The Highly Sensitive Person

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how I suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a family whose members have had, in varying degrees, narcissistic traits of at least significant, if not pathological, levels. Because of my trauma, I as a child acquired a number of dysfunctional habits, including maladaptive daydreaming.

Instead of feeling empathy for me, and using such empathy to direct and motivate her towards getting to the root cause of my problems, my mother–the head narc of the family–claimed that psychiatrists who’d examined me diagnosed me with autism. Now, she’d described this “autism” in such extreme language that I find totally implausible. She claimed that the psychiatrists who’d examined me as a little kid had said I was, apart from being autistic, mentally retarded and that I should be locked up in an asylum, throwing away the key!…and by a “miracle from God,” I grew out of this extreme mental condition!

Combining the above with observations made by two psychiatrists I saw a few decades later, each of them concluding after examining me over a period of months that there were no signs of autism in me, and with far-too-low scores I got on the “Autism Quotient” test, I can say that my mother’s version of events were, to say the least, totally unreliable. To say the most, she was outright lying to me.

That she was lying to me I find to be the only logical explanation for her claims; the purpose of the lies was, as I see it, not only to project her own narcissism onto me (she tended to go by an old definition of autism as meaning ‘excessively self-absorbed,’ like narcissism), but also to avoid taking responsibility for the effects of the childhood bullying I’d suffered, at its core, from my elder siblings, against whom I, as a little boy, was helpless in a power imbalance.

In other words, the autism label was meant to indicate that I was ‘born that way,’ rather than correctly describing my maladaptive childhood habits (self-isolation, talking to myself, etc.) as trauma responses, as attempts to self-soothe and ease my anxieties. In point of fact, my real mental condition is C-PTSD, brought on by all that emotional abuse, bullying, belittling, and gaslighting.

Now, as true and valid as all of the above is, it doesn’t mean that I can’t locate any source of these dysfunctional behaviours as my having been ‘born that way.’ I’m convinced that there’s a particular, innate psychological condition that I have that’s contributed to these problems of mine in a significant way.

I am a highly-sensitive person (HSP).

I consistently get high scores on HSP tests. HSPs react more intensely to external stimuli, including discomfort and pain, than the average person. We’re also more empathic that most people (though being an empath and an HSP aren’t necessarily the same thing); we tend to internalize what’s around us more, including criticisms. Bullies can smell such traits in HSP children, and they’re quick to take advantage of our disadvantage.

Narcissistic mothers tend to make their sons and daughters play roles: the golden child (my elder sister, J.), the lost child (arguably, my elder brothers, R. and F.), and the scapegoat, or identified patientme. The narc mom chooses her golden children and other flying monkeys (all three of my sibs) based on how well they’ve learned to please her, or to give her narcissistic supply. She chooses her scapegoat based on how much narcissistic injury and rage the kid(s) cause(s) her.

Very often, that narcissistic injury and rage are caused not so much by how blunt or sassy the child is to her, but rather by that child’s display of qualities the narc mother knows she can only fake: sensitivity, empathy, and a sincere wish to confront and do away with wrongdoing, which includes phony displays of virtue…a narc’s special talent.

You see, the thing about the scapegoat, or identified patient, or black sheep–whatever you want to call the unfavoured family member–is that this person is the one who can see through all the family bullshit. He or she has the sensitivity to be able to tell the difference between real and fake love. For if the charade of love that is performed before our eyes is real, then why do we scapegoats get so short-changed?

It’s not as though we have a monopoly on human fault: the golden and lost children have plenty of faults of their own; but a double standard is clearly at play here–the flying monkeys’ faults are usually swept under the rug, as are the narcissistic parent’s faults, while those of the scapegoat are put under a magnifying glass. Not exactly fair, is it?

I’m not denying that I have faults; I have a whole slew of them (just ask my wife). The problem is that the family treated my faults as if they were the essence of who I am, rather than something that I have, just a few facets of the totality that I am, among other facets raging from neutral to quite good. And when you focus on the negative in somebody, you bring out that negativity all the more.

The scar to the narcissist’s ego, at the sight of the empathy and sensitivity of the target of his or her rage, comes from envy. The narcissist can’t bear to see another with virtues that he or she can only pretend to have, and narcissists are known for envying others, while imagining that others envy them (i.e., this envy is projected onto others). Hence, the narcissist feels a consuming need to destroy those virtues in the target, to create the illusion among everybody that the sensitive person’s empathy doesn’t exist.

Remember that in the narcissist’s world, appearance and reality are confused, swapped, even. So if the narc can make him- or herself look kind, generous, thoughtful, and altruistic to the public, while making the HSP seem self-centered and indifferent to the suffering of others, then he or she has come as close to reality as needed. One of the crucial manipulative tactics that the narc uses is projective identification, which goes beyond usual projection’s mere imagining that one’s own traits are in others, but which manipulates others into manifesting those projected traits, creating the illusion that the others really have those traits while the narc never had them at all.

I believe that my mother, with her flying monkeys’ help, did this kind of projecting onto me…and she did it with remarkable success! Any inclination in me to want to help others, or to connect with others, was crushed in me, suppressed, denied, and discouraged. To allow me to demonstrate such inclinations would make me step out of my assigned role as family scapegoat; I’d no longer seem “autistic,” and Mom couldn’t tolerate that!

When someone believes that he or she has this or that kind of personality, he or she will behave accordingly. To ensure that I behaved in a self-centered or uncaring way, Mom had to drill into my head the belief that I have such vices. So instead of telling me that I needed to change from my selfish ways, she just said that I am selfish…as if the vice were an absolute, unchanging trait in me, never to be corrected.

If I tried to do good, the family would twist things around so it would look as if I meant to do wrong. I’ll give a few examples, stories I’ve discussed before (links above), but I’m repeating them here to illustrate this point.

Over thirty years ago, it was my mother’s birthday, and I was having difficulty finding a suitable gift to buy for her, so I was late with it. My good intentions would have been clear to her and my sister, J. (I’d spoken to them of how I’d searched all over the city, with no luck), but J. decided to act as though I’d made no such efforts. After all, only the physical appearance of a gift matters, not the thought behind it. And besides, J. had to demonstrate as the golden child that, by having given Mom a gift on time, unlike me, the scapegoat, she was a better daughter than I was a son.

I gave Mom a birthday card, which she received warmly. I was anxious to buy her a gift as soon as possible, so as to avoid being late with it (it was her birthday that very day!). J., however, decided to interpret my intentions as me just wanting to get the buying over with, so I could enjoy the rest of Mom’s birthday as a “me-day,” to use J’s words (actually, since J. had already given Mom a gift, she was now free to get together for a dinner date with a woman-friend, to have a “me-day” of her own!).

I went to J. and joked about the card I bought Mom as a kind of “down payment” on her gift, since Mom warmly said she didn’t mind the gift being a little late. But J. got all snooty with me for being late with it, and this provoked me into getting into a fight with her. In response to J.’s ‘Thou shalt not be late for Mom’s birthday’ attitude, I inadvisably said, in all sarcasm, “…and a birthday is this god we have to worship!”

I meant this remark not out of disrespect to Mom, but to point out how needless J.’s insistence on standing on ceremony was. Nonetheless, Mom, overhearing what I’d said, took my words as disrespectful, and she blew up, shouting a barrage of four-letter verbal abuse at me. I immediately realized my verbal faux pas, and fell over myself trying to apologize, saying I never meant to hurt her…to no avail, of course.

Looking back on what happened, I have the creepiest suspicion that both Mom and J. had set me up to be the scapegoat for a forgetting of the birthday that, in fact, Dad and my brother, F., had actually forgotten. You see, J. had known that I was trying to find a suitable gift, since I’d asked her a night or two before Mom’s birthday what I should buy. J. knew I’d never forgotten, but she acted as if she thought I had.

And how could Mom have gone from a whisper to a scream like that, from so warm to so psychotic–so quickly? I suspect that Mom, in a private conversation with J. prior to the incident, lied to her about me ‘forgetting’ along with Dad and F.; and J., like a good flying monkey, just went along with the charade, because Mom wanted her to do so.

Another occasion when my good intentions were twisted into bad ones was when–again, about thirty to thirty-five years ago–all the staff of my parents’ restaurant, Smitty’s Pancake House, closed it up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (Mom and Dad were on vacation at the time) because some fumes…or something, I don’t quite remember now…were making the cooks too sick to work. F. came home that day and asked me why Smitty’s was closed. I simply explained what happened, matter-of-factly.

Apparently, I should have answered his question with all manner of histrionics, for F. told me that the way I’d answered his question sounded as if I didn’t care about the sick staff. His claiming that I don’t care about anyone but myself had been his favourite excuse to bully and harangue me at that time (i.e., over those past several years), and the fact that it was much more of an excuse to attack me than a legitimate complaint of my faults was made nakedly clear (not that he’d have ever noticed, let alone admitted to, it) in this choosing to hear my reaction as ‘uncaring,’ as opposed to my simply answering a question.

Since when did my answer even need to be ‘caring,’ anyway? Was my ‘caring’ going to help the staff recover faster, or something? F.’s constant bullying of me when I was a little kid, with virtually never any defence of me from the rest of the family (with only a few ever-so-rare exceptions from my parents), indicates that the family rarely cared about me in any meaningful way beyond the bare minimum (i.e., feeding me, clothing me, giving me shelter). Such a lack of caring is called childhood emotional neglect; this, combined with the emotional abuse I was suffering from all five of them, taught me that the world is an unsafe place, that hell is other people (I’m misusing Sartre‘s dictum on purpose here, though his original meaning applies to my situation, too), and that self-isolation was the only way I could feel safe.

…and if I was uncared for, then the family shouldn’t have been surprised to see me return that uncaring attitude to them.

Even still, I tried at times to be caring to them, even when they’d continued to hurt me. After J. made it clear to me that she didn’t approve of my marrying the truly caring person who is now my wife (indeed, Judy is the best thing that ever happened to me), I’d been loath to forgive J. for not keeping her disapproval to herself. Nonetheless, when I heard that J.’s husband was terminally ill with cancer, I allowed my ability to feel empathy and compassion to overrule my anger.

I offered to make a flight back to southern Ontario (I’ve lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996) to see J. and her husband one last time. Had I done it, paying for the trip would have broken the bank for me, but I was still willing to do it. This was in the mid-2000s.

The family should have been encouraging of me to do this selfless act…if selflessness is really what they wanted of me. Instead, Mom e-mailed me, telling me not to come, out of fear that my “tactless and insensitive” nature would have resulted in me putting my foot in my mouth in front of J.’s then-emotionally-vulnerable husband, agitating him.

I was furious at this rejection; yet, instead of simply admitting that she’d made a bad call, Mom continued to rationalize her arrogant position with the usual references to “my autism” (or Asperger syndrome, as she now liked to call it), all to make me feel further alienated from the family. Note how neither she nor the rest of the family ever considered, let alone took any responsibility for, causing the very alienation that has made me so cold to them ever since.

And since, as I explained above, the autism story had to have been a lie, Mom’s basis for rejecting my attempt to show solidarity with the family was also built on a lie. Another thing we must remember about narcissists and their relationship with the HSP as family scapegoat: since narcs are pathological liars, they will be paranoid of anyone exposing them as such. HSPs abominate liars, so narcs know that, in order to protect themselves, they must do a kind of preemptive discrediting of the HSP.

I’m convinced that my mother did exactly this to me behind my back, and that this discrediting, in the form of smear campaigns, triangulation, and divide and conquer, is the real reason that I, as the family scapegoat, never got along with Mom’s flying monkeys, my three elder siblings.

Her constant bad-mouthing of her youngest nephew, my cousin G., is what makes me believe she did the same to me. One time, during a phone call I had with her about a dozen years ago, when she was giving me a flurry of G-bashing, she raised her voice in an angry crescendo and claimed that G. must have had Asperger syndrome…exactly what she insisted I have. This disorder was meant to explain how G. is so ‘unlikeable’ (he’s a bit awkward, to be sure, but he’s nowhere near as bad as Mom characterized him). It’s not a leap of logic to assume that she was using “my autism” to tell the family that I’m similarly unlikeable.

As her health was deteriorating in the mid-2010s, she pulled more of her malignant, manipulative crap on me, in revenge–it’s safe to assume–on me for not ever wanting to communicate with her during the first half of that decade. (The above links give the full story, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.) I’ll try to make this brief.

In a series of emails and one phone call, Mom made a number of assertions that ranged from “Why should I believe a word of this?” to “That is most unlikely,” to “That couldn’t possibly have happened,” making all of it dubious in the extreme. And this was after I’d already established an understanding of her as a habitual liar, and not just about the “autism” story.

I told her so, most bluntly in an email explaining why I didn’t want to fly over to Canada to visit her. Predictably, she pretended not to know what I was talking about when I’d accused her of “Lies, lies, and more lies” in my email. Predictably, she made me out to be the villain and herself out to be the innocent victim when discussing my email to the family, who–predictably–believed her every word without question.

Well, of course the family believed her every word without question: they’d been conditioned to for years…decades!…to discredit any observation I made about anything that didn’t jive with their preconceptions about the world. Mom had preemptively discredited me, so my accusation of her lying wouldn’t be given a millisecond of consideration by them. Mom may have been dying, but her reputation was safe.

With her death, in the spring of 2016, the hope of a confession from her similarly died. Her last words to me, spoken on her death bed over the phone to me, were all about how my accusation “hurt” her (translation: caused her narcissistic injury–note how she was permitted to refuse a visit from me, but I wasn’t permitted to refuse visiting her), none about how the truth and validity of what I accused her of had hurt me. She didn’t even try to be fair, and acknowledge that there were many times in my life that she’d hurt me, and that she was sorry for that; instead, I got a pity party about how much of a bad son I was, and to add insult to injury, she congratulated herself on what a ‘good mother’ she’d been, apparently having given me “the most love,” of my siblings and me…during those very years (just before and around my pre-teen years) when she’d contrived the autism lie!

In short, she dumped a huge guilt trip on me while pretending she’d never done me any wrong–classic narcissism. Here’s the thing: if I’m so ‘uncaring’ of other people, why dump all this grief on me? It would make no difference to me–I’d just shrug it off, easily, wouldn’t I? The fact is, the family all know that I internalize all the abuse they ram down my throat–they know I feel the pain. The whole purpose of dumping that guilt on me is to manipulate me into doing what they want me to do, to control me…or at least to try to control me.

I feel so hollow now, so empty, the shell of what I once was, or could have been. Such is what narcissistic abuse does to victims: the vice of narcissism is projected onto the victim, who is fully misunderstood. We are made to live a lie of the narcissist’s making. It’s a terrible feeling, knowing your family doesn’t truly love you, that their ‘love’ was all an act, to make themselves look good publicly, or just family obligation.

Still, I can’t go on just feeling sorry for myself. The damage has been done, but there’s no one out there to do the repairing for me, so I’ll have to do it all myself (I don’t have the money for therapy.). I’ll have to find that sweet, sensitive little boy inside me, buried deep down under all of this pain.

Since I follow the Freudian (actually, post-Freudian) school of psychoanalysis, I don’t usually go in for Jung‘s ideas, but there is one of his that I’ve recently been interested in: his notion of the Shadow. As a result, I’ve been looking into what’s called Shadow work as a form of therapy to confront all this repressed trauma and self-hate, and therefore to heal me.

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you’re reading this blog post as part of an exploration of the problem of narcissism to heal your own emotional wounds, then I hope that what I have to say here about Shadow work will help you find resources in your own healing journey.

There are so many different ways to describe what Shadow work is, and how to do it, that space doesn’t permit me to go over it all in encyclopedic fashion, but I can give you a basic idea of what it’s about, if you aren’t yet familiar with the concept.

According to Jung, we all have a Shadow aspect to our personalities, a dark, unpleasant side that we try to hide because it includes shameful and traumatic elements. We try to repress it, but we mustn’t; for after all, what is repressed returns to consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form…and this return of the repressed can come in quite nasty, regrettable ways. This repressed, ego-dystonic material must be confronted if we are to heal–Shadow work is this confrontation.

There are many ways to do Shadow work. The most common ways include journalling every day, putting our trauma into words. Other ways can include expressing your pain through art or music. Meditation is also helpful, including EMDR therapy…and there are lots of YouTube videos on these subjects. One of the websites I added a link to above recommend having a ‘dialogue’ with one’s Shadow: asking it questions and listening for answers in a contemplative silence. What’s most important is feeling that pain again (though not overwhelmingly so, of course!), as scary as that sounds, for the only way to heal is to process the trauma properly.

If you don’t feel that pain, you’ll try to repress it or project it, as my family did onto me. I’ve already explained the catastrophic results of that.

Stages

When
kids
make
their
entrances on the world that’s all a stage, they may lose
themselves within the roles they play to please Mom and Dad.

They
strut
and
fret,
but if they protest too much, their drama-critic parents
will pan their poor performances, and they’ll be heard no more.

Yet,
when
they
play
too well, the line between actor and character is unseen,
and they exit the stage at death, never knowing who they are.

Analysis of ‘We’re Only in It for the Money’

We’re Only in It for the Money is the third album by Frank Zappa‘s band, The Mothers of Invention. It came out in 1968, the album cover parodying the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As is typical with Zappa’s music, the lyrics of this concept album satirize the social hypocrisies of 1960s straight America–in this particular case, those of conservatives and of a particular kind of liberals whose hair was as long as that of Zappa and the Mothers…the hippies. Musically, we hear a mix of psychedelic rock (a parody of it), and the influence of such post-war avant-garde composers as Varèse and Stockhausen.

Zappa used montage recording techniques, including musique concrète, speeding up the tape, and abrupt interruptions between abbreviated songs, splicing in segments of dialogue and unrelated music. These montage techniques were also used on Zappa’s first solo album, Lumpy Gravy, which came out at about the same time as Money, and is its sequel, or “Phase 2.”

While Zappa had intended the outer front and back cover, as well as the inner sleeve photo, to parallel those of Sgt. Pepper, Verve decided to reverse the intended inner and outer designs out of fear of legal action resulting from a lack of assurance of permission from the Beatles’ business managers.

So on the front cover, we see–from left to right–bassist/vocalist Roy Estrada, keyboardist Don Preston, drummer Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian of the group,” as he himself tells us twice on Side One), and keyboardist/wind player Ian Underwood; and on the back, we see–from left to right–Zappa (asking if this album is Phase One of Lumpy Gravy), drummer Billy Mundi, and saxophonist Bunk Gardner. They are posed against a yellow background, as in the inner sleeve of the Sgt. Pepper album, but instead of wearing marching band uniforms as the Beatles wore, Zappa and the Mothers are all in drag, their facial hair all intact, for sure, and Zappa’s hair in the cutest of pigtails (or ‘bunches,’ if you prefer).

The inner sleeve shows the parody with the Mothers in drag again, as well as a collage of faces in the background, those generally more obscure than the famous faces seen on Sgt. Pepper. These include Zappa’s father, Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot, a pregnant Gail Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and LBJ. Instead of the bright blue sky at the top of the Beatles’ front cover, we see a dark, stormy sky with lightning.

The other side of the inner sleeve shows the lyrics and album credits against a red background, with the Mothers in drag again at the bottom; though instead of seeing most of the band facing forward (as in the case of Lennon, Harrison, and Starr) and one member facing backward (i.e., McCartney, who, recall, was “dead”), here all of the Mothers have their backs to us, and only saxophonist Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood is facing us, which I guess is because he had the “teen appeal” that the band needed so desperately.

The title of the album is a cynical take on the financial success of bands like the Beatles, who presented their music as an inspiration to the hippie counterculture; yet as with the hippies themselves, the music of these bands was something Zappa considered to be equally fake. The album’s title is also ironic, since no one would seriously consider music of such an experimental nature (far more avant-garde than the sonic experimentation of Sgt. Pepper) to have been conceived to make much of any money, let alone solely to make lots of money.

The overall theme of Money is phoniness: the phoniness of conservative parents, of the hippie ‘counterculture,’ and of “American womanhood.” On a deeper level, we can see the dichotomy of conservative vs. liberal to be a false one, as exposed as such on this album. Indeed, both groups of seemingly opposed people are really just upper-middle class bourgeois who, though pretending in their own respective ways to uphold either traditional or progressive moral values, are really just preserving their class status in society.

This is not at all to say that Zappa himself was ever interested in upturning class privilege any more than the hippies were. He openly expressed his dislike of communists and his disdain for any kind of labour movement. During a gig in Berlin back in the late 1960s, he was annoyed when radical leftists in the audience heckled him and his band by calling them “The Mothers of Reaction.” Similarly, as a bandleader, he was clearly the boss, making his musicians play only his music, and dictatorially demanding exacting performances of his music from them.

Still, Zappa wasn’t as paranoid about communism as so many on the right in the US have always been. I would characterize his politics as a libertarian-leaning centrism: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Though he would never have advocated my proposed solutions to the problems of conservative vs. liberal/hippie phoniness, I can nonetheless use his satirical depiction of the faults of these only seemingly opposed groups as a basis for diagnosing them as bourgeois symptoms, indications of class and imperialist privilege that would be alleviated by a revolutionary class struggle that Zappa would have wanted no part of, having been quite bourgeois himself.

Side One fittingly opens with Eric Clapton asking a question whose answer in the affirmative would seem to be the root of all the phoniness Zappa observed in the conservatives and liberals/hippies of the time: “Are You Hung Up?” A preoccupation Zappa had throughout his career, and the basis of his work as a social critic and satirist, was people’s mental health…are we, or are we not, hung up? Are the repressions of our conformist society inhibiting us from expressing ourselves, each of us in a unique, creative way?

Zappa’s preferred alternative to the hippie scene was the California freak scene, a group he hoped to promote and organize into a Mothers fan club called “The United Mutations.” He preferred the freaks to the hippies because the former group dressed, acted out, and danced to his music in creative and non-conforming ways without the use of drugs, of which he never approved. (Back in the 1960s, Zappa tried smoking marijuana about ten times, but he never liked it.)

The next track on the album is “Who Needs the Peace Corps?“, which it’s safe to assume isn’t about the American government organization, but is rather a metaphor for the peacenik hippies. Zappa despised the phoniness of the hippies not just because of their conformist adherence to the fashion trends of the time (long hair, beads, leather headbands, etc.), or their getting stoned and partying, only to go back home to Mom and Dad; but also because their dreaming of a world of peace and love was hopelessly naïve and utopian.

It’s only natural that most of us want to end all the wars in the world (especially now, in the 2020s!), but before we can end war, we have to understand it. People from upper-middle-class, petite bourgeois America are the least likely or motivated to take the time to learn of the origins of warmongering. Their class privilege makes the hippies far too complacent.

The Russian working class and peasants, back in the 1910s, eagerly wanted to get out of WWI. Lenin, who theorized about the imperialist competition for land that was the basis for the war, promisedPeace, Land, and Bread” to the Russian people, and when the Bolsheviks came to power, they delivered on their promise, though they had to make a number of unpleasant compromises in the process. (And granted, the Russian Civil War came almost immediately after that, but that was the fault of the capitalist invaders, not of the Bolsheviks.)

Communists have fought wars far more often out of necessity than out of choice, as we’ve seen imperialists do routinely; the Soviets often tried to influence the peace movement. Even Soviet military interventions were less the result of wanting to fight than of being manipulated into it, as was the case with Afghanistan in the 80s. The Red Army bore the brunt of a Nazi invasion that Stalin bought time against with a non-aggression pact (since a detailed discussion of the history of this is beyond the scope of this post, I refer the reader to this).

My point in bringing all this up is that the only realistic way to end war and achieve a lasting peace is to eliminate imperialism, which is a chronic cause of war, as we’ve seen to be especially true since the dissolution of the USSR. Similarly, the only way we’ll all sincerely love one another is to end the alienation that capitalism causes. Hippies, with their typically bourgeois social background, are hardly inclined to make the necessary changes. These people are phonies because they lack revolutionary potential.

In fact, hippies are so reactionary that they tended to go from the 60s counterculture to the liberal establishment of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s…up until now. They’ll tell you, “Vote blue no matter who!”, even if the blue candidate is an imperialist warmonger like Biden, who is pals with the GOP. Zappa once observed that hippie types would even reinforce conformity in the music industry.

The next song is “Concentration Moon.” The first word of the title is clearly referring to a concentration camp, so we prisoners see the moon at night outside our cell there. The references in the song to the police shooting and killing “creeps,” as with the reference in the previous song to the police who “kick the shit out of me,” are indications of the fascist nature of the authorities associated with a concentration camp. “Over the camp in the valley” cements this interpretation, since it also alludes to Kafka‘s “In the Penal Colony” (more on this short story later), which is a concentration camp in a valley on an island.

Note the juxtaposition of a concentration camp with hippies in the song, and keep this in mind when you recall what I said above about hippies all too quickly becoming part of the political establishment…a liberal establishment that, far from promoting peace, has for years now been banging the war drums against Russia. Instead of wanting a quick end to the war with Ukraine, these liberals are cheering on the Ukrainian army, which includes Neo-Nazis, of whom they’re either willfully ignorant or in denial, or whose existence they’re rationalizing and/or minimizing.

Social democracy is, essentially, left-leaning liberalism, like the kind these former hippies tend to espouse. Recall, however, Stalin’s words: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Small wonder Zappa considered hippies to be a bunch of phonies.

So the juxtaposition of hippies in a concentration camp, hippies who’d rather be “back in the alley,” is symbolic of the surprisingly close relationship between conservatives and liberals. Contrary to the spurious horseshoe theory indicating a closeness between communists and fascists (actually two ideologies as far apart from each other as any could be), it’s the liberals who are far closer to fascism.

Next comes “Mom and Dad,” which is, by Zappa’s standards, a surprisingly serious song. Here we have a kind of diagnosis of American society’s problems at their root: the dysfunctional, emotionally neglectful family.

The cops’ violent reactions to the hippies and freaks made it difficult for the Mothers to perform on the West Coast; instead, they had to play in New York City if they wanted to make any money. In the song, however, the parents’ callous attitude to the “creeps” whom the cops were killing is rationalized with the observation that “they looked too weird.”

The song’s indictment of the parents grows bitter during the bridge, when it’s asked if they’ve ever taken a minute “just to show a real emotion.” Do the parents have any appreciation of their kids’ talents, or even a sincere love for them? Just as the hippies have drugs, their good, upstanding, God-fearing parents have a drug of their own–alcohol, which they’re usually too embarrassed to let their kids watch them drink.

Do the parents even notice how unhappy their kids are? For all their pretensions to being good, virtuous, Christian families, these conservative parents are every bit as phony in their own way as are the hippies, who as we know will become quite conservative themselves when they get older. The idea that you “have to love a plastic mom and dad” really gets you in the heart. In these toxic families, “love” is really just obligation; one “loves” one’s family because one has to, not because one wants to. Small wonder the teens become hippies, as a way not to be like their moms and dads.

After the “Telephone Conversation” with Suzy Creamcheese (Pamela Zarubica, actually) comes “Bow Tie Daddy,” which continues the satire on conservative parents, but is light-hearted and focuses on the father’s hypocrisies rather than those of the mother, as we heard in “Mom and Dad.” We sense that the root of Dad’s bad temper is his frustrations with his personal inadequacies (i.e., “getting too old,” and his “drinkin'”). The bow-tie and parody of old-fashioned music, of course, emphasize how decidedly unhip Daddy is, hence the teens’ desire to rebel against him.

Harry, You’re a Beast” opens with dramatic piano arpeggios played by Ian Underwood. The song satirizes “American womanhood” by pointing out how “phony” these females are with their use of makeup (“You paint your head.”) rather than accept their facial imperfections (a lack of acceptance that is society’s fault, mind you, not theirs), as well as how air-headed Zappa perceived them to be.

Now, this song’s satire of American women borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, outright misogyny in how it makes light of a rape. “Harry” the “beast” attacks a woman, “Madge,” and while the censored version of the rape is played backwards, the uncensored version gives us an allusion to part of an old Lenny Bruce routine, “‘To’ is a Preposition; ‘Come’ Is a Verb” (“Don’t come in me, in me,” the woman begs her rapist, four times.). Her comical crying afterwards (with a return of the piano arpeggios), and his buffoonish excuse that he “couldn’t help it…doggone it,” is a kind of humor that should apply only to Harry’s hypocrisies of an outward mask of virtue (“it’s not merely physical”) and not to Madge’s trauma.

Next comes, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which is a parody of the doo-wop that Zappa loved to listen to as a teen back in the 1950s, and which he made a tribute to–and a parody of–on the album Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. As we listen for the first time, we assume that a criticism of one’s physicality is coming, and we’re surprised to hear that it’s our mind that is the ugliest body part.

The ugly minds are those of the teens’ parents, who don’t like “all those creeps” the teens hang out with; they’re “creeps” because of how ‘ugly’–in the parents’ judgement–they look in their non-conforming clothes. The parents’ intolerance and narrow-mindedness is what makes their minds so ugly, and what makes their teen kids rebel to the extreme point of doing drugs and engaging in free love.

The doo-wop suddenly switches to a 7/8 section in which Zappa indicts the parents with telling their kids “lies”–emotionally abusing them by teaching them bigoted ideas and moulding them into adopting a socially conformist mindset. A brief section in 3/4 time expresses a mother’s worry that her daughter, Annie, is hanging out with “creeps” before returning to the 7/8 riff and Zappa’s further indicting of the parents’ “ignorance.”

A pretty piano passage by Underwood, with arpeggiated chords played so fast that they sound strummed, opens the next song, “Absolutely Free,” another Zappa parody of hippie idealism and psychedelic music, somewhat imitative of the Beatles’ “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds,” with its almost Baroque keyboards and trippy imagery in the lyrics. At the end of the opening piano, we hear Suzy Creamcheese say she “won’t do publicity balling…anymore,” with the word “balling” originally censored from the album.

When Zappa begins by saying “discorporate,” meaning “to leave your body,” he’s talking about the mind-expanding effects of drugs, and the naïve belief that they will liberate us from the stunting effects of conformist society. While some, like George Carlin, have had positive, mind-opening experiences from doing LSD, even he acknowledged how dangerous such experimentation can be (i.e., doing too much, or doing the wrong kind).

Most of the music has a waltz-like triple metre, except for a bar of 4/4 played on the harpsichord before we hear “Unbind your mind, there is no time,” which is sung in three bars of 3/4 and one in 2/4, before going back to the usual triple metre. ‘Unbinding one’s mind’ can refer to the ‘liberating’ drug use, or to the letting go of inhibitions to lead the carefree, hippie life. After the first declaration that “You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be,” we hear a brief riff in 7/8 before going back to 3/4.

A reminder that Zappa doesn’t believe a word of what he’s singing is in another censored line: “Flower power sucks!”

The next song to make fun of hippies is “Flower Punk.” The main riff is played in a fast 7/8 time, which alternates with 5/8 sections with singing. With this album, we note the conspicuous absence of lead singer Ray Collins, who briefly left the band, meaning Zappa here is singing pretty much all the lead vocals, though his voice often isn’t recognizable, as he tends to speed up the vocal track, which he did on “Flower Punk.” (Here is a version with digitally slowed-down vocals, making his voice recognizable.)

The “Hey, Punk” questions are a parody of “Hey Joe,” a song made famous by Jimi Hendrix. The usual hypocrisies of hippies are exposed in how, far from being committed to promoting peace and love, these are people who just want to party and get laid, or who have fantasies of becoming “rich and famous” rock stars. One of the air-headed hippies that Zappa (with sped-up tape for his voice) lampoons even acknowledges that it’s all a “gigantic mass deception.”

Hot Poop” ends Side One with the whispering, paranoid voice of Gary Kellgren, who has been doing this whispering at various points on the album, and will do so again on Side Two. He usually speaks of Zappa as if obsessed with him, as if Zappa’s presence in the control room of the recording studio were omniscient and oppressive. The first side of the LP that I used to own, when a teen, ended with a particularly delightful, even melodious, “snork” (by Dick Barber) that I, regrettably, haven’t been able to find on any of the YouTube videos of Money.

Side Two begins with the musique concrète of “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” which includes Eric Clapton’s declaration that he has ‘seen God.’ Towards the end of it, we hear a bit of surf music interrupted by what sounds like a stylus being abruptly pulled off of a record.

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” is based on the true story of the antics of Ronald “Ronnie” and Kenneth “Kenny” Williams, neighbours of Zappa when he was living in Ontario, California back in the early 1960s. Ronnie and Kenny would engage in such after-school fun as making “blue angels,” that is, to “burn…poots away,” all while their parents, “Daddy Dinky” and their mom were at work, her in a restaurant “with her apron and her pad” (this latter being censored after being confused with a sanitary napkin).

I think that the point behind Zappa’s inclusion of this story among the songs on this album was to contrast the weird antics of Ronnie and Kenny against, on the one hand, the phony conformity of the conservative parents who, for all their posturing as good Christians, just emotionally neglect their kids and get drunk, and on the other hand, the phony ‘non-conformity’ of the hippies who, for all their posturing as progressive pacifists, just want to party, get high and get laid, then “go home to bed.”

As odd–and outright disgusting–as lighting farts, pissing in jars, and collecting snot (“pneumies”) on one’s bedroom window are as pastimes, at least Ronnie and Kenny were engaging in behaviour that can be genuinely called non-conformist. These two freaks, or “creeps” were being different in an honest way; they weren’t just following a fashion trend.

The Idiot Bastard Son” is a kind of sequel to the previous track, since it also involves Ronnie and Kenny, who raise the abandoned “idiot boy,” the illegitimate love-child of a congressman and an LA prostitute. (Fittingly sandwiched between these two songs is the actual Ronnie Williams performing “a little bit of vocal teenage heaven, right here on Earth”: backwards, distorted, guttural vocal noise that makes me imagine what an alien might consider to be beautiful, lyrical, mellifluous singing. It’s another manifestation of Zappa’s favouring of the creativity of freaks over hippie phoniness.)

That the congressman would be called a Nazi is apt, for it fits in with the theme I’ve described above, of how there’s a continuum ranging from hippie ‘counterculture’ to mainstream liberalism, then to the conservatism of one’s parents, ultimately leading, under the right social and economic conditions, to fascism. As we’ve watched the degeneration of American society over the past sixty years, from parental conservatism to the hippies in the 60s, to the mainstream liberalism of the 70s, then to the return of conservatism (in the form of neoliberalism) in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and now to the resurgence of fascism in the 2010s and 2020s, we can see how prophetic Zappa really was. Recall his fears of the US developing into a “fascist theocracy,” and how Roe vs. Wade recently got overturned.

Again, the hypocrisy of the conservative congressman and his ‘good, Christian values’ is exposed by his getting the hooker pregnant and abandoning the baby “in back of a car.” He’s an “idiot boy” because his neglectful upbringing, stashed “away in a jar” by Kenny, precludes any proper education, something most of those on the American right are averse to providing.

The song is interrupted by another spoken word segment, a chaos of voices, some with sped-up tape, of men talking about the different kinds of booze they’ve drunk. Just like hippies’ use of drugs, getting drunk is another manic defence against facing the depressing realities of life, another time-wasting indulgence Zappa disapproved of.

Back to the song, we’re reminded of all that snot on Ronnie’s bedroom window. Elsewhere, the idiot bastard son will spend his time at church, “warming his pew,” which could mean that he’s just sitting there because he’s been made to go, and he isn’t listening to the preacher; or he could be warming his pew with his flatulence, the result of the loving influence of Ronnie and Kenny.

Under the tutelage of the flatulent duo, indeed, the boy will “thrive and grow,” entering our world of corrupt “liars and cheaters”…for what other world is there for him to enter? The hippie communes won’t be much better for him.

Lonely Little Girl” was originally listed as “It’s His Voice on the Radio,” which was how I had it on my old LP. Apart from being another complaint about emotionally neglectful, psychologically abusive, conservative parents, this short song also repeats a line from “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” namely, “All your children are poor unfortunate victims…” etc. A quick flurry of guitar notes segues into the next song.

Take Your Clothes Off When You Danceexisted in other forms prior to this one. There was an instrumental version Zappa recorded back in 1961, then one with lyrics in 1965, a straightforward pop song called “I’m So Happy I Could Cry,” and there’s another instrumental version, “Take Your Clothes Off,” ending Side Two of Lumpy Gravy.

The version on Money is another satirical dig at the hippies and their idealistic view of how life will be one day when we’re all “free to sing and dance and love.” We won’t care how our hair looks, we won’t be ashamed if we’re overweight, and one day, we’ll even dance naked. Of course, no program of social transformation to bring about this utopia is ever discussed; communists have revolutionary theory, whereas liberal hippies are just dreamers.

The next song is a reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?“, which replays the doo-wop opening, and ends with a weird, comically eerie repeat of voices saying, “I think it’s your mind.” Recall that these ugly minds are those of both the conservatives and the hippie liberals, against whom Zappa would contrast his preferred freaks, or “creeps,” or…

Mother People,” which begins fittingly with some snorks, has a guitar/keyboard riff first in 3/4 (for three bars), then a bar of 6/16, then one in 3/8, then two in 6/16, these last two bars with a guitar lead playing notes a perfect fifth between them. These Mother People “are the other people,” those other than the conformist conservatives and the phony hippie liberals.

You might think they’re “crazy, out of [their] mind,” but wait ’til they tell you who they really are, and what their plan is, for each of them is “another person” than the “creepy” one you’ve misunderstood them to be. This section, clearing up the misunderstanding, is musically set in a tense 7/8, which soon switches to 6/8.

The music of this 7/8, then 6/8, section has a second verse with naughty words; this verse was originally censored, but Zappa put it backwards on the end of Side One. (Here is the uncensored version of the song.) Before the third playing of this section, with the lyrics described in the previous paragraph, the song is interrupted with a brief orchestral arrangement, rather like something in a film soundtrack; it can also be heard on Lumpy Gravy.

The final track on Side Two is “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.” This piece is another example of Zappa’s avant-garde, experimental leanings. We hear dissonant piano after an ominous fade in, then birdsong-like woodwinds and chaotic percussion, then a dark section including an eerie bass clarinet, then maniacal laughing with the…arbitrary…inclusion of the word “arbitrary.” Finally, we have acoustic guitar playing dubbed notes, accompanied by percussion, and an ominous fade-out.

Zappa advises us, in the liner notes, to read Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” before listening to this final track. Once we’ve listened to it, our own crime will have been carved on our back. A brief synopsis of Kafka’s story is thus indispensable here.

An officer demonstrates to an “explorer” an “apparatus” for executing criminals in a most sadistic way, carving the crime on the back of the condemned. Though the explorer, as any reasonable person would, disapproves of the cruelty of the apparatus, the officer is in fanatical support of it, loving the former commandant of the island’s concentration camp for having devised it. Despairing over the explorer’s disapproval, and knowing the camp’s new and more humane commandant would do away with the apparatus, the officer gets naked and puts himself in the apparatus, killing himself with it, with the intention of having the message “BE JUST!” carved on his back (though the poorly-maintained machine fails to do so). After seeing the grave of the old commandant, the explorer gets on a boat and leaves the island.

What I find to be the most significant part of the story is how the old commandant’s gravestone has an inscription prophesying that he will rise again and lead his followers to retake the penal colony…”Have faith and wait!” Though Zappa was thinking about the Japanese internment camps of WWII, and how Reagan, then-Governor of California, might have used the camps for the hippies, I see other dangers in this prophecy.

Though Kafka wrote the story in 1914 and published it in 1919, the cruel, authoritarian nature of the old commandant and his loyal, son-like officer seems to anticipate the then-imminent arrival of fascism. That these two men’s sadistic ways were defeated by the more liberal-minded new commandant (old ways that are prophesied to return) is in turn a prophecy–as I see it–of the return of fascism today, something Zappa was surely predicting, however indirectly, by referring to Kafka’s story on this album. This was a fear of his back in the late 60s, when one would never have imagined a return of fascism…that is, if one were blinded by the ideals of the mainstream liberalism of the time.

As I said above, only the communists of today have remained vigilant against the recent resurgence of fascism, while partisans of the DNC and GOP have turned a blind eye to it in Ukraine. Even Zappa, addled by anticommunist propaganda, didn’t really see it coming back when he was hanging out with Václav Havel.

As a registered Democrat, Zappa may have gotten politically active in the 80s as he, rightly, fought the PMRC; still, his real focus was never politics but, of course, music. He didn’t live to see the evils wrought by the Clintons in the 90s, evils exacerbated not only by Bush and Trump, but also by Obama and Biden today. Though Zappa was no hippie, thank God, and though he rightly saw the danger of allowing the Christian fundamentalists among Reagan and his ilk to have their way, he didn’t see the road fiscal conservatism was taking us all on.

So in sum, though We’re Only in It for the Money does do a legitimate and important critique of many aspects of the problems of American society, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t do enough. All the same, I believe we can use the album as a starting point to critique those other aspects.

Analysis of ‘Inception’

I: Introduction

Inception is a 2010 science fiction action film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who also produced it with his wife, Emma Thomas. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, with an ensemble cast including Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine.

Nolan had been working on a story about “dream stealers” for nine to ten years, originally conceiving of it as a horror film before making it a kind of heist film. He was influenced by such movies as The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and even his own Memento, to an extent. He postponed making Inception until he’d got enough experience making large-scale films like the first two of his Dark Knight trilogy.

Inception was the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2010; it is considered one of the best films of the 2010s, and it won four Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to the script.

II: Unconscious vs. Subconscious

What is, for me, especially intriguing about Inception is the intersection of several themes: the unconscious (here infelicitously called the “subconscious“–more on that soon), manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the blurred distinction between fantasy and reality, and perhaps most importantly, what shared, lucid dreaming can be seen to represent–the viewing of a movie in a theatre with other people.

Let’s now look at each of these themes one by one.

“Subconscious” is a popular term in psychology to refer to what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious. While I’m sure Nolan never intended to adhere to Freudian thinking to any significant extent (beyond, perhaps, the estranged, bitter feelings that Robert Fischer [Murphy] has for his dying father, Maurice [played by Pete Postlethwaite]), a bitterness that could be at least partly Oedipal), I must favor the term unconscious over subconscious, and here’s why.

Subconscious, as Freud explained, is an unclear way of expressing what that part of the mind is, what is ‘outside’ of conscious thinking. Is it topographical, i.e., existing underneath consciousness, as is almost literally indicated in the movie? Is it qualitative, indicating another, subterranean consciousness, again, as Inception seems to imply?

The unconscious, on the other hand, is not concerned with some kind of mental ‘place.’ Rather, it’s properly concerned with what we do not know. Unconscious impulses, for example, don’t ‘hide underneath’: the repressed, on the contrary, returns to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form. It isn’t ‘underground’; it hides in plain sight.

Significantly, Dominick ‘Dom’ Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team of thought-thieves are fully aware of what’s going on in the “subconscious” world of their shared, lucid dreams. There’s something unmistakably topographic and subterranean in these dreams-within-dreams. So however psychoanalysts may cringe at the use of the word “subconscious,” we must go along with Nolan’s word choices and imagery, going down an elevator with Ariadne (Page) to lower and lower levels of this subterranean land to see what this “subconscious” actually symbolizes.

III: Fantasy vs. Reality

Here we come to one of the intersections of theme. The dreams-within-dreams of the “subconscious” represent further and further removes from reality, deeper and deeper forays into fantasy. That the dreams generally look as if they could be events occurring in reality (Ariadne’s alterations of the Parisian cityscape, among other exceptions, notwithstanding) shows how blurred is the distinction between fantasy and reality in the film.

Small wonder the dream-thieves have to carry around totems (e.g., the spinning top, or Arthur’s die) to test if they’re dreaming or in the real world. Small wonder that Mal (Cotillard) kept killing herself to wake up, only to do so again for the last time in the real world, her still being obsessively deluded (thanks to Dom’s planting of an inception in her mind) that she was always in dreams-within-dreams. Incidentally, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is indicative of psychosis, which is what I suspect Inception is really all about.

IV: Capitalism and Manipulation

The implanting of false beliefs into the minds of the marks of the dream-thieves–be this implanting inception (putting the beginning of an idea into one’s mind) or extraction (stealing a company’s secrets as the goal of corporate espionage) through conning the mark into trusting the dream-thieves into opening up completely and thus making oneself vulnerable to them–is manipulation in the service of one set of capitalists trying to defeat their competition. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) Here we see the intersection of the themes of manipulation and capitalism, in the realm of the unconscious, in deeper and deeper layers of fantasy that get confused with reality.

Indeed, the company that Dom Cobb works for, Cobol Engineering (not only on which his surname is a pun [i.e., Cobb is a microcosm of the company], but also on which cobalt–extracted from the earth, like company secrets, by poor Congolese children for use in our cellphones–seems a pun), is a kind of mafia organization in the field of corporate espionage, in which failure can endanger an employee’s life. As I’ve argued many times in other blog posts, the mafia (criminal businesses) is a fitting metaphor for capitalists: note the expensive suits we see on Dom, the dominant, leading member of the dream-thieves.

Those of us on the political left are acutely aware of how capitalism results in alienation, which in turn leads to such problems as strained family relationships (i.e., Fischer and his dying father, as well as Cobb’s inability to return to the US and be with his kids) and emotional trauma (the hurt Fischer feels from the contempt Maurice has always had for him; Cobb’s guilt over how his inception for Mal drove her to suicide).

V: Dream Theatre?

A number of commentators on Inception have interpreted its use of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people in a darkened movie theatre watching a film together. Getting caught up in the movie’s story is hypnotic, dreamlike. We can see more thematic intersection here in how not only the marketing of movies is a part of capitalism, but also how films are used to manipulate their viewers emotionally. The CIA is often consulted by moviemakers, who are required to portray the organization–known for ruthlessly helping in the overthrow of many governments opposed to US imperialist interests–as benign. Accordingly, films like Top Gun: Maverick and the Marvel superhero movies are blatant American military propaganda.

Now, this notion of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people watching a movie together can be extended, I believe, to the idea of people watching TV together–TV shows and commercials–listening to the radio, being hooked on the internet, etc. In other words, the fantasy world of dreams can be a metaphor for the hypnotizing effect of the media.

Note the dream-like quality of many of our recent TV commercials. Instead of focusing on the products, as the commercials of the past did, these ads focus on images of a happy, carefree life. The commercials are fantasies, removals from reality, just like the shared dreams in Inception. An escape from the world…all in the service of capitalism, while pretending that the profit motive of capitalism isn’t at all present. The urge to buy what’s being sold sneaks into the unconscious by association with the fantasy presented, the inception of the desire for the product, our imaginary appetites…all while extracting our cash.

We might want to remember how Edward Bernays–whose double uncle was Freud, incidentally–used psychoanalytic concepts to help advertisers and political power structures to colonize the unconscious and manipulate people into buying this or that product, and to manufacture consent. (Bernays, by the way, was involved in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état for the sake of the United Fruit Company.)

VI: Putting All the Themes Together

So these are all the ways that the unconscious, manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the hazy line between fantasy and reality, and dreams as a metaphor for film (and the media in general) intersect in Inception. Though inception means beginning, or the establishment of an institution or activity, I see in the word a pun on deception, or the planting of a deceptive idea into someone’s unconscious.

So the film can be seen to be about how the capitalist/imperialist-run media manipulates the mind, and how our attempts to escape the horrors of the capitalist world, in order to enter a haven of fantasy, can backfire and lead to psychosis.

VII: Inception of Inception

The film begins with Cobb washed up on a shore, then taken by Japanese guards to see an extremely aged Mr. Saito (Watanabe), the businessman who wants Cobb’s team of dream-thieves to plant the inception of an idea into young Fischer’s head, to break up his dying father’s corporation so that of Saito–Fischer’s competition–can reign supreme. We eventually learn that this washing-up on the Japanese shore isn’t the beginning, but the near-end, of the story.

After this, we go back to the beginning of the story, when Cobb’s team is attempting an extraction of company secrets from the unconscious of dreaming, younger Saito while on a train going in the direction of Kyoto. We see the same big house as in the previous, deep-fantasy scene of aged Saito.

We soon learn, after the dangerous meddling of Mal (actually, Cobb’s projection of her, or as I see her, his internal object of her), that this scene in Saito’s house is really a dream within a dream, this ‘outer’ dream, as it were, being that of Nash (played by Lukas Haas), Cobb’s dream architect before the team employs Ariadne.

A couple of interesting points should be made about Nash and his dream, which make me question his motives. His dream includes a huge mob of insurrectionary rioters out in the streets, all about to force their way into the building where Cobb, Saito, and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) are having the dream within the dream, in Saito’s house. Note that, according to Freud, a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. Later, Nash betrays the rest of Cobb’s team. Is Nash a man with unconscious leftist sympathies (i.e., with revolutionaries in his wish-fulfillment-dream) making a failed attempt at undermining capitalist Cobol, and is his botching of the carpet a Freudian slip, reflecting his conflicted commitment to the team?

VIII: What Cobb Will Do to Get Back Home

Cobb wants so badly to be reunited with his son and daughter back in the US that he’s willing to take Saito’s offer to clear his name there of Mal’s death, in exchange for planting an inception in Robert Fischer’s mind, an undertaking Cobb knows is extremely dangerous and difficult to do. After all, he did it to Mal, and what happened? Still, he can’t bear to be separated from his kids.

To assemble his new team, he first goes to Paris, where his father-in-law, Professor Stephen Miles (Caine), who taught him about navigating the unconscious mind, recommends he hire Ariadne. Her name, an obvious reference to the woman in Greek myth who helped Theseus navigate the Labyrinth so he could get out after killing the Minotaur, is fitting. She proves her skills as a potential dream-architect by quickly improvising mazes complex enough to convince Cobb she’s up for the job. Just as the mythical Ariadne helped Theseus get out of the infernal Labyrinth, so does Inception‘s Ariadne help Cobb find the strength to confront his trauma over Mal’s suicide, to let go of his attachment to his internal object of her, and thus to be able to navigate his way back up to the top, to escape the hell of endless dreams-within-dreams.

Next, Cobb has to go to Mombassa, Kenya–a city crawling with Cobol agents looking to catch and kill him for his failed mission in Japan–to find Eames (Hardy), a forger able to impersonate people in dreams. The agents chasing Cobb through the streets of Mombassa is the one instance of an ‘action movie’ scene in Inception that happens in the real, non-dreaming world…or is this the real, non-dreaming world? (More on that later.)

Eames recommends Yusuf (Rao), a chemist who will provide a sedative to keep the team under as they navigate the different layers of the “subconscious,” dream-with-dream worlds, while also allowing the team to hear a recording of Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“I regret nothing”), their synchronized cue, or “kick,” to wake them at the right time.

IX: Drugs

Though we’re not meant to think of Yusuf as some kind of drug dealer, that scene of him with all those people taking his sedative in the dark basement of his place of work…it sure makes one think of, say, an opium den. These users of the sedative dream for four hours each day because, as one of them tells Cobb, “The dream has become their reality.”

Even if Yusuf is not to be understood to be an actual drug dealer, what he’s doing in this basement is surely symbolic of what a drug dealer would do, at the very least. Such an understanding is crucial when we consider the theme of the unsure distinction between fantasy and reality as presented in Inception. After all, as I noted above, psychosis is characterized by an inability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and drugs (with their hallucinogenic effects) can induce psychosis, including sedatives.

Furthermore, in the alienating, cutthroat world of capitalism, emotional trauma often leads to substance abuse as an attempt to escape that pain. An escape into fantasy relieves, however temporarily, one of the pain of facing reality, and drugs obviously help with that feeling of escape. Drugs can cause mental illness, just as the stress of living under capitalism has been observed to cause mental illness. In these connections, it’s easy to see why Dom and Mal went so deep into the dream world, into so many layers under layers of dreams-within-dreams; in searching for the Garden of Eden, they ended up in the ninth circle of Hell.

X: Splitting

Mal’s suicide, as I’ve said, is a pain that Dom finds unbearable, especially since his planting of the inception in her mind–that her world was unreal–means he’s guilty of causing her death. He cannot let her go, so he keeps her internal object as a kind of ghost haunting his mind. She’s there, but the trauma of her suicide is also there; so he tries to protect himself from that pain, however unsuccessfully, through the defence mechanisms of projection and splitting.

Dom thus experiences what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid positionparanoid because of the persecutory anxiety he feels whenever her projection interferes, often violently, with his team’s attempts at extraction; and schizoid because of the splitting of Mal into absolute good and bad versions of herself.

Dom, in his unconscious attempts to preserve the good Mal, can’t help but be forced to confront the bad Mal–hence her apt name as a pun on the French word for bad. Only when he goes the farthest down all the layers of his “subconscious,” down all those dreams-within-dreams, to return to the paradise/hell that he constructed with her, back before she died, only then do we see the good Mal, when he tells her he has to let her go.

His trauma is one example of how capitalist alienation harms relationships, including family ones. Another example is that of Robert and Maurice Fischer. The dying father, founder and owner of a great, powerful corporation, is annoyed that he has to pass on the control of the family business to a son he regards as inadequate for such a great responsibility. Some of this father/son hostility could be Oedipal, as I mentioned above; on the father’s end, it could be a Laius complex, or a fear of the son supplanting the father.

XI: Sympathy for the Dominant

One thing that is, or at least should be, striking about this story is how we, the audience, are all lulled into sympathizing with these characters. We’re dealing here with dishonest, lying, manipulating, gaslighting people who are all out for themselves, all working within a capitalist context. Manipulating young Fischer into ending his father’s business is meant to allow their competition, Saito’s company, to thrive. It is the insidious nature of neoliberal capitalist ideology–“there is no alternative“–that tricks the audience into sympathizing with a bunch of con men.

Dom is seen on several occasions, just after waking up, to be spinning a top to make sure he isn’t still dreaming. As we understand, if it stops spinning, he’s relieved to know he’s in the real world…or is he? One’s totem–like Arthur’s die–is supposed to be known only by its owner: its look, feel, weight, etc. Dom, however, has come into the habit of using a top originally owned by Mal. So even if it stops spinning, is his reassurance of no longer dreaming valid?

XII: In Dreamland

Back to the story. The team is assembled and ready. On a flight to the US, Fischer is put to sleep to share a dream with Dom, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Saito, and Yusuf. This first shared dream, Yusuf’s, is set on the streets of a city in teeming rain.

Fischer, trying to take a cab, is kidnapped. Arthur, whose job was to research Fischer thoroughly, has failed to learn that the team’s mark has unconscious security to fight off extractors like them. Dom is furious with Arthur for his oversights.

This unconscious security, in the form of men shooting at Cobb et al and therefore putting them all in danger–if shot and killed in the dream–of being trapped in Limbo (an inescapable labyrinth of the unconscious, like being in a coma) because of Yusuf’s powerful sedative, is a personification of Fischer’s ego defence mechanisms, these ones being unconscious.

As the Ego Psychologists understood unconscious ego defence, here’s an explanation: “the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt…, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed. Their unobtrusive, seamless presence in the patient’s psychic life is perfectly acceptable (ego syntonic) to the patient; they often function as a central feature of the patient’s larger personality organization…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

XIII: Wake Up Dead?

One fascinating idea in this film is the paradoxical notion that if you are killed in a dream, you wake up. It’s the reverse of what Hamlet said: “To die, to sleep–/No more” (III, i, 60). Now, with Yusuf’s sedative, dying in the dream makes matters much more complicated: “To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.” (III, I, 64-68)

Another complicating factor in Fischer’s troubled family life is his “Uncle Peter” Browning (Berenger), his godfather and fellow executive of his father’s company. Browning acts as a kind of surrogate father for Fischer, being there for him in ways that his father never wanted to be. Cobb’s team will manipulate this relationship through Eames’s impersonation of Browning, to introduce the idea of Maurice having an alternate will to dissolve the company.

Inception, as Eames has previously pointed out, is “a very subtle art.” Fischer’s first introduction to the idea of the alternate will is to be a negative one, a plausible further instance of his father’s contempt for him; further down in the dreams, the dissolving of the company is meant to be a positive exhortation of him to do his own thing, giving him a catharsis.

XIV: Dreams-within-dreams

Anyway, everyone on the team except Yusuf–who is driving around on the first dream level, since it’s his dream–is sedated into going down to the second dream level, Arthur’s dream, which is set in a hotel. Here, Dom convinces Robert that his ‘security’ is really working against him, as part of the ruse to go deeper into his “subconscious.” Here we have Dom gaslighting Robert into distrusting his own unconscious ego defence mechanisms.

To get to the layer of Fischer’s “subconscious” where he will receive the inception of the idea to end his father’s business to start something of his own, the team must be sedated further, into a dream set around an alpine fortress. Several problems occur: Mal interferes again and shoots Robert before he can receive the inception; also, Yusuf sets up the Edith Piaf kick too early.

Arthur and Eames therefore must improvise a new set of kicks to be synchronized with them hitting the water in Yusuf’s truck in the first dream, with Arthur rigging a hotel elevator with all the floating dreamers tied up, and with the alpine fortress being set up with explosives. Saito having been shot as well as Robert means both of them are in Limbo, forcing Dom and Ariadne to go further down another level to rescue them…in Dom’s constructed dream-world with Mal.

Here is where Dom must confront his trauma with Mal. He must let go of his attachment to his internal object of the good Mal, and he must do it quickly, for getting Robert and Saito back is of paramount importance. Indeed, Ariadne importunes Dom to hurry…but can one be cured of one’s trauma in such a short time? (Indeed, Ariadne shoots Mal to speed things up.)

It seems that he has managed to do so, for he leaves Mal, and they get Robert and Saito back–the rescue of the latter through, essentially, a repeat of that opening scene with Dom washing ashore on the beach and being taken to Saito’s big house by his Japanese guards. Neither Dom nor Saito wants to die a lonely old man, filled with regret, hence the choice of Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” as the kick to wake everyone up with.

XV: Maladaptive Dreaming

No rationally thinking person wants to waste away in a fantasy world, only years later to snap out of it and be full of regret for such a wasted life. Yet the alienating world of capitalism makes such a retreat into fantasy so tempting. Small wonder so many of us out there escape reality through drugs, online video games, porn, movies, TV, consumerism, internet addiction, etc.

Robert returns to the alpine fortress dream and receives the inception. Everyone, including Dom, manages to get back up using all the synchronized kicks in time. I’d say it’s all a little too good to be true.

Dom wakes up on the airplane with all the others, who smile at him, glad to see him back. Saito makes the necessary phone call to clear Dom of the charge of murdering Mal, so he can go through customs without a hitch. Recall above how I mentioned that, according to Freud, dreams are wish-fulfillments. Dom’s wishes are all being fulfilled, aren’t they?

The action and excitement of the dreams, fighting off Robert’s unconscious security, is an instance of how these shared, lucid dreams parallel the entertainment of watching a movie in a theatre. We’re back in the ‘real world’ now, in the airport; but Dom had an ‘action movie’ moment in Mombassa, too. Has his ‘waking’ world been real, or has it been dream, too?

XVI: Conclusion–Nothing But a Dreamer

Here’s an interesting thought: we’ve been assuming that Mal killed herself, mistakenly thinking she was trying to wake herself from a dream, but…what if she was right? Could Dom have lost count of all the dream layers, thinking his time with her on the building ledges was real, when it was actually another dream? She’d been assessed by three different psychiatrists to be sane, so is he the one with a psychotic inability to distinguish fantasy from reality?

When he claims that she didn’t want to go back to the real world, is he projecting onto her his wish to stay in the world of dreams? Is this what calling Mal his “projection” really means?

At the end, when he spins the top and walks away to see his kids, he doesn’t care if it stops spinning or not. Or maybe he’s afraid to see it keep spinning. In any case, the top was Mal’s totem originally, so if its slight wobble at the very end indicates that it will stop spinning, this hardly assures us that he’s in the real world now.

Some think the real plan, masterminded by Miles (who, recall, recommended Ariadne to be the architect), was to pull Cobb out of the dream world. If so, I don’t think it worked. Cobb prefers fantasy to reality, like so many of us with our drugs, movies, TV, etc. I think Mal is still waiting for him in the waking world; but like those TV commercials that show people enjoying quality time with family, or like all those action movies we enjoy in the theatre, Cobb would rather escape from, than have to continue living in, the stresses of the capitalist world.

His Hell is his Eden…even without Mal.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter One

My name is Sid, I’m forty years old, and…we’re all going to die.

Now, I’m not talking about plain, old, ordinary mortality here. I mean that all of us on this planet are going to die, and quite soon.

I’m sitting in the living room of my apartment late tonight, and I can hear the sounds of machine gun fire and far-off explosions from outside my window. I’m watching the news on my TV as I roll a joint, my right hand an inch or two away from my half-drunk glass of Jim Beam and Coke.

While all of this is happening, the last thing I want to be is sober.

President Harris is giving a press conference on the progress that the US and NATO have made in engaging the ‘enemy’: the alliance led by Russia, China, and Iran. She keeps ruling out the use of nuclear weapons, but why should we believe a word from that cackling bitch?

For almost fifteen years, I’ve been teaching English as a second language here in China…though we shouldn’t expect the Western world ever to admit that this small island is a part of China. Many, if not most, of the locals here insist it’s a country rather than a Chinese province.

Why, you may be wondering, didn’t I, a Western expat, simply leave when I had the chance, before this island became a war zone? There are several reasons: one, this is my home, of which I have no other, me being estranged from my ‘family,’ the Gordimer family, owners of Sakia, a weapons manufacturing company. As a pacifist, I have no need of any other reason to disown that family, though I have many others, as I will go into later on.

Two, my skill set as an English teacher is very limited. What am I going to do for work in my predominantly English-speaking country, where so many others are snapping up almost all of the job opportunities, as scant as they already are? I’ll doubtless be a derelict back there.

Three, and most important of all, World War Three has been going on for the past several days. This island isn’t the only place being hit, as I can hear from outside my window. Russia is counter-attacking Europe and the UK. China is hitting not only us here, but also Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada with its long-range missiles. Iran is hitting the American military bases surrounding it. North Korea has its nuclear weapons ready to fire.

Nowhere is it safe; it especially won’t be when the nukes start flying…when they start flying.

So, you see, we’re all going to die, and quite soon.

Nothing is going to save me or anyone else. Not getting off the island, not praying to a God that so obviously doesn’t exist, and not any of the wisdom contained in all the books on the bookshelves I have surrounding my TV.

No, none of my translations of Buddhist scriptures, nor the inspiration of Gautama’s mythical biography, nor my three volumes of Das Kapital, my Communist Manifesto, my Grundrisse, my Lenin anthology, my essential works of Mao Zedong, my Dialectical and Historical Materialism, nor any of my books by Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, DW Winnicott, Wilfred R Bion, Heinz Kohut, or Jacques Lacan will help me.

My only escape will be a mental one, a manic defence, assisted by booze, marijuana, ecstasy pills, and a line or two of ketamine.

Yes, we, the lowly, wretched people of the Earth, are the targeted. It’s as though each of us has had a bullseye painted on his or her chest. If the bullets and conventional bombs don’t hit us, the nukes will. And even if, by some miracle, we manage to survive all of that, then the destruction of the Earth through climate change will kill us all.

If only we the people could target all the evils of the world, hit them like marksmen, and save humanity from itself. If only we ‘targeters,’ if you will, could have gone thus and stopped the warmongers from instigating what’s now the irreversible: the destruction of all life on this planet.

The targeter, having thus gone to his target, not missing the mark, would replace the error of the warmongers’ ways with the truth: namely, that those who are able should give to those in need; that ego is an illusion and we all are one; and that to harm others is to harm ourselves.

I can only dream of such a cure for the world, though. It’s already too late for us all. I hear the noisy proof of our doom from outside my window, and from the quacking of the American president on my TV.

So, in my despair, I’m using alcohol and drugs to numb my pain. If I can’t escape in body, I’ll do so in mind. May I, being a target, be too stoned to feel the incineration of my body when the time comes. May the drug trip I’m about to go on take me on a surreal journey somewhere far away, somewhere peaceful, so I won’t care when I finally die.

Analysis of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

I: Introduction

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the story is a critique of psychiatry and, in a larger context, of all tendencies to impose social control.

It was adapted into a Broadway and off-Broadway play by Dale Wasserman in 1963, starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy, with Gene Wilder playing Billy Bibbit. Danny DeVito, who played Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway play, would reprise his role for the 1975 film, which starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.

I’ll be focusing on the novel and the film, which–though following the novel fairly closely–was actually based on the play. The supporting cast of the film, which was co-produced by Douglas’s son Michael and directed by Miloš Forman, includes Louise Fletcher as the manipulative and subtly domineering Nurse Mildred Ratched (Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for the role, named the fifth greatest villain in movie history according to the AFI), Will Sampson, William Redfield, DeVito as mentioned above, Sydney Lassick, and Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif in their film debuts.

The film won all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay), the second film to achieve this (after It Happened One Night in 1934), and the third to do so not until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It also won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards, and in 1993, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress. AFI lists it #20 on its list of the greatest films of all time in 1998, demoted to #33 in 2007.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, here are some quotes from the novel, and here is a link to a performance of the play.

II: Background to the Novel

To get back to the novel, it’s useful to know some of the historical context and background to its creation. It was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, so there was already a growing sense of antiestablishment thinking in the collective consciousness of the US at the time. There was also a controversial move towards deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, something that would have affected the characters in Kesey’s novel.

Kesey worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California, an experience that, through his interactions with the patients and the staff there, obviously inspired his novel. He also experimented with such psychoactive drugs as LSD and mescaline there, as part of Project MKUltra. These mind-expanding experiences led not only to his advocacy of using the drugs recreationally, but also freed his mind in a way that influenced the antiestablishment attitude championed in his novel.

III: A ‘Mute’ Narrator

The arrangement of the main characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is strikingly contrary to what one would assume them to be normally, in terms of who wields authority and who cows under it, and who is central versus who is marginalized. Almost all of the patients–except for “Chief” Bromden (Sampson in the film), a half-Native American–are white men who are dominated, bullied, and controlled by, most of the time, women and blacks: Ratched and Nurse Pilbow, and the “black boys,” aides Washington (played by Nathan George), Williams (Miller in the film), and Warren. Though McMurphy’s the protagonist, Bromden narrates.

Bromden fakes being deaf and dumb in the hospital, which allows him to be privy to many of the machinations of the staff, who chat around him while assuming he can’t hear what they’re saying. His muteness is also symbolic of how the aboriginals of North America have been silenced by the establishment, the white settler colonial state that is embodied in, for example, the US and Canada.

…and yet, ironically, this ‘mute’ is the narrator of the novel.

His narrative style is noteworthy in itself, often switching back and forth between present and past tenses, as well as expressing himself ungrammatically in such ways as saying, “They should of knew better’n to…” (Kesey, page 4). This informal, non-standard English gives us a vivid sense of how Bromden is, in spite of having been a college student, just an ordinary, common man, as opposed to being a higher-ranking member of society. This proletarian-like commonness will be important in how he will eventually rise up and free himself, in a quasi-revolutionary way, from the societal prison that the mental hospital represents.

IV: An Upside-down World

That the white men are bullied by “the Big Nurse” (Ratched, of course) and the other nurses reflects another issue Kesey was concerned with: the emasculation of modern men in society. I see something broader than that in this, if you will, ‘matriarchal’ hospital with its “black boys” also pushing around the white male patients: as a reversal of the normal social hierarchy, life in the mental hospital, the ‘loony bin,’ “the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is a fittingly upside-down world, comparable in a sense to that of King Lear, in which a king is reduced to a mad beggar. Such an inversion of the normal…and equally deplorable…state of affairs in our society can be seen as a way to let our white male rulers know how it feels to be ruled by others. Both the normal and inverted worlds are mad worlds.

The nature of the hospital’s ‘matriarchal’ rule is aptly given in the maternal form of nurses telling the male patients what to do (Dale Harding–played by Redfield in the film–literally calls it a matriarchy–page 63). These men, in their afflicted mental states that are even further afflicted by the nurses’ manipulations, are thus reduced to the role of children. This is best seen in the whining and temper tantrums of Charlie Cheswick (Lassick), in his noisy demands for his precious cigarettes.

V: When ‘Helping’ is Harming

Psychiatry and psychotherapy are supposed to serve in healing patients so they can return to society in a healthy state and become happy, productive contributors to that society. The critique of this novel, however, is that far too often, the psychiatric profession is used rather to control the patients. Far too often, confronting the mentally ill is about treating them with contempt and condescension instead of with empathy and compassion.

I know from personal experience in my life how people in the role of ‘nurse’ can speak of one as ‘ill,’ pretending to be concerned about that person’s well-being, but really using the label of ‘ill’ to justify treating the person as an inferior to be controlled. Instead of giving the person the help he or she needs, as is the stated intention of the ‘nurse,’ this ‘nurse’ causes the patient’s sense of worth and autonomy to be gradually eroded.

Now, the bogus treatment of illness as a guise for social control can be of mental illness, as dealt with in this story, or it can be of physical illness, as many have suspected of the covid pandemic. Furthermore, there’s social control, disguised as ‘treatment,’ on the individual or local level, as seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and there’s such social control on the national and even international, imperialist level, of which the novel and film can be seen to be an allegory.

Having Bromden as the novel’s narrator is thus useful for the purpose of such an allegory. In some ways, such an allegory works in the film, too, even without Bromden as a voiceover narrator (an omission Kesey was most unhappy about in the film adaptation), as I’ll try to show.

VI: Beginning of the Film

The film begins with a shot of a scene in nature, with mountains, grass, and a car going down the road (presumably McMurphy being taken to the mental hospital) during a sunrise. The film will end with Bromden having escaped the hospital and going off into a similar natural background–with trees, mountains, and the sunset.

Throughout the middle, of course, has been life in the prison of the hospital, a metaphor for our sick civilization. We start out in the beauty of nature, whose life is interrupted by our oppressive, man-made civilization, and we’ll ultimately liberate ourselves and return to the beauty of nature.

That Bromden, our half-Native American, half-white narrator, is doing the liberating from that civilization is significant; for that very civilization is the white settler colonial state that robbed the North American aboriginals of their natural home, and it must be returned to them if full liberation for all–white, black, Latino, Asian, and aboriginal–is to be achieved.

VII: McMurphy, the Bad-but-good Guy

To achieve that liberation, though, a revolutionary agent needs to be introduced…and this is where McMurphy comes in. He may be a criminal, someone who “fights too much and fucks too much” (page 14), but it’s his gregarious, free-spirited, and rebellious nature that is just what the intimidated other men need to inspire them to fight for their own freedom.

The fact that our hero is deemed a psychopath and a statutory rapist, one who’s faking insanity to escape the prison work farm and, as he hopes, coast his way through his sentence in the mental hospital, is yet another example of the upside-down world of this story. A violent bad guy is actually the good guy.

One manifestation of this bad-but-good guy is when he meets Bromden. In the film, McMurphy mocks Bromden with an aping of the stereotypical greeting of “How,” then with the hand-over-mouth war cry stereotype. On the surface, McMurphy is indulging in childish, tasteless racist ‘humour,’ but he and Bromden will soon develop a close friendship.

Similarly, there’s ambivalence in calling Bromden “Chief.” On the one hand, it’s a racial slur; on the other, his father was the leader of his tribe, so handing down the title of “Chief” is perfectly legitimate (page 24), as explained by Harding. Yet another upside-down ambivalence is in how Bromden, weeping over McMurphy’s lobotomy at the end, lovingly smothers him to death with a pillow to free him from his wretched fate.

Now, in the novel, it’s towards the “black boys” that McMurphy at one moment shows a racist attitude, calling one of them a “goddamned coon” and a “motherfucking nigger.” He’s mad at them for forcibly delousing George Sorensen, one of the “acute” patients who has mysophobia and is visibly upset over the forced delousing (page 273). Even in this scene, McMurphy’s surface nastiness is obscuring a deeper compassion for the disadvantaged.

So, with every bad thing about McMurphy, there’s also something good; and the good things about him are far more noteworthy. As I said above, he is the one who will inspire the others, waking them all up from their psychological torpor–even Bromden–with his defiant, oppositional example.

VIII: The Combine

To repeat another point I made above, the mental hospital is a metaphor for the whole sick society we all have to live in. In the novel, Bromden has a special name for this repressive world exemplified by the hospital: he calls it the Combine. “McMurphy doesn’t know it, but he’s onto what I realized a long time back, that it’s not just the Big Nurse by herself, but it’s the whole Combine, the nationwide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them.” (page 192)

Yet another example of the upside-down world of the novel is how Bromden is in full realization of the evil of “the Combine”–which combines capitalism, white-settler colonialism, imperialism, and social repression–yet he has been diagnosed with clinical depression and schizophrenia, this latter involving psychotic breaks from reality. As with King Lear‘s “poor Tom” o’Bedlam, a homeless madman (as Edgar pretends to be) whom Lear, in the depths of his own madness, regards as a “Noble philosopher.” It’s the mad who are truly wise in this kind of world.

IX: McMurphy vs the Nurse

McMurphy takes an immediate disliking to “the Big Nurse” and her subtly domineering ways. He bets with the other patients that in a week, he “can get the best of that woman…without her getting the best of [him]” (page 73).

Getting the best of her won’t be easy, for part of how she maintains control over the ward is by exercising her authority through a near-perfect control of her own emotions, which we see fully in Fletcher’s brilliantly understated performance in the film. She rarely loses her temper, and in her self-control we see her confidence, a narcissistic False Self which in turn commands respect. With this command of respect for her as “the Big Nurse,” Ratched is able to effect a mother transference on all the male patients (on Bibbit in particular), which infantilizes them, ensuring her control over them.

Her power over them is so complete that McMurphy can’t even get the obnoxiously ‘peaceful’ music on the record player turned down a little bit, so he and the others can hear each other talking as they play cards. When he tries to get a majority vote so they can watch the World Series on the ward TV, she manipulates matters to include all the ward patients who know nothing of the vote; and by the time he gets Bromden to raise his hand and secure a ten-to-eighteen majority, Ratched has already adjourned the meeting and invalidated the majority. Ratched thus personifies the fake democracy of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

One of McMurphy’s more successful ways of getting to her is by taking note of her figure and large breasts. He is thus defying that maternal transference that she uses to subordinate the other men, defying the Non! du père that reconciles most boys with society’s rules.

Now, this defiance of le Non! du père is also understood, through Lacan‘s pun, as les non-dupes errent. That is, those people who are non-dupes err because, paradoxically, by not being duped by society’s phoney rules (represented by Ratched’s rules of the ward), the non-dupes go astray and mess things up (as McMurphy will for everyone during the drunken party at the story’s climax).

X: The Tub Room Scene

McMurphy’s determination to watch the baseball game is seen in the tub room scene, with the control panel that he foolishly imagines he’ll lift up and throw crashing through the window, then he’ll leave the hospital with Cheswick and watch the game on a TV in “any bar downtown.”

Significantly, during the tub room scene, we see Harding playing, of all games, Monopoly with some of the others (in the novel, the game is mentioned on page 114). Monopoly was derived from The Landlord’s Game, and both games essentially teach the players, if they’re paying attention, about the evils of private property, of capitalism, and of the suffering involved in paying up every time you land on someone else’s property. So symbolically, we see the connection of the hospital and capitalism with Bromden’s idea of the Combine.

…and if the hospital, capitalism, and the Combine are the prisons from which these men (and, by extension, all of us) need to be freed, then McMurphy’s attempt, however doomed to failure, to lift the control panel and bash it through the window, to liberate everyone, is representative of socialist revolution. This brief and failed attempt is thus like that of, say, the Paris Commune. Well, McMurphy tried, didn’t he? As with the Communards, at least he did that. Of course, at the end of the story, Bromden tries and succeeds, as the Soviets would succeed…for at least several decades, anyway, before the post-Stalin revisionists began the USSR’s decline.

XI: McMurphy, Therapist

Now, I’ve described McMurphy as liberator on the socialist revolutionary level of symbolic interpretation. There’s also him as liberator in terms of, if you will, psychotherapy. He inspires the others to defy Nurse Ratched’s authority, and he helps them to be more social, through card games, basketball, the push to watch the World Series on TV, the fishing trip, and getting timid Billy Bibbit (Dourif) laid with the help of Candy (played by Marya Small), one of McMurphy’s prostitute friends.

Getting Bromden to speak, to ditch his deaf-and-mute act, is perhaps McMurphy’s greatest therapeutic achievement, one that makes his racist mocking of Bromden, near the beginning of the film, fade into insignificance. As I said above, Bromden’s deaf/mute act symbolizes the silencing of the aboriginals by the white settler colonial state, which for him would be the most significant aspect of “the Combine.” McMurphy’s goading him to speak is thus a revolutionary helping of Bromden to regain his voice and his sense of self, a therapeutic cure as well as a remedy for anti-aboriginal racism. McMurphy is, in effect, achieving the ‘talking cure.’

XII: Bromden’s Silencing

From pages 210 to 215 of the novel, Bromden explains how he came into his habit of acting like a deaf mute: “It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.” (page 210)

His act, this silencing of him, began long before the hospital. It was already happening when he was in the Army. It happened in grade school. It happened when he, ten years old, saw a car with white people arrive at his home, then inform his family of the government’s plan to put up a hydroelectric dam there, putting an end to their fishing. The white people would force it on the aboriginals one way or another. The Combine would force it.

My connection of the Combine with capitalism may seen tenuous or even made up to some readers, but what must be understood is that there’s a lot more to capitalism than just markets, as right-wing libertarians ingenuously (or rather disingenuously) try to reduce it to. As Marx explained, the social relations between the owners of the means of production, of capital, or private property, and the workers, who have only their labour as a commodity to sell, these relations are but the base. On top of this base is the superstructure: the capitalist state, the arts, the media, science (of which psychiatry can be seen as a part), religion, culture, the law, and education. The mental hospital can be seen as a part of, or as symbolic of, that superstructure. The Combine combines both the base and the superstructure.

An essential part of maintaining this Combine, the ideology of the base and superstructure, is racism, which keeps the proletariat divided and hating each other instead of working together in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class. Presenting “the black boys” and the nurses as bullying the mostly white male patients (granted, there are also the male psychiatrists, like Dr. Spivey [played by Dean Brooks], and the white male attendants, but these men intervene more occasionally in the story; in fact, Spivey seems to be ruled over by Ratched, too) is an ironic twist that nonetheless maintains the divide-and-rule aspect of the Combine.

Capitalism also expresses itself in the form of white settler-colonialism, an internal form of imperialism (i.e., within the territorial limits of the United States) that has affected Bromden his whole life, as mentioned above. Colonialism and imperialism, like religion, media manipulation, the law, the state, and education, are all forms of social control. The worst aspects of psychiatry, such as its use of drugs, are also forms of social control rather than of therapy. Anyone who tries to defy authoritarian psychiatry is looked down on as “ill” in order to deny him a voice, to deny him power.

XIII: Ratched’s Gaslighting

Hence, when Taber (Lloyd) doubts the validity of the medication he’s given by the nurses, Ratched says he’s chosen “to act like a child” (page 34) rather than listen to him, show him empathy, or validate his legitimate concerns (the film’s approximate equivalent of this scene substitutes McMurphy for Taber). Accordingly, Miss Ratched is “just like a mother,” according to a Public Relations man (page 37). Small wonder, as Bromden observes, “The ward is a factory for the Combine.” (page 40)

Part of Nurse Ratched’s way of dealing with rebellious McMurphy is to call him “McMurry,” something she does a number of times early on in the novel, and as I suspect, this isn’t a mistake. Her changing of his name sounds like a manipulative form of control, a gaslighting comparable to Petruchio‘s renaming of Katherina as “Kate” in The Taming of the Shrew. Ratched would tame McMurphy in a similar way.

XIV: Alienation

Since capitalism breeds alienation, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the ward, as symbolic of the superstructure, the Combine, also breeding alienation. We can see it in Taber’s taunting and antagonizing of Harding. Indeed, the discussion of Harding’s sexual problems with his beautiful wife, implying his repressed homosexuality, is more of a ganging-up on him and a bullying of him than any kind of therapy (page 56). Taber’s bullying of Harding, significantly, is resumed in the tub room scene, during the Monopoly game.

There’s alienation between people, and there’s also alienation within, the psychological fragmentation of people with psychotic mental states, people like Martini and Bromden, with their many hallucinations. During the basketball game, for example, when Martini has the ball, he tosses it to nobody, thinking he sees a teammate receiving it. Then there’s Bromden with his notion of the fog machine.

XV: Fog

He imagines that the fog machine, “bought from Army Surplus and hid in the vents” (page 131), is controlled by the hospital staff. Sometimes Bromden finds the fog to be frightening: “I’d wander for days in the fog, scared I’d never see another thing” (page 131). Such a fear sounds like an extension of his faked deaf/muteness, since this fog-induced blindness is something he’s mentally imposed on himself.

Actually, this fog is just a symbol of the bullying authority of the nurses and “black boys.” Just as his deaf/mute act is a result of the Combine silencing him, so is the fog machine a result of the Combine blinding him to his own worth, size, and strength.

The fog, like the deaf/mute act, isn’t a completely bad thing, though. Just as the deaf/mute act allows him to hide and listen to the staff’s secret schemes, so does the fog give him a safe place to hide from painful reality. And just as one might dismiss his fog machine and the Combine as loony conspiracy theories, they actually represent how perceptive he is of the power structures all around him.

XVI: Unity of Opposites

Remember that in the upside-down world of the mental hospital, opposites are united, so loony conspiracy theories are actually perceptive assessments of reality. Bromden is muted, weakened, and shrunken to insignificance, yet he’s also the narrator, a towering giant, and strong enough to lift that control panel in the tub room.

Similar paradoxes, as noted above, include bad boy McMurphy, who is ultimately the story’s hero, even Christ-like (more on that below). White male patients are dominated primarily by nurses and “the black boys,” when we know how things really are outside the mental hospital. And of course the hospital itself, though ostensibly a place to be cured of one’s mental demons, is actually a kind of prison–a worse one, in fact, than the work farm McMurphy came here to escape, for as he’ll find out, far from being released at the end of his original sentence, he’ll be kept here for as long as Ratched deems fit.

He is truly trapped in the mental hospital…potentially for the rest of his life, while he’s mentally the freest of everyone here. Most of the other patients–except for Bromden, Taber, and some of the Chronics–are voluntary, free to leave the hospital whenever they wish…yet mentally, they’re all too afraid to leave and face the real world outside, since Ratched is manipulating that fear.

XVII: Jesus McMurphy!

McMurphy therefore is, in many ways, a Christ figure in spite of his sinfulness. Just as Christ was crucified when he, as Pilate observed (Luke 23), had done nothing wrong, so is McMurphy trapped in this hell of a mental hospital when he’s the only healthy, if badly-behaved, one here.

In keeping with the theme of the unity of opposites in this story, we’ll explore other ways in which McMurphy is a bad-boy Christ. One obvious way is in his blatant, open sexuality, as contrasted with Christ’s saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 27-28)

Now, McMurphy looks on women lustfully all the time…including at Ratched, whose breasts he appraises by wondering, “did she wear a B cup…or a C cup, or any ol’ cup at all?” (page 208) In fact, his very effective therapy for Bibbit, in curing the boy–if only temporarily–of his mother-induced gynophobia, is to have him lose his virginity with Candy.

And just as Jesus suffered, so does McMurphy, first with the electroshock therapy, which he endures (lying on a “table shaped like a cross”–pages 131-132) as bravely as Christ endures the flagellation and the crown of thorns. And though McMurphy, in attacking Ratched in revenge for her having driven Bibbet to suicide, is doing the opposite of Christ’s loving His enemies and turning the other cheek, his ‘death,’ as it were, by lobotomy ends up being a sacrificial death that drives Bromden to pick up the control panel, smash it through the window, and show the way to freedom for all the patients.

McMurphy has the patients go fishing with him, an event that happens far later in the novel than in the film (Part 3, pages 208-256). This event, too, has far greater therapeutic value for the patients than all of Ratched’s manipulative efforts. In keeping with the Christ analogy, recall Matthew 4:18-20. ‘As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed Him.’ Remember also the ichthys, the fish symbol of Christ.

Just as the historical Jesus, as a number of modern scholars have argued, was a political revolutionary trying to free the Jews of Roman imperialism (not the watered-down peace-lover meant to appease the Romans), so is McMurphy a revolutionary trying to free Bromden et al of the Combine. Furthermore, some Christian leftists believe “Jesus was a socialist”: I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly there are passages in the New Testament that are anti-rich. Consider Mark 10:25, Matthew 25:41-46, and 1 Timothy 6:10. So if McMurphy is like Jesus, his anti-establishment antics can be, in these ways, likened to socialist agitation.

XVIII: White Whale Underpants

McMurphy’s Moby-Dick shorts (page 84), a literary friend’s gift that he displays after undressing, are full of symbolism related to all I’ve said above about him as a sexual, bad-boy Christ. As I (and others) have pointed out, the white whale is a huge phallic symbol, a fact emphasized by its appearance on McMurphy’s underwear.

McMurphy’s link with Moby-Dick manifests itself in other ways. The whale represents wild, untamed nature, as McMurphy does. Indeed, as one uncorrupted by the mind-numbing social conformity that Ratched is imposing on the other patients, white McMurphy is more of a noble savage than Bromden could ever be stereotyped as–another example of the subverting of expectations of the novel’s upside-down world.

As a result of McMurphy’s unwillingness to be tamed, Ratched’s Ahab-like attempts to catch him ultimately bring violence on herself, as Ahab’s quest brings on his own self-destruction. In my Moby-Dick analysis (link above), I wrote of Ahab’s narcissism, his overweening pride and its mad refusal to accept how unconquerable the whale is; Ratched’s wish to control the patients and turn them against each other is similarly narcissistic in nature…malignantly so.

McMurphy is also like the whale in that he represents, as I argued in my analysis of Melville‘s book, the beyond-good-and-evil nature of ultimate reality, an ever-elusive, deep knowledge one can never decisively grasp. As such a personification of this ultimate reality, McMurphy is, like the white whale, God-like, and therefore Christ-like. Now, this God-like whale embodies evil as well as divinity, just like McMurphy as a bad-boy Christ. In these ways, we see again the unity of opposites in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

XIX: McMurphy–Socialist or Capitalist?

Now, when I associate McMurphy with socialist revolution, I’m sure I’ll get objections from readers who will cite the passage when Harding defends McMurphy’s “capitalistic talent” (page 266) at “making a little profit” from his gambling and the fishing trip. Nurse Ratched brings up McMurphy’s profiting as one of her many schemes to divide the patients and thus control them better.

It’s best to understand Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ by emphasizing that it’s only the former’s interpretation of the latter’s intentions. In that passage, Harding’s defence of McMurphy’s “good old red, white, and blue hundred-percent American” capitalism is based on his not yet having been fully liberated psychologically from the prison of the hospital; he is still experiencing a kind of Stockholm syndrome as a result of the ongoing influence of, as he (ironically?) describes her, their “Miss Angel of Mercy Ratched”, who “is absolutely correct in every assumption she made…about McMurphy.” (page 266)

Furthermore, to use McMurphy’s ‘capitalism’ to debunk his socialism fails to think dialectically about the two opposing economic systems, as such assumptions mean forgetting about the upside-down nature of this story. McMurphy, recall, does bad things to promote good. He’s a bad-boy Christ figure, so it should be predictable that he’d promote socialist liberation through capitalism. As Harding notes, “We’ve all certainly got our money’s worth every time he fleeced us, haven’t we?” (page 266) Recall that McMurphy’s efforts have all been far more therapeutic than anything Ratched has done for the patients, regardless of the money he’s made off of it.

The promotion of socialism through capitalism is far from unheard of: the USSR did it through the NEP in the 1920s, and China and Vietnam brought back the market in the 1980s; indeed, China’s state-regulated use of capitalism, intended to boost the productive forces of the country, has lifted millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, a feat achieved far quicker than the economic development of the “free market” has done for the global poor elsewhere. And the only meaningful liberation is the kind that ensures people are all fed, sheltered, employed, educated, and given healthcare.

XX: Menial Work

Remember that the mental hospital, with its staff’s subtle manipulations, bullying, and enforced conformity, is a metaphor for society in general. A part of this prison of a society is the menial jobs given to the patients, a proletarianizing of them, such as Bromden with his mopping of the floors (page 3), and McMurphy’s cleaning of the toilets (pages 159-160). He’s escaped the work farm only to end up doing latrine duty.

As a punishment for McMurphy’s gambling and ‘profiteering’ as discussed above, Ratched rations the patients’ cigarettes, which can be seen to symbolize low wages. So Cheswick’s protests about his cigarettes, escalating to McMurphy breaking the glass to the nurses’ station, taking a box of them, and giving it to Cheswick, is like a workers’ strike. The “black boys” taking the two men and Bromden to get electroshock therapy is thus like the police rounding up the strikers.

XXI: A Fog of Words

When Bromden hears, during a therapeutic meeting, talk “about Bibbit’s stutter and how it came about” (page 133), the words come out like a fog as thick as water. Normally, therapy is supposed to heal a psychiatric patient through the talking cure, as noted above; and Bibbit’s stutter is a symptom of his psychiatric problems, his inability to talk, with its origins in his relationship with his mother. As Bibbit tells Ratched, “The first word I said I st-stut-tered: m-m-m-m-mamma.”

Ratched’s therapy, of course, is the opposite of a talking cure; instead, it’s a talking infection. Small wonder Bromden experiences the discussion as a fog. It’s just another manipulation of the Combine.

XXII: The Oedipal Basis of Ratched’s Matriarchal Rule

Within all patriarchy, including the patriarchal family, there’s a small nucleus of matriarchy. I don’t mean to promote MRA thinking here; I’m just discussing the dialectical nature of sex roles and the power systems revolving around them. The father bosses around the family, while the mother more directly bosses around the kids. A transference of such a relationship has occurred between the nurses and the patients.

Such a transference has been most potently achieved in Billy Bibbit, a thirty-something with the psychological development of a little boy. As part of McMurphy’s therapy for the young man, it’s been arranged for him, during their naughty party at the story’s climax, to lose his virginity with Candy and thus ‘make a man of him.’

When he’s been discovered in bed with Candy and he has to explain himself to Ratched, he briefly loses his stutter: a temporary cure of his gynophobia–brought on by his domineering mother, who’s presumably as narcissistic as Ratched–has become his talking cure.

…but that fog of words comes back as soon as Ratched brings up how much the boy’s mother will disapprove of his little sexual indiscretion, which the Big Nurse, his mother’s close friend, will assuredly tell her about.

The power Bibbit’s mother has over him–extended by transference over to Ratched–is based on his Oedipal need for her to love him back. Normally, a mother’s authority over her children is expressed in a benign, loving way…not so if she has pathologically narcissistic traits.

The boy, already prone to suicide and hence his being in the hospital, is so fearful of losing his mother’s love that, knowing Ratched will never refrain from telling her of what he’s done with Candy, he slits his throat in Dr. Spivey’s office.

XXIII: Conclusion–Big vs Small

In the upside-down world of this story, physically big people are often psychologically small, and vice versa. Bromden is, of course, the primary example of this paradox. As he explains to McMurphy, whom he regards as psychologically huge despite his smaller physical size, Bromden speaks of his physically big father who was shrunken down to size by Bromden’s white mother and the Combine. They worked on his father, they’ve worked on him…and now they’re working on McMurphy (page 220).

Why do some people have confidence (i.e., are big), and others lack it (are small)? Not so much because of innate abilities, or lack of them, but because as I argued here, there are people (emotional abusers, white supremacists, the bourgeoisie, colonialists, imperialists, etc.) who work on the small. Such working on is what One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is all about.

Sometimes we fight back, as when McMurphy chokes Ratched for driving small Bibbit to suicide. McMurphy’s violent act is a revolutionary one, since revolution is of necessity a violent act. When revolutions fail, though, the insurrectionists are sternly punished, as is McMurphy.

Ratched isn’t left unscathed: her injury from the choking leaves her unable to speak; instead, she communicates by writing on a pad, which of course is far less effective for manipulating the patients (page 321). Most of the voluntary patients have left the hospital; of those who went on the fishing trip, only Martini, Scanlon (played by Delos V Smith Jr in the film), and Bromden remain. The others left because Ratched no longer has power over them. She has been silenced, as Bromden was; she has shrunken from big to small.

As I said above, though, her reduction to smallness hasn’t been left unpunished. For his scurrilous behaviour, McMurphy has been lobotomized, a punishment compared by Harding to castration: “Frontal lobe castration.” (page 191)

Since the Lacanian phallus is a signifier, McMurphy’s symbolic castration is a silencing of him, too. As a new ‘vegetable,’ he no longer speaks. He’s forever in the fog.

He’s been made small, but Bromden, touched by his Christ-like sacrificial act, is inspired to “feel big as a damn mountain.” Bromden can’t bear to see his friend in a state of living death, so he smothers McMurphy to death with his pillow. McMurphy must come with him out to freedom, if not in body, then in spirit.

Bromden’s picking up of the control panel and smashing it through the window is his revolutionary act of liberation. He’s breaking free not just of the hospital, this metaphor for conformist society, but also of the Combine. At the end of the film, we see him going off into a background of nature. He’s freed himself of the white settler colonial state, and so the world around him looks as it did when the aboriginals were the only ones living there.

Now, this symbolic liberation is not just for the Native Americans, but for all of us together. Recall that McMurphy is coming with Bromden in spirit; also, Bromden is white on his mother’s side. The true liberation of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, etc., is a liberation from capitalism, imperialism, and white settler colonialism…the Combine, the combination of all of these. To fly over the cuckoo’s nest, we must replace the Combine with federations of post-colonial states that, while allowing equal civil rights for people of all colours, are also acknowledged as belonging to the indigenous peoples of those places.

To be big, we must sometimes let others be big, and let ourselves be smaller.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New York, Berkley, 1962

Analysis of ‘One Hour Photo’

One Hour Photo is a 2002 psychological thriller written and directed by Mark Romanek. It stars Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, and Michael Vartan, with Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle, Clark Gregg, Erin Daniels, and Dylan Smith.

One Hour Photo was both a commercial and a critical success. Williams’s performance earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor.

Indeed, it was gratifying to see him in a dramatic role for a change, finally going against his usual typecasting as a zany character in such superficial, feel-good films as Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. In playing a mentally-ill man in One Hour Photo, Williams demonstrated the range of his acting talent; if only he’d done roles like Seymour “Sy” Parrish more often.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Sy is a lonely photo technician in a one-hour photo in a big box store called Sav-Mart. He has no family, friends, or partner. He values his job above and beyond anything else in his life, believing he’s providing a “vital service” to his customers in developing quality photographs. This job gives his life meaning in the absence of loving human company.

Photos are of extreme importance to him for reasons to be discovered in full by the end of the film. At the beginning of the story, he idealizes photography, insisting that one takes pictures only of the happy moments in life, never the sad ones. By the end of the film, though, we discover that this idealizing of taking pictures is a reaction formation against the fact that, as a child, photos were taken of him in extremely unhappy, traumatizing circumstances.

He also points out that no one takes pictures of the banal, mundane, “little things” that we don’t normally pay attention to…yet at the end of the film, after he’s revealed to Detective James Van Der Zee (La Salle) the source of his trauma, we see his recently-taken pictures of such banal things as the objects and furnishings of a hotel room. It seems that, with these pictures, he’s sublating the thesis of happy photos with the antithesis of traumatizing ones.

The trauma he suffered as a child was to have been exploited as a participant in child pornography photography, exploited by his own parents. This trauma explains his loneliness: his parents betrayed his trust at such a tender age, and so he has distanced himself from them. Since one’s primary caregivers are, as internal objects, those blueprints, so to speak, for all subsequent relationships in life, this alienation from one’s parents tragically leads to social alienation in general.

Still, Sy must try to pull himself together, to rebuild some sense of psychological structure, since with such extreme trauma as he’s suffered, the threat of psychological fragmentation is never far away. Heinz Kohut‘s model of the bipolar self is useful for understanding Sy’s personality. One pole is that of the grandiose self, which we see in the pride Sy takes in his photo developing. The other pole is that of the idealized parental imago, which he can’t get from his own parents, of course, so he has to do a transference of them onto the Yorkin family.

Nina (Nielsen) and Will Yorkin (Vartan) are Sy’s idealized mother and father transferences, and their son, Jake (Smith), represents the kind of happy boy Sy wishes he had been when he was a kid. His idealizing of the Yorkin family comes from all the ‘happy’ photos he has developed for them over the years…while keeping a copy of each one for himself to put up on a wall in his apartment, too.

This wall of Yorkin family photos is Sy’s altar, so to speak, where he can worship his idealized conception of the family he wishes he had. The photos, as idealizations, are collectively a metaphorical mirror reflecting his love of them back to himself. This ties back to his job as a mirror of his grandiose self.

Recall the scene of him in front of the bathroom mirror in SavMart, where he looks at himself, and words on the glass remind him and all other staff to “check [their] smile” at work. He internalizes this capitalist ideal for the worker, and so it becomes his Lacanian ideal-I. This ideal-I is extended to photographs in how he takes Nina’s camera and, not wanting to waste a shot, takes a picture of himself for the Yorkins to add to the family photo collection. His ‘selfie,’ as it were, is a metaphorical mirror adding himself, “Uncle Sy,” to the Yorkin family.

These images, frozen in time, of the Yorkins on Sy’s apartment wall are thus, as a collective metaphorical mirror, Sy’s reconstruction of the Imaginary, his need for narcissistic acknowledgement and recognition. “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” Lacan once said, a desire to be desired by other people, for recognition from other people. This is what Sy needs from his idealized conception of the Yorkins, and this is why he obsesses over them.

His idealization of them is, of course, an illusion based on wish-fulfillment, for the Imaginary Order, established by the infant when seeing itself in front of a mirror for the first time, gives form to an illusory ego. As a narcissistic psychological state, the Imaginary’s setting up of the illusory ego, the ideal-I one strives one’s whole life to live up to but ultimately never succeeds at, is seen in an extreme form in Sy’s idealizing of his job as a “vital service.” His job is his narcissistic False Self.

Another part of his False Self, a defence against fragmentation, is his persona of mild-mannered innocence (a defence against the molestation he suffered as a child), given physical, symbolic expression in the predominantly white and light grey colours we see him wearing. This whitish innocence is extended to his light blond hair (we can see how dark-haired Williams most obviously dyed his hair, to the point that it seems as if Sy dyed his, too) and the whites and light greys of his apartment and car, as well as the predominant whites and light greys of SavMart, his idealized place of work.

When he leaves SavMart to go home one night, though, we see a greenish-yellow light (colours of envy and jaundice) as he goes to his car, the windshield glass of which is smashed. This reflects the bitter reality of his life, which hides behind his idealized fantasy world.

Like Lacan, Buddhists understand that the self is an illusion, for the world is too fluid, transitory, and impermanent to include the existence of permanent souls or egos. Sy’s False Self is just such an illusory ego, and those frozen moments in time, his photos of the Yorkins, are also such illusions, making us forget about the eternal flux of life.

He’s nowhere near as good at his job as he imagines himself to be, not by his boss’s standards, or by any reasonable standards. The photos he gives Nina early on in the film are larger than what she wants, and the SavMart manager, Bill Owens (Cole, who here plays a kind of serious version of Office Space‘s Bill Lumbergh), is full of complaints about Sy.

In Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins, his collection of copies of their photos means he’s printed far more photos than have been ordered and paid for, a discrepancy that Bill cannot tolerate. Sy has also spaced out on the job, taken ninety-minute lunch breaks, given Jake a free disposable camera for his birthday, and had a loud altercation with the repairman for the photo developing machine, an altercation heard by the customers all over SavMart.

While some of Bill’s complaints reflect real faults of Sy’s work performance, others reflect the kind of conflict between boss and employee typical of what Marx described in his theory of alienation. Sy’s job is practically a religion for him. It gives his life meaning, it’s part of his species-essence; whereas for Bill, Sy’s mundane job is just one among many to be overseen in SavMart; Sy should just do it right and not make waves. Bill’s pragmatic attitude to Sy’s job-as-mission thus alienates Sy from his species-essence, which only adds to Sy’s alienation in general.

Bill fires Sy, which devastates him because not only can’t he do the Yorkins’ pictures anymore, he’s also lost one of the two poles of his self that give him psychological structure–he’s lost his grandiose self, that False Self of the photo developer performing a “vital service” to customers like his idealized Yorkins.

Sy has been a victim of capitalism through his conflict with Bill as described above, and he was a victim of it as a child when exploited and commodified by his parents through kiddie porn photography. The commodification of photos links both experiences for him in how photos are fetishized commodities. The customer sees the finished product and pays for it, but he or she doesn’t see the process the workers went through to produce the commodity.

In the case of kiddie porn photography, the drooling pervert masturbating to the disgusting pictures sees only the fantasy that’s presented in them; he doesn’t take note of the pain and fear in the naked children’s eyes as they’re forced into doing the shameful things they do in front of the camera. Similarly, and in reverse fashion, though Sy is the seller, not the buyer, he sees only the happiness of the Yorkins in their photos; but he knows nothing of the very real problems in their far-from-ideal family. Of course, he’ll learn of those problems soon enough.

When Maya Burson (Daniels) shows up at SavMart and gives Sy her photos to be developed, he recognizes her from somewhere (actually, in one of the photos in his Yorkin ‘altar’). He later flips through them and discovers some of her with Will Yorkin, having an affair. His whole image of the ideal Yorkin family has been shattered. The other pole of his self has been compromised. He’s now in danger of fragmentation.

Because of the extreme abuse he suffered as a child, Sy would have engaged in the defence mechanism of splitting from right back in those early years. This means that, instead of regarding his parents in the normal way, as a complex combination of good and bad traits, he’d have seen them as just the bad father and bad mother. No grey or white, only black.

Sy nonetheless needs to believe in the idea of the good father and good mother, for the paranoid-schizoid position that he feels himself permanently trapped in demands a white, or at least light grey, area to counterbalance the black area that he cannot deny.

This counterbalancing is what the Yorkin parents are meant to personify in Sy’s fragile inner mental life. Other ways in which he tries to achieve this white counterbalance include the old black-and-white photo of the pretty woman he buys; significantly, he later shows it to Nina, of all people (the good mother of his transferred idealized parental imago), telling her that this woman is his mother. This would be the good mother meant to offset his emotionally neglectful bad mother, who allowed Sy’s bad father to take those obscene photos of him as a child.

His notion that photos are always of happy occasions, never of things we want to forget, is his white counterbalancing of those black photos taken of things that he most intensely wishes he could forget. All of this black vs white opposition is a reflection of his psychological splitting, the paranoid-schizoid position, as Melanie Klein called it. “Schizoid” refers to the splitting into absolute good and bad, or black vs white; “paranoid” refers to the fear that the rejected, bad internal objects will return to persecute Sy again.

Since Will has proven to Sy that he isn’t the good father Sy needs him to be, in his paranoid-schizoid mental state, Sy can regard Will as only the bad father. Of course, we the audience have known of Will’s faults almost from the beginning: we saw his argument with Nina about his emotional neglect of her and Jake. Since he rationalizes his preoccupation with his work at their expense (and there’s some truth to this, though he can carry this excuse only so far), we see again how capitalism contributes to the problem of alienation (i.e., he has to work to pay for everything to make his family’s life more comfortable).

His mistress, Maya, however, cannot be included in his excuses for not being as emotionally available to his family as he should be; hence, Sy deems him a bad father, and he scratches Will’s face off of all the photos on his ‘altar.’ Not only has Will become the bad father, though: photography for Sy has changed from being a white source of happiness to a black form of predation.

Indeed, Sy discusses the origin of the term “snapshot,” which he says wasn’t at first associated with photography, but with hunting–that is, quickly firing a snap shot from a rifle at an animal without taking the time for careful, preparatory aim. Sy’s camera has become his weapon, his gun…just as his parents’ camera was a weapon used on him as a child.

Now that Sy can no longer hide behind his False Self as the white-and-grey-clad, mild-mannered photo developer doing a “vital service” for customers he can no longer work for, and now that his system of white idealizations has been sullied by Will’s black adultery, Sy must face his own darkness, all that blackness inside himself that he’s been repressing, splitting off and projecting outwards.

First, he gets a little revenge on his former boss by taking predatory photos of Bill’s daughter. This taking of photos of her–though she’s fully dressed, playing innocently with her dolls, and is insouciant of any voyeuristic danger–nonetheless anticipates the revelation of, and cruel meaning behind, the photography of Sy when he himself was little and defenceless.

Since Sy can no longer use his grandiose self and idealized parental imago to shield himself from his childhood traumas, he must find a way to release and eject the emotional tension he feels from that trauma. A common way to do that is through projection, and projective identification, which ensures that those who receive the projections internalize and embody them.

So Sy steals a large knife from SavMart, a phallic symbol representative of the rapes he suffered as a child. He tracks Will and Maya down to a hotel where they’ve planned to have a sexual encounter, and there he’ll use his camera on them the way his parents used their camera on him: to shame the adulterer and his mistress by capturing their sexual encounter in a set of pornographic photos.

Sy not only forces Will and Maya to pose nude and simulate sexual acts; he’s also verbally abusive in the orders he gives them, behaviour diametrically opposed to his usual, mild-mannered False Self. This verbal abusiveness, it is safe to assume, is derived from the verbal abusiveness he as a child must have received from his photographer father. Sy must release all this pent-up pain by taking it all out on Will and Maya, by projecting it onto them.

After taking the photos, he leaves his traumatized victims and goes into a neighbouring hotel room he’s booked for himself. There, he lies on his back on the bed and looks up at the ceiling; he seems temporarily relieved, having gotten so much of that tension and pain off his chest.

He’s also taken photos of such banal things as a closeup of the rings on the curtain rod on his room’s shower curtain, as well as closeups of taps on the bathtub and bathroom sink. After all the good photos of the Yorkin family, then the bad photos of Will and Maya, he needs to take these neutral photos, to sublate the good vs bad dichotomy. This sublation is part of his healing shift from the black-and-white duality of the paranoid-schizoid position to the grey neutrality of the depressive position.

Switching from paranoid anxiety to depressive anxiety–the fear and sadness coming from losing our internal objects–is crucial for Sy’s healing process, and it’s related to the grey sublation of the black vs white mentioned above. The depressive position involves acknowledging how our caregivers are actually a complex combination of good and bad, and we must accept both the good and the bad in them. One must also mourn the abusive parents who failed us as children, our lack of good parents, as when we see Sy break down and cry when revealing to Detective Van Der Zee how he as a child was sexually abused.

Sy cannot see any good in his parents to counterbalance the bad, nor can he see any good in Will Yorkin. He can, however, still see Nina and Jake as good people (even though he’s frustrated to see her not showing anger at Will after seeing the photos of his affair with Maya). He also feels convinced that Van Der Zee must be a good husband and father. So these conclusions are enough for Sy to reconcile the good and bad in parents in general.

Now we can end the film with him looking at his banal photos of closeups of bathroom objects, their banality being his resolving of ideal vs shameful pictures.

Though called a psychological thriller, One Hour Photo actually has a rather sad tone, for though we would never condone what Sy does, we can’t help feeling empathy for him and the troubled life he’s lead. This kind of empathy, even for those who do ‘creepy’ things, is important for us to be able to heal collectively from all of our own traumas, for we all need to help each other process our grief. (Recall how Williams suffered from depression and committed suicide.)

How Does the Non-dupe Err?

I: Psychoanalytic Punning

Lacan wrote a lot of useful and relevant topics, but he did so, unfortunately, using a prose style that can only be described as…impenetrable.

To take his notion of The Name of the Father, for example, this is a concept best expressed in the original French, as I typically present it: le nom du père. I use the French not to be pretentious, but to get people to see the nuances that the English translation doesn’t convey. Those nuances help to tease out more of the meanings of the concept.

For example, Lacan made two plays on words with le nom du père that the English cannot parallel: these puns are le Non! du père and les non-dupes errent. Again, on the surface, such playing around with French may seem pretentious and self-indulgent on Lacan’s part, but all three of these similar-sounding expressions bring out a lot of hidden meaning in what he was trying to say.

The nom (“name”) in le nom du père represents the legalistic aspect of the concept. In nom, I hear an interlingual pun on νόμος, or “law” in Greek. The non in le Non! du père represents the prohibitive aspect. So, the father (or, the second parent, he or she who intervenes in the dyadic, Oedipal relationship with the first parent), in laying down the law against the child’s wish to indulge in the transgressive pleasure of jouissance with his mother, is saying, “No! You mustn’t indulge in your Oedipal fantasies with your mother…she is my wife!

Apart from the prohibition against incest with her, the child must also give up on his wish to remain in a one-on-one relationship with her, to have her as the only person in his life, to hog her all to himself, to have her as a metaphorical mirror of, and an extension of, his narcissistic self. The child must be integrated with the greater society, which is who the father, as the third person in this set-up, represents: to go from a relationship with one other to many Others.

II: Going With, or Against, Society

So, the father’s (or second parent’s, as against the Oedipally-desired first parent’s) introduction of laws, or what’s more accurately understood as social rules, customs, culture, and a shared language, helps the child in his or her initiation with society. Now, initiation into society includes a confrontation with its illusions and hypocrisies, which one may or may not be duped into accepting.

If one accepts the phoney social charade, or is even duped in to believing that it’s real, one tends, in varying degrees depending on one’s intelligence and talents, to succeed in life. One has learned, socially, how to play the game. If, however, one does not accept the charade, and one is not duped into believing that the charade is real, then one tends–again, to varying extents depending on how well or how poorly one’s competencies can compensate–to fail to climb the social ladder. These social successes or failures are what Lacan meant with his second pun on le nom du père, the paradox that is les non-dupes errent.

So in Lacan’s paradox, we can be both wise and foolish at the same time, but in opposing ways. If we’re the dupes of social convention, believing its illusions are real, we won’t err, because we’ll benefit from playing the social game. If we’re non-dupes, though, we will err from the straight path that leads to those benefits–generally material and those of social status–that come from social conformity.

We can call this paradox, if you will, the ouroboros of social conformity, to return to my dialectical symbolism of the coiled serpent, which I’ve used in many previous blog posts to describe the paradoxical unity of opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme, the bitten tail is the opposite extreme, and the length of its coiled body represents all the intermediate points between the meeting opposites.

To apply this concept to les non-dupes errent, if we’re duped too much by the hypocrisies of social convention, our drive to do well will push us to succeed and rise high in society. Such has been the success of our phoney, lying politicians, our trendy, Top Ten pop stars, and our virtue-signalling Hollywood celebrities, among many others. Those who know how to play the game and manipulate the system to their advantage do well…because they’re so thoroughly duped by it, totally believing in the illusion; and provided they have a decent amount of ability (and good connections!), they’re motivated to work hard enough to succeed socially and materially.

These successful people have gone all the way up the coiled length of the ouroboros that they’ve not only reached the biting head of success, they’ve also gone past it, over to the bitten tail of being extreme dupes. They’ve not only been taken in by the deception, to its maximum; they’re addicted to the illusion, and when confronted with the unreality of their world, their cognitive dissonance is so great that they’ll fight tooth and nail to defend their cherished illusion.

Then, on the other hand, there are the non-dupes who err. These ones are so contemptuous of society’s hypocrisies, they despise the masquerade so much, that they refuse to participate in it. Refusing to go along, though, they also don’t get to enjoy the rewards of the system. As a result, they slide down the coiled length of the body of the serpent and reach the pain of its bitten tail. These ones are like Diogenes the Cynic, or in modern times, persecuted journalists like Julian Assange. In their martyrdom and suffering, though, they go past the bitten tail and reach the biting head, which for them represents the honour of keeping it real.

Of course, there are also those who are everywhere in the middle, on the coiled length of the ouroboros’s body. These ones are some combination of partly duped, partly erring, and therefore moderately succeeding or failing to varying degrees.

As for me, I’ve learned that les non-dupes errent has been, for good or ill, the story of my life.

III: Erring in a Toxic Family

When you’ve been raised in a family with a narcissistic parent, as I was, you live out a life with a phoney narrative built up around it. By the time you finally wise up to it (which tends to be around when you’re in your late thirties to early forties), the psychological damage has already been done.

The phoney narrative has a cast of characters that the narcissist narrator has established, a set of roles the members of the family are assigned and manipulated into playing: the narcissistic parent, who has absolute power and is idolized, practically canonized as a saint by the family; the codependent other parent, who, like everyone else in the family, doesn’t dare challenge the narrative for fear of reprisals from the narc parent; the flying monkey siblings, the chief of whom is the golden child (the dupe to end all dupes), who is favoured the most for having pleased the narc parent the most, and the lesser flying monkeys, who are the lost children, given less attention and feeling relatively invisible, but who are at least not the despised one.

The despised one, however–the scapegoat, or identified patient–is the one who defines the dysfunction of the family for being the one who flouts its rules and incurs the wrath of the narcissistic parent. This last family member is the non-dupe who errs. He or she sees past the masquerade that the rest of the family is putting on; he or she is the black sheep who sees through the family bullshit. His or her blunt honesty about the phoney situation, refusing to be duped, gets him or her in trouble; he or she errs into the realm of emotional abuse.

As I’ve discussed in a spate of blog posts, I was the scapegoat of my family. As the sensitive empath, I saw through the phoniness of their presentation of themselves as a ‘respectable,’ and ‘loving’ family. My attempts to expose their charade got me black-balled by them. I was not duped, and I erred from the path they all went on together. They, the duped, didn’t err: they all ended up with better-paying work than mine, and with the respect of their peers.

No good deed goes unpunished.

And as the Marquis de Sade observed in his prose, the wicked prosper. Such is the world we live in.

IV: The Non-duped in School

Similarly, in high school we see our classmates grouping together based on common interests, usually based on their musical tastes, through which these adolescents derive their fragile sense of identity. In the 80s, when I was a teen, there were the metal-heads, or rockers; there were the New Wavers; there were the Goths, and other fans of what was then considered ‘alternative rock’; and there were the fans of mainstream pop and rock, those who included the hero jock football players and their pretty, princess girlfriends.

Then you had people like me, who didn’t fit in with any of those categories, partly because I was too awkward to make it with any of them, and partly because I simply didn’t want to be one of them. I built my own identity around listening to prog rock, modern classical, and avant-garde music. In other words, I rejected the phoney conformity of my classmates. Not being duped by their fashionable posturing, I erred…into the realm of being bullied.

V: Meandering and the Media

Another area where, paradoxically, the dupe doesn’t err and the non-dupe errs is in that of the global media, 90% of which in the US is controlled by only six corporations who, therefore, get to decide, based on their class interests, what is and isn’t newsworthy; and elsewhere there are repeats of what is reported in such dubious sources as the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse, based in New York, London and Paris.

Much of the global media, including The Guardian, CNN, and many others, is given huge donations from Bill Gates (Don’t get me started on him!), meaning that he can decide on the nature of their content, which will ensure maintaining a positive public image for him.

It is in these contexts that we can understand the contrast between the journalism of Assange and someone like Vanderbilt oligarch heir Anderson Cooper, who worked for the CIA for two summers while in college. The latter is a dupe who doesn’t err, while the former is, as mentioned above, a non-dupe who has erred.

For his work in maintaining the phoney political and social narratives of our time, being himself a dupe of them as well as duping millions of brainwashed CNN viewers around the world, Cooper has done well for himself financially and in terms of social standing. For telling the truth about our corrupt political world, though, Assange is incarcerated and in poor health.

VI: Roaming from the ‘Rona

The fact that the mainstream media is so reliably mendacious is the context in which we should place most reporting on the ‘rona. That millions have been plunged into poverty during this pandemic, while the oligarchs have seen their wealth skyrocket, should give us all pause. And this is all because of a virus that, if you were to catch it, would cause you in most cases to have from zero, to mild, to moderate symptoms, or in a small percentage of cases, more serious symptoms, or death in less than 1% of cases: this reality is more than enough to raise serious doubts of what we’re being told.

As I’ve stated previously, I’m no “anti-vaxxer”; rather, I’m opposed to the mandates. Those of us who are resistant to the machinations of those who are exploiting this pandemic for the sake of their own material gain, we are the non-dupes who err. We refuse the jab as an expression of our civil rights, and because we have legitimate doubts of its efficacy at best, and its safety at worst. Because we won’t be duped by the media, we err, that is, we lose work and the ability to go where we wish. The compliant ones, whom we see as the dupes, they don’t err: they can go about and work as they wish, imagining there’s no dog leash around their necks because they never attempt to walk beyond the length of its reach.

VII: Erring Commies

A final manifestation of the non-dupe erring that I’d like to discuss is he or she who has a realistic understanding of capitalism. The dupe of neoliberalism has a blind eye to how the hell we’re undeniably living in has been caused by the aggravation of class conflict through the unholy alliance of the bourgeoisie with the capitalist state that protects their interests. This dupe insists that the mere existence of a government and its regulations precludes the possibility of our woes having been caused by capitalism, the only ‘true’ form of which is, apparently, the “free market.” By playing the neoliberal game, however, these dupes tend to fall in line, believe in the spurious notion of the ‘American dream,’ work hard for their bosses, get promotions, and achieve at least a reasonable level of success. They don’t err.

We non-dupes, however, we communists, are standing in the rain, as Michael Parenti once observed. We put our jobs on the line; we’ve historically put our lives on the line. Contrary to the right-wing propagandists’ notion that communists hunger for power, we want the power to end hunger. If we’d truly lusted after power, we’d join forces with the Rockefellers and Kissingers of the world (as the dupes who don’t err do); instead, we non-dupes who err find ourselves in, or at least sympathizing with, countries that have to endure economic sanctions and embargoes, as well as threats of invasion.

VIII: Conclusion

So, though the non-dupe errs, he or she can be consoled with the fact that, straying from the straight path that leads to material success, he or she at least isn’t selling his or her soul to the system. Our suffering should be seen as a badge of honour, for we have an integrity and a sense of principles that the duped who don’t err will never have. We’ve erred past the bitten tail of the ouroboros, the realm of failure and defeat, to reach the serpent’s biting head, where we can proudly say that we’ve never allowed ourselves to be deceived.

Keep on erring, non-dupes. Progress is not possible without it.

‘Cedrick,’ a Children’s Story

[Here’s another children’s story in verse, like my previous one, ‘Bite.’ Again, there are no illustrations for it, because I’m far from being the best drawer in the world. I hope to find an illustrator, preferably my wife’s nephew, to do justice to the story. Here it is.]

In the land of Nacada, a powerful witch
Used her magic to give herself beauty.
Named Zill, she then married a man who was rich;
But to none in the world was her duty.

The key to her beauty was throwing away
All her ugliness onto another.
To keep herself comely, she found one good way:
After marrying, she’d be a mother.

On their children, she’d throw all of her ugliness:
First, two sons, and then, their only daughter.
Then at last, their son Cedrick, who never felt bliss,
But instead, his tears flowed out like water.

For on him was thrown all of the hideousness
That the five in his home all possessed.
For, without all Zill’s magic, these five were no less
Hard to look at than her. In his breast,

Cedrick had a good heart, but nobody saw past
His repulsive exterior form.
As a boy, he sought friends, but they all were aghast
At his shape–less a man than a worm.

In their house, the five made him do all of the work–
Washing dishes and clearing the trash.
If any one duty the youth dared to shirk,
He’d get many a bruise and a gash.

He learned of a party one night; out he snuck.
There he saw…oh!…the prettiest girl!
He was far from the power of his mother–what luck!
His good looks were restored! With this pearl,

He dared to chat, dared to ask her for a dance,
And this pearl of a girl said she would.
Oh, Cedrick was glad that he took such a chance,
For her heart, like her looks, was all good.

Her name being Georgia, she said he was handsome!
He’d never been called that before!
He looked in the mirror: he looked good, and then some!
Zill’s spells didn’t work anymore.

They danced, and they laughed, and they talked ’til quite late,
And she saw in his soul a good heart.
And he saw in his Georgia a long-wished-for mate,
And from her, he would not want to part.

But by midnight, Zill’s magic had traveled far past
The more usual reach of its power.
For all five of the family now made a cast
Of their curses at him in a shower.

His deformities all had returned, one by one,
Causing him to flee from Georgia’s sight.
Her surprise came more from his abrupt need to run
Than from how his new looks caused a fright.

Back at home, he saw all his grotesqueness returned,
And his family all felt relieved
That their warts and their boils were now his. How he yearned
For his Georgia, and how she’d perceived

Him as good in his looks as she’d found his warm heart.
And he slaved away as the five dined.
He wondered if he’d get her back…by what art?
All he had was his Georgia on his mind.

The next day, she came back to him! She’d found his home!
She said, “I’ve come to set Cedrick free!
He’s no longer your slave; now, with me will he roam.”
His mother growled, “How can that be?!”

“I, too, am a sorceress,” Georgia replied.
“But, unlike all of you, I do good.
It was I who helped Cedrick to find me outside
At a dance, far from you, where I could

“Give him love and affection, a cure to the ills
That you cruelly all passed on to him.
I won’t leave him with you, ’til your ugliness kills
All his goodness. A future so grim

“Is what you five deserve, so we’re leaving you here
Where I’ll bind you from passing your curses
To others. No longer will anyone fear
Zill’s deforming, maleficent verses.”

Then Georgia and Cedrick left his troubled city,
And wed in a faraway land.
As for Zill and her family, more was the pity.
They died by her cruel, cursing hand.

For no longer could they throw their foul ugliness
Onto others; it stayed there with them,
And they rotted away. Cedrick, though, lived in bliss
With his Georgia, his saviour, his gem.

So, if something inside has been bothering you,
And you try, then, to dump it on others,
You’ll find it comes back, just to vex you anew.
Folks aren’t trash. You should see them as brothers.