Bullies Are the Worst People in the World

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When I speak of bullies, I’m not limiting my meaning to the big, bad kid at school who picks on kids smaller and weaker than he is. I don’t just mean the muscleman at the beach who kicks sand in the face of a skinny man. I don’t speak only of gossips who spread false rumours to destroy their victims’ reputations.

I speak of anyone who uses intimidation, violence, and manipulation to gain power and control over others. Rape, in this sense, is a kind of bullying. Spousal abuse is. So is emotional abuse, whether in the family, at school, in the workplace, or online.

There is geopolitical bullying, too, in the form of imperialism. For example, apparently, it isn’t bad enough that there are military bases surrounding China in what John Pilger has called “a giant noose.” Nor is it bad enough that there are threatening US navy ships in the South China Sea. Or that the US was giving financial and propagandistic support to the Hong Kong rioters. Or that the Trump administration sold over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan to point them at China.

Now, in part because of Trump’s racist blather about the “China virus” and “kung flu,” Asian Americans have been subjected to racially-motivated attacks and hate crimes, including the recent shootings in massage parlours in Atlanta.

Other forms of geopolitical bullying include the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the Saudi war on Yemen, with billions of dollars in weapons sold to the Saudis by the US, the UK, Canada, and European countries. The ongoing American military presence in so much of Africa, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan are also examples of such bullying.

Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm, in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, discusses what he called the sadistic character, that of someone given to violence towards others not just for its own sake, but for the sake of having power and control over others. “Sadistic character traits can never be understood if one isolates them from the whole character structure. They are part of a syndrome that has to be understood as a whole. For the sadistic character everything living is to be controllable; living beings become things. Or, still more accurately, living beings are transformed into living, quivering, pulsating objects of control. Their responses are forced by the one who controls them. The sadist wants to become the master of life, and hence the quality of life should be maintained in his victim. This is, in fact, what distinguishes him from the destroying person. The destroyer wants to do away with a person, to eliminate him, to destroy life itself; the sadist wants the sensation of controlling and choking life.” (Fromm, page 325)

Bullies gather in groups with a charismatic leader backed by flying monkeys and enablers. This back-up helps to perpetuate the illusion that the leader, typically a narcissist or psychopath in reality, is a good person. On the other side of the coin, these bullies paint a false picture of the victim as a victimizer, or as someone deserving of only contempt.

A historical example of such collective narcissism as a group of bullies persecuting people in the millions was Nazi Germany, with Hitler as their charismatic, but narcissistic leader, with the SS and SA as his flying monkeys and enablers. The Jews, Roma, gays, the mentally and physically disabled or ill, and political and religious opposition to Naziism were all the victims, their victimhood being rationalized by their tormentors as a kind of ‘retribution’ for having somehow ‘victimized,’ ‘polluted,’ or ‘burdened’ the ‘Aryan race.’

The point is that bullies engage in projection, pretending that their victim is the villain, in order to justify the horrible things they do. On the other hand, bullies like to fancy themselves as the ‘good guys.’ They project their viciousness and introject their victim’s goodness. Not a fair trade.

The virtues that bullies assume include a false sense of moral, intellectual, and physical superiority, while they denigrate their victims as selfish, stupid, and weak. To use the political example again, the imperialist bully countries fancy themselves as more democratic, more civilized, more modern and progressive, and more respectful of human rights. (e.g., so-called “American exceptionalism.”)

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In my post, The Toxic Family of Imperialism, I compared what the Western imperialists are doing to the people, for example, in the Middle East and China to what a narcissistic family does to the assigned family scapegoat. This comparison is important in understanding how serious a problem bullying is. My political application of the problem is meant to show that bullies aren’t just bad people–they’re the worst of the worst.

The only real difference between a bully in the ordinary world and one in the upper echelons of political and corporate power is a difference in opportunity. Just because a bully at school, in the average lower or middle-class family, or at work, hasn’t terrorized anywhere near as many people as, say, a politician who orders drone bombings, who imposes starvation sanctions, or who engineers a coup d’état to replace a leftist Latin American government with a right-wing dictatorship, doesn’t mean the former kind of bully is somehow less merciless than the latter kind. If given the chance, the former would probably love to exercise power and dominance over a large number of people, because it’s in the nature of the sadistic character to enjoy stepping on as many people as possible.

Bullies enjoy exploiting unfair advantages over others rather than bettering themselves through their own personal efforts. Accordingly, they rarely pick on those their own size and strength, but go after those weaker than them. They like to twist this around and call their victims ‘wimps,’ ‘cowards,’ and ‘weaklings,’ but it is the bully who is the coward for attacking only those whom it’s easy to attack, instead of looking at him- or herself in the mirror and facing up to, and dealing with, his or her own personal problems.

To use the political analogy one more time, consider, for example, how right-wing Americans will denigrate countries like the DPRK, Cuba, Venezuela, etc., as ‘failed socialist states,’ yet fail to see the spectacular failures of their own capitalist state. If we can see this hypocrisy on a political level, we should be able to see it on a personal level, too. Just as the bullied countries aren’t really the failures, and the bullying countries are not only the cause of those failures, but also have many failures of their own, so are ordinary, individual people who are bullied not the problem, but rather, their bullies are the problem, because they’re the cause of their victims’ problems, a projection of their own pathologies.

So if you, Dear Reader, have been victimized by bullying, especially to the extent of having C-PTSD and therefore having a cruel inner critic, you need to stop blaming yourself for having suffered such victimization. You weren’t bullied because you are weak: how weak or strong you personally happen to be is irrelevant; you were bullied because bullies are assholes. Just because they can bully you, doesn’t mean they should.

You don’t need to improve yourself to be worthy of love. You’re already worthy of being loved.

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Repeat to yourself these words: “The bullying wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault.” Over and over again.

It was their fault.

Bullies are the worst people in the world.

Victims, for all our faults, are far better than them. Never forget that.

Abusers’ Cloud of Willful Unknowing

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In my post, Absence Makes the Mind Go Fonder, I wrote of how the low emotional intelligence of abusers in the family will cause them to say and do foolish things that go totally against their interests as far as maintaining family unity is concerned, because they value controlling the abuse victim over healing old wounds and trying to rebuild a relationship with him or her.

The abusers’ narcissistic, inflated sense of self, a False Self, causes them to have no sense of introspection. One could call it ‘the Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers,’ where the more abusive they are, the more they’re committed to a delusional belief that they are not only not abusive, but are an especially kind and loving group of people.

I have to be blunt and call these people who they are: pardon my French, but they are assholes. In fact, they are worse than assholes, for they don’t even know they’re assholes. They refuse to contemplate the very possibility that they’re assholes. At least with those of us who are victims of emotional abuse, our cruel inner critic keeps us aware of our faults; the abusers, on the other hand, seem to go through their lives thinking they’ve done nothing wrong.

I discovered this reality about my late, probably narcissistic mother, my golden child older sister, and my two older bullies…er, brothers. This group of emotional abusers actually think they’re an exemplary family.

It doesn’t matter how nice the abusers are to each other, or to their own kids, or to other people they meet out there in the world. If they scapegoat even one family member (in my family’s case, me, as well as my three cousins), they are already abusive assholes from that fact alone, because even a half-decent family would never treat their own flesh and blood, for all of his or her admitted faults, in that way.

They don’t, however, seem to know the truth of their dysfunction. Some kind of mental mechanism, some cloud, must be what they use to protect themselves from ever knowing.

Wilfred Bion, in his book, Learning From Experience, wrote of something he called -K (‘negative knowledge’), which represents a stubborn refusal to gain knowledge. He says that the origin of -K is an infantile form of envy, as Melanie Klein described it–the wish to spoil the good breast of the mother by projecting bad things into it.

This infantile envy, as with Klein’s notions of the paranoid-schizoid (PS) and depressive (D) positions, only starts with the baby; these mental states continue throughout life. Just as there’s an oscillation back and forth between PS and D (Bion notates this oscillation more or less as PS <-> D), so can there be an oscillation back and forth between envy and gratitude throughout life.

So this envy, as exacerbated in such dysfunctional families as those run by narcissistic parents, can be the source of a stubborn refusal to learn (-K) from previous mistakes, the low emotional intelligence I mentioned up at the beginning of this article. Now, according to Bion, the acquisition of knowledge (K) starts in the commensal relationship between mother and baby, the soothing container/contained relationship. As the child grows, he or she learns how to do the containing, essentially, for him- or herself, the processing of irritating raw sense data from outside into tolerable experiences and thoughts. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Sometimes, however, we need others’ validation, or containing, as we grow older. Then, the acquisition of K is a symbiotic relationship between the self and other people.

When one grows up in a family with narcissistic parents, with golden children for siblings (either relatively so in comparison to the scapegoat, as my elder brothers were compared to me, or in the absolute sense, as with my elder sister), and oneself is made into the scapegoat, or identified patient, no such symbiotic relationship of people helping each other grow in K will exist to any substantial extent. No empathy is felt between family members competing for the love of the narcissistic parents, so there’s little containment, or soothing, of each other’s agitations and anxieties.

Instead of soothing forms of communication, which Bion described as a passing back and forth of energy through projective identification, family members pass back and forth negative energy, or negative container/contained projections and introjections. Feelings of anxiety and agitation then metastasize into what Bion called a nameless dread, or what I would simply call trauma.

Instead of communicating, family members fight, which increases mutual alienation and an aversion to learn anything from each other, to grow in K. This mutual alienation has been caused by the machinations of the narcissistic parent, who envies the sensitivity of one of his or her children, and who thus spoils the goodness of that child by using gaslighting techniques and by teaching the siblings to despise him or her.

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The contempt that the golden children have for the scapegoat is rewarded with the ‘love’ that the narcissistic parent gives them for their loyalty. This ‘love’ and reassurance causes them to be smug and self-satisfied in their attitude; they never suspect that they’ve misunderstood the scapegoat, and they’re convinced of the ‘morality’ of their despicable treatment of the victim. This is the essence of -K as derived from envy.

As I would extrapolate from Bion’s explanation in Learning From Experience, the abusers, instead of cultivating a superego and having a proper sense of right and wrong, they develop a “super ego,” an inflated sense of their own worth, which makes them believe they’re too superior to learn anything with regards to their relationship with their victim…a relationship of -K and negative containment.

Bion says, “It is a super-ego that has hardly any of the characteristics of the super-ego as understood in psycho-analysis: it is a “super” ego. It is an envious assertion of moral superiority without any morals. In short it is the resultant of an envious stripping or denudation of all good…” (Bion, page 97)

The negative containment “shows itself as a superior object asserting its superiority by finding fault with everything. The most important characteristic is its hatred of any new development in the personality as if the new development were a rival to be destroyed. The emergence therefore of any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality and in short to be scientific in no matter how rudimentary a fashion is met by destructive attacks on the tendency and the reassertion of the ‘moral’ superiority…” Negative containment “asserts the moral superiority and superiority in potency of UN-learning.” (Bion, page 98)

Anything unpleasant about the abusers is projected outward and onto the victim instead of properly dealt with. This is negative containment, a passing on of negative energy, not in the hopes of having it soothed, but with the aim of making others suffer it, so the abuser doesn’t have to suffer.

The abusers imagine the negativity to be all on the shoulders of the victim, so the abusers can now kid themselves that they are normal, mentally healthy, and fully-functioning, respectable members of society.

Abusers thus don’t even know they’re assholes.

That cloud of willful unknowing protects them from contemplating the truth about themselves.

Ignorance is bliss.

One way this refusal to know things shows itself is in how the abusers refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions. My mother’s lies about my supposedly having an autism spectrum disorder, described in the language of narcissism (an obvious projection of her own pathologies), resulted in the family taking the attitude it had towards me that I, with all of my own faults and peculiar childhood behaviour, was ‘born this way,’ rather than manipulated and bullied into behaving as I did.

Telling me, about nine or ten at the time, that the psychiatrist who’d examined me (or so Mom’s legend went) said I was, apart from being autistic, so extremely retarded that I should have been locked away in an asylum and they should have “thrown away the key,” my mother didn’t want to take any responsibility for the psychological damage she’d done to me. My ‘having grown out of’ this extremely inauspicious mental state was, according to her, “a miracle from God.” (She wasn’t ever religious.)

Instead of confronting how her tactless choice of words had affected the psyche of an impressionable child, she decades later modified her lie with a new and equally phoney, amateur diagnosis (in the early 2000s, when I was in my early thirties) that I have Asperger Syndrome, since it was obvious that I’ve always been far from mentally incompetent. This refusal of hers to learn from past mistakes not only proves my point about her and -K, but it was one of the things that caused my permanent estrangement from the family.

One of the other major causes of this estrangement was her insistence, back in the mid-2000s, that I–having lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996–not fly back to Canada to visit my sister and her then-terminally-ill husband because, apparently, I’m so “tactless and insensitive” that I might put my foot in my mouth and inadvertently say something to agitate and upset the already grieving couple. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to my mom that simply telling me to be careful of what I said would have sufficed; or more accurately, she didn’t seem concerned about how tactless and insensitive her own rejecting words were to me.

That infuriating, estranging incident was followed ten years later, in the mid-2010s, with a kind of reversal of roles for her and me. By this time, I’d realized just how horrifyingly habitual her lies, triangulation, smear campaigns, and divid-and-conquer tactics were that I knew I never wanted to fly home to visit her in Ontario ever again. I told her so, right after she’d told me a string of about seven lies, in a brief and blunt email. As if she’d completely forgotten having had the same rejecting attitude towards me ten years earlier, she put on this melodramatic reaction of having been so “hurt” by my email, which was really just me trying to protect myself from further mind games. Really, though, that “hurt” had just been my having caused her narcissistic injury.

Once again, she let -K come between herself and her last-born son.

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My older brother, F., used to bully and terrorize me all the time when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist studying stress in early childhood to know that bullying children will cause them to develop dysfunctional, self-isolating habits; it should be common sense that constant bullying of a child will make him or her fear the world and self-isolate in order to feel safe. Emboldened by having heard Mom’s nonsense about ‘my autism,’ F. many years later, when both he and I were adults (and he, over six years older than I, therefore should have had the maturity to know better), attributed my solitary tendencies to an intrinsic vice I’d been born with rather than admitting to himself that he had always been one of the chief causes of my self-isolating.

-K strikes again!

Similarly, my elder brother, R., and elder sister, J., said and did mean, hurtful things to me over and over again throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, never contemplating the damage they were slowly but surely doing to their relationship with me, abuse usually provoked either by relatively minor things I did to annoy them (slamming doors, eating all the cereal, procrastinating with washing the dishes, or…my idiosyncratic musical tastes, FFS!!) or the desire just to have fun making me feel worthless.

J., as the chief golden child of the family, chooses to blot out all the bad things she did from her memory because of how unflattering it is to her; on the other hand, she magnifies the significance of this or that memory of her having done favours for me, as evidence of her ‘boundless love’ for me…all to flatter herself. The fact is, people tend to remember the hurtful stuff more than the helpful stuff, by a wide margin. Still, it’s inconceivable to her, R., and F. that I would remember their majority of nasty moments over their minority of nice ones.

Because of this skewed perception of how they treated me, they’ll assume my estrangement from them is based on an ‘ungrateful attitude’ on my part, rather than my having no illusions about how ‘helpful’ they’ve all been to me. J. fancies that she, during my adolescence and young adulthood, was trying to help me build self-confidence and assertiveness skills; that she constantly spoke condescendingly to me and barked verbal abuse at me whenever I tried to stick up for myself, to silence me, makes me doubt the sincerity of her ‘intentions.’

This kind of puffing up of their pride at my expense–Mom’s amateur psychiatry, J.’s trying to remake me in her image (as Mom had done to her), and R.’s and F.’s imagined superiority to me–is what I mean when I talk about the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers.’ The more vicious abusers are, the more they delude themselves into thinking they’re being kind to their victims.

Charles Bukowski once said, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” I’d say the same thing can be said about the relationship between the smug, self-satisfied abusers and the abused, who engage in endless second-guessing.

I say it’s high time that we victims of emotional abuse stopped doubting ourselves and our experience of our tormentors. If they can be cocky and over-confident, blissfully unaware of what assholes they are, then we can be reasonably confident of our understanding about what was done to us.

Just because we may have never told our bullies that they’re assholes, doesn’t mean they aren’t assholes. Their -K, and their refusal to link their mistreatment of us to our natural, estranged reaction to them, is their fault, not ours.

We didn’t deserve to be bullied just because we may have this or that fault. Legitimate anger doesn’t translate into the illegitimacy of abuse. We weren’t bullied because of defects in ourselves, but because of defects in our bullies.

Their not knowing of their defects doesn’t make those defects non-existent. In fact, their cloud of willful unknowing is what makes their defects especially apparent.

Analysis of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’

Napoleon Dynamite is a 2004 comedy directed by Jared Hess, and written by him and Jerusha Hess. It stars Jon Heder in the title role, with Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Aaron Ruell, Jon Gries, and Diedrich Bader.

The film is based on Hess’s black-and-white short film Peluca, which also stars Heder, though his character’s name is Seth in that film. What it shares with Napoleon Dynamite is the opening scene with the bus ride to school, his friend (Giel, instead of Pedro) shaving his head, and them buying a wig (‘peluca‘) for him.

Hess insists he got the name ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ from someone he met in Cicero, Illinois around 2000, and not from what Elvis Costello equally insists that Hess–consciously or unconsciously–must have got it from: something written on the cover of Costello’s 1986 album, Blood and Chocolate, which includes the song “Poor Napoleon.”

This song, at least by its title, would seem an appropriate one to include in the film’s soundtrack, for the title character is in a pitiable situation. He is a socially-awkward nerd, breathing through his mouth, and living in a small town in Idaho. Constantly bullied and socially excluded, he finds his sole escape in fantasy: drawing ligers, mythic animals, etc.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

The film opens with the credits presented on–usually–plates or trays of food: tater tots, a burrito and rice, egg slices, a steak, chips, a school cafeteria lunch, a peanut butter sandwich and banana, and a burger and fries. The credits are presented in other things, too, like school stationery, school library books, ID cards, chapstick, and Napoleon’s fantasy drawings. Taken together, all of these things are commodities of one kind or another, representing needs to be fulfilled: hunger, education, escape into fantasy, and a sense of identity.

While we’re seeing these things, we’re also hearing the song “We’re Going to Be Friends,” by the White Stripes. This song is as important for establishing theme in the movie as is the presentation of all that food and those other commodities during the opening credits. This is a movie about the beginning of a friendship between Napoleon, Pedro Sánchez (Ramirez), and Deborah ‘Deb’ Bradshaw (Majorino).

So, how do we satisfy needs? Being fed is a need, of course, but should we expand this to a buying of things in general to satisfy such needs as improving our sense of self-worth? Or should we simply make friends? Do we reinforce the compulsion to shift back and forth between money and commodities, or do we strengthen solidarity among people?

We see Napoleon get on the bus for school one morning. He sits at the back, and after snapping at a boy who was just trying to make conversation, he takes out an action figure of a muscleman with a long, thin string attached to it, opens a window, flings the doll outside, and with the string, drags it on the road behind the moving bus.

Since Napoleon is being bullied at school, his dangling of the muscleman action figure can be interpreted as a symbolic fantasy of his; it’s him getting revenge on his tormentors, who are of course bigger and stronger than he is.

Escape into fantasy is a huge part of his life. Apart from his drawings of mythical animals, Napoleon speaks of magic and the Loch Ness Monster as if they were real. Instead of focusing on real people and things, he has his mind split between exciting fantasies and hated people that he rejects, and who reject him.

Because of the family and school environment that he is stuck in, one that largely lacks empathy, Napoleon reacts to the world in what WRD Fairbairn called the schizoid position. Instead of having a predominant Central Ego (similar to Freud‘s ego) related to the Ideal Object, which is a healthy, ideal object relationship between the self and other people, he is split between phantasy relationships of the Libidinal Ego (similar to Freud’s id) and Exciting Object (Napoleon’s mythical animal drawings, Nessie, his belief in magic, ‘medieval warriors,’ and his choice of high school princess/mean girl Trisha Stevens [played by Emily Kennard]) and of the Anti-libidinal Ego (vaguely comparable to Freud’s superego) and Rejecting Object (i.e., everybody towards whom Napoleon has such a sullen attitude).

This social dysfunction, however, is going to begin to fade when he meets Pedro and Deb. His growing friendship with them will bring his Central Ego out of its diminished, dormant state by strengthening it with his Ideal Object, in the forms of these two new friends of his.

Unable was N. ere N. saw Deborah.

…and Pedro.

(OK, I haven’t mastered the art of making palindromes.)

A similar transformation occurs in Kip, Napoleon’s even wimpier older brother, who communicates with “babes all day” on his computer (Libidinal Ego linked to the Exciting Object), and who fancies himself an aspiring cage fighter. When one of the hot babes, LaFawnduh, meets him and returns his affections, Kip builds the self-confidence he needs and goes from being abrasive with Napoleon to being nice to him.

Though similarly timid socially, Pedro is ideal for helping Napoleon to come out of his shell, for Pedro comes from a far more loving, empathic family. Indeed, having such a good family can make the suffering from bullies at school much more bearable. Though we don’t see Pedro getting bullied, his very association with Napoleon will ensure that he won’t be included among the “cool” crowd; on the other hand, he has those cousins in that car to help him, Napoleon, and another bullied kid.

Prior to this build-up of friendship, these characters have tended to resort to buying or selling things to boost their self-esteem; hence my reference to commodities (use-values and exchange values), especially food, during the opening credits, things that satisfy needs. The point of the film is that it’s the nurturing of relationships, not the buying and selling of things, that boosts our self-esteem and fulfills emotional needs–though what we buy and sell can help with such needs, provided we use our purchases well, and sell commodities and services with a good heart, as Deb does.

In his fantasies of becoming a “cage fighter,” Kip shows interest in what Rex (Bader) is offering in his “Rex Kwon Do” course, in a commercial on TV. This teaching of self-defence is one of many examples in the film of selling self-esteem. It is capitalism exploiting our insecurities. Kip comes to the conclusion–after being humiliatingly smacked around by Rex in his appropriately obnoxious American flag pants–that the course is a ripoff. Of course it’s a ripoff: we can’t buy or sell self-love–that comes from people, not money.

Elsewhere, Deb is trying to raise money for college by promoting glamour photography and selling handwoven handicrafts. Again, she’s shy, and a success in sales would boost her self-confidence, just as her failure to sell to Napoleon and Kip at first frustrates such hopes. The glamour photography, like “Rex Kwon Do,” would be an example of the profit motive taking advantage of people’s insecurities; but Deb, unlike Rex or Uncle Rico (Gries), hasn’t the narcissism to capitalize in such a way. When she takes pictures of people, she really wants to help them, including helping them to relax while posing, as she does for Rico.

Uncle Rico is the most blatant example of someone trying not only to sell people self-esteem (the breastenhancing herbs), but to use capitalism to boost his own deflated self-worth (in the form of a get-rich-quick scheme, employing Kip). Rico’s narcissism is a front he uses to hide the disappointments in his life: no longer the football hero of his youth, his girlfriend leaving him (which he thinly disguises by claiming he’s dumped her).

Rico’s pretence at still supposedly being a great football player is particularly pathetic, with his video recording of himself tossing a football around by the camper-van that is his home, and such nonsensical claims as his eligibility for the NFL and throwing a football over some mountains. He lives in as much of a world of fantasy as Napoleon and Kip do, and he is as much of a loser as those two start out as…until his girlfriend comes back to him at the end of the film.

Pedro imagines he can get Summer Wheatley (played by Haylie Duff), the snobbish school princess and head mean girl, to go out with him to the school dance by making a cake for her. Of course she won’t go out with him: even if she didn’t have sneering Don (played by Trevor Snarr) for a boyfriend, or such a bad attitude, she wouldn’t. Commodities in themselves don’t build love.

Napoleon thinks buying a suit decades out of style will give him cool points at the school dance; but even Pedro’s cousins giving him and Trisha a ride won’t make her like him. Even if he lived in a larger city, with better quality clothes to buy, he still wouldn’t be able to win respect at school. That can only come from making real friends.

Other examples of capitalist exploitation can be found in a job Napoleon gets: putting chickens in cages, for which he makes only a dollar an hour, paid to him in coins, symbolic of how low the pay is. The job is as unpleasant for him to do (i.e., his fear of chickens’ “talons”) as it is for the chickens themselves (Imagine being stuck in a cage so small that you can’t even turn around…before the farmers kill you.). Of course, his boss is kind enough to give his employees lunch: tiny sandwiches, egg slices, and a drink of raw egg yolk. Yum.

A turning point in the film happens at the otherwise depressingly dull, small-town school dance. Pedro sees a sign about the upcoming election for class president, inspiring him to run. The funny thing about such school elections, though, is what they have in common with political elections: they’re all popularity contests.

It makes no difference what a Trump or a Biden administration would do for the people (in both cases, virtually nothing for, and besides that, much against the people). It was only their levels of popularity, among shady liberals or far right-wing whack-a-doos, that determined the vote results. Both men have worked, with only slight variations between them, for the ruling class.

Summer Wheatley’s run for class president represents this kind of shallow appeal to popularity. Though what Pedro offers to improve things in their school (holy santos to guard the hallway and bring good luck? continuing the FFA competition?) can hardly be taken seriously, he as the underdog represents the wishes of a defeated people in the political world. Summer, on the other hand, offers commodities (two new pop machines in the cafeteria [and no more “chimini-changas”], glitter Bonne Bell dispensers for all the girl’s washrooms, new cheerleading uniforms).

The problem with the commodity fetishism that we see pervading this film in its various forms is how it reinforces alienation–relationships are replaced with things. We see the product in its finished form on the shelves of stores, ready to be bought or sold; we don’t see the work exerted in making it, the value put into it by workers. The commodity thus is like an idol to be worshipped, rather than a piece of wood, metal, etc. shaped into the ‘divine’ form we see in stores.

Small wonder Napoleon marvels at the “awesome” suit he’s about to buy for the dance. Small wonder he thinks the woman’s wig they get for Pedro makes him look “like a medieval warrior.” Small wonder Napoleon initially imagines Uncle Rico’s “time machine,” “bought…online,” could be anything other than a conductor of electricity.

The low quality of the commodities that are the only things available to people in this small town is symbolic of the hollow worth of commodities in general, taken for their value in themselves only. The struggle and irritation Napoleon goes through in caging those chickens–to produce the commodities of chicken meat and eggs–are a clue as to how we should think about commodities…rather than fetishizing them.

When we see how commodities can be used to help people, however, we start to see their potentially greater worth, symbolic of the value workers put into them when they make them. Pedro may look silly in that woman’s wig, but the point is that his friends, Napoleon and Deb, are helping him in picking it out. It’s the thought that counts.

Similarly, one day while Napoleon is in a store fetishizing such commodities as a fork-shaped, trident-like toy sword of some kind, he also finds and, on a whim, buys a video tape teaching dance moves. He puts his heart and soul into learning how to dance, and he’ll use this new skill to help Pedro in the nick of time.

Meanwhile, Pedro as the representative of the ordinary, not-so-cool crowd of their school (representative, in turn, of the common people of any country), has a piñata made of an effigy of Summer, who represents the popular, “cool” crowd of their school (representative, in turn, of the ruling class of any country). The smashing of the piñata, therefore, represents the revolutionary wish to defy the ruling class; and the principal’s punishing of Pedro, by removing all of his fliers to promote voting for him, represents the repression of the defiant people by the powers-that-be.

Summer and her group of “Happy Hands Club” girls dancing to the Backstreet Boys’ song “Larger Than Life” is peak superficiality in popularity, the top of the school’s hierarchy of “cool.” Not knowing until the last moment that Pedro has to have a skit ready, too, Napoleon has to think fast; fortunately, he has the mixed tape that LaFawnduh gave him to practice dancing to.

What Napoleon is about to do is a great sacrifice for a friend. With his reputation as a mega-nerd, Napoleon is taking a huge risk in front of his entire school by dancing in front of all of them on the auditorium stage, shaking his booty to Jamiroquai’s song “Canned Heat.”

Even if he’s to fail in doing his dialectical antithesis of a nerd dance, Napoleon will still be earning respect for risking being the school’s laughing stock; for the point is, he’s helping Pedro in his time of need. The smiles on Deb’s and especially Pedro’s faces show the value of what Napoleon is doing. The school’s standing ovation, another defiant rising-up against the dominant “cool” crowd, is a bonus. Don’s and Summer’s reaction–his sneering and her ‘How dare you peasants prefer Napoleon’s skit to mine?!’ frown–adds to the pleasure in its Schadenfreude.

Because of what Napoleon has done for Pedro, Deb forgives him for the “Bust Must” outrage (which, of course, wasn’t even his fault, but rather Rico’s); and Napoleon finally has someone to play tetherball with. The addition of a friend in his life spurs him to hit the ball with a skill he hasn’t generally shown up to this point.

Napoleon is late for Kip’s wedding to LaFawnduh, but for good reason: he dramatically enters the scene riding a horse, his gift to the newlyweds. Neither he nor Kip are anywhere near cured of their geekiness, but the point of the movie is that they don’t need to be. All they need is the love of their friends, and their awkwardness will fade sufficiently in time, replaced with a self-confidence that no mere commodity can give them, or anyone.

Another message of this film is that, if you’re feeling like a geek or a loser, do nice things for people. As the angel Clarence Odbody tells George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, “no man is a failure who has friends.” Kindness kills the loser, or nerd, in us in a way that making billions selling commodities, exploiting people in the process, can never do.

Analysis of ‘Freeze Frame’

Freeze Frame is a 2004 psychological thriller filmed in Northern Ireland and written and directed by John Simpson. It stars Lee Evans, Ian McNeice, Seán McGinley, Rachael Stirling, and Colin Salmon.

Sean Veil (Evans) has been falsely accused of a triple murder and, while acquitted, he is still being hounded by police and a forensic profiler who, insisting he’s guilty, want to pin the blame on him for this and other crimes. So traumatized is Veil by this continued persecution that he films himself “24/7/52,” as he says–so he’ll always have an alibi.

The film has received some praise. Critical appreciation went to Evans, who had previously played comedic roles. David Rooney of Variety said Simpson’s direction was “executed in the style of early David Fincher,” and said Evans’ performance was “gripping.” Debbie Wiseman’s score, cinematographer Mark Garrett’s choice of cameras and lenses, and Simon Thorne’s “sharp editing” were also mentioned. Kevin Crust of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Freeze Frame is a “stylish and dystopian allegory concerned with Orwellian surveillance and intrusive government.” Crust called Evans’ performance “riveting.”

Here are a few quotes:

“Off camera is off guard.” –Sean Veil

Detective Mountjoy: You seem kind of relaxed, if you don’t mind me saying. For a man who’s about to spend the next 30 years sucking unwashed dick.
Sean Veil: You seem kinda jealous, if you don’t mind me saying.

The 24/7 surveillance of the film makes comparisons with Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four inevitable. The difference is that, instead of the authorities watching everyone everywhere, and all the time, one victim is doing it to himself. BIG BROTHER IS HAVING YOU WATCH YOURSELF.

In other words, Veil has internalized his persecutors, rather like how Winston Smith is made to internalize the worldview his tormentors impose on him, and their shaming of him. The irony of Veil’s name is in how a veil hides one’s identity, gives one privacy, yet Veil would put himself permanently on display for his protection.

To make himself easily identifiable from a distance, he even shaves his head. The combination of these idiosyncrasies of his–strapping a camera to himself whenever he’s outside, his shaved head, his paranoid mannerisms, and his pale skin–make him look, ironically and in spite of his not intending it, like the kind of freak the police would want to go after.

So in Veil we see the kind of psychological damage done to a scapegoat. A man who, though acquitted, still has had his reputation and his life destroyed by the narcissism and malevolence of his persecutors, destroyed so thoroughly that his personality is transformed from normal to the quirky, socially awkward sort that makes others suspicious.

Indeed, Saul Seger (McNeice), the forensic profiler who has written a book on murderous psychopaths called Darkness Invisible, is too proud and too solicitous of the preservation of his reputation to admit even to the possibility of being wrong about Veil. He’d commit to ruining Veil’s life just so he can continue to sell books.

Seger’s narcissism is on full display when he does a public reading to promote his book…on the tenth anniversary of the triple murder that Veil’s reputation has been stained with, the killing of three members of the Jasper family (the mother and two daughters). Seger speaks with as much self-righteousness as he does would-be authority on the inner workings of the criminal mind.

Allied with Seger’s narcissism is the sheer malignancy of Detective Louis Emeric (McGinley), a malignancy so consummate that we see him physically ill, coughing blood, throughout the movie (he is dying from lung cancer). It would seem that his malevolence is turning back against him and, as a form of bad karma, making him slowly destroy himself. He is so determined to pin a crime on Veil that he boasts of the efficacy of visualization, mentally seeing Veil do something wrong to help him catch him. This is what victimizers do: project their own viciousness onto their victims.

…and when the victimizers project, they manipulate their victims into introjecting. As Seger says to Veil when the latter is protesting his innocence at the book promotion, he is in Veil’s head. This manipulative kind of projection is what Melanie Klein called projective identification, in which one does more than merely imagine another to embody one’s projections; rather, one causes the other to manifest the projected traits.

Hence, when Veil, troubled by the police in his home about a new murder accusation (that of a prostitute from five years ago), discovers certain tapes of his are missing from his vaults (i.e., those video recordings of his that would prove he has an alibi for the new murder discovery), he is forced to flee from the police, as an actual perpetrator would. Also, just like a perp, he breaks into Seger’s home and threatens him with a knife, hoping to find evidence of a conspiracy to frame him. The guilt has been projected onto him so completely that Veil is acting like a genuinely guilty man.

A young reporter named Katie Carter (Stirling) has offered to help Veil prove his innocence, though he has refused her offer, fearing that her video recording of him will be manipulated to create the illusion of his guilt. It turns out, though his own tapes (and those of someone he’s paid to follow and record him) have proven his innocence of the prostitute murder (and a faked one of Seger), that it was Carter who accidentally killed her after a failed attempt by Carter to have the prostitute steal some of Veil’s tapes in his home during an intended sexual encounter with him there. Carter thus has attempted to frame Veil, too, and she is just as untrustworthy as everyone else around him is.

Now, just because someone is scapegoated, doesn’t mean the scapegoat always acts blamelessly; and just because someone is intensely suspicious of people doesn’t mean people are not trying to persecute him. The fact is that scapegoating changes the victim, the projective and introjective identification of guilty traits makes the victim almost believe, at least partially in his unconscious mind, that he’s indeed guilty of what he’s accused of…hence, his social awkwardness, for this is what happens to you when you feel hated and despised by the whole world.

So, when we see film of him holding a pistol (not realizing at first that it’s part of a video game in an arcade), when we see a video fragment, seen out of context, of him holding a pistol he hasn’t used to shoot Seger, Emeric, or Carter (who used it to shoot these two men and herself), and when we hear him repeat, in sobs, “I didn’t do nothing” (a double negative that technically means, ‘I did do something‘), all these things come across as Freudian slips suggesting at least an unconscious belief in one’s internalized guilt.

A faked murder of Seger is set up to accuse Veil of it, since he was in Seger’s house the night before. Later, after the tapes of Veil’s hired follower provide his alibi and free him, Carter catches Seger, takes him to Veil’s home, and there with Veil, she tries to accuse Seger of killing the Jaspers (of whom she’s secretly a family member, taking her murdered mother’s maiden name to disguise her identity), since Seger had the murder weapon in his home as a souvenir.

Seger, however, insists that it was sent to his home by Mr. Jasper, her father and the real killer of her mother and half-sisters, since they were the offspring of her mother’s trysts with another man (Mr. Jasper also killed himself on learning of the acquittal of Veil, thus making him a suspect). Seger’s choice of words, in identifying the real murderer of the family, are particularly cruel. He says that the blood of the killer runs in her veins, implying she has as much of the killer instinct as her father; it’s Seger doing projective identification of his own viciousness onto her.

Now, Carter already knows what Seger has said to be true; she has just been trying to hide it. Her claiming she was sleeping over at a friend’s house the night of the killings was, I suspect, a lie. Going by her mother’s surname instead of by Jasper is a rejection of her father and his murderous nature.

Afraid of the scandalous truth of her family being made public, Carter has been trying to set Veil up with new, fabricated evidence of his supposedly murderous proclivities. Her hiring of a prostitute, Mary Shaw, in 1998, to tempt Veil with sex and have her steal some of his tapes, failed when Mary peaked in his home and saw all the cameras and newspaper clippings of murder cases in one corner of his room, terrifying her.

This collection of clippings is of unsolved cases he’s afraid of being accused of, so he must analyze them. Their being in his home is symbolic of, once again, his introjection of the scapegoating and shaming that Seger and Emeric have imposed on him. The judge threw out the Jasper case against him ten years ago because, instead of being based on hard fact, it was a matter of trial by tabloid.

So Carter’s duplicitous pretending, on the one hand, to help Veil to win his confidence so he’ll let her, on the other hand, betray him, is a case of taking advantage of an established scapegoat in order to protect oneself from such scapegoating. In dysfunctional families, one can see this kind of despicable, cowardly behaviour in golden children towards their scapegoated siblings; if one sides with the narcissistic parent against the family victim, one needn’t fear being victimized oneself.

Carter is so committed to framing Veil that, having shot Seger in the head with her father’s gun (after having thrown it into Veil’s hands so his fingerprints are on it), she knocks Veil unconscious and, when he wakes up, she’s masturbating her now-tied-up victim while on top of him so she can rape him and, once he’s come inside her, she has ‘proof’ that he’s raped her.

In this rape we have another example of projection. She’s raping him so it will seem he’s raped her: after all, sexual stereotypes are favouring Carter over Veil in this situation. With his arms and legs tied up like this, Veil is frozen in this supine, spreadeagle position on the floor, helpless in her framing of him.

It would seem fitting now to discuss the name of the film, and what it means. Apart from the obvious pun on frame (a frame of film, and Veil’s being framed), there’s also a multiple meaning in the word freeze. When the police arrest somebody, they point a gun at him and yell “Freeze!” Also, there’s one’s reaction to a danger: fight/flight/freeze/fawn.

Veil cannot fight the police and government authorities, especially without any help–they’re too powerful. He would appear to have nowhere to flee. He cannot fawn and charm people committed to hating him. So all he can do is freeze…lie there and be helpless (as he is, tied up by Carter), hoping they’ll go away one day. Those who are scapegoated often feel this helpless and disempowered; imagine how Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning must feel, accused of treason when all they did was expose the crimes of the narcissistic powerful.

To be fair to Carter, though, she isn’t as single-minded in her determination to frame Veil. She is conflicted about it, and feels some genuine remorse. She is in tears during her last moments with him. The malignancy of some victimizers isn’t as extreme as it is in others.

Emeric demonstrates the extreme of his malignancy upon entering Veil’s home one last time, assuming that Veil’s struggling with Carter over the gun is him trying to kill her, when really he’s trying to stop her from killing herself. Emeric shoots Veil in the arm, and Carter, acknowledging he’s the only innocent person in this whole affair, redeems herself by shooting Emeric before putting the gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out.

Veil has needlessly picked up her gun, weeping and saying he “didn’t do nothing.” This is yet another example of an innocent scapegoat internalizing all the guilt imposed on him. Though his three persecutors are dead, and even Detective Mountjoy (Salmon) is convinced, by Veil’s tapes, that he’s innocent, Veil ends the film still filming himself, so consummate is the scapegoat’s unconscious introjection of a guilt he shouldn’t be feeling.

Off-camera is off-guard.

Analysis of ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’

The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodálatos mandarin in Hungarian; Der wunderbare Mandarin in German) is a pantomime/ballet composed for full orchestra by Béla Bartók from 1918 to 1924. It premiered in 1926 at the Cologne Opera, in Germany. The story is based on a libretto by Melchior Lengyel. The violence and sexuality of the story caused a scandal at its premiere.

What also would have caused distaste for the audience, whom I’d presume to have been mostly conservative in their musical tastes, was the extreme dissonance of the music. Indeed, Bartók’s toughest, most dissonant music was written in the 1920s, with such pieces as his third and fourth string quartets, his first piano concerto, Out of Doors for solo piano, and his second sonata for violin and piano. At times, this music would get so dissonant as to border on atonality.

Though he insisted that his music, while using all twelve semitones, was tonal (a reaction to Schoenberg‘s atonal use of all twelve semitones), Bartók essentially abandoned the major/minor system in favour of one based on axes of symmetry. These axes are at the intervals of the diminished seventh chord; this isn’t to say that he made constant use of that particular chord, but that he would do modulations and chord changes–and use such scales at the octatonic (and its alpha chord)–based on the minor third, the tritone, and the major sixth, pivot points, if you will, which are comparable to shifts from the major key to its relative minor, and vice versa.

These–at the time, unusual-sounding–melodic and harmonic experiments, as well as the extensive influence of the folk music of his native Hungary and neighbouring countries (around which he traveled much in his younger adulthood, recording and studying the music), gives Bartók’s music its unique sound.

A few YouTube videos of performances of The Miraculous Mandarin can be found here, here, and here. A video with the score, which includes written indications of developments in the plot of the story, can be found here. And here is a link to the concert suite, which removes about a third of the score, mostly the last twelve or thirteen minutes, which musically depicts the tramps’ robbing and attempting to kill the mandarin.

Bartók insisted it was a pantomime rather than a ballet, since the only dancing in the story is supposed to occur when the pretty girl–forced to lure male victims into the tramps’ den to be robbed–seductively dances with the victims (Gillies, page 373); nonetheless, performances tend to have everyone dancing throughout–see the links above, and a few brief excerpts of performances in links given below. The pantomime begins with the chaos of the city. The orchestra assaults our ears with dissonances.

The second violins play a flurry of quick ascending and descending sixteenth notes in septuplets of G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#, up and down and up and down, the outer edges making a dissonant minor ninth. This up-and-down cycle I see as symbolic of the boom-and-bust economic cycle, a manifestation of the instability of the capitalist mode of production. Such economic uncertainty leads to an aggravation of crime, which in turn leads to the next issue.

A hectic rhythm in 6/8 time is heard with notes in minor seconds, a motif that will reappear whenever we encounter the violence of the tramps (also referred to sometimes as apaches or vagabonds), three male criminal thugs who find themselves without money and resolve to rob others, using a pretty girl to dance seductively and lure the victims in.

The brass section adds to the dissonance by imitating the honking of car horns. Flutes are now playing waves of shrill, quick chromatic notes in a manner similar to the opening second violin waves. The horns get much harsher. The violent tone of the pantomime has been established. We have in this music a vivid depiction of the neurotic, alienating, and violent modern urban world. The stage has been set for the entry of the three tramps. The curtain rises.

A tense theme is played on the violas (later taken over by the first violins) when we see the tramps; the first checks his pockets for money, and the second tramp checks the desk drawers of their den for money, of which they haven’t any. This lack of theirs gives rise to desire, which is one of the dominant themes of the pantomime, as we’ll see with the old rake, the shy young man, and especially the mandarin, when they behold the beauty of the dancing girl, who now appears on the stage.

The third tramp violently tells her to dance alluringly for any male passer-by, so they can sneak up on him and rob him. She refuses to, of course, but the tramps force her to all the same. Here we see how desire gives rise to suffering, just as lack gave rise to desire–the three go round and round in a cycle–for the tramps, lacking money and desiring it, are now exploiting her for the hopes of gain. Such exploitation is the essence of the relations between the owners of the means of production (the capitalists) and those who have only their labour to sell to survive (the proletariat).

Thus we see how the tramps, in spite of their momentary pennilessness, represent the bourgeoisie. Their den represents the land and means of production owned by the capitalist class. The girl, who can do nothing other than dance and arouse men’s lust, has only her body to sell; thus, she represents the disenfranchised working class. She is being, in essence, a prostitute for the pimp tramps (and pimps, as mafia, are a perfect metaphor for capitalists, as I’ve argued elsewhere); small wonder The Miraculous Mandarin was banned on moral grounds.

There is probably no worse example of worker exploitation than that of pimps exploiting prostitutes, something euphemistically expressed in this pantomime through the girl’s erotic dancing. Thus we can easily see why Lenin, in his agenda to promote equality for women, wanted to end prostitution.

The concert suite version of The Miraculous Mandarin cuts out a brief section of the music at around this point, at a ritardando when the girl refuses to dance for male passers-by. We hear a plaintive melody played on the first violins; then, when the tramps repeat their brutish demand of her and she, however reluctantly, acquiesces, the section cut out from the suite ends, and the discords in the music sadly begin to calm down in a decrescendo. The girl is about to do her first seductive dance.

She begins a lockspiel–a “decoy game”–by a window to attract the first victim. We hear a clarinet solo as she dances. The first victim is an old rake, who sees her and is immediately enticed by her. Musically, he is represented by trombone glissandi spanning a minor third, which is an important interval heard at various points throughout the pantomime.

A minor third is suggestive of sadness. It is significant that we hear so much of it in this piece, for it reflects the universality of suffering as experienced in the world of this story. Hearing the minor thirds in the trombone glissandi, representing the lecherous old rake, is important in how it links lack and suffering with desire, an important combined theme in The Miraculous Mandarin.

As György Kroó explains in his analysis of the pantomime: “The minor third has a special function in The Miraculous Mandarin. Because of the central role of the ‘desire’ motif this interval is the differentia specifica in the work’s score.” (Gillies, page 380)

As the shabby old rake lustfully watches her dance, she asks if he has any money, during which time we hear a flirtatious melody on the cor anglais. He replies, “Never mind money! All that matters is love.” Useless to the tramps, the penniless man is thrown out, at which time we hear the tense 6/8 motif with the minor seconds.

Part of how the capitalist class keeps the poor in control is by dividing them; one common division is made between the sexes. We’ve already seen how women are exploited and injured because of this divisive use of sex roles, in making women into sex objects. Men have their lust exploited through how society addicts them to beautiful women; and if men don’t provide money, they’re deemed useless, as the old rake is, and as the shy boy will be.

The girl returns to the window and resumes her dancing. We hear the clarinet again during this second lockspiel. The shy young man appears, and he is as captivated by her beauty as the old rake was. His shyness makes his seduction more difficult; the clarinet solo is longer and more florid.

Soon, he and the girl dance to a haunting theme on the bassoon, a melody featuring tritones, in 5/4 time, backed up by rising notes on the harp; then the theme is played on the flute, then there are crescendi and decrescendi on the clarinet, suggesting a heating-up of the dancers’ passion. Finally, the haunting theme is heard briefly on two solo violins, and finally, climactically on all the first and second violins. The boy has been successfully drawn into the den, where the hiding tramps are poised to strike.

They attack the boy, and we hear the opening 6/8 motif with the minor seconds again. The tramps learn that the shy young man hasn’t any money either, so he is quickly thrown out, too.

The girl gets ready to do a third lockspiel at the window, and we hear the solo clarinet again. This time, a wealthy mandarin appears at the door. We hear a kind of parody of a stereotypically pentatonic Asian melody here, harmonized in tritones. She is terrified of him; next, we hear three loud brass glissandi (trombones and tuba) in descending minor thirds (recall how the minor third suggests sadness, so in this moment of the tramps’ desire of the mandarin’s money, and the mandarin’s growing desire of the girl, we have desire again as the cause of suffering). The mandarin stands immobile at the doorway, and her dancing only very slowly arouses his desire.

An interesting question needs to be addressed here: why a mandarin, of all male victims, to be the most important one of the story? György Kroó explains: “The chief male figure of the pantomime, the mandarin, is not typical of modern urban society–as are all the other characters–but is a force existing outside society. He is, to some extent, an unreal and symbolic figure. It is this unreality and symbolism which lend him a fearful greatness, enabling him to stand isolated above the world of the vagabonds, and to defy them. But the mandarin’s triumph is only symbolic: he raises the girl to his own level of existence by making her aware of herself as a human being and aware of the existence of true love. For this victory, of course, the mandarin has to die, and the girl is left standing beside his body, shocked and lost in wonder, unable now by herself to progress to a better life, unable alone to oppose the evil surrounding her.” (Gillies, pages 372-373)

This “force existing outside society,” an East Asian in a European city, can be seen to personify the East Asian Third World, just as the girl represents the exploited proletariat of the First World. The tramps, representing the rapacious bourgeoisie, have failed to get any money from the men of their own society, so they must find riches from men of foreign countries.

What we see being expressed here allegorically is the shift into imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, as Lenin theorized. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall forces capitalists to seek out counteracting factors, one of the chief ones of these in the modern world being the exploitation of foreign markets. The robbing of, and violence against, the mandarin thus represents the invasion and plunder of the Third World.

We often speak of the Third World as poor, as undeveloped or underdeveloped. Actually, these countries are rich, like the mandarin who personifies them in the pantomime. It’s the people of the Third World who are poor, like the mandarin after he’s been robbed and brutalized. The Global South isn’t underdeveloped, it’s overexploited.

The China of the time that The Miraculous Mandarin was composed and premiered was similarly exploited by imperialism; but like the defiant mandarin, Mao Zedong stood up to the imperialists. (More will be said below about how The Miraculous Mandarin can be retroactively allegorized on contemporary China.)

As I said above, the girl is scared of the mandarin and runs off to the other side of the room. Much of her reason for being scared is presumably out of xenophobia and racism against Asians, a common feeling in the West, especially at that time. In the context of the allegory I’m presenting, this xenophobia is significant, for it is a kind of tragic flaw that will ensure that the girl can never escape her exploitation (refer back to the Kroó quote above).

After the loud brass dissonant introduction of the mandarin, the music dies down with the sound of minor thirds in decrescendo in the French horns (F# and A). At this point, the concert suite cuts out another short passage of the music, during which we hear cello, bass, and viola pizzicatos in the background, and the tramps push the girl to get over her fears and dance to lure in the mandarin.

The concert suite resumes with the music at the point in the story when the girl, however reluctantly, begins to dance for the mandarin. We hear flurries of shrill, quick ascending and descending notes in the piccolo and celesta, with a dark back-up in the pizzicato and arco cellos. As I said above, the mandarin’s desire is aroused much slower than that of the previous two men, but when his desire is at its peak, it’s an explosion of lust.

His intensity of passion makes us realize that the mandarin doesn’t merely lust after her. Sexual desire for her is there, to be sure, but for him to survive the lethal assaults of the tramps means that his feelings for her must be more than merely physical. He is touched by her, as I see it: he sees not only her beauty and sex appeal, but also her vulnerability and suffering because of the tramps.

My allegory can explain the transcendent nature of his desire. I say that she represents the Western proletariat; he represents the exploited Third World. Sexual union between the two thus represents the needed solidarity of the global proletariat. He wants her because he empathizes with her.

The relative comforts of living in the First World, even for the working poor amongst us, cause us to have limited revolutionary potential. The desperate poverty of the Third World, on the other hand, gives the people suffering there far greater revolutionary potential (consider that huge general strike in India to see my point).

The girl is repelled by the mandarin, just as the First World poor pay far too little attention to the suffering of those in the Third World. The mandarin’s desire for the girl grows and grows, just as the poor of the Global South, growing ever more desperate, needs the help of the First World (consider the oppression of the Palestinians to see my point).

The girl gets over her inhibitions, and she and the mandarin begin dancing a waltz whose melody is full of minor thirds and tritones. Again, we see lack and sorrow (symbolized by the minor thirds and the diabolus in musica) linked with desire (the soon-to-be lovers’ romantic waltz).

As I said above, his desire isn’t merely lust. It’s more of a Lacanian desire, the desire of the Other, to be what the Other wants, to be recognized by the Other (in this case being, of course, the girl). This wish for recognition from the Other, to be as desired of the Other as one desires the Other, means we’re not dealing with the selfish lust of the old rake or the shy young man. Those two just wanted to get from her; the mandarin wants to get and to give. This wish for desire to be mutual between the mandarin and the girl again, in the context of my allegory, represents the need for solidarity among the oppressed of the world.

The waltz that they dance grows louder, faster, and more impassioned, and the hitherto reticent mandarin suddenly goes wild with desire, terrifying the girl. He chases her all over the tramps’ den. The music gets barbarically dissonant, with pounding drums and a fugue passage representing (fittingly, given the etymology of fugue) his pursuit of the girl. He seizes her, and they struggle.

After this music reaches its most chaotic, brutal point, the concert suite ends with four bars in 2/2, and a tense chord featuring minor thirds is played three times to give the suite a sense of finality. (This three-chord repetition isn’t heard in the full pantomime performance.) It is at this point that the tramps come out of hiding and attack the mandarin. The music isn’t as loud now, but it’s still just as tense.

The tramps strip him of his riches and finery. All he can do is stare longingly at the girl. Having wondered what to do with the mandarin now that they’ve taken all of his valuables, the tramps decide to kill him. This violence against him symbolizes the plunder of the Third World, the taking of its valuable resources and the killing of anyone living there who dares to resist.

The tramps grab pillows and blankets, put them on the mandarin’s head, and try to smother him by sitting on him. After a while, they figure he must be dead and get off of him. The music softens. He’s still alive and looking at the girl. His would-be killers are amazed and horrified.

The tramps make a second attempt to kill him; this time, one of them grabs a sword and stabs him three times with it. Still, he won’t die. Still, he stares at the girl. The tramps cannot believe their eyes.

This miraculous refusal to die may remind us, in a symbolic way, of how the victims of imperialism won’t back down after being invaded. To see what I mean, look not only at the Chinese resistance to Imperial Japan in the 1930s and 40s, not only at the USSR’s successful repelling of the White Army during the civil war of around the years 1918-1921, and of the Nazis during WWII; but also look at the continued resistance to the American empire in Afghanistan and Iraq. China is a miraculous mandarin in its own right these days, surrounded by US military bases, and on the receiving end of hostility from Hong Kong and Taiwan; but China keeps getting stronger and stronger…and richer.

A third attempt is made to kill the mandarin, this time by hanging him from a lamp hook. It falls to the floor, and instead of the hanging killing him, the light of the lamp goes out and seems to be transferred onto him, for now he–always with his eyes on the girl–is glowing with a greenish-blue aura. A wordless chorus (alto and basso at first; later, tenors and sopranos will harmonize) begins singing a melody in mostly minor thirds as he glows, suggesting a superhuman quality in him.

This superhuman quality of the mandarin, with the suffering he’s being put through while cheating death, suggests a Christ symbolism for him. His hanging from the lamp can be associated with the Crucifixion, while his glow–suggesting the spiritual body of the Resurrection–and the almost angelic choral singing lend a kind of mysticism to him.

Now, when I compare the mandarin to Christ, I don’t mean the ecclesiastical Christ whose “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), He who died on the Cross to save us from our sins; rather, I mean the Jewish messianic conception–that of the revolutionary who attempted a defiance of ancient imperial Rome. This was the Jesus of such books as Hyam Maccoby‘s Revolution in Judea, in keeping with the anti-imperialist allegory I’ve been outlining here.

The desire that this messianic mandarin has for the girl can thus be associated with the sexual desire expressed in the Song of Songs, as allegorized as the love of Christ for his Church (i.e., the girl). So this mandarin, in his defiance of the brutality of the exploitative tramps (symbolic of capitalist imperialists), is making revolutionary overtures to the girl (representing the First World proletariat), hoping she’ll join him in solidarity against their oppressors (i.e., through their sexual union).

Finally, she realizes what must be done. She understands the true nature of his desires, and just as he is touched by her vulnerability and suffering under her exploitation, so is she touched by his love for her: this is the only reason she could have for doing what she’s about to do. She has the tramps untie the mandarin. She lets him have her.

Now, she satisfies his desire, but it’s far too late: the injuries that the tramps have inflicted on him can’t be undone. His wounds open, and he finally dies, with lethargic, anticlimactic music playing as he collapses on the floor bleeding, her watching in horror. This ending relates to my allegory in the following way. There is a danger in not responding quickly enough to the call for revolution in today’s late stage capitalism. The global proletariat must unite, and they must do so…fast!

As with sex roles, racism and xenophobia are used by the ruling class to divide the people. Look at Trump’s “Build the wall!” nonsense to see my point. The excessive nationalism of fascism is used to prevent international solidarity.

The girl’s xenophobic prejudice against the mandarin is what makes her take so long to unite with him. Imagine if, instead, not only were she and the mandarin to unite immediately upon meeting each other, but if they, the shy young man, the old rake, and any other men potentially tempted by her dancing, were to combine their strengths against the tramps and end their exploitation and victimization once and for all?

Selfishness and alienation are inimical to the solidarity of the people against their ultimate enemy, the capitalist class. Now that the mandarin is dead, the girl is alone against the now-monied tramps. She is in an evil trap she cannot escape.

In composing The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók was warning of the growing evils of the world. “Between 1919 and 1924, while working on this work, Bartók was experiencing a great sense of loneliness. He felt quite isolated in his efforts to warn society of the evils he could see. By setting the ‘elemental life force’ in opposition to ‘degraded emotion’, he cried ‘No!’ to the world of evil, and to the immorality of the dehumanized apaches. And as an example to those who had confidence and hope, he presented the figure of the mandarin who, like Bartók himself, is a constant reminder of courage in opposition, determination in thought and feeling–the very triumph of man.” (Gillies, pages 383-384)

Consider the evils of today’s world, the contemporary exacerbation of those Bartók had been aware of a century ago. Consider what might happen if we lack the “courage in opposition” and “determination in thought and feeling” needed to end those evils. Though the danger of nuclear war between the US on one side, and China and Russia on the other, is more than possible, all we need to do to end life on the Earth is to continue to be passive in the face of growing climate change. Then the moribund musical ending of the pantomime will express what TS Eliot once did: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Malcolm Gillies, editor, The Bartók Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1993

Toxic Families: Better Than the Scapegoat?

One of the ways that a toxic family justifies their abusive treatment of the scapegoat, or identified patient, is to characterize themselves as more moral, wiser, stronger, smarter, more mature, more giving, etc.,…you get the idea…than their chosen victim. Accordingly, they imagine that all their taunts, insults, scolding, condescension, verbal abuse, manipulation, and even physical threats are meant ‘to correct’ the family scapegoat, ‘to help‘ the victim to see the error of his or her ways.

Personally, I’d love to know how bullies, liars, and gaslighting narcissists can actually be in any position of moral authority, let alone be better than the scapegoat, however flawed he or she may be. Still, the victimizers manage to continue deluding themselves that they’re superior.

What’s worse, the victim has been so thoroughly manipulated into buying into the toxic family’s narrative that he or she constantly engages in second-guessing; for no matter how clear that narrative’s falsity is to see, the family’s constant lack of validation of the victim’s experiences of their mendacity is a blinding fog that causes endless pangs of self-doubt.

One thing to remember about the toxic family’s pretensions to moral superiority is they are just that–pretensions, an outward show meant to impress others. This is part of the agenda of collective narcissists. Such theatre is especially obvious in the family golden child, whose False Self of outward goodness is often a carbon copy of the False Self of the narcissistic parent.

I experienced emotional abuse from my family in the form of gaslighting: my late mother, who I have good reason to believe was a malignant narcissist, lied about me having an autism spectrum disorder in order to project her own faults onto me, to control me, and to undermine my ability to develop self-confidence–the link at the beginning of this paragraph gives the full story. Another form of the abuse I endured was bullying, a few examples of which are given in this link, as well as some from my elder siblings, Mom’s flying monkeys, <<<given in this link .

Then there was the family’s explosive rage and verbal abuse in response to usually rather minor offences of mine; and there were smear campaigns Mom made against me and my cousins, as well as her use of triangulation to replace direct communication between my siblings and me–that is, efforts made by my mother to divide the family against each other. Some loving family.

Because of all these awful things that she and my older brothers, R. and F., and my older sister, J., did to me, they who felt no empathy for me and rarely if ever respected my boundaries (and my siblings’ abusive actions were almost always defended by our mother, as hers were by them), I grew so fed up with them that I, like so many other family scapegoats, reduced all contact with them to a minimum by the 2010s, and since Mom’s death in 2016, I’ve had no contact with my siblings at all.

To them, my refusal to be involved in any way in their lives is further ‘proof’ that I’m selfish and uncaring, that I’m ‘crazy’ for imagining that our mother could ever have had any malignant intent or have lied to her family, and that, in going no contact, I’ve refused to respect the notion of preserving the ‘sanctity’ of the family unit.

Now, here’s a question for them: if we were to look beneath their surface goodness, would we see them as really being any better than I am (presuming I’m as bad as they say I am)? How is gaslighting and bullying a family member not selfish or uncaring? How are explosive anger and yelling verbal abuse, over usually little more than trifling offences, not at least temporary insanity (ira furor brevis est)? If accusing one’s mother of lying and abuse (charges far from being implausible) is crazy, surely blowing up at someone over minor provocations is much crazier.

And finally, and most significantly, NO CONTACT as a refusal to respect the need for family oneness is a two-way street, as far as my relationship with my family is concerned (i.e., they’ve been almost as no contact with me as I am with them…not that I’m complaining about that, of course!). Almost fifteen years ago, my mother claimed that I hadn’t “earned” the family’s respect because I virtually never emailed my siblings–R. and F. in particular–since my having moved from Canada to Taiwan.

What my mother conveniently omitted to mention is that R. and F. hardly ever emailed me, either: does this mean they haven’t earned my respect? I feel no affection at all for my “brothers” because their (and Mom’s and J.’s) constant, almost daily bullying of me as a child, teen, and young adult back in Canada, including countless examples of verbal abuse, insults, physical threats, and other demeaning acts on me alienated me from them. F., the physical abuser, could be particularly sadistic. Given this train wreck of a relationship, why would I want to communicate with them?

More importantly, the division between my older brothers and me (as well as that between me and J.) wasn’t so much to do with my faults as it was the fault of my triangulating mother, whose half-truths and verbal manipulations stirred up all the resentment needed to keep us all apart. Hence, she was being a hypocrite to blame the problem all on me.

R.’s, F.’s, and J.’s preservation of family unity is hardly any better than mine. They fancy themselves to be so much more loving to their respective families than I am to them. (Bear in mind here that I’m being charitable to them by assuming this goodness; for, since I know just how low they’re capable of being, who knows what ugly things they may have done, behind closed doors, to their kids over the years?) In fact, they’re only loving to those within their inner circle, not to those in the wider family.

Theirs is a conditional love–love for them is just obligation to care for others. They’d much rather love those family members who are easy to love, like F.’s daughter, who I suspect has been groomed to be the golden child of her generation. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an easy person to live with, let alone to love…but isn’t family love supposed to be unconditional? Safety from abusive treatment shouldn’t be dependent on being ‘easy to love.’

There are ways of expressing frustration with family members, being frankly angry with them, without being cruel or contemptuous; in fact, showing contempt towards those who frustrate you tends to increase, not decrease, the undesirable behaviour, because constantly harming people’s self-esteem puts them on a downward spiral of self-sabotage, not an upward one to self-improvement.

As they are with me, my siblings feel nothing but contempt for our cousins; for as I’ve discussed in so many previous posts (many of whose links are given above), our mother bashed her nephews constantly, and R., F., and J. uncritically accepted all of her bad-mouthing of our cousins. Our middle cousin, S., is suffering from paranoid delusions and hallucinations (probably brought on by an excessive marijuana-smoking habit, among other drug use, which he started in his teens), but the family won’t lift a finger to help him.

Helping the mentally ill is a daunting task, to be sure, but the family won’t even try; they certainly didn’t after I tried to help S. by confronting him with the problem directly, and after I begged Mom and J., in all futility, back in the mid-2010s to help him…yet I am the “self-centred” one.

If it upsets R., F., and J. so much that I have “given up on” them, if I’m such a low form of life for holding on to grudges, and if they’re so much better than I am about ‘doing what’s right,’ then why can’t they actually be the better people, and make efforts to patch things up with me? That is, not just try to suck me back into the family and treat me the same as before, but actually open their minds to my side of the story, and take responsibility for the role they played in our mutual alienation? Sometimes being better means admitting when one has been worse.

This doesn’t mean that I want them to contact me, of course; for though it’s only natural that I, like anyone, would want to heal family wounds and have a normal, healthy relationship with my own flesh and blood, I know that their trying to contact me would only be another attempt at hoovering me. It would be a formidable task for any of them–my three elder siblings, my nephews and niece, or anyone else in the family–to convince me that their wish to be reconciled with me is on the level.

Regardless of whether or not I’d want them to try to contact me, though, an effort far more vigorous than the two times J. tried to do so (after Mom’s death) would be needed for them to prove that they really care about me. It’s always only J., the golden child, who tries to fix things with me, and that’s only because Mom obligated her to be the ‘perfect daughter/sister/mother/aunt/etc.’ Neither R. nor F. will give the slightest thought to contacting their younger brother. Honouring the memory of our late Mom and Dad–and unlike me, R., F., and J. consider her memory more than worthy of being honoured–would demand a reconciliation of them with me, but they won’t do it.

As I said in my post on the coronavirus and its impact on them, they showed no interest in finding out if I’m OK. Granted, I didn’t contact them either, of course, but they’re supposed to be so much better than I am when it comes to caring for family. They’re supposed to have the maturity that I lack to rise above the long-held grudges, to be willing to do whatever it takes, and ‘to do what’s right.’

Don’t misinterpret my meaning. I didn’t want them to contact me then, and I still don’t want them to contact me now–I never will: I bring this all up merely to prove my point. They never loved me. And if I’m such a bad person for not loving them, they’re no better than I am. They’ve no right to judge me.

So if you, Dear Reader, find yourself traumatized by a toxic family that claims to love you, yet blames you for all (or most of) your family’s dysfunction, don’t let them shame you or guilt-trip you for choosing to distance yourself from them. You aren’t being selfish: you are protecting yourself.

Bullies and gaslighting, lying narcissists have no moral authority over you, no matter how much they posture as if they do. If all they ever do to you is make you feel bad about yourself, they aren’t loving. And if they aren’t loving, they aren’t better than you.

In fact, for all your faults, you’re probably better than they are.

When Toxic Families Are ‘Helpful’

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

I: Introduction

Part of the condescending attitude that toxic families have towards the scapegoat, or identified patient, is the idea that they’re ‘trying to help’ him or her. This is the lamest rationalization they can come up with when, really, they’re just trying to impose their will on their victims.

In their collective narcissism, they imagine that they have it all together, and that the scapegoat is clueless. If the scapegoat is doing something his or her bullying family simply doesn’t understand, he or she is judged rather than listened to. Not the slightest attempt is made to understand the scapegoat. It is assumed by the toxic family that the scapegoat, in his or her idiosyncratic or eccentric habits, is ‘wrong’ to be acting those ways, and therefore must have his or her behaviour ‘corrected.’

It never occurs to the family bullies that maybe they are the ones who have the problem (or at least are to a large extent the problem), and that whatever personality problems the scapegoat may actually have, that those problems were largely the result, directly or indirectly, of all that bullying (as opposed to the scapegoat having been ‘born that way’). The notion of pulling out the beam from their own eyes, so they can see clearly to help their brother get the mote out of his eye (Matthew 7:1-5), is lost on them.

This is one of the central problems I had with the five people with whom I had the misfortune of growing up in the same house. Each of them more or less had an agenda for me, something I was supposed to conform to, and when I didn’t conform, they made life very difficult for me.

II: My Parents

Though his agenda for me was quite irritating in its own right, my father was probably the least unreasonable of the bunch. At least when he tried to push me into getting a Bachelor of Commerce when I started university (at which I was failing miserably: I ended up dropping out of it half-way into my first year), his intentions were good…if misguided. He wanted me to get a high-paying job, and to do well in life. When it didn’t work out, he was disappointed, of course, but his attitude wasn’t rejecting of me as a person.

Enter my mother, whose intentions were nothing less than malignant. In her narrative about me having an autism spectrum disorder that I, about a mere ten years before this writing, learned was not only utter nonsense, but was also–a pretty dead certainty–a deliberate fabrication, she’d wanted me to be a loser my whole life, too afraid in my ‘mental disability’ to face the challenges of the world, emotionally and financially dependent on her, totally under her control. I was strong-willed enough, however, not to play that role, not to live the underachieving life she’d planned out for me.

In her lies, however, she smugly went on and on about how labelling me with classic autism (when I was a child), then with Asperger Syndrome (from about 2002-2016, when she died), was meant “to help” me. Honestly, people aren’t helped when labelled; they’re helped when listened to. And being lied to about mental deficiencies you don’t have don’t help you…they’re the opposite of help.

How is robbing someone of his confidence, from childhood to adulthood, supposed to be a form of help?

III: J.

My older sister, J., also tried to be ‘helpful.’ In her opinion, I can’t do anything right. She made it her mission to change just about everything in my personality. Apparently, I don’t dress correctly. I don’t listen to the right music. I don’t have the correct political views. Any time I express an opinion she’s never encountered before or considers odd, it’s automatically ‘wrong’ rather than an opportunity for her to see things from a fresh perspective.

Yet if I ever defend my ways with any measure of vigour, I am the closed-minded one, not her.

This snotty, know-it-all attitude of hers had a perfect rationale: she was getting me to see the ‘error of my ways.’ She has always deluded herself into thinking that what she was doing for me, back when I was living with the family in Canada, was for my own good, an act of love. As the family golden child, she felt obligated to play the role of the ‘loving sister,’ and correct my errant ways.

Her attempted ‘corrections’ of me were really a projection of our mother’s ‘corrections’ of her, since our narcissist mother manipulated her into playing the role of golden child as much as Mom manipulated me into being the scapegoat. J. mistook Mom’s mind games for love, imagining Mom was trying to make her into a ‘better’ person; for this reason, J.’s pushing me into being a ‘better’ younger brother was something she thought was an act of love, rather than a form of bullying and manipulation…just as Mom had bullied her into being the perfect daughter, a projection of Mom’s idealized version of herself. Mom’s False Self became J.’s False Self.

I refused to be an extension of J.’s ego (and of the negative side of our mother’s), as J. should have refused to be an extension of the positive side of Mom’s; but J. didn’t have the guts to refuse it, because getting Mommy’s (fake) love was all-important to J. My freedom from bullying and gaslighting is more important to me than getting Mom’s, or J.’s, fake, oh-so-conditional love.

What J. fails to understand is that this urge to change me into an utterly different–and ‘more acceptable’–person is another rejection of who I am. Love is about accepting people as they are, even though their imperfections are annoying from time to time. J.’s rejection of me, therefore, was the opposite of love. It was the opposite of helping, too.

IV: F.

Next, I must come to the attempts of my older brother, F., ‘to fix’ what was wrong with me. Now, I must confess that, when I was a child, and especially as a result of when we moved from the Toronto area to Hamilton in 1977, there was something seriously wrong with me. My family’s ‘diagnosis’ of my problems, however, was not only terribly wrong, but also to a great extent caused by them.

I can’t blame them for the move; that couldn’t be helped. My then-best friend, Neil, lived in Rexdale, just down the street from our house, and having to move away left me emotionally devastated (I was seven or eight years old at the time). On top of this, I was being bullied at school…and on top of that, I was being bullied at home…mainly–and in a largely physical way–by F.

He used to rationalize his anger towards me by claiming that he was frustrated that, in Hamilton, I made no attempts to make friends (actually, I made many attempts, but my social awkwardness made most of those attempts failures). One of the effects of bullying, as well as of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in general, is that one tends to self-isolate, to protect oneself from further bullying. It never occurred to F. that he was one of the main causes of the very thing I was doing that, so he says, was frustrating him.

His attempt ‘to help’ me go out there and make friends was to force me to play baseball. He’d throw a ball to me, and I’d swing at it with a bat. It didn’t matter to him at all that I didn’t want to play baseball. One of my bad habits at the time was engaging in maladaptive daydreaming (a self-isolating escape from reality into fantasy–a mechanism, really, for coping with trauma), something the family had every good reason in the world to get me to stop doing, but something they were going about in all the wrong ways.

Granted, I can’t expect them to have had all the answers to fix this complicated problem, but I can expect them, as my family, to have a loving enough attitude to empathize with me, to attempt to get at the root of the problem (bullying, ACE, and my traumas related to these and to the loss of Neil’s company), rather than thinking that shaming me would make me stop the maladaptive daydreaming.

Similarly, to be fair to F., I couldn’t have expected him, a teen at the time, to have had the maturity to understand that forcing me to play a sport I didn’t want to play wasn’t going to work; but I could have expected my parents to have done their job and told him that he couldn’t make me like baseball. Of course, the fact that Mom was lying to me about autism, as well as winking at almost all of F.’s bullying, should indicate that she wasn’t interested in helping me at all.

Indeed, she was cultivating the very trauma, self-hatred, and alienation that was making me behave the way I was.

V: R.

Now, my eldest brother, R., never really tried to bend me to his will, to be ‘helpful’ (the reason being that the smug egotist never gave a shit about me). He never did, that is, except for one time, when our mother was dying. (I discussed the whole story in Part 6 of this post: “Is My Mother Dead?”)

Several months prior to the story given above (and described in detail in Part 5 of that post: “More Elaborate Lies”), Mom had told me a string of about seven lies about my cousin, S., and his mother, my aunt (a more detailed account of these lies is given in this post). Understanding these stories is key to having the context behind this issue with my brother, R.

My mother had already been a proven liar with her autism and Asperger Syndrome fabrications; these two, and the seven lies told me in the late summer of 2015, were three of the eight outrages she perpetrated against me, as listed in VII: Conclusion, from this post. All of these outrages were more than enough for me not to want to talk to her on her death bed, a very mild punishment given the enormity of what she’d done to me.

Immediately after having told me those seven horrible lies by email, Mom had the audacity to pressure me into getting on an airplane and flying from East Asia (where I live and work) to Canada to visit her, because she “would love to see [me].” She expressed herself as if she’d done nothing wrong, and I was expected to snap to attention and do her bidding. By telling her in an email reply that I didn’t want to see her, nor did I ever want to communicate with her by email or phone, because of her “Lies, lies, and more lies,” I was simply trying to protect myself, but she predictably spun my response as if I’d gone crazy and had “hurt” her, a typical narc tactic.

I actually did end up talking to her–once–on R.’s cellphone while she, 77, was in hospital, dying of metastasized breast cancer. During the phone conversation, she never took any responsibility for her lies, the acknowledgement of which could have been a wonderful moment of final healing and reconciliation between us. Instead, she not only pretended she didn’t know what I was talking about by accusing her of lying, but she also laid a thick guilt trip on me for being a “self-centred” son and for having “hurt” her. Then she congratulated herself on having given me “the most love” when I was a pre-teen.

So, when she’d been lying to me, around when I was from nine to twelve years old, about an autism spectrum disorder I don’t have–using such extreme language as to say that psychiatrists had recommended locking me away in an asylum with mentally retarded people, or that I might not have even made a good garbageman when I grew up–and when she did virtually nothing to stop the bullying I got from R., F., and J., she was giving me “the most love”? I was furious.

The above is the context in which R.’s wish to have me do what he wanted should be understood. After the ordeal of having to listen to Mom talk to me that way on R.’s cellphone, I chatted with him. I tried to get him to understand why I’d been acting the way I was, in response to her lies, but of course he didn’t listen to a word I was saying (presumably imagining I was making her death ‘all about me’ instead of about her…actually, I was making it all about her). Anyway, he talked some clichéd nonsense about how ‘Mom loved us all our lives, so now it’s our turn to love her back.’

He wanted me to call his cellphone number to chat with her regularly between that time and her eventual death–an easy and perfectly reasonable thing to do, on the face of it…if your dying mother happens to have been a genuinely good one who ‘loved us all our lives,’ but in my mother’s case, I beg to differ.

Needless to say, what R. wanted wasn’t helping anybody, except her in her narcissistic schemes. This ‘brother’ of mine never showed any real interest in contacting me the whole time I’ve lived in East Asia; the only reason he wanted me to contact Mom is for the same reason the family has ever acknowledged my very existence–as an extension of them. When I never made those calls he’d requested of me, he began cyberstalking me. He had the bad luck of stumbling upon a video I’d made and posted on YouTube (under my original name back in 2009), an obscure little recitation of Philip Larkin‘s poem, “This Be the Verse.”

Now, Mom had just died, and he was very upset with my embittered recitation (a pain he could have easily spared himself if he’d simply minded his own business: he knew I was mad at Mom, so he should have known that sneaking around in my online affairs would have been like walking in an emotional minefield). Below was his snarky comment, almost a word-for-word quote, which I’ve since hidden from the YouTube page because of how triggering it is for me:

“Disturbing words from a disturbed individual with an imperfect mother who loved you more than anyone else on the planet. You misunderstand her, just as you misunderstand everyone else except yourself. Shame on you.”

Everything he said in this comment is wrong, except for the very first two words…and even their correctness is dependent on their interpretation. My words weren’t disturbing for having been crazy and way off the mark; if so, they wouldn’t have been disturbing, but easily dismissed as nonsense. They were disturbing to him because they were true. Mom and Dad really did fuck us all up, and R. doesn’t have the guts to confront the trauma we all received from our parents.

VI: Everything Wrong With R.’s Comment

As for being “a disturbed individual,” though I do believe I suffer from C-PTSD (caused, for the most part, by…which five people, I wonder?), I’m not any more inherently “disturbed” than R., or F., or J., or any other average person. Making a video in which one vents one’s frustrations against the family one has been hurt by doesn’t make one mentally ill, just emotionally scarred.

Calling her “an imperfect mother” is meaningless. Is anyone out there perfect, R.? I’m not concerned with Mom’s imperfections; I’m concerned with her lies, triangulating, smear campaigns not just on me but on our cousins, and her divide-and-conquer agenda. Loving mothers don’t do these things…period! News flash, R.: I’m “imperfect,” too; but there is a double standard in our family as to whose imperfections are tolerated, and whose aren’t.

R. has no idea who “on the planet” has loved me more or less; nor does he have any idea how much or how little our mother ‘loved’ me. All he knows is that neither he nor F. have ever loved me, or even liked me. He projects, onto the whole world, his and F.’s unbrotherly attitude towards me to justify how shitty they’ve always been to me. And incidentally, R., Dad loved me, and my wife loves me–in spite of their own frustrations with me–far more than Mom or J. ever did.

R. also has no idea of who I understand or misunderstand. I actually understand our mother all too well. R. flagrantly misunderstands me, and to this day he wilfully refuses even to try to understand me, as do F. and J., because judging me is far more fun than it is to examine how the events in my life shaped my personality. Imagining I was ‘born this way’ (i.e., Mom’s description of ‘my autism’) means they don’t have to rethink anything.

I, on the other hand, in spite of how judgemental I’m being to the five of them here (everything that goes around, comes around), have made efforts to understand what must have happened in the lives of all five of them to have made them what they were and are to each other, to me, and to our cousins. You can read about my speculations here, among other posts I’ve written on the subject.

I also never had the advantage of witnessing their early years, as they had for me. They could have, with reasonable ease, worked out the life events that made me what I am, but didn’t, not because they couldn’t, but because they never cared to try–listening to Mom’s lies about me was sufficient for them. I, on the other hand, who had virtually no first-hand material to work with, cared enough to try to construct theories about how they became so nasty to me.

To put it briefly, R., F., and J. traumatized me because Mom and Dad traumatized them when they were little. Our parents, in turn, were traumatized by such things as the Great Depression, the Blitz, and the early death of my maternal grandfather. None of them were ‘born that way.’

R.’s final remark, that I “misunderstand everyone else except [my]self,” doesn’t even make sense. People who misunderstand everyone around them are by far the least likely to understand themselves, because personality development is all about symbiotic relationships with others. Our misunderstandings of others are usually projections of our misunderstood, unexamined selves.

This overgeneralization of his, emotional rather than logical, was obviously meant as a slur on my supposed autism, defined by my family as a kind of narcissistic self-absorption. This is an outdated conception of what autism really is, and a projection of their collective narcissism onto me, the identified patient.

“Shame on you” was meant to guilt-trip me into communicating with the family and apologizing to them for expressing what I had a perfect right to express (in the video), and for establishing boundaries where I had a perfect right to establish them. This attempt at goading me into doing what they wanted me to do proves once again that their trying to be ‘helpful’ was all fake and phoney.

VII: Did Mom Really Die in May of 2016?

Here’s another thing: though I assume that Mom really died back then (the pendulum swings towards it being only probably true…I never saw a corpse!), it’s still possible that my original speculation, that her death had been faked, was at the time correct.

With the combination of everything that happened back around April and May of 2016–my being informed of my portion of the inheritance in Mom’s will, the above comment from R., an email from J. saying that I had some belongings left in Mom’s home, a notice about her funeral mailed to me (presumably with photos: I never opened the package; were the pictures of Mom Photoshopped?), etc.–it really seems as though she died, hence I said so here.

But as it says in this video, one of the ways a toxic family tries to hoover you back into the relationship is to make a false alarm (e.g., a member of the family is ‘dying’). I’m still assuming she really died back then, as the evidence still leans that way. In any case, if she hadn’t died in the spring of 2016, she’s probably dead by now (i.e., having died at around the age of 80), from old age and a ‘broken heart’ from my having gone NO CONTACT. Incidentally, I will not be held responsible for a ‘broken heart’ that she’d brought on herself with her lies and manipulation.

Now, if the family had been faking her death back in the spring of 2016, if they had been lying to me about her worsening health–right after I’d accused her of lying, which they, of course, dismissed as nonsense right as they were engaging in further deception of me–then they are even more reptilian than I’d originally understood them to be, and my actions are all the more justified.

To my knowledge, assuming the above is true, they haven’t tried any more stunts on me since then…thank the gods for that.

VIII: Conclusion

Anyway, in sum, these examples that I’ve given should help you understand, Dear Reader, that toxic families don’t help you in any way, in spite of their claims that they do. They don’t help you get better work. They’re unfit to diagnose you with any mental condition. Their bullying doesn’t encourage you to make friends–the trauma it causes does the opposite of that. Their constant criticisms destroy your self-esteem, making it all the harder for you to thrive in life. And they can’t reunite a family–literally–to save anyone’s life.

Now, I know that I’ve said a whole lot of harsh things about my family, and perhaps, Dear Reader, you’re finding my harshness rather grating; but try to understand the pain and hurt they caused me…for decades, without any sincere expression of remorse. When one has that much pain bottled up inside oneself, one can’t help but spew rage against one’s victimizers over and over again.

This leads me to my next point: my repetition of largely the same incidents, over and over again, after having discussed essentially the same things in so many previous posts. Part of my purpose in all of this repetition is a processing of my pain through writing therapy, a putting of trauma into words. It is part of the process of healing, and if you have gone through the same kinds of things, I recommend doing this kind of writing again and again, to heal yourselves.

Analysis of ‘Deliverance’

Deliverance is the 1970 debut novel by American poet James Dickey. It was made into a 1972 film by director John Boorman, starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox.

Four middle-aged men–landlord/outdoorsman Lewis Medlock (Reynolds), graphic artist Ed Gentry (Voight), salesman Bobby Trippe (Beatty), and soft drink company executive Drew Ballinger (Cox)–spend a weekend canoeing up the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness…only their imagined fun-filled weekend turns into a nightmarish fight to survive.

Deliverance is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Boorman’s film adaptation–with a screenplay by Dickey–has also been highly praised, earning three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing) and five Golden Globe Award nominations (Best Motion Picture–Drama, Best Director, Best Actor [Voight], Best Original Song, and Best Screenplay).

Here are some quotes from the film:

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything…A couple more months, she’ll all be gone…from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.” –Lewis

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That’s right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it’s there.
Griner: It’s there all right. You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna wish it wasn’t.

Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby[about the rapids] Yeah, we beat it, didn’t we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don’t beat it. You never beat the river, chubby.

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.
Ed: Well, the system’s done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Bobby: It’s true Lewis, what you said. There’s something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn’t lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I’ll say one thing for the system. System did produce the air mattress, or as is better known among we camping types, the instant broad.

Mountain Man: What’s the matter, boy? I bet you can squeal. I bet you can squeal like a pig. Let’s squeal. Squeal now. Squeal. [Bobby’s ear is pulled]
Bobby: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Mountain Man: Squeal. Squeal louder. Louder. Louder, louder. Louder! Louder! Louder! Get down now, boy. There, get them britches down. That’s that. You can do better than that, boy. You can do better than that. Come on, squeal. Squeal.

Mountain Man: Whatcha wanna do with him?
Toothless Man[grinning] He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?
Mountain Man: That’s the truth.
Toothless Man[to Ed] You’re gonna do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.

Lewis: We killed a man, Drew. Shot him in the back – a mountain man, a cracker. It gives us somethin’ to consider.
Drew: All right, consider it, we’re listenin’.
Lewis: Shit, all these people are related. I’d be god-damned if I’m gonna come back up here and stand trial with this man’s aunt and his uncle, maybe his momma and his daddy sittin’ in the jury box. What do you think, Bobby? [Bobby rushes at the corpse, but is restrained] How about you, Ed?
Ed: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Drew: Now you listen, Lewis. I don’t know what you got in mind, but if you try to conceal this body, you’re settin’ yourself up for a murder charge. Now that much law I do know! This ain’t one of your fuckin’ games. You killed somebody. There he is!
Lewis: I see him, Drew. That’s right, I killed somebody. But you’re wrong if you don’t see this as a game…Dammit, we can get out of this thing without any questions asked. We get connected up with that body and the law, this thing gonna be hangin’ over us the rest of our lives. We gotta get rid of that guy!…Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Drew: How do you know that other guy hasn’t already gone for the police?
Lewis: And what in the hell is he gonna tell ’em, Drew, what he did to Bobby?
Drew: Now why couldn’t he go get some other mountain men? Now why isn’t he gonna do that? You look around you, Lewis. He could be out there anywhere, watchin’ us right now. We ain’t gonna be so god-damned hard to follow draggin’ a corpse.
Lewis: You let me worry about that, Drew. You let me take care of that. You know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake – as far as you can see hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake, think about something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Man, that’s about as buried as you can get.
Drew: Well, I am tellin’ you, Lewis, I don’t want any part of it.
Lewis: Well, you are part of it!
Drew: IT IS A MATTER OF THE LAW!
Lewis: The law? Ha! The law?! What law?! Where’s the law, Drew? Huh? You believe in democracy, don’t ya?
Drew: Yes, I do.
Lewis: Well then, we’ll take a vote. I’ll stand by it and so will you.

Ed: What are we gonna do, Lewis? You’re the guy with the answers. What the hell do we do now?
Lewis: Now you get to play the game.

“Drew was a good husband to his wife Linda and you were a wonderful father to your boys, Drew – Jimmie and Billie Ray. And if we come through this, I promise to do all I can for ’em. He was the best of us.” –Ed

Sheriff: Don’t ever do nothin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.
Bobby: You don’t have to worry about that, Sheriff.
Sheriff: I’d kinda like to see this town die peaceful.

The film begins with voiceovers of Lewis and the other three men discussing their plan to go canoeing up the Cahulawassee River while they still have the chance (i.e., before it gets dammed up), with visuals of the construction workers beginning work on the dam. The novel, however, begins not only with Ed, as narrator, and the other three discussing their weekend plans, but also with his experience as the co-owner of a graphic art business/advertising agency, Emerson-Gentry.

He describes a photography session with a model wearing nothing but panties with the brand name of “Kitt’n Britches.” She is made to hold a cat; he gets turned on watching her holding one of her breasts in her hand while posing for the photo shoot. This scene gives us a sense of how he, as the co-owner of this business, is a capitalist exploiter enjoying his job ogling a pretty, seminude model. He isn’t completely comfortable with treating her like an object, though.

Indeed, one gets a sense that Ed is a sensitive liberal, with mixed feelings about the shoot: “I sat on the edge of a table and undid my tie. Inside the bright hardship of the lights was a peculiar blue, wholly painful, unmistakably man-made, unblinkable thing that I hated. It reminded me of prisons and interrogations, and that thought jumped straight at me. That was one side of it, all right, and the other was pornography. I thought of those films you see at fraternity parties and in officers’ clubs where you realize with terror that when the girl drops the towel the camera is not going to drop with it discreetly, as in old Hollywood films, following the bare feet until they hide behind a screen but is going to stay and when the towel falls, move in; that it is going to destroy someone’s womanhood by raping her secrecy; that there is going to be nothing left.” (pages 20-21)

All the same, towards the end of the novel, after he has returned from the ordeal of the canoeing trip, Ed–a married man with a son–takes the model out to dinner a couple of times (page 277).

His dishonesty to his wife, Martha, combined with his having lied to the Aintry cops about the deaths on and near the river, gives off the impression that Ed is an unreliable narrator (I’m not alone in this opinion: check Germane Jackson’s comment at the bottom of this link.). There is a sense that this story is much more wish-fulfillment on Ed’s part than a straightforward narrative. He wants to portray himself as a rugged hero, his nightmarish battle with nature a proving of his manhood.

This last point leads to one of the main themes of the novel: masculinity and its fragility. Lewis is Ed’s ideal of manhood, metaphorically a mirror to his narcissism. Now, while Drew’s loyalty to the law (his last name, Ballinger, sounds like a pun on barrister) suggests to Ed a sense of moral virtue (Drew is later deemed “the best of [them],” after his death), he hasn’t the manly strength Ed admires so much in Lewis. This lack of manliness is especially apparent in Bobby, the one who gets raped by the mountain man. Bobby’s surname, Trippe, is apt, for it suggests his awkwardness and ineffectuality.

Even Lewis’s supposed masculine perfection is compromised, however, when he breaks his leg, forcing Ed to be the hero. In this predicament we see Ed’s wish-fulfillment of having a chance to be like Lewis: his arduous climbing up the cliff and killing the toothless man (or so he thinks) are like a rite of passage for him. Without this test of manhood, Ed’s just a mild-mannered “city boy.” His surname, Gentry, suggests this softness.

Ed’s admiration for Lewis borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, the homoerotic, with a passage in which Ed describes Lewis’s muscular, naked body with awe: “Lewis…was waist deep with water crumpling and flopping at his belly. I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off.
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines, for most of those fellows are short, and Lewis was about an even six feet. I’d say he weighed about 190. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seems made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. You could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises–and how much dieting–had gone into bringing them into view.” (pages 102-103)

Since Ed’s wish-fulfilling narrative is unreliable, we can see the rape of Bobby as, in part, the projection of an unconscious wish on Ed’s part to be done by Lewis. Recall also that the arrow Lewis shoots into the back of the mountain man has not only saved Ed from having to perform fellatio on the toothless man, but also avenges Bobby’s rape, since Lewis’s phallic arrow rapes, if you will, the mountain man.

One’s sense of masculinity is assured in our society by winning in competitions of one sort or another. This competitiveness ranges everywhere from Ed’s life-and-death struggle to kill the toothless man to Drew’s innocuous duet with Lonnie on the guitar and banjo, respectively.

In the novel, the two musicians begin by playing “Wildwood Flower” (pages 59-60). In the film, of course, it’s the famous–and aptly named–“Duelling Banjos.” They smile at each other as they play, while all the other men around, local and visitor alike, enjoy the impromptu performance. One of the locals even dances to the tune; but when the competing musicians finish, and Drew wants to shake hands with Lonnie, the latter coldly turns his head away.

Part of the sense of competition is a belief in the supposed superiority of oneself over one’s rival. Accordingly, the four visitors tend to have a condescending attitude to the impoverished locals, who in return are gruff with them. Since I consider Ed to be an unreliable narrator (In Voight’s portrayal of him in the film, as well), his encounters of the inbred among the locals could be his imagination, another way for him to see himself as superior to those around him…except for Lewis.

Ed muses, “There is always something wrong with people in the country…In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis.” (pages 55-56)

These four visitors are men with money, generally owners of businesses and private property, thus making them at least petite bourgeois; their social status contrasts them with the poor, working-class locals in this rural area near the river. To the locals, it will feel as if the four men are intruding on their territory, comparable to Western imperialists coming into and taking over the Third World. After all, competition over who gets to control land, resources, and the means of production is what capitalism is all about; and between the building of the dam (page 123) and these four intruders, the rural locals have a lot to be annoyed about.

The four men imagine they aren’t doing anything wrong because they don’t know what it’s like to live on a barely subsistence level: the rural locals do know that experience, and they resent richer people coming into their area and thinking they can do whatever they please there.

Since Ed is telling the story, he is going to portray himself and his three friends in the best possible light, and portray the locals in the most unflattering way possible, too. For this reason, we should take his narration with a generous grain of salt, and seriously consider what possible details he’s leaving out: the goodness of the locals, and the wrongs that he and his friends have quite possibly, if not probably, done to the locals.

Part of how Ed’s narration is distorting the facts is how he’s projecting his and his friends’ faults and wrongdoing onto the rural people and their setting. In the film, while the four men are camping at night, Lewis suddenly wanders off because he thinks he’s heard something (i.e., is somebody stalking them?). In the novel, Ed thinks he hears a man howling before going to sleep in his tent. Then he dreams about the model in the Kitt’n Britches panties being clawed in the buttocks by the cat. Then he wakes up, turns on a flashlight, and sees an owl with its talons on the tent…is this meant to be an omen, or just him projecting his own ill will onto his environment? By his own admission, “There was nothing, after all, so dangerous about an owl.” (pages 86-88)

Ed shares such fears with us in order to make himself and his friends into the victims, to conceal the fact that they’re actually the victimizers, covering up their murders of the mountain man and toothless man while trying to win the reader’s sympathy.

Interspersed sporadically throughout the novel, oblique and metaphorical references to war and imperialist concepts can be found by the careful reader. Examples include Ed calling his employees his “captives” and his “prisoners” (page 17); there’s the above-mentioned reference to “prisons and interrogations” and to porno films watched in “officers’ clubs” (page 20); when he and Lewis drive off from Ed’s home to go on the canoeing trip, he speaks of himself and his friend as seeming like “advance commandos of some invading force” (page 35); when he reaches the wilderness and gets out of the car, he looks in the rear window and sees himself as a “guerrilla, hunter” (page 69); when the four men have pitched their tents, Ed feels “a good deal better,” for they have “colonized the place” (page 83); he and his friends would “found [a] kingdom” (page 103); according to Lewis, the locals consider anyone outside the rural area to be unwanted “furriners” (pages 123-124); Ed confesses, “I was a killer” (page 173); later, he muses how “It was strange to be a murderer” (page 232); he speaks of the river “finding a way to serve” him, including collages he’s made, one of which hangs in an employee’s cubicle, “full of sinuous forms threading among the headlines of war” (page 276); finally, Lewis makes a reference to “Those gooks” (page 278).

All of these quotes taken together suggest that this 1970 novel, taking place mostly in the wilderness and involving the killing of two local men, as well as the apparent shooting of Drew, could be seen as an allegory of the American whitewashing of such imperialist wars as those of Korea and Vietnam. The above-mentioned quotes can also be seen as Freudian slips, meaning that Ed has repressed possible traumatic war experiences, making them resurface in the unrecognizable form of a weekend canoeing…except the quotes give away what’s really happened.

In this reimagined scenario, Lewis as the outdoorsman, survivalist, and Ed’s macho ideal, is the squad commander, barking orders at Bobby in their shared canoe. Ed is second-in-command, a former officer in one or two wars, I suspect (hence his reference above to “officers’ clubs” watching porno films), as Lewis was. Bobby and Drew are the weaker, less-experienced NCOs.

The Georgia wilderness symbolizes the jungles of Vietnam and wilderness of pre-industrialized Korea. The river can symbolize either a path our four ‘troops’ are walking on; or the Mekong, once controlled by the French; or it could be a river like the Nung River that Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) would go on in Apocalypse Now; or it could be compared to the river that Marlow‘s steamboat goes on in Heart of Darkness. The weekend canoe trip, then, is symbolically an imperialist intrusion into an impoverished land whose people would free themselves from colonialism, if only they could.

Ed doesn’t tell the story anywhere near like my interpretation, though, because he’d rather portray himself and his friends as the victims, and depict the two men they have murdered as the victimizers. Western propaganda similarly portrayed North Korea and North Vietnam as the communist aggressors, and the American military as the heroes attempting to bring ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Koreans and Vietnamese. We’ve all heard these lies before, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and endless propaganda against the DPRK.

Hollywood has made movie after movie about the suffering of American soldiers in Vietnam, while giving short shrift to the suffering of the Vietnamese; also, they tend to make the Americans into the heroes and stereotype the Vietnamese as villains, prostitutes, backward peasant farmers, etc., though some films are better, or worse, than others in this regard. Similarly, though M.A.S.H. vilified Koreans far less, their experience is no less marginalized or stereotyped in the movie and TV show. This misrepresentation and marginalizing can be seen to be paralleled in Ed’s negative portrayal of the locals, and in his unreliable narration of the rape and sniper passages in the novel and film.

Anyone who has done the research knows that the US escalated the Vietnam war, rationalizing American military aggression with the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, then committed such atrocities as the My Lai massacre, napalm attacks scarring such locals as Phan Thị Kim Phúc, as well as the troops’ widespread raping of Vietnamese women. The rape of Bobby and the near-sexual assault of Ed, apart from being the homoerotic projections I described above regarding Ed’s feelings about Lewis, can also be seen as projections of Ed’s own guilt, symbolic of the guilt of American soldiers in such places as Korea and Vietnam.

For here is the core of Ed’s trauma, as I see it: it isn’t so much what the rural locals (in my allegory, the North Koreans and the Vietcong) may have done to him, but the guilt of what he and those with him did to them. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to repress the memories, to transform them into an unrecognizable fake memory (his and Lewis’s crimes reimagined as acts of self-defence), and to project his own guilt onto the locals (i.e., those inhabiting the Georgian wilderness symbolizing the Koreans and the Vietnamese as victims of US imperialism, as I’d have it.)

And instead of being a villain who murdered locals, Ed can fancy himself and Lewis as heroes, avenging a rape, and climbing a steep cliff and saving his friends from the toothless sniper…if that’s even the man Ed has killed!

Ed’s ogling of the Kitt’n Britches model during the photo shoot, and especially his dream of the cat clawing at her ass, can be seen as symbolic of rapes and prostitution in Korea and Vietnam, censored by his superego to make them less anxiety-provoking. The fact that he thinks of her on several occasions while in the Georgian wilderness, which as I mentioned above is symbolic of the jungles of Vietnam, even further solidifies the symbolic link between her and the sexual exploitation of Korean and Vietnamese women and girls by US troops.

By now, Dear Reader, you may be skeptical of my imposing of US imperialism onto this story. There is, after all, not a shred of proof anywhere in the novel or the film that Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are vets of the Korean or Vietnam wars. But consider the alternative. The novel was published in 1970; the film came out in 1972. The story takes place more or less in the present (i.e., at that time), or maybe a year or two before. There is no indication of it happening at a far earlier time, so we can only assume it takes place some time between 1970 and 1972.

In the novel, the four men are middle-aged. In the film, though, they are considerably younger, between 33 and 36, going by the actors’ ages at the time (Voight’s having been 33), or perhaps a few years older. Some of the motivation for having younger actors may have been because moviegoers prefer to sympathize with younger, better-looking people; but Ned Beatty’s character doesn’t need to be younger, and nor does Ronny Cox’s. Burt Reynolds’s character is 38 or 39 years of age (page 6), only a few years older than Reynolds was at the time. If we imagine the film’s characters to be in their late 30s, then all four of them may have been drafted into the Korean War, twenty years earlier.

My point about the novel as allegorical of a whitewashed imperialist war experience isn’t dependent on whether or not these four men actually served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but their involvement in them isn’t to be ruled out, either, just because it isn’t mentioned in the novel. Lewis, at the age of 18 or 19, would have been drafted into the Korean War in 1950, ’51, or ’52; and Ed (in his late 40s in the novel), Bobby, and Drew must have been drafted, at ages between their late 20s and 30, in 1950, because in that year, all men between 18-and-a-half and 35 would have had to sign up.

The men may also have joined voluntarily for service in the Vietnam War (at least two thirds of those who served were volunteers). They’re too straight (15b definition) and bourgeois to be the draft card burning type (their higher socio-economic status, education, and ages in the mid-Sixties would have presumably made them officers). For men of their age, the patriotic American, anti-commie type would have been standard enough of an attitude to make them likely to have volunteered.

Even though it’s never mentioned, I’d say they must have done tours of duty in Korea. Though they were too old to have been drafted into serving in Vietnam, they would have been the right age for Korea. At least Ed would have served in Korea, since Lewis (his macho ideal), Bobby, and Drew may be figments of Ed’s imagination, transformations in his unconscious mind of old army buddies. If Lewis isn’t an imaginary character, his rugged, outdoorsman, macho personality would likely have made him want to sign up for Vietnam.

Ed’s never mentioning having done any service in the Korean War, then–apart from it having been too distant a memory to preoccupy him consciously–can easily be attributed to repression, while those indirect and metaphorical references to war, colonialism, and imperialism can be seen as fragments of Korean (or possibly also Vietnam) War memories slipping out. Given the year that the story is set in, and that the four men were young enough and sufficiently able-bodied in the early 50s to have served in Korea, I’d say that, if anything, it’s harder to believe that they haven’t served than that they have.

The trauma of Ed’s guilt and his fight to survive the ambushes of the wartime enemy are enough to force him to bury the pain in his unconscious and to have it reappear in a much less painful form–a weekend canoe trip gone horribly wrong, with him killing only one man instead of many Koreans (and possibly Vietnamese), with his and Lewis’s two killings remembered as acts in self-defence, as “justifiable homicide” rather than as a string of wartime atrocities.

And instead of Ed witnessing–and allowing–the multiple rapes and prostitution of Korean (and possibly also Vietnamese) women, his unconscious transforms these into one rape of one of his buddies and an attempted sexual assault on himself, a projection of his guilt turning the victimizers into the victims.

And instead of Ed and his fellow officers (Lewis, Bobby, and Drew, by chance?) raping and/or enjoying the sexual services of a number of Korean (and maybe Vietnamese) prostitutes, Ed can imagine it was really just him ogling a model wearing nothing but panties (recall the mountain man in the film saying to Bobby, “Them panties, take ’em off,” and “get them britches down”) during a photo session that reminds him of being in an officers’ club watching a porno (page 20); then later, he dates her behind his wife’s back.

Instead of being guilty of terrible crimes, it turns out that Ed was just a little naughty. That’s not so bad, is it? This is his “deliverance” from a much more terrible trauma. Even when he makes love to his wife, Martha, he fantasizes about the model and her “gold eye” (page 28). Fantasizing about making love to her, instead of raping her, is his “deliverance” from guilt, for “it promised other things, another life.”

Ed’s difficult climb up the cliff is described in sexual language: “…I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. And yet I held madly to the human. I looked for a slice of gold like the model’s in the river: some kind of freckle, something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.” (page 176)

Later, Ed says, “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to fuck it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight…If I was discreet, I could offer it a kick or two, even, and get away with it.” (page 177) This aggressively sexual language, once again with a reference to the model (previous paragraph), is another example of the symbolically imperialistic rape of the land the visitors have imposed on the locals.

Yet Ed is mostly preoccupied with describing the difficulty of the climb, especially for a man with aches and pains all over his body, as for example, here: “My feet slanted painfully in one direction or another. Guided by what kind of guesswork I could not say, I kept scrambling and stumbling upward like a creature born on the cliff and coming home. Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up. There was nothing it could do against me, in the end; there was nothing it could do that I could not match, and, in the twinkling of some kind of eye-beat. I was going.” (page 177) His description of his battle with nature is thus more of him twisting things around and making himself the victim, and his surroundings the victimizer of sorts. It’s also him glorifying himself as a conquering hero, overcoming the cliff, and worthy of Lewis’s admiration.

When Ed shoots his arrow into the hunter he believes to be the toothless man, he falls from the tree he’s been hiding in and stabs another arrow into his side (pages 192-193). His aim of the arrow is shaky in the extreme, as you can see in Voight’s aim in the movie; his aim was just as shaky as when he shot at and missed the deer (page 97). This shakiness is to give us a sense of the “I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” that Ed is somehow an unwilling murderer, to win our sympathy.

Ed describes himself as coming to be at one with the man he’s about to kill: “I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me; an indifference not only to the other man’s body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” (page 180).

Ed stabbing himself with the second arrow when hitting the man with the first reinforces this sense of oneness with his victim. Later, Ed gets mad at Bobby, and says in the narration: “I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man,” (page 201) this urge to point the gun at Bobby being once again Ed’s identification with the toothless man. Since, right or wrong, he imagines his victim to be the toothless man who was about to make him suck his cock, Ed is again projecting his own violent attitude onto his victim. As with Lewis shooting an arrow into Bobby’s rapist, Ed is raping his victim with his own phallic arrow.

As with the mountain man put in the ground (which will later be under water once the dam has been built–page 275), this new victim has to be buried in the water. These two burials symbolize guilt repressed into the unconscious. That repressed guilt, however, resurfaces in an unrecognized form; in the first of these cases, it’s the rapids that throw the men out of their canoes, destroying one of them and breaking Lewis’s leg. In the second case, recall the very end of the film.

Lewis insists that Drew has been shot. Ed isn’t so sure of this, especially when he finds Drew’s body and sees the bloody injury on his head. Is it the grazing of a bullet, or is it from his head having cracked against a rock? (page 217) He says he’s never seen a gunshot wound; maybe as an officer, he was behind a desk the whole time in Korea, or maybe he wasn’t all that close to the enemy he was shooting at…or maybe he’s lying again.

Since Drew was outvoted in the decision to bury the mountain man, he may have fallen out of his canoe not from having been shot, but from emotional exhaustion at having done something his conscience could not bear. Certainly that’s how it looks when we see Cox’s face before he falls out of the canoe in the movie; we don’t see his body jerk from having been shot.

If Drew hasn’t been shot, then Lewis’s insistence that he has–coupled with Ed’s determination to kill a hunter who, possibly if not probably, isn’t the toothless man–is yet another example of these men projecting their guilt outwards; the same way American imperialists in Korea and Vietnam were projecting their quest for world dominance onto those ‘commie reds.’

Lewis’s preoccupation with survivalism fits well in the context of my allegory, since he imagines all of civilization crumbling, necessitating man’s survival in the wild; the succumbing of civilization to nature here symbolizes the the capitalist West succumbing to communism. Cold War fears were like that back then. “Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive,” Lewis says in the film. As we know, though, it is nature that succumbs to civilization when the dam is built…and we all know who won the Cold War.

As Ed, Bobby, and Lewis are coming out of the wilderness and approaching a populated area, Ed must construct a plausible story and make sure that Bobby’s and Lewis’s accounts of it don’t contradict each other’s or Ed’s. As he says of his and Lewis’s crimes to Bobby, “we’ve got to make it unhappen.” (page 210)

This lying is, of course, necessary to avoid getting charged with murder by the local sheriff (in the film, played by Dickey), whose deputy, Queen, already suspects Ed of wrongdoing. Similarly, the US has avoided being held responsible for its war crimes by whitewashing history and portraying itself as “exceptional” and ‘defending the free world.’

Now, lying to the police about the supposed innocence of him and his friends isn’t enough to ease Ed’s mind; to assuage his conscience, he must alter the whole narrative and make himself and his friends seem as innocent as possible. This is why I believe he is an unreliable narrator.

He cannot deny that he and Lewis have committed deliberate murders; to claim to have killed men they haven’t would go against the tendencious bias of the narrative. So instead of denying murderous intent, they must rationalize the murders as acts of self-defence.

Though in the film, Ed has “got a real pretty mouth,” according to the toothless man, who happens to be ogling then 33-year-old, handsome Jon Voight, in the novel, Ed is supposed to be in his late forties, at an age far less likely to have “a real pretty mouth.” Similarly, the mountain man would have to have more than unusually perverted tastes to want to sodomize an obese, middle-aged man who “squeal[s] like a pig.”

When people are proven liars, anything they say is suspect; everything they say after having been found out as liars is doubted until strong evidence is provided that they’re telling the truth. It would be far more believable to imagine the mountain man and toothless man wanting to beat up and/or kill Ed and Bobby (for their insulting remarks about making whiskey–page 109) than it is to believe they’d want to rape them.

To be sure, it’s far from impossible to believe Ed’s and Bobby’s attackers really rape them; it just isn’t all that likely, and given Ed’s propensity to lie, that makes sexual assault all the less likely. What’s more, since he and Bobby look down on the locals as inbred ‘white trash,’ the way racist US troops looked down on East Asians as filthy, uncivilized ‘gooks,’ Ed’s portraying of them as loathsome rapist perverts is a perfect way to scorn and vilify the mountain man and toothless man, thus making it easier to kill them.

Here’s another point: of what relevance to the main narrative on the river is Ed’s preoccupation with a model wearing nothing but pretty panties? With so many references to her while in the wilderness, what’s the point of her involvement in the story other than to reinforce our sense of Ed’s sexual obsessions, manifested also in his description of Lewis’s body and in his ‘making love’ with the cliff? This is why I suspect that the rape of Bobby and near sexual assault on Ed are just projections of Ed’s own aggressive sexual feelings.

One of the tag lines of the film is, “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?” I’d say that that’s a good question. We, the readers, and we who saw the movie, don’t really know what happened: we only know Ed’s version of the story. We know he killed a man, one who may well not have been his attacker. We know Lewis killed a man. We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not these homicides were justified.

Ed has to change their story when he learns that the cops have found the busted canoe, or parts of it, further back down the river from where Ed and Bobby have claimed that it crashed (page 245). This means more lying.

Ed claims that his fascination with the half-naked model is because of a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye (page 22), rather than with the contents of her Kitt’n Britches. We’re supposed to buy this. He takes her out to dinner a few times (page 277), then loses interest in her (Remember, he’s a married man with a son.). Really? He never took her to bed? He’s clearly trying to make his lust seem as harmless as possible. The connotations of his surname, Gentry, seem to have less to do with him (a capitalist) being a gentleman than they do with the notion of gentry as an upper social class.

Indeed, the fragile masculine ego, with its incessant need to compete with and outdo other men–in sex, in fighting, and in skillfulness in general–is bound up with competitive capitalism and class conflict, especially in its modern, late stage, imperialist form. This is partially why I link the Korean and Vietnam Wars to this novel. War is the ultimate struggle of man against man, and of man against nature, as seen in Deliverance.

By the end of the novel, the dam is up, and the river is now Lake Cahula (page 277). Drew and the men he and Lewis have killed are “going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.” (page 275) Ed can sleep better now. The bodies are further and further buried under the water, symbol of the unconscious.

Yet as I said above, whatever gets repressed always resurfaces. Dickey ends his novel peacefully, with Ed’s loss of interest in the model (an interest that was tied up with the river [!]), with him still practicing archery with Lewis, with Bobby moving to Hawaii, and with real estate people and college-age kids showing an interest in the Cahula Lake area as a place to live (page 278).

The film, however, ends with Ed waking up from a nightmare in which the hand of the toothless man surfaces from the water, a clear return of the repressed. In the novel, Ed can’t sleep because he’s looking out his bedroom window, wondering if a car is going to arrive on his driveway with a warrant for his arrest (page 273).

Even in the novel’s peaceful ending, the careful reader can sense a continued intrusiveness on the Cahula Lake area. Real estate people want to seize the area for private property. Young high school grads are thinking of living there. Lewis, in discussing Zen and archery, says, “Those gooks are right.” (page 278), an oblique reference, in my opinion, to the imperialists’ racist attitude to the people of the East Asian countries they’ve bombed, napalmed, and raped.

Our memories of the atrocities committed in the Korean and Vietnam wars are similarly fading into oblivion, thanks to whitewashing and repression. But it all comes back, however indirectly, in new forms…as it has over the years in continuing threats to the DPRK and China. We’ll just have to wait and hope for a deliverance from those threats.

James Dickey, Deliverance, New York, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1970

Analysis of ‘The Last of Sheila’

The Last of Sheila is a 1973 murder mystery film written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, and produced and directed by Herbert Ross. It stars James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett, James Coburn, Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welsh.

Sondheim and Perkins were inspired by the scavenger hunt games they used to play with their friends back in the late 60s and early 70s, the kinds of games we see Clinton Greene (Coburn) play with his guests in the film–Philip Dexter (Mason), Alice Wood (Welsh), Lee Parkman (Hackett), Anthony Wood (McShane), Christine (Cannon), and Tom Parkman (Benjamin)–aboard his yacht on the French Riviera. These games involve searching around such places as hotels, etc., to find clues to solve tricky mysteries.

But the game Clinton wants to play–“The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game” (named after his late wife [played by Yvonne Romain], a Hollywood gossip columnist who was mysteriously killed, a year before the film’s main action starts, by a hit-and-run killer…one of the guests on Clinton’s yacht)–involves real pieces of gossip about his guests, embarrassing secrets that, in some cases, provoke a guest or two to try to murder him.

Here are some quotes (WARNING–SPOILERS AHEAD!):

“Sheila. Sheila, come on back!” –Clinton

“What do you mean, what do I mean? This is the same b-group that was at your house the night Sheila got bounced to the hedges.” –Christine, on the phone with Clinton

“Darling, I must hang up now. One of my cast is peeing on my leg. Something Garbo never did, even at her moodiest. Bye now.” –Philip, with a little girl sitting on his lap

“Who did this room? Parker Brothers?” –Lee, on entering Clinton’s yacht

“What a game! And now, Tom gets to write it; Philip gets to direct it; and what’s-her-face, I mean, ah, my new client, Miss Alice Wood, gets to thrill you as Sheila Greene. Who rose from call girl to columnist… Ha-ha-ha.” –Christine, to Tom and Lee

“Well, I’m thinking of calling it…don’t be shocked, now: The Last of Sheila. Fox is interested, Paramount‘s interested. The perfect woman’s picture. Every bit as big as Love Story.” –Clinton

“Do you think we’ll ever hear the last of Sheila?” –Lee

“There’s nothing worse than a hustler with bad timing.” –Christine, on Anthony’s failed attempt to be made an associate producer for Clinton’s ‘Last of Sheila’ film project

Christine: [while suntanning] I have to do 25 minutes on my stomach.
Alice: To make up for the 25 minutes you spent on your back, last night?

Christine: I’m here because I’ve got a client to keep, and one to get. What’s your excuse?
Lee: I’m trying to hold on to a husband… who’s trying to hold on.
Christine: With your money?

“Honey, would you drop me down a Tab? My mouth is so dry, I feel like they could shoot ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in it.” –Christine

Clinton Greene: [Gesturing to a small island not too far from his yacht] You like it? [They all look, while Clinton beams proudly] I love it. Tiny, tiny islands fascinate my ass. I’ve got this crazy broker in London that sends me these brochures on all the islands for sale all over the world. Little impoverished islands. A few thousand dollars cash, and you’re practically king to six shepherds and their families. Or whatever. I read every word on every island. Then you know what I do? I tear them neatly in half and drop them in the wastebasket. Then I say to myself…
Christine: [interrupting] I’m still weak, Clinton, but I’m eating solid food.
Clinton Greene: I say to myself, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s to have my island speech interrupted.” [continues] I say to myself: “No, you poor people… you don’t deserve a good king like me.” That’s what I say!

Lee: Have I ever told you how sweet you were to me, when I was a child?…at Daddy’s legendary Sunday lunches.
Philip: I can still see you on Olivia de Havilland‘s lap.
Lee: It’s funny, you know, she was one of the few people that Sheila ever had anything good to say about.

“Just enough time for me to get dressed as a catamite, if I knew what it was.” –Christine, waiting to get ready to play the game and search for who has the ‘HOMOSEXUAL’ card

“Do you think there’s a homosexual aboard the yacht?” –Lee, asking Tom

“It was more than a game. It was a private joke.” –Tom

“It was an accident! It was an accident, I swear, Clinton! I was DRINKING!” –Lee

“The last of Sheila should be an A. Hit and run doesn’t begin with an A, does it, Tom?” –Philip

“I don’t have any gloves.” –Tom, with puppets on his hands, ready to strangle Philip

“Dictate it tomorrow when you can get a secretary. You know, he killed her, she killed him.” –Christine, just after Tom’s attempted murder of Philip

“Well, I think I’ll turn in. I’m almost dead on my feet. So much to do tomorrow and still a few pages to type tonight.” –Philip, implying a warning to Tom not to make a second attempt to kill him

“In these perilous times, one can’t be too careful.” –Philip

“Honey, let me hit you with a couple of names. Yul Brynner is Clinton. Paul and Joanne as Tom and Lee! I know, I hope it has enough content for ’em. Who have I got for Alice? Oh, I know, Carly Simon. I mean the soundtrack album alone will pay for her clothes. Now, now don’t scream. Virna Lisi. No, darling, as me!” –Christine

Beyond being a witty murder mystery (which generally got positive reviews, such as this one by Roger Ebert), The Last of Sheila is also a satire of the sins of bourgeois liberal Hollywood. We’re dealing here with people who are proud and narcissistic, who enjoy spreading rumours about the faults of others. They pretend to be progressive, but really it’s all about raising their social status, trying to get back on top, not wanting to be has-beens anymore.

Sheila, who has bashed people time and time again in her gossip column over the years, doesn’t take it as well as she dishes it out; so after hearing an unwelcome remark from Clinton during a conversation at a party in the Greenes’ home in Bel Air, she storms outside and walks it off in her neighbourhood that night. A driver who is obviously extremely inebriated slams into her, kills her, then drives away. The driver’s identity isn’t known…until a year later, when Clinton invites his guests to his yacht on the Mediterranean to play his new game.

He also wishes to begin a new film project, The Last of Sheila, and is offering his guests jobs in it. Alice is an actress; Tom is a screenwriter frustrated with only doing rewrites of others’ work; Anthony is Alice’s husband and manager, and hopes to be an associate producer for the new film; Christine is a talent agent; Philip is a “has-been” director; and Lee, Tom’s wife, is…well, rich.

All of these guests have truly gossip-worthy faults, each of which is suggested as they are introduced at the beginning of the movie. Alice is seen in a gift shop, looking at things she seems tempted to sneak into her purse and walk out with. Tom is seen in a photo with Clinton, the two men seeming a bit too close and familiar with each other. Anthony, taking Alice away from annoying reporters, knocks one of them down. Christine is seen in her office, her gossipy mouth rattling off like a machine gun. Philip, directing a commercial with a group of cute little girls, has one of them sitting on his lap. Lee is seen with a drink in her hand; surprisingly, it’s just ginger ale.

One recurring theme in this film, apart from the obvious one about gossip, is that of the stark difference between appearance and reality. Those who seem good are actually bad, and vice versa. Be leery of those who would seem sleuths, when in fact they’re, in varying degrees, the guilty.

Similarly, though Clinton is offering his guests jobs for his new Sheila movie project, he’s actually exploiting their desperate need and hope to get back in the good graces of the Hollywood power establishment. He is thus the quintessential capitalist, knowing he can taunt them again and again, and get away with it. He is thus also the typical unlikeable murder victim.

Clinton’s very game for them to play involves “six pretend pieces of gossip” that are all very real, but not given to those who are guilty of those embarrassing secrets. (More spoilers ahead!) It’s his fun way of making his guests squirm.

The embarrassing secrets are printed on small, white rectangular cards saying, “You are a…SHOPLIFTER, HOMOSEXUAL, EX-CONVICT, INFORMER, LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER, and ALCOHOLIC.” These secrets thus are presented as labels, suggesting that each person guilty of such a secret is perceived as having his or her whole identity bound up in that label, when actually, these are just things that each of them at one point in his or her past was guilty of.

Alice was caught shoplifting back when she was a teen, and Philip bailed the pretty girl out…then he did other things with her. Tom, actually married to Lee and having an affair with Alice, had a brief gay fling with Clinton after Sheila was killed. Anthony has twice done time for assault. Christine gave some names to the HUAC. Lee “was AA for a while.”

So Clinton’s game, on the surface, is just a fun scavenger hunt to amuse his guests during their vacation in the south of France. But just as the job offer in the movie project–with better billing for those who score better in the game–is just what the guests need to repair their damaged careers and reputations, while it’s really just Clinton exploiting their desperation, so is the game a sadistic exploitation of their insecurities. What seems good is really bad.

Now, are any of those secrets damaging enough to their reputations to be a motive to murder Clinton? During the day, in between the nights of the hunts for the owners of the SHOPLIFTER and HOMOSEXUAL cards, Clinton and his guests are all either on the yacht or swimming by it (in the latter case, Clinton and Christine). Clinton is especially loud out there, taunting Tom and Philip about their flagging careers, while Christine alternates between singing and calling out to Vittorio (played by Pierre Rosso), the captain of the yacht’s crew, each member of which wears a white T-shirt with SHEILA printed on it.

Someone turns on the yacht’s propellors, almost killing Christine, who’s unlucky enough to have been floating too close to them. There’s no reason for anyone to want to kill her: as she herself later observes, they aren’t in Hollywood, where her informing ruined the careers of many. Clinton must have been the intended target, given what a few guests have already surmised about the cards’ secrets.

But which of the guests has a secret embarrassing enough for him or her to want to kill Clinton before it is outed? Philip’s having helped out teen Alice…in more ways than one…is a strong motive, but then there was that hit-and-run killing of Sheila.

Someone will demonstrate that strong enough motive to murder Clinton during the scavenger hunt on a small island with a castle in which a group of monks once lived, centuries ago. Indeed, Clinton et al will be wearing monks’ robes as they search for clues to determine who has the HOMOSEXUAL card.

What’s interesting about the monastery scene is how it symbolizes what I said earlier about seeming good while secretly being sinful. According to a brochure read by Anthony, the monastery was inhabited by “perverts, onanists, catamites, and other riff-raff of the day.” Seeming devotees to God were really engaging in sexually transgressive behaviour, hence Clinton’s choice of the island for the hunt for the owner of the HOMOSEXUAL card.

Clinton and the others will wear monks’ robes, symbolically hiding their sins in holiness. Clinton’s “island speech,” given earlier on his yacht, demonstrates the narcissism of the capitalist who would imperialistically buy and own an island, but then decline to, feeling he’s too good to be the king of the lowly, poor inhabitants of that island.

In this castle of supposed holiness, the murder is committed, the ultimate contrast between seeming saintliness and actual wickedness. Furthermore, there’s the contrast between the apparent murder of Clinton (his face bashed in with a large candlestick while he sits in the priest’s box), and his actual murder (having been stabbed from behind with an ice pick).

Back in the yacht the next day, after discovering Clinton’s body, him apparently killed from a loose rock having fallen and hit him on the head, there is the first of two solutions as to how he was really killed, and by whom. This solution, provided by Tom, is the seeming explanation, as opposed to the actual solution given by Philip at the end of the movie.

The contrast between what seems to be and what is is made especially clear by what a nice man Tom seems to be, the clever sleuth, and the man he really is, as discovered at the end of the movie: not so nice, and not all that clever, either.

An example of how Tom can make himself into the ‘nice guy’ is by claiming that Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card applies to him. Of all the six cards, this one is the least damaging to one’s reputation (the fact that the screenwriters were both LGBT men helps in this regard). What’s more, Clinton, surely aware of how the gossip would fly out everywhere, seemingly isn’t worried about people finding out about his gay affair with Tom; we even see him caress Tom’s cheek publicly, on the yacht, when telling him that his card would be played out last, on Saturday.

As of the beginning of the 1970s, progressives in significant numbers were no longer joining conservatives in regarding homosexuality as a vice. We can see the Hollywood liberal hypocrisy here as evident in Anthony’s reaction to Tom’s claim to that card. By claiming the HOMOSEXUAL card, Tom is “in the clear”: he needn’t fear the nastier labels of the remaining cards.

Why does Tom have “the exclusive right to that card?” Anthony angrily asks. When Tom, in his answer, implies the possibility that it could also apply to Anthony, the latter senses a slur on his manhood–hence the hypocritical Hollywood liberal attitude to homosexuality: ‘it’s OK to be gay, but don’t call me one.’

As we go through who lays claim to the other cards–Alice, after being pressured by Tom, irritably admits to being the SHOPLIFTER, and Christine to being the INFORMER–the tension builds. The tension is especially high, since Tom has revealed that his card says, “You are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER.”

It’s implied that Tom has been hoping to label Anthony with this card, and thus to make him seem Clinton’s murderer; certainly this is what Anthony thinks Tom is doing. But Anthony triumphantly claims the EX-CONVICT card, leaving the LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card for Philip, and HIT-AND-RUN for…

Lee tearfully breaks the tension by admitting that when her car hit Sheila, she was “too drunk to drive.” She also believes that, after confronting Clinton in the priest’s box and begging him to stop the game (with a confused look on her face from hearing Clinton’s voice cruelly refusing to stop, but also from seeing his motionless body in the darkness, his lips not seeming to be moving, either), she accidentally killed him by smashing open the door to the confessional and hitting him in the face with that big candlestick.

So, the guilty party seems to have been sought in Anthony, but has been found in Lee, who, sobbing, leaves the others, taking with her a bottle of Jim Beam, and goes off to her cabin to drink her guilt and shame away. Later, she is discovered in the bathtub with slashed wrists.

Remember, though, that nothing is as it seems in this movie. Anthony may have a criminal record, but he is guilty of no wrong-doing in this story. The murder mystery only seems to have been solved. Tom has come across as a nice guy, and as gay; but he’s actually having an affair with Alice, and with Lee dead, Tom is free to have Alice and to inherit Lee’s estate of $5,000,000. Finally, we are only assuming that Lee has slashed her own wrists.

It’s far less unpleasant to think that the deaths of Sheila and Clinton Greene are the result of accidental killings, and that Lee’s death is a tragic suicide brought on by overwhelming guilt, than it is to contemplate that these deaths (at least two of them) were deliberate murders. The real killer of Clinton, imitating his voice in the confessional when provoking Lee, is projecting his murderous intent onto her by pretending she cared only about the damage to her car when it hit Sheila.

Given the nasty gossip that Sheila was spouting over the years in her column, much (if not almost all) of which must have inspired Clinton’s gossip cards, Lee’s not having seen Sheila when she hit her could have been unconsciously motivated, a Freudian skid, if you will.

Removing the exploitative Greene dynasty, so to speak, from the lives of the guests on the yacht (not the mention Clinton’s crew) might have been more liberating had the ‘removers’ shown more solidarity and comradeship. Instead, their motives are of pure selfishness: they’ll all make the Sheila film without Clinton, Tom will get Alice as well as Lee’s money, and none of them will have to put up with Clinton’s verbal bullying anymore.

In the end, the character with by far the most shameful secret–LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER–is the one to get to the truth of what has happened to Clinton and to Lee. Philip learns that the killer dropped a cigarette in the priest’s box, making Clinton bend down to get it while the killer pulled out an ice pick and stabbed Clinton in the back. The killer then imitated Clinton’s voice, fooling Christine and Lee.

Next, Philip discovers a photo, put in plain view on a wall by the yacht bar, of all six guests meticulously posed by Clinton under the letters of SHEILA as painted on the side of his yacht. Philip is under the S, Alice under H, Lee under E, Anthony under I, Christine under L, and Tom under A. Philip also remembers that on the first day, Clinton said they don’t have to move (e.g., search around the city or the monks’ castle to find the clues to everyone’s cards) to play the game…if they’re smart enough.

Philip also remembers that Tom crumpled his card on the first day, while his HIT-AND-RUN KILLER card is not crumpled. The first hunt was for Philip’s SHOPLIFTER card, and the second hunt was for Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card. These two initial letters spell out SH, leading Philip to speculate that Lee’s EX-CONVICT card, Anthony’s INFORMER card, Christine’s LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card (the redundant word LITTLE was needed to provide the L)…would spell out SHEIL…

But then there’s Tom’s…HIT-AND-RUN KILLER? The last of Sheila should be an A, not an H. Then we recall Tom’s crumpled card, which actually was ALCOHOLIC, a most fitting secret for Lee. Tom thus is the murderer of both her and Clinton.

Now, even though Philip has proven to be the truth-telling sleuth of the movie, this doesn’t mean that he’s completely innocent, either. Never is what seems to be true actually the truth. He is the one, by his own admission, who turned on the propellor while Clinton was splashing about in the water beside the yacht. Tom, meanwhile, had Guido (played by Serge Citon) to vouch for his alibi, and thus Tom could be encouraged to carry on with his own murderous plans after Philip’s failure.

Just before Tom attempts to kill Philip, he says that Clinton’s crew are all ashore celebrating the death of their boss (i.e., no one is onboard to stop Tom from killing Philip…or so Tom thinks). But of course the killing of Clinton can in no way even symbolize a socialist revolution (Clinton’s crew are really no better off now than they were before); a bourgeois has killed a bourgeois, and Philip, Christine et al are going to get rich making Clinton’s film without him.

Instead of seeking justice for Clinton and Lee, Philip and Christine (the latter having come up from her cabin on the yacht and, just in time, interrupted Tom’s attempt on Philip’s life) decide to blackmail Tom into using all of Lee’s money to finance the Sheila film. Tom won’t even get to write the screenplay: Philip wants the first draft to be written by an outsider. Tom will have to do rewrites again. What’s more, Philip that very night will type up a sealed letter to his lawyer–to be opened in the event of his death–exposing everything Tom has done, if he ever tries to kill Philip again.

The violence we see in this movie, that of bourgeois against bourgeois, shows not only the hypocrisy of the narcissistic Hollywood liberal–who would seem to be doing right, but who in reality is as exploitive as any other capitalist–but also the poisonous lack of solidarity between people. There isn’t even a sense of loyalty in the guests’ marriages, with these adulterers and adulteresses.

All these narcissists care about is rising up, so they have no qualms about stepping on others, in the forms of murder or gossip, to achieve their ascent. Small wonder we hear Bette Midler‘s song “Friends” as an ironic ending to a film with so much alienation in it.

You gotta have friends, Tom.

Tom had some friends, but they’re gone…

‘Pointy Sticks,’ a Short Prose Poem by Cass Wilson

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, whose work I’ve looked at before, has recently published this new prose poem on her Spillwords page. Let’s take a look at it. Again, I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Pointy Sticks

Incessant pointy sticks, endlessly poked at her through the bars of her self imposed prison.
She grabbed at the earth, pushing it inside the wounds, foolishly thinking if she could fill the holes left by the sticks, then she’d be complete once more.
But one stick was replaced by two. Then four. Then multiplied until she was just a hole herself. Nothing left of her but a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.
The other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee, both simultaneously; just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.

And now, for my analysis.

The “incessant pointy sticks” can be seen to represent a number of things. Since they’ve “poked at her,” they can easily be seen to be phallic, the poking thus symbolic of the sexual abuse (I certainly hope, for the writer’s sake, that this isn’t meant to be literally autobiographical!) of a woman. Her pushing of the earth “inside the wounds,” suggestive of an introjection of the mother goddess in the hopes of healing, is an attempt to heal the injured female of the wounds of male dominance.

Another way to think about the pointy sticks is to think of them in terms of projective identification, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion expanded on through his theory of containment. Normally, in a healthy mother/infant relationship, the mother is a container of her baby’s anxieties, frustrations, etc., taking in those harsh emotions (the contained), detoxifying them, then returning them to the baby in a form it can tolerate, thus soothing it. (Click here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

The container is given a feminine symbol, suggesting a yoni, and the contained is given a masculine, and thus phallic, symbol. So containment, or projective identification as a primitive, preverbal form of communication between parent and infant, can be seen as symbolized by the sex act, with energy passing from one person to the other, then back again.

The problem arises when this containment is negative. Instead of leading to a soothing of one’s anxieties, a processing of trauma, in negative containment, seen in abusive parent/child relationships, the pain is intensified; this is what we see described in this prose poem. The pointing sticks are phallic daggers causing yonic wounds in the poet’s body, a symbolic rape.

Healing from such trauma isn’t a simple matter of appealing to the mythological feminine. One tries to rid oneself of the pain by pretending it isn’t there, and so one never frees oneself from one’s “self imposed prison.” It’s self-imposed because one isn’t doing what one must do to free oneself, even though one knows one must heal the pain by confronting it, by feeling it.

The pointy sticks are like the heads of the Hydra, for when one cuts a head off, it is “replaced by two.” When one cuts the two off, then there are four. Since the sticks are phallic, cutting them off–castration as symbolic of hating men–isn’t the solution, for however justified women’s anger is at the all-too-typical male attitude, hating men leads to an even more intensely misogynistic reaction from them. Whatever we send out there, karma brings back to us.

Please don’t confuse what I’ve said above with victim-blaming; I’m not trying to judge women for being angry with men, something they very, very often have a perfect right to do. This isn’t about passing judgement; it’s about finding real healing.

Ending male dominance must be dealt with more subtly, in a manner that makes an ally out of a former enemy; otherwise, the female sufferer will be nothing but a giant yonic dungeon of her own pain, of her own making, “a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.”

Part of how negative containment intensifies pain, turning anxiety into what Bion called a nameless dread, is the use of projective identification to eject parts of the self out into the external world in an attempt not to have to deal with the parts of oneself that one doesn’t want to accept. These ejected parts are the “other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee.”

If one ejects too many of the undesirable parts of oneself, one feels oneself to be disintegrating, suffering psychological fragmentation, leading to a psychotic break with reality. Narcissism can be a dysfunctional attempt to protect oneself from this kind of fragmentation, the danger of an underlying borderline structure, as Otto Kernberg has observed.

Those ejected parts of herself “just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.” Those ejections, accumulating over time, result in the fading away of the self, a gradual disintegration. The projected parts that float away become what Bion called bizarre objects, or hallucinated objects felt to be in the external world but which are imbued with characteristics of one’s own personality.

One cannot rid oneself of pain by projecting it outwards. The broken pieces must all be put back together. Instead of division and fragmentation, there must be oneness. Splitting must be replaced with integration of one’s good and bad internal objects (e.g., the internalized ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad father’ of the psyche), or reparation–a shift from what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position.

The broken-off parts must be freed of their incarceration, from one’s “self imposed prison.” One’s solitude, or hiding from the world, gives an “illusionary safety,” but it will never give one lasting healing. True healing comes from connection with others, from a communal love.