at least a potential threat to her: either middle-aged men in authority positions, or father-figures, like Samuels or the minister; or lecherous men like Linden. She screams and runs away.
She wakes up, though we’re not sure if she really went to sleep at first, or just put her head back and closed her eyes for a few seconds. If this moment was a nightmare, could the rest of the film be a long nightmare, too? Could this moment have been a dream within a dream?
There’s nothing left for Mary to do now but to go back to the pavilion and face her demons. She drives over there just as the clouds are obscuring the evening sky. The inside of the building, accordingly, is much darker than the last time she was there.
Because night is about to fall, all those ghouls sleeping in the water of the Great Salt Lake are waking up and emerging; that is, all the internal objects of her unconscious are returning to her conscious thoughts. As I’ve said above, these aren’t just representatives of the molester(s) of her childhood and/or adolescence; they also represent her family, neighbours, and members of her congregation who, out of a wish to avoid scandal, would never sympathize with Mary or hear her cries for help.
She stands there in the shadows, frowning in her attempt to confront her tormentors. That eerie organ music is playing alongside what sounds like a calliope, or steam organ (what would be heard in a circus or carnival), implying the link between her organ playing, as traumatic bonding, with the abusive church of her childhood that the carnival symbolizes.
Again, we see pairs of male and female ghouls dancing to the calliope music. Since, as I said above, their dancing is symbolic of sex (remember that the film censorship of the time meant that sexual deviancy could only be implied, expressed symbolically), all of them dancing symbolizes the deviancy of an orgy. People with authoritarian, fundamentalist religious beliefs, in their prudery and repression, tend paradoxically to let their sexuality out in the most perverse ways, such as pedophilia, ephebophilia, and hebephilia.
Finally, Mary sees, among the ghouls, herself as a ghoul dancing with the main one! Ghoul-Mary has a sad, dazed look in her eyes, the kind of look a victim of sexual abuse might have, a look of helpless resignation. Meanwhile, the smirk on the main ghoul’s face seems one of lewd satisfaction. He dips ghoul-Mary, like a lover, and she is grinning ear to ear, as if tricked into thinking she’s enjoying satisfying his lust.
Mary has thus confronted her trauma. She has remembered what was repressed for so many years, and the horror of it makes her scream and run away. As we all know by now, though, running from her trauma won’t save her; it’s always in her mind, so the ghouls all chase her outside.
Wherever she tries to hide, a ghoul’s face pops up in front of hers. Finally, she runs out and falls on the sand, screaming. The ghouls crowd around her and get down close, as if to gang rape her. To confront trauma, we can’t do it alone. Mary should be facing this with a therapist.
The film ends with Samuels, the minister, and a cop following her footprints in the sand where they unaccountably end. These men, as father figures, would seem to want to help her, but they can’t. After all, weren’t the church community represented in the ghouls just trying ‘to help’ her?
The discovery of Mary’s body in the car represents how trauma kills us all psychologically, for after enduring its horrors, we can never be the same as we were.
Here’s another poem from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection of poetry and prose, Diverging Paths. As anyone who has read my blog posts knows, I’vewrittenaboutmyFacebookfriend’spoetry many times. Again, I’ve set his writing in italics to distinguish it from mine. Here’s the poem:
I hate it all, Can I watch it die, Fading embers, Of a burning sky, Call me, To be nothing but what I am,
Every fucking day is the same, Breaking me apart, Too dark to start, Can’t hit the Wall, break the design, a pattern of time, Is unheard and underlying, Maladies return me to the death of my humanity,
O Lord I am broken, My soul tattered and shattered,
Too a point nothing fucking matters, And all the dreams are lies, I kiss my Deliverance goodbye, And yet it seems,
I am me, But broken, Where no vessel should be, I am nothing, I ….
Will not bother, I….. Will not bow, I….. Will not scrape,
I am nothing, But at least I’m me,
And now for my analysis.
The poet would “watch it die,” the “Fading embers/Of a burning sky,” that “Call [him],”… He seems to be referring to the religious authority represented by God in the sky, which is “burning” because the validity of that authority is “fading”. Having been abused by it, he would happily “watch it die.”
In “Every fucking day is the same,” the use of the word fucking doesn’t seem to be just gratuitous swearing. I’ve learned from his life that he was a victim of sexual abuse, something kids often suffer in Catholic institutions, for which the perpetrators all too often go unpunished. Feeling the effects of the trauma is an every day thing, hence “Maladies return [him] to the death of [his] humanity.”
The poet calls out to God for help, “O Lord I am broken,” but that God isn’t there to help him, because here God is just the idol of institutionalized religion, rather than representative of any genuine spirituality…”all the dreams are lies.”
“Too a point nothing fucking matters” should be seen as a pun on too and to. Nothing matters to a point, but his problem is, too, a point, the point of the rapist’s phallus. Again, fucking isn’t gratuitous swearing. He kisses his “Deliverance” goodbye, because there is no deliverance, yet the capitalized D implies an allusion to the film and novel featuring the rape of a man. The deliverance of the Church, resulting all too often in the sexual abuse of children, is mere deliverance into another kind of hell.
He is broken, so he calls himself nothing, since part of the trauma he feels makes him devalue himself. In spite of his pain, though, there is some defiance against his abusers. He “will not bow,” and “will not scrape.” Society devalues him, yet “at least” he’s sincerely himself, not the kind of phoney person that society favours.
The aligning of the first half of the text to the right, where the focus is on the cause of his suffering, versus the aligning of the second half of the text to the left, mostly his reaction to his suffering, as well as his defiance to it, suggests the right-wing authoritarianism of the Church versus his left-wing aspiration to be liberated from such authority.
This one is from his book of poetry and prose, called Diverging Paths, the first poem from Part One, ‘Deliverance’ (on page ten of the document provided). Here it is, given in italics to distinguish his writing from mine:
Was it ever real, This tragic appeal, Staging mass reveal, In the name of God,
Was it ever there, Basing one’s truth on scares, Where we appear, To be nothing but ants,
And then the world fell, Apart in this shell, Domed humanity, Psychopathic hell…
And now for my analysis.
This seems, on the surface, to be another critique of the Christian faith, the “tragic appeal” of trusting in Christ to heal one’s pain and make one whole, when so many have tried and failed to gain that healing, that wholeness…hence, it’s tragic.
I know, however, from personal communication with Jason, that the core of the trauma he’s suffered in his life has been abuse in psychiatric hospitals. So Church abuses can be seen in this poem as symbolic of abuses from the mental health profession.
So, in this context, faith in the Church can be seen as blind faith in the efficacy of the psychiatric profession. The tragic appeal is in the idea that therapists offer some kind of panacea to all our mental health problems, when no such miracle cure exists…not so much because there really is no cure, but more so because so many psychiatrists seem less interested in helping their patients than in controlling them, like Nurse Ratched.
So, the authority of the abusive psychiatrist is symbolized by the omnipotence and omniscience of God, in whose name the cure is applied. “Was [the cure] ever there”? The truth that is based on scares is the fear that, being given no treatment, the patient will err to the point of self-destruction. Many emotional abusers would like to treat their victims, the identified patients, as if they were “nothing but ants,” helpless without the guidance of those claiming to know all the answers.
Such social dysfunction can be extended far beyond the abuses of the mental health profession and the Church, and into the general problem of alienation. Hence, “the world fell,/Apart in this shell”. Note the repeated use of commas at the end of almost every line, even in places where commas don’t seem to be necessary, as in the line just quoted. The enjambment between not only “fell” and “apart” but also between “we appear” and “to be nothing but ants” suggests a halting speech, interruptions that break the flow of communication. When we talk, we seem to be stammering, unable to speak coherently.
This “shell,” this “domed humanity” is the prison of our existence. Note how “domed” can be seen as a pun on doomed, for that’s how we’ll be if we don’t do something about our inability to communicate and connect with each other, be it in the realms of the Church, the psychiatric world, or in society in general. “Psychopathic hell,” the hell of, ironically, the God of psychiatry, can thus be seen as a pun on psychiatric hell, the hell of being exposed, when already being mentally ill, to doctors who don’t care for you.