Analysis of “Joker”

I: Introduction

Joker is a 2019 supervillain origin story film directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Though based on the DC comic book character, this film takes many liberties with the story material by creating a background for the Joker that has hitherto been kept deliberately mysterious.

The notion of him starting out as a failed comedian comes from Batman: The Killing Joke, but other elements come from two Martin Scorsese films starring Robert De NiroTaxi Driver and The King of Comedy. This origin story nonetheless can be reconciled with the comic book canon somewhat in that, given how the story is told from the Joker’s point of view, and given his psychotic penchant for mixing fantasy with reality, he is an unreliable narrator; so it hardly matters if events in the movie contradict those of the comic books.

Phoenix’s performance deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar. For her plaintive, brooding cello soundtrack, Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Best Original Score. The film itself has also been praised (with nominations for such Oscar categories as Best Picture and Best Director), in spite of such controversies as the baseless fear that its sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-ill loner, who shoots people, would inspire incel murders. Actually, the film–despite Phillips’s denial of having intended any political message–is clearly presenting a drama of class war.

II: Quotes

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” –Arthur Fleck/Joker

[written in notebook] “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.” –Arthur

[written in notebook] “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” –Arthur

“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” –Arthur, to his therapist

“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” –Arthur

“I know it seems strange, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I don’t know why everyone is so rude, I don’t know why you are; I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little warmth, maybe a hug, ‘Dad,’ maybe just a bit of common fucking decency!” –Arthur, to Thomas Wayne

“I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life.” –Arthur

“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy…but now I realize…it’s a fucking comedy.” –Arthur, to his mother before killing her

“When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?” –Arthur, to Murray Franklin

Murray Franklin: Okay, I- I think …I might understand it. You…did this to start a movement? To become a-a symbol?
Joker: Come on, Mur-ray. Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.
Murray: Alright. So that’s it, you’re crazy. That’s your defense for killing three young men?
Joker: No. They couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. [the crowd boos and jeers] (growing frustrated) Ugh, why is everybody so upset about these guys?! If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me! I pass you every day, and you don’t notice me! But these guys… What, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?!
Franklin: You have a problem with Thomas Wayne?
Joker: Yes, I do! Have you seen what it’s like out there, Mur-ray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me?! To be somebody but themselves?! They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!!

You’re awful, Murray.” –Arthur, coldly

Joker: How about another joke, Mur-ray?
Franklin: No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
Joker: What do you get…
Franklin: I don’t think so.
Joker: …When you cross…
Franklin: I think we’re done here now, that’s it.
Joker: …A mentally-ill loner with a SOCIETY THAT ABANDONS HIM AND TREATS HIM LIKE TRASH?!?!
Murray Franklin: Call the police, Gene!
Joker: I’ll tell you what you get!
Franklin: Call the police.
JokerYOU GET WHAT YOU FUCKING DESERVE!!!! [pulls out his gun and shoots Murray in the head, instantly killing him]

[Joker, in a police car, is laughing and chuckling at the chaos being spread to Gotham City]
Cop 1: Stop laughing, you freak. This isn’t funny.
Cop 2: Yeah, the whole fucking city’s on fire because of what you did.
Joker: I know… Isn’t it beautiful?

[Arthur is laughing loudly during a psychiatric examination at Arkham Asylum. He soon settles down, but still laughs]
Psychiatrist: What’s so funny?
Arthur[laughing and chuckling some more] I was just thinking…just thinking of a joke. [shot of a young Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his dead parents as the camera pulls back and Arthur’s laughter is heard]
Psychiatrist: You wanna tell it to me?
Arthur[softly whispers] You wouldn’t get it.

III: Mirrors

The story is set in 1981, as the film’s use of the old Warner Bros. logo of the time suggests. We hear the news on the radio describing a garbagemen’s strike in Gotham City, resulting in pileups of garbage bags all over town. Just as M.A.S.H., set during the Korean War, was meant as an allegory of the Vietnam War, so can Joker, set in early 80s Gotham, be seen as an allegory for our neoliberal time (in fact, because of the general strike in France, garbage is piling up there, too). The earlier time in which the film is set is a mirror to our present time.

Already we see, in this garbagemen’s strike, an indication of class war: if the workers’ demands would simply be respected, the mess would be cleaned up. The filth in the city, and the fears of it leading to the spread of disease, shows how little the rich care about the poor. The pileup of filth is a mirror to the political and economic corruption of our world.

We see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) putting on clown makeup in front of a mirror. He puts his fingers in his mouth, stretching it upwards and downwards to make smiles and a frown (and remember that a ‘smile is just a frown turned upside-down’).

What’s established in this scene are two themes: the psychoanalytic symbolism of mirrors, and the dialectical relationship of opposites. These themes can also be fused in the form of the self-other dialectic, in which we can see the self in the other, and vice versa. One thing mirrors its opposite.

Fleck’s mirror is Lacan‘s mirror: the man looking in the reflection is Arthur’s real, socially awkward self; the reflection is his ideal-I, the successful comedian he wishes he could be. In his attempts to be that great comedian, to smile and make others smile and laugh, he finds himself constantly failing…hence, frowning.

The idealized image in the mirror is a lie, for the very formation of an ego–as opposed to the awkward, fragmented self one really is, lacking a clear definition between oneself and the outside world of other people–is also a lie. Hence, Arthur is alienated from the ‘self’ he sees in the mirror; that ‘self’ is really someone other than himself.

Similarly, he idealizes other people, such as Murray Franklin (De Niro) on the TV, whom Fleck sees not only as his idol as a comedian, but also as a kind of father figure, since he doesn’t know his real father. Seeing Murray’s face on the TV is thus like looking into a metaphorical mirror for Arthur.

Indeed, there are a number of such metaphorical mirrors, or idealizations of other people seen as reflections of one’s narcissistic self. Apart from Murray, these ideals include Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy; his idealization of her is Oedipal), Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen, Wayne is idealized by both Flecks, who imagine the billionaire to be Arthur’s father), and Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whose finger gunshot to her head is imitated…mirrored, by Arthur. Charlie Chaplin, the comic tramp that penniless [!] Arthur sees mirrored on the silver screen, is another ideal.

Those are the idealized reflections, but then there’s the real Arthur looking at the literal or symbolic mirror reflection. The real Arthur is coming apart; he is experiencing psychological fragmentation, and a narcissistic False Self, as dysfunctional as that may be, is an effective defence against fragmentation. Hence, Arthur’s transformation into the Joker.

IV: Opposites Attract

The Clown Prince of Crime (a perpetrator of it), as we see in this film, starts out as a victim of crime: he’s beaten up by the kids who’ve stolen and broken his sign over his face; he’s docked pay for the sign, whose theft and breaking weren’t his fault…not that his boss, agent Hoyt Vaughn, wants to listen (this is tantamount to wage theft); and he’s assaulted by the three Wayne employees on the train, making him snap and kill them.

The dialectical unity of opposites is best symbolized in Arthur’s involuntary laughing, a result of pseudobulbar affect. His pained laugh, which he–in his embarrassment–desperately tries to control, looks like a cross between laughing and weeping; the sad aspect is especially apparent when we see it typically happening whenever something bad happens to him. Smile, though your heart is aching…

All Arthur has ever wanted is recognition, an acknowledgement that he exists. To make a kid laugh on the bus, such a happiness is the mirrored reflection of a smile Arthur’s own wounded inner child yearns to be able to do, but for real, for a change.

Lacan said, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” that is, we feel desire in terms of other people. We desire what we imagine others desire, and we desire recognition from other people. Arthur imagines that, in making others laugh, he’s fulfilling their desires; and in doing so, he’s fulfilling his own desires by getting people’s recognition. Once again, we see the self defined in terms of the other.

While watching the Murray Franklin Show on TV with his mother, Arthur fantasizes that he’s sitting with the studio audience. This scene establishes the fact that not all we see and hear in this film is really happening. In fact, a lot more of it could be fantasy. Could all of it be fantasy?

Even if all of it is, the themes of class war and of alienation–social, worker, and inner alienation–are real enough to deserve examination. People like Arthur Fleck have existed and continue to exist; their problems of loneliness, mental illness, and exploitation by the ruling class countervail the Joker’s ‘fake’ origin story so many times over that the Arthur Fleck story might as well be 100% true.

I will argue that the Joker is Arthur’s False Self, his narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation; on the other hand, the Joker (the only version of him that is ‘real’ to us, i.e., that we have seen in the comic books and in previous movies) could be imagining Arthur as a fake version of his past self in order to win people’s sympathy. Which version of him is real, and which is fantasy? Here we see how the opposites of fantasy and reality attract, as do those of the self and the other.

Arthur fantasizes that Murray would give up all his fame and wealth just to have Arthur for a son. As an aspiring comedian, Arthur wishes to identify with his idol, Murray, just as any son, upon the dissolution of his Oedipus complex, identifies with his father.

V: Comparisons With Other Films

Some interesting comparisons can be made between films in that De Niro is playing Murray; he also played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Arthur is both the fantasizing, failed comedian counterpart of Pupkin and the journal-writing psychotic counterpart of Bickle. Similarly, Murray is the TV show host equivalent of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy. In this use of De Niro, we see a further identification of Arthur with his TV-mirror reflection and father figure, Murray Franklin.

And since Arthur is an unreliable narrator, who may have killed fewer people than we see him kill (Does he kill Murray, or is that scene as much a fantasy as is his scene sitting with the studio audience? And what about the excessive number of shots fired from his gun on the three yuppies on and off the train?), Joker could be seen as the proletarian version of American Psycho. And this leads to an interesting inter-film coincidence: Christian Bale played both Patrick Bateman and Batman, the latter of whom would “complete” Heath Ledger’s Joker!

Fleck’s mother always calls him “Happy,” imagining that “he’d always been such a happy little boy”; but his ‘happiness,’ linked with his involuntary laughing and his failed attempts at comedy, is just a reaction formation against dealing with his profound sadness, a form of manic defence against depression. In this, we see the unity between the opposites of happiness and sadness, as when he–taking care of his mother–has seen his life as a tragedy, then–smothering her with the pillow in the hospital–sees his life as a comedy.

VI: The Love Gun

Randall, a clown colleague of Arthur’s, gives him a gun for his protection against any future attacks from punks like the teens at the film’s beginning. This pistol is a symbol of the Lacanian phallus, which is itself symbolic of the thing we lack, and therefore desire. Arthur’s lack, as mentioned above, is a feeling that he doesn’t exist (Lacan’s manque à être), which shifts into symbolic castration (manque á avoir, ‘lack of having’), the powerlessness he feels as a poor, struggling clown/comedian.

It’s around when he gets the gun that he begins to fantasize and obsess about Sophie. He dances in his living room holding the gun, imagining he’s talking to her and that she’s impressed with his dancing. His erotic pelvic moves emphasize the phallic nature of the gun, and when he accidentally shoots a hole in the wall, and his mother complains about the noise, it’s as if she’s caught her boy masturbating. Apologizing to her, he feels ashamed. Later, when he fantasizes about Sophie at his door, and she asks him about his having followed her, and hopes he’d “come in and rob” her in her apartment (obvious sexual symbolism), he playfully mentions the gun he has…more sexual and phallic symbolism.

When he performs for the hospital kids and the gun falls out of his pocket and onto the floor, we see another symbolic castration, his loss of power (he gets fired, and thus can no longer be the ‘happy’ clown he imagines his mom wants him to be…”to spread joy and laughter”). Ironically, it’s his dancing about that causes the gun to fall out. Actually, Arthur has missed his calling: he should be a dancer, not a comedian. Dancing is natural for him: he doesn’t even seem to need lessons.

He regains his power when killing the three men on the train with that ejaculating, phallic gun (a comparison I made in my Taxi Driver analysis, too). He escapes to a public washroom and does another of his therapeutic dances. Using the gun to kill his tormentors, projecting his pain onto them, is therapeutic and empowering, as is his dancing, perhaps the purest art form of all, since it involves the direct, instinctive movements of the body to express oneself (‘express,’ to press outward, to project outside what has been bottled up inside, to take what’s in the self and put it in the other).

VII: Thomas Wayne

Unlike the kind Thomas Wayne of Batman Begins, this one is an unsympathetic, Trumpish sort. Accordingly, his attitude towards the angry poor is offensive and condescending–he calls them “clowns,” yet he hypocritically claims that, if elected mayor of Gotham, he’ll help the poor, even though really doing so would be against his class interests as a billionaire.

Yet aptly-named Penny imagines Wayne will save Gotham, as many poor Americans believe their incumbent–who has cut (or at least proposed to cut) food stamps, taxes for the rich, and funding for healthcare and education, yet has also sought to boost military spending into the billions–actually cares for them. She idealizes Wayne, just as Arthur has idealized images of Murray, Sophie, and Wayne in his head, mirror images that don’t reflect the truth.

There’s more fantasizing when Arthur imagines Sophie at his door asking about his having followed her (something no woman in her right mind would be happy about); then he imagines himself dating her, with her enjoying his disastrous standup comedy routine, and her with him in the hospital with his mother. One wonders: have the fantasies increased now that he isn’t getting his medication? Is the rest of the movie especially unreliable?

This leads back to the discussion of class war: the cuts in funding that cause Arthur to lose both his therapy sessions and his medication. Problems like these underscore how a movie set in 1981 (before Reagan had really begun to force ‘small government,’ and ‘free market‘ capitalism on the US) is actually a parable for our much worse times. The cops accuse the Joker of causing the social unrest at the end of the film, instead of taking responsibility for protecting the capitalist system that has really caused the unrest.

VIII: Mommy and Daddy Issues

But what is the thing that makes Arthur totally lose it? Not so much these problems mentioned above, not even Murray humiliating him on TV, but that archaic, narcissistic trauma that–in all of its variations–is universal: his love/hate relationship with his parents.

Heinz Kohut‘s theory of the bipolar self posits that we all get our sense of self, as children going through primary narcissism, through the grandiose self on one side (which says, “I’m great, and I need you, Mom and Dad, to mirror my greatness back to me!”) and the idealized parental imago on the other (a mental internalization of one’s ‘godlike’ parents that says, “You, Mom and Dad, are the greatest, and I get my greatness from your love!”). Lacking this validation, a person is in danger of either pathological narcissism or fragmenting into a psychotic break with reality.

Such fragmenting, with only a narcissistic False Self as a defence against it, is exactly what’s happening to Arthur. When his mother plants the seed in his head that his rolling-stone papa is billionaire Thomas Wayne, he naturally wants to idealize the man as much as she does.

When Arthur meets young Bruce, the two facing each other with the gate of class difference separating them, I suspect that Arthur is fantasizing about touching the boy’s face and curling it up into a smile. No child would tolerate a stranger touching him like that without at least some resistance, especially a rich child raised to believe that the lower classes are ‘inferior.’

Arthur’s wish to make Bruce smile, as with the boy laughing and facing him on the bus, represents his own wish to smile by having happiness mirrored back to him. It’s his wish for recognition, just as he’d have Thomas acknowledge him as his son.

But as always, his wishes keep getting frustrated. In the public washroom with Thomas Wayne, Arthur sees both of them in the mirror reflection, himself juxtaposed with his idealized father, another kind of ideal-I. Not only does Wayne, however, deny that he’s his father, in an even more devastating blow, he claims that Penny adopted Arthur.

Arthur claims that Thomas resembles him (“Look at us,” he says. “I think you are.”): is this a fact, or is it wish-fulfillment? Thomas’s denial of paternity could easily be part of a cover-up to avoid publicizing a scandalous adultery with a former employee, complete with documents forged by the unscrupulous Dr. Benjamin Stoner. On the other hand, especially with regards to Arthur’s unreliable point of view presenting the story, we must also consider how far-fetched it is to believe that he and Bruce Wayne are half-brothers.

Arthur’s visit to Arkham State Hospital seems to confirm his worst fears: his mother’s medical documents seem to confirm that Penny adopted him as a child. What’s worse–and this seems to be real–he reads of her having allowed her then-boyfriend to abuse him when a boy. The physical abuse little Arthur suffered included blows to the head that must have caused his pseudobulbar affect; the ex-boyfriend also chained him to a radiator and left him deprived of food.

IX: Trauma Leads to Madness

Those who prefer leaving the Joker’s past a mystery, leaving it “multiple choice,” seem to be reinforcing, intentionally or not, the idea that criminal psychopaths are just “fucking crazies,” as Detective Mills calls them in Se7en. I prefer to go with the trauma model of mental disorders, and I believe that Arthur’s reading of his mother’s medical records has triggered repressed childhood memories, forgotten traumas. People aren’t just ‘born crazy,’ they are made to be mentally ill.

Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself, explains how, in a general sense, one becomes evil rather than is innately so: “If life’s tendency to grow, to be lived, is thwarted, the energy thus blocked undergoes a process of change and is transformed into life-destructive energy. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions which make for the blocking of life-furthering energy produce destructiveness which in turn is the source from which the various manifestations of evil spring.” (Fromm, page 162, his emphasis)

Worse than having triggered the memory of Arthur’s repressed childhood traumas, regardless of whether or not the medical documents have been faked, the seed of doubt has been planted in his head: is Penny not his biological mother? Are both of his parents unknown? Did both parents abandon him when he was a child? Does nobody love him?

He has experienced traumatic disappointments on both poles of his personality (in Kohut’s sense): his grandiose self has been shattered with humiliations and rejections, and his parental idealizations have proven false to him.

He’s had a bad day.

Only transforming into the Joker will keep him from falling apart.

With both parents having abandoned and betrayed him, Arthur will perceive them as only bad internal objects in his mind. This is Melanie Klein‘s notion of the bad mother and bad father, causing him to experience what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, a splitting of internalized objects into absolute good and bad, and a paranoid fear that the bad objects will harm him. (Click here for a more thorough elucidation of psychoanalytic concepts.) There are no good objects for Arthur…only bad ones. Now, he will feel an urge to kill his parents, both biological and symbolic.

X: Metamorphosis

After smothering Penny (whose very name he hates) in the hospital, Arthur returns home; having learned (or, as I suspect, fantasized in his narcissistic imagination, leading to a fantasy of murderous revenge) that Murray wants him as a guest on the TV show, Arthur is seen looking in a mirror as he dyes his hair green. This is him constructing his False Self as the Joker, looking at his ideal-I in the Lacanian mirror and striving to live up to that ideal.

Murdering Randall helps further cement Arthur’s new identity as the Joker, so his transformation is complete. Hearing the music from, thankfully, only the largely instrumental section of Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll” (speaking of sickos…and Glitter will get no royalties for the song’s inclusion in the soundtrack, so don’t worry about that), we see Arthur enter the elevator and leave his apartment all decked out in Joker garb and clown makeup.

In several scenes, we’ve seen sad Arthur climb that interminably high staircase up to his apartment as the evening sun is going down. I’m reminded of a passage from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Now as the Joker, though, he joyfully dances his way down the stairs. Instead of struggling his way up in search of heaven, he’s dancing down to hell.

Two cops chase him into a train filled with his followers, the anti-Wayne protestors in clown masks. These people, who regard him as a hero for killing the three Wayne employees, are each a mirror reflection of him, giving him the recognition he’s always craved. To help him escape from the cops, he even steals and dons a clown mask to mix in better with the crowded protestors, and to cause a fight among them to stop the cops from being able to continue their pursuit. His wearing of the mask reinforces the false nature of his Joker persona; he’s making himself mirror his fans.

XI: When Homicide Is Suicide

As I said above, I believe his appearance on the Murray Franklin Show is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as his first appearance in the studio audience. (At the very least, the producers of the show would have cut to commercial and gotten rid of him as soon as he began flaking out on live TV, long before he’d have had a chance to take out his gun.) In the first fantasy, Murray is Arthur’s symbolic good father, a transference from his unknown father onto Murray; in the second fantasy, Murray is the symbolic bad father who, like bad mother Penny, must be killed.

Note how, during his rant on the show, the Joker complains of how we must suffer and “take it like good little boys.” This sounds like a child suffering from an abusive father, authority figure…or Penny’s abusive ex-boyfriend, another substitute father for little Arthur. In his fantasy, he kills symbolic father Murray and gives a long kiss to the elderly woman sex therapist, Dr. Sally, who could be considered a symbolic mother transference (recall how he says he loves Dr. Sally). How Oedipal.

I’m guessing he fantasizes about killing Murray while actually still in his apartment, where he’s similarly fantasized about shooting himself, this suicide ideation being a recurring idea throughout the film. In imagining he’s shot Murray, he’s really shot that mirror image of his idealized self, his identification with the idealized parental imago that he now hates, and has replaced with his new ideal-I…the Joker. So this is yet another example of the self mirrored in the other, and vice versa.

XII: Destructive or Constructive Revolution?

He is delighted to see all the rioting and violence on the streets of Gotham, all those people in clown masks hating Wayne and the other rich of the city. Their anger mirrors his own, even though he insists he’s apolitical: recall his words to Murray, “I don’t believe in anything,” echoing the nihilism of the Germans in The Big Lebowski. Arthur finally has the recognition he’s craved; the rioters want what he wants–chaos and destruction. Accordingly, he does another dance, this time for his fans on the police car. He puts his fingers in his bloody mouth, pulls them upward, and unlike his frowning before the mirror at the beginning of the film, this time he makes a genuine, if gory, grin.

Now, we can sympathize with the anger of these people and their wish to destroy the current, corrupt social order. Revolution cannot, however, end with only violence; one must build a new world after the destruction of the old, and return to stability. The Joker and his clowns don’t want to rebuild.

It’s interesting how the Trotskyist Left Voice largely praises Joker for its insurrectionary message, while this Marxist-Leninist blog is critical of the film for its stopping at the violence and chaos. These two strands of socialism respectively advocate either violent, permanent, worldwide revolution, or the building up of socialism, be that building-up in several countries, or even just in one, if continued revolutions elsewhere aren’t possible for the time being.

Though the Joker imagines that a life of chaos is the only one for him, and that his current, laughing madman self is the real him, remember what I said above: his Joker persona is a narcissistic False Self that keeps him from psychologically falling apart. A rebuilding of society, on socialist principles, would restore the cut funding to social services, giving Arthur back his psychotherapy and medication. Socialism would also work to end the alienation he suffers.

XIII: Bruce Completes Arthur

It’s interesting how both Arthur and Bruce have lost their parents by the end of the film (be they Arthur’s actual or imagined parents), and in the loss of both people’s parents, both a supervillain and a superhero are being born. In this we see a mirroring of the Joker and Batman, of the one completing the other, the self-other dialectic…there’s a bit of one person in the other, and vice versa.

The one scene in the film not ‘narrated’ by Arthur (i.e., he isn’t in this one scene) is when Joe Chill shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne. Arthur, in Arkham, laughs about that moment, presumably having read about the murders in the newspapers and imagining a private joke. In contrast to the first scene of him laughing/weeping during a therapy session (also, just to reinforce the parallels, with a black female therapist [as was fantasized Sophie, in a way, a therapist for him], but now we’re in a white room instead of the dark room of the beginning), this time he’s really enjoying the laugh.

His therapist may not get the joke, but I think I do: he, in having inspired the clown protestors, is indirectly responsible for the murder of Bruce’s parents; because Chill, in the clown mask, is a metaphorical mirror of Arthur. This makes Arthur like young Jack Napier of the 1989 Batman film, to note yet another interesting coincidence between films. Traumatized Arthur knows young, traumatized Bruce will want revenge on him, just as he’s wanted revenge on the whole world.

Arthur=Joe=Jack=Joker=Bruce=Batman

It would be interesting to see a sequel to Joker, with Batman–the bourgeois superhero par excellence (Tony Stark ranking a close second)–fighting the permanently revolutionary Joker. What a complex, morally and politically ambiguous story that would be, where such dialectical opposites as hero and villain intermingle, as do the self and the other, happiness and sadness, and bourgeois and proletarian heroism and criminality.

If I, in my flight of ideas, have left you confused, should I explain further?

Nah.

You wouldn’t get it.

Projection and Gaslighting

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

In this post, I’m not going to be talking about the kind of projection most people usually think about, which involves imagining that other people have one’s own good or bad personality traits. The kind of projection I’ll be discussing, what Melanie Klein called projective identification, is, however, just as commonly practiced between people; in fact, it’s the most primal form of pre-verbal communication and interaction between people, starting with the mother/infant relationship, as Wilfred Bion noted in his theory of container/contained.

Projective identification involves actually pushing out those personality traits, emotions, etc., and imposing them on other people, actually manipulating others into manifesting the behaviour associated with one’s own personality traits, emotions, etc. Emotional abusers, those who practice gaslighting, use projective identification to an especially great extent.

My late mother was never formally diagnosed with NPD, but as I’ve discussed in many blog posts, I have every reason to believe she had pathological levels of narcissistic traits, even to the point of malignant narcissism. As many narcissists do, she cleverly hid her disorder behind a mask of altruism, all the while bad-mouthing and triangulating anybody she either disliked, envied, or felt in some sense threatened by.

One way she kept her pathologies hidden and unknown to the world, even to us in the family, was by projecting her faults onto other people, in the Kleinian form I described above. She projected her narcissistic self-absorption onto me, calling it “autism,” from the old definition it had a century ago (i.e., Bleuler‘s notions of excessive social withdrawal, admiration of oneself, etc.). Since I was an impressionable child at the time, I naïvely and uncritically accepted the label, and found myself acting accordingly. My acceptance of it was a case of introjective identification.

This is what narcissists and emotional abusers do: as self-psychology originator Heinz Kohut pointed out in his book, The Analysis of the Self (pages 176-177 and footnote of page 185), narcissists vertically split off and disavow everything they hate about themselves (along with horizontal splitting, through repression), everything about them that reminds them of how flawed they are, and they find a suitable victim to project those faults onto. They use gaslighting and denial to trick the victim into believing he or she has the victimizers’ faults, and the victim so thoroughly believes he is the flawed one that he displays and manifests those very faults; thus, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My mother and her flying monkeys, my elder siblings, all projected their faults onto me from when I was too young to suspect their true motives. Their projections–in the form of my mother’s gaslighting and lies about me being “autistic,” and in my siblings’ almost daily insults, verbal abuse, bullying, and making fun of me–instilled in my pre-teen/adolescent mind that I was so flawed, I behaved in the very awkward, inappropriate ways associated with such flaws, thus ‘confirming’ their judgements of me.

But my awkwardness was based on false beliefs about myself, not on reality.

I’ll give a few examples of my family’s projections. My eldest brother, R., back when I was a teen and he was in his early/mid 20s, would sometimes hear me talking too loudly (a natural thing overexcited teens will do); and instead of just telling me to lower my voice–a reaction that a young man of his age should have been mature enough to give–he felt it was necessary on such occasions to say, “Can you be an ass quietly?” It never occurred to the egotist that he was the one being an ass.

On other occasions back then, he would call me a “wimp.” Recall how I explained in other posts–his young-adult meanness towards me was really based on his anger towards our dad (from back when he was a teen), on whom he was too much of a coward to release that anger. Any young adult jerk can take out his anger on a pre-teen/adolescent, designated as the family’s emotional punching bag. R. was projecting his own weakness onto me (in fact, when he as a teen was having his problems with Dad, he was so weak about it that he dropped out of school and ran away from home; whereas when I was a teen and being emotionally abused by up to five people, I was strong, stuck it out, and stayed home until finishing university, then I left home as a young adult); and he was gaslighting me into thinking I, a kid at the time, was the weakling.

My older sister, J., the family’s number one golden child (my two older brothers, R. and F., being somewhere in between golden and lost/invisible children), was fond of pointing out how “rude” I often am (which, to be fair to her, I must confess has more than some truth to it), though she had no qualms about being rude to me if she wanted to (the same goes for my mother, who also liked to complain about my rudeness). J. would, for example, be talking to me, and if I interrupted–which, granted, I shouldn’t have done–she’d snap “I’m talking!” at the top of her lungs. On another occasion, when I was 14 and too preoccupied with a high school bully to remember to thank her (about 19-20 years old at the time) for a ride to school, she–feeling narcissistic rage at the time, no doubt–screamed at me for being “ungrateful.” Wow, J., what graciousness you have.

Then, recall how in this post she barked at me to remember to say goodbye to our grandfather at our grandmother’s funeral about thirty years ago. She then rationalized her bitchiness by lecturing to me about how “rude” it is not to say goodbye to the funeral guests (my crime was daydreaming when all the goodbyes were being said: dissociation is a common C-PTSD trait, an escape from the pain). When I angrily tried to stick up for myself, she shouted four-letter words at me to silence me. What graciousness, J.! Again, she was projecting her personality problems onto me; and our mother’s biased defence of her attitude was just more gaslighting.

I’ve also mentioned elsewhere how my older brother F. used to harangue me about ‘not caring about anyone but myself,’ when it was his bullying of me, as well as that of R. and J., and Mom’s gaslighting of me with the autism lie (not to mention all the bullying I’d suffered at school as a kid), that had alienated me from society so much that it should have been no surprise at all that I grew so aloof from others and their needs. F.’s brute stupidity blinded him from the obvious consequences of his and others’ actions.

What’s more, I knew of several occasions when J. and Mom complained of him and his wife being ‘cheap,’ or in some other sense detached from the family (one example involved his family habitually arriving late at family get-togethers). Now, to be fair to F., this complaining was probably motivated, to at least a large extent, by J.’s and Mom’s narcissistic judging and competing to be the family member ‘most worthy of love and respect’; but given what I know of how mean F. is capable of being (if only to me), it’s far from impossible to believe that J.’s and Mom’s gripes had at least some substance. And if that’s true, surely to a fair extent, then his complaining of my ‘uncaring’ nature is partially projection, too.

All of them taking their little bites out of me over the years allowed them to shed hateful parts of themselves, or at least fool themselves into thinking they’d done so. This shedding, this projective identification, was a major factor helping them to build self-confidence (even if based on a narcissistic false self), raise families, and function in society in ways that it’s been much harder for me to do.

Research on the long-term deleterious psychological effects of bullying on its victims (developing social anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, etc.) shows that it is a serious problem in our society that must be addressed. Bullies and emotional abusers are stealing victims’ happiness, their self-esteem, and their very ability to live.

So, what can we do to repair ourselves? If you can’t afford a therapist, you could consider free online therapy. I recommend such forms of self-care as ASMR, EMDR therapy, meditation, self-compassion, and repeating lots and lots of affirmations to offset all the vicious lies your abusers made you believe about yourself.

Yes, lies. That’s what projective identification and gaslighting are all about. Everything nasty they said, or are saying, about you was and is only a reflection of themselves, not of you. They were and are telling you about their faults; when they say these faults are yours, they’re lying.

Now, there’s also no doubt that the abusers really believe the lies they tell you. This doesn’t mean they’re merely mistaken in their judgements: it means they’re lying to themselves as well as to you. Their false belief doesn’t mean they’re lying less (i.e., that they’re being delusional); it means they’re lying more, for recall that narcissists have a false self they want to present to the world.

My family fancied themselves as all confident, polite, considerate, and thoughtful of others. They loved to flatter themselves in this regard, in their private thoughts, if not always openly in public. (J., for example, once bragged to me of being a follower of “the religion of human relationships,” during the very same years she alienated me from her with an endless stream of condescending, snarky, know-it-all remarks.) In reality, my siblings were in an exclusive social club, jealously competing for our late mother’s love and approval while believing, uncritically, all of her denigrating comments about our cousins, our father, and–of course–me.

So what you must do, Dear Reader, is aggressively work to counteract all the brainwashing your abusers subjected you to. Take the time every day to remember every compliment you’ve heard other people give you, remind yourself of good, loving moments in your life (dig deep into your brain and search for those long-forgotten moments…find them!), and make lists of everything you’re good at. This, over time, can gradually boost your self-esteem.

Those good moments, those good words–for far too long trivialized and invalidated in your mind by your inner critic–must be revived. They not only have every right to all the attention that you’ve unfortunately given your negative thoughts and memories, all those mean things your abusers said and did to you…they have so much more of a right to that attention. The mean words you heard were lies, projections; if you believed all that nonsense, why not give it a try to believe the good words, regardless of whether you think they were valid, or if you think they seemed not to be?

We need to reprogram our brains to stop just uncritically accepting every negative opinion we hear (each one just a projection), getting emotionally invested in it, believing it, and using confirmation bias to find ‘proof’ of it in our everyday problems and mistakes, thus reinforcing the negativity. Instead we must take those nasty comments and say to ourselves, “That’s just his or her opinion. I don’t have to believe it.” Don’t be emotionally invested in it.

Instead (and this will be difficult, given all the abuse we’ve endured over the years), we must magnify the positive words we hear from others (embrace those good projections!), get emotionally invested in them (feel good about them!) so we can believe they’re true, then find proof in our daily successes of the truth of those compliments. We must do this healing work every day without fail, over and over again, so that eventually we can turn things around and finally start to like ourselves.

If thinking straight ‘happy thoughts’ seems too unrealistic to you at the moment (yes, abuse does weigh us down that much!), you can start with Kati Morton‘s “bridge statements,” which start with small but realistic compliments and slowly work your way up. You can combine that with starting your day with several diaphragmatic breaths and at least 10-15 minutes of meditating, among other suggestions I shared in this blog post. Remember that this is a long process that will achieve results only gradually. Breaking free from the past isn’t at all easy; but it isn’t impossible, either.

Whatever you do, don’t believe your abusers’ lies and projections. Those people are sellers of falsehoods. To put it crudely and bluntly, your abusers are full of shit; and if they’re full of shit about you, then you must be so much better of a person than they say you are.

Analysis of “Punch-Drunk Love”

Punch-Drunk Love is a 2002 romantic black comedy written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Adam Sandler, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Emily Watson. It features the delightfully idiosyncratic music of Jon Brion and the bright, colourful, abstract visual sequences of artist Jeremy Blake. It is Mark Kermode‘s favourite Anderson film.

Barry Egan (Sandler, in an actually superb performance) is a lonely man with social anxiety and anger issues who becomes a victim of a phone sex extortion racket headed by Dean Trumbell (Hoffman); then he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Watson), who gives him a strength and courage he’s never had before, and he fights back against the extortionists.

Here are some quotes:

Barry: You’re a bad person. You have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir? You’re sick!

Dean Trumbell: No no, SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP![Simultaneously]

Barry: You have no right to take people’s trust. [Simultaneously]

Dean TrumbellSHUT UP! Will You- SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Now! Are you threatening me, dick?!

Barry: Why don’t you–? You go fuck yourself!

**********

“I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that’s that before I beat the Hell from you.” –Barry, to Dean

“I have so much strength inside of me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say “That’s that”, Mattress Man.” –Barry, to Dean

**********

Dean Trumbell: NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, PERVERT!

Barry: DIDN’T I WARN YOU?!

Dean Trumbell: That’s that.

**********

“Lena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you at the hospital. I called a phone-sex line… I called a phone-sex line before I met you, and four blond brothers came after me and they hurt you, and I’m sorry. Then I had to leave again because I wanted to make sure you never got hurt again. And, and I have a lot of puddings, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed. So if you could just give me that much time, I think I can get enough mileage to go with you wherever you go if you have to travel for your work. Because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you. So could you just let me redeem the mileage?” –Barry

“So, here we go.” –Lena, to Barry [last line]

Barry owns a small business selling such novelty items as themed toilet plungers. At the beginning of the film, he’s all alone in his office talking on the telephone with someone working for Healthy Choice about a frequent flyer promotion; later that morning, we’ll see him talking with a client on the phone. (Remember landlines? This film uses phone calls as a recurring motif; it’s a symbol of social alienation, since people communicate this way, but they’re far away from each other–they’re connected, yet they aren’t.)

After his chat with the Healthy Choice guy, Barry steps outside, sees a dramatic car crash (the vehicle smashing and rolling over on the street), then another vehicle is driven to the sidewalk by his place of business, and a harmonium is dropped off there. He takes the instrument into his office, and from time to time we will see him play single-note melodies on it.

The harmonium, a pump organ, vaguely makes one think of a church organ. Since the nervous man’s playing of the instrument in his quiet solitude gives him some peace, we can see its having been given to him as an act of divine grace, which leads me to my next point.

We can see the arrival of Lena into his life, her deliberate leaving of her car with him by his place of business as an excuse to meet him, as also being an act of divine grace, for her love of him saves him from his social anxiety and loneliness, and gives him the strength to fight back against his persecutors. She is thus a kind of female Christ.

Among his persecutors are his seven bitchy sisters. They bully, insult, and emotionally abuse him at every opportunity they are given. When he can’t take it anymore and blows up, they pretend that his problems are exclusively his, and that they share no responsibility at all in provoking him.

I know from personal experience what Barry Egan is going through. An emotionally abusive family, typically headed by one or two parents with narcissistic or other Cluster B personality traits, tend to have golden children (Egan’s sisters, it would seem), invisible children, and scapegoats (Egan himself). The narcissistic parents either connive at or encourage the bullying of the scapegoat, using his or her faults as an excuse to justify the bullying.

The bullying can come in the form of mobbing or in slight digs at the victim, repeated over and over again. This is what Barry’s sisters do to him: swearing at him needlessly; mocking him for saying a perfectly normal word like “chat”; calling him “Gay Boy”; nagging him about and pressuring him into attending a birthday party of one of their sisters; and calling him a “fucking retard” when he finally blows up and breaks windows at the party.

Putting up with sibling bullies is like experiencing Chinese water torture. Each insult, each put-down, each criticism, every one bit of nagging all by itself can be endured; but put them all together, one after the other in rapid succession…drip, drip, drip…and one can’t help but go crazy sooner or later.

This kind of suffering is what Barry has had to endure from his non-empathic sisters; and when he reacts, they pretend to be surprised, when it should be obvious to them that their non-stop provocations are setting off an emotional ticking time bomb.

Barry knows he needs help. He asks Walter the dentist (a husband of one of his sisters, he’s played by Robert Smigel) if he knows any psychotherapists–that’s how desperate Barry is. That his sisters would know about his asking for psychiatric help, and about his breaking down and crying in front of the dentist–these are just more reasons for them to criticize him, instead of showing him some compassion.

He wants to escape. He learns of a promotion to gain thousands of frequent flyer miles if he buys enough pudding from Healthy Choice foods (This is a plot point inspired by David Phillips.). Flying in airplanes…flying in the sky…being in heaven…

This wish to be up in the sky, symbolic of heaven, dovetails with the ‘church’ harmonium and the entrance of Lena into his life. These three strands are full of Christian symbolism, that divine grace Barry has been craving, to have someone take him out of his world of suffering and give him peace and salvation. Lena’s love will give him the strength to go on living.

You see, it is she who approaches him, not the other way around, as is done with traditional sex roles. Thus she is a refreshing feminist change from the usual social requirement that the male always make the first moves.

Also, her approaching him, rather than vice versa, can be seen to symbolize divine grace in that she, as representative of Christ, is coming to him, who is representative of the sinner, rather than the repentant sinner searching for God. Similarly, the harmonium, symbolic of a church organ, is dropped off before him, as if it were a free gift. And the offer of frequent flyer miles, acquired through the buying of packages of cheap pudding, is rather like a free ticket to heaven.

Now, Barry is a sinner…of sorts. Besides his explosive temper tantrums, he has also made use of a phone sex service, though he doesn’t have any lustful thoughts at all as he chats with the lasciviously-tongued woman on the other end of the phone.

As of the phone-sex chat, he hasn’t yet dated and fallen in love with Lena, so he’s using the chat not for prurient purposes, but just to relieve his loneliness. As WRD Fairbairn pointed out, we all are object-seeking in our libido–not seeking of sex objects, not satisfying libido through pleasure-seeking (which Fairbairn considered a failure of object-relationships), but objects as in people with whom to have relationships, friendships, and love. No, just because Barry has called up a phone sex line, it doesn’t make him the “pervert” his four assailants and Dean Trumbell (Hoffman) call him.

Again, his chatting with Anna, the phone-sex girl, is another instance of his alienation, for he wishes to connect with someone (ostensibly in a sexual manner), but without seeing the person face to face; this represents the conflict between wanting to have object relationships and wanting to be separated from people. Hence, the film’s recurring telephone call motif.

Barry is terrified of meeting Lena and of the two of them getting to know each other, because his personality has been so split apart. Having a relationship with her would be what Fairbairn, in the endo-psychic structure he devised to replace Freud‘s id/ego/superego, called the Central Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s ego…Barry in the film) connected with the Ideal Object (Lena).

Instead, Barry’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s id) tries to connect with the Exciting Object (Anna, the phone-sex girl), and his Anti-libidinal Ego (a bit like Freud’s superego) has to endure the Rejecting Object (his sisters, Dean, and Anna’s four thuggish brothers, who attack and rob Barry). Lena is his cure, his salvation, the one who will help him re-integrate his fragmented self.

Let’s consider her name. Lena has various meanings: “light,” “sunlight,” “moonlight,” “generous,” “kind,” “she who allures,” etc. It is interesting in this connection to remember Jeremy Blake’s video art sequences, with their colourful brightness, their images suggesting, if not explicitly evoking, sunlit horizons of dusk or dawn, starry moonlit nights, rainbows, etc. Lena is the light; she is the way, the truth, and the life, for Barry. Accordingly, Lena often appears surrounded in bright light, and she is typically associated in various ways with light.

Her surname Leonard means “lion’s strength.” She as a female Christ can be related to C.S. Lewis‘s Aslan, the Lion of Judah. She saves Barry and gives him his strength.

Now, when I say she saves him as a female Christ, I don’t mean that she saves him so much in the orthodox Christian sense of her ‘dying for Barry’s sins.’ (Only that scene in which the four brothers smash into Barry’s car, and she has blood dripping from her head–suggestive of Christ’s blood from the crown of thorns–associates her with the orthodox Christ.) I’d say that Lena is more of a Gnostic Christ, saving Barry by giving him gnosis, or a knowledge of his inner divine spark. With this enlightenment, he gains the strength to face his bullies.

He knows her by getting to know her during their dinner date. He knows her in the Biblical sense in her hotel room in Hawaii, their island paradise…the heaven he’s flown to on his first-ever airplane flight. And he knows her in Wilfred Bion‘s sense of gaining knowledge (K) through interpersonal communication, a soothing of his anxieties by her containing of them, etc. (Click here for more information on Bion’s and other psychoanalytical concepts.)

Recall this exchange of lines when they are on the bed in the hotel:

Barry: I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.

Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.

[pause]

Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.

He expresses his love for her with, bizarrely, aggressive and violent language. She speaks of her love for him in a similarly graphic way, though not quite as extreme in its violence. This is her containing his inner rage, which he’s projected onto her, the way a baby might project its agitation onto its mother, who would then contain it and return it to the baby in a tolerable form. Lena is, through her capacity for reverie, playing the role of mother, soothing his rage and returning his feelings to him–he being in the role of infant–in a pacified form.

This kind of soothing and acceptance is what he has needed his whole life: not to be called a “fucking retard” for getting angry, but to have his rage contained, soothed, and forgiven, like Christ forgiving us for our sins. Accordingly, Barry confesses having busted up the restaurant bathroom, apologizes, and she accepts him all the same. He later apologizes for having left her in the hospital, and for his using the phone sex service, which has led to her injury.

He says “sorry” a lot in the film. He repents; she forgives.

Her loving him as he is, with all of his faults, gives him the self-love and strength he needs to face his troubles. He thus grows in Bion’s K, or in Christ’s gnosis…whichever metaphor you prefer.

Emily Watson is a British actress, and she makes no effort to hide her accent with an American one in her portrayal of Lena; so this means that Lena is an angel of the land of the Angles, another association of her with heaven. Her job involves her often going by airplane, so she flies in heaven like an angel.

Barry has seven sisters, their nastiness to him (indicative of such things as pride and anger) associating them with the seven deadly sins, as well as the seven days of the Creation, this being a creation not by the Biblical God, but by the Demiurge, whom the Gnostic Christians deemed evil for having created the physical world, which engenders sinful desires.

Barry’s other persecutors–those four blond young men who assault and steal from him–may not be his brothers, but they are brothers all the same, so with them we can extend the association, if only symbolically, of his bullying problems with his sisters. Barry shows no sexual interest with the phone sex girl, so the brothers’ calling him a “pervert” is a projection of their own sinfulness, of lust; thus we see here more of an association of sin with siblings, his and the four brothers.

Conflict and sin among siblings is a recurring theme throughout Genesis: between Cain and Abel; between Shem and Japheth, on the one side, and Ham, who shamed their father, Noah, on the other; between Esau and Jacob; Lot’s daughters, the sisters who got him drunk, then seduced him to get them pregnant; and Joseph’s envious brothers, who had him sold into slavery. Brothers and sisters are wicked in this film, where a sinful, fleshly, Demiurge-created, Old Testament-like world can be redeemed only through the light of gnosis, of spiritual knowledge.

Elsewhere, some people have made connections between Barry and Superman, though I find their linking of the two characters to be mostly tenuous, at best. A better link with a strongman would be between Barry and Popeye, if only through the use of the song, “He Needs Me,” originally sung by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Popeye needs her, just as he needs his spinach to be strong. Barry needs Lena, just as he needs to redeem his Healthy Choice products (with green on the cover designs, a colour better associated with spinach than with…Kryptonite?) to join her on airplane flights.

The only legitimate link I can find between this film and Superman is at the end, when Lena, dressed in red, stands behind seated Barry, always in that blue suit, and puts her arms around him, making herself into his ‘Superman cape.’ But even this moment must be seen in its proper context. Barry alone isn’t Superman; he is brave and strong only with her there. He needs her, as Popeye needs Olive Oyl. Furthermore, in that scene, Barry is playing the harmonium, as if playing a church hymn. He is Lena’s Church; her love for him is like Christ’s love for His Church.

Superman may need Lois Lane’s love, and he’d be heartbroken if she died, but he doesn’t need her to give him his powers. Lena, however, does give Barry his strength; this is why a comparison of her to a Gnostic Christ makes so much more sense. She, Lena the light, gives him the enlightenment, the gnosis, that he needs.

She gives him the punch he needs to face his abusers. Her love makes him drunk with joy; she is his sacramental wine, as it were, so his Church is a midway point between Gnosticism and Catholic orthodoxy. Her blood, on her head from that car collision, is his wine, pushing him, in his drunken love, to punch the first of the brothers, and beat and threaten the others.

She is the grace, with the harmonium and the frequent flyer miles (which he must redeem, as Christ redeems the faithful Christian believer), that comes to him, lifts him out of his despair, strengthens him, and saves him.

The Long Road to Healing from C-PTSD

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

We sufferers of complex post-traumatic stress disorder have to remind ourselves that there is no quick path to recovery. We mustn’t see sickness and health in terms of black and white, but rather as a long progression with a lot of dark to light grey in between.

In fact, impatience in healing can lead to an even worse feeling of emotional sickness. Impatience leads to frustration, which in turn leads to self-blame, meaning the inner critic makes us feel worse for not improving. In failing to recognize the dialectical relationship between illness and health, as between all opposites (which I, in a number of blog posts, have symbolized with the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros), we make ourselves sicker.

We know intellectually, of course, that we must be patient as we tread that long, grey path from the darkness to the gradually brighter light, but our emotions won’t accept this reality easily. What can we do to comfort ourselves in the meantime?

Reality isn't so black and white.
Reality isn’t so black and white.

Apart from the usual forms of self-care that I and others have recommended (psychotherapy, art therapy, writing, hypnosis, ASMR, etc.), we should consider such things as a daily routine to start off our day in as positive a way as possible. Michele Lee Nieves recommends starting off the day with these five things:

  1. Do 2-3 diaphragmatic breaths
  2. Trace your meridians (look into kinesiology)
  3. Meditate for at least about 10-15 minutes every day
  4. Read things you find uplifting, and
  5. Write in a journal for a brief time (less than 5 minutes)

Why does one tend not to stick to such a routine? Is it laziness? Poor motivation? More likely, it’s because one’s self-esteem is so low that one doesn’t consider oneself worth the effort to do the healing work.

The road to wellness is NOT a straightforward one.

Of her five recommendations, I tend towards doing only the first two, to be honest (I suppose that means my own self-esteem is that limited). My application of #5 seems to be my blogging, to some extent. Instead of doing #4, I’ve begun the habit of using what Kati Morton calls “bridge statements,” which are the next thing I want to discuss.

As we know, attempts to recover by switching immediately from black to white don’t work. The same can be said about positive affirmations. If one is feeling down about one’s looks, intelligence, and talents, for example, merely saying, “I’m super beautiful and smart, and I’m amazingly good at (subject),” over and over again, won’t lift one out of the depths of one’s low self-esteem, it should go without saying.

Here is where “bridge statements” come in, which occupy that grey area of moderately comforting words between the cruel, black self-reproaches and the too-good-to-be-true white words. So, instead of replacing the usual negative self-talk (“I’m fat, stupid, ugly, and talentless.”) with its felt-to-be implausible extreme opposite, we find an in-between self-description (“I’m actually not as fat, stupid, ugly, and talentless as I’ve been led to believe.”), which balances kindness with believability.

A bridge from the darker to the lighter.

Over time, the belief in this kinder, yet realistic, self-assessment can encourage one to improve one’s looks and abilities. Then, one can move further along the bridge, away from the black side, and closer to the white side. Here, at about the middle of the bridge, one can say, “Hey, I’m actually OK-looking. I may not be a beauty queen, but I’ve lost some weight, make-up really does make me look rather pretty, my passion learning about (subject) has proven that I’m actually pretty smart, and I’m growing my talents in this field.”

Later, one goes even further along the bridge, about three quarters of the way across, say, and one reaches the light-grey area. Now, one can say, “Wow, I’ve lost even more weight! I’m still a little big around the butt, but a shapely figure is within reach. I’ve learned a lot about (subject), and in a fairly short time, too, considering how difficult it is to learn. I’m actually a lot smarter and more talented than I used to believe! Why did I ever believe those lies my emotional abusers told me?”

Now, do we ever get all the way to the other side, the absolute white side of immaculate self-love? To be frank, I have my doubts. Even if we neutralize the abusive words our bullies said to us by 100%, the reality is that there will always be new critics, new trolls, new unreasonable nay-sayers, and new narcissistic bullies out there. In fact, wanting too much of the white, the biting head of the ouroboros, leads to the black, the serpent’s bitten tail.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

But to that sobering reality, I say…so what? Who needs to be perfectly happy? When I wrote in previous posts of coming “closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain,” and of achieving “a lasting cure for complex trauma,” I wasn’t talking about a state of literally perfect happiness (even if it may have sounded that way). I meant that happiness is a process, a moving ever closer towards the white.

“Closer and closer to…no more pain” is nirvana enough for me.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge

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

Among the symptoms of those suffering from C-PTSD are a preoccupation with the abuser(s), a feeling that they are somehow ‘all-powerful,’ and an urge to get revenge on them. I find myself ruminating over all the times that members of my family emotionally abused me, and the thought that they got away with all of that just makes it hurt all the more.

There’s a terrible feeling of defeat that one gets from contemplating how one’s abusers and bullies never got theirs, that they’ve never even had an inkling that what they did was wrong. Their blissful ignorance (willful ignorance, actually) seems to suggest that the victim got what he or she deserved. Doubtless, the bullies want their victim to think that. No fun for them, otherwise.

The problem with trying to get even with them in some way is that it leads to escalation. The abusers are known for their viciousness when it comes to getting their way, so if you try to hurt them, they’ll hurt you back far worse than they ever did before. You can’t pull a “Cask of Amontillado” on them, so how are you supposed to punish with impunity?

Constant rumination and fantasizing about getting them back is the opposite of satisfying, yet thinking about it, over and over again, is addictive. Added to this problem is the ongoing experience of intrusive thoughts. One never has peace of mind as a result of all this brooding.

We want to put the pain outside of ourselves, but we can’t.

So, what can we do to heal ourselves, and also to get some kind of satisfaction over all of the wrongs done to us? One little bit of inspiration comes from a collection of quotes called the Jacula Prudentum, compiled by the 17th century Welsh-born poet, George Herbert. Number 520 gives this little nugget of wisdom: “Living well is the best revenge.”

“How does one live well, when one is soaking in trauma?” one might ask. Well, we can consider many possible ways, taken in combination: we can work extra hard on healing, that is, psychotherapy, meditation, self-care, writing therapy, art therapy, and mindfulness; and, as I see it, we can try to be as happy as possible.

Derive great pleasure from the idea that your tormentors of the past, those narcissists who gain supply from contemplating how miserable they’ve made you, would be furious to know that you’re actually happy without them! It doesn’t matter if they, living far from you and blocked online, don’t know that you’re happy…you’re the only one who needs to know.

I’m not saying that this is the only thing you need to do to get better. Obviously, you cannot escape from your pain and lie to yourself about being happy, as a kind of manic defence. As I said two paragraphs above, you have to work hard on healing in the various forms I gave as examples, among many others.

Smile, though your heart is aching…

But whenever you can, try to feel good, and let that good mood expand into an even better mood when you contemplate how your abusers wouldn’t want you to feel that way. Enjoy your revenge; imagine them going crazy. Indulge in a little Schadenfreude.

This little piece of advice, like all my others, is only meant to be one of many things you can do to help yourself. My auto-hypnoses on removing the inner critic, treating the painful past as if it were just a bad dream (i.e., no longer relevant to your life now), introjecting positive internal objects, and seeing the good and bad of the world as flowing into each other, not a permanent state of bad, etc., are all meant only as parts of the healing process, to be combined and used with other writers’ ideas. No individual one of them is meant to be a total cure in itself.

People often think of happiness as something way out there in the future, as something we’ll have only once we’ve either achieved something or reached a certain level of spiritual attainment. First, we’re at A (misery), then we go through a process of B (the spiritual or healing journey) in order to arrive at C (happiness). But I think dialectically: sadness and happiness can flow back and forth into each other, like the waves of the ocean. Sometimes we first have to make conditions better in order to be happy, and at other times, we have to decide to be happy first in order to make conditions better.

But for now, here’s a little tip: just imagine those narc jerks seeing you walking around with an ear-to-ear grin. Imagine them stewing over your happiness. That alone should make you feel good.

Revenge is a dish that is best served glad.

Words Cannot Be Chosen Too Carefully

Even though, on this blog, I express opinions that are controversial for some (I am an unapologetic Marxist), I try my best to choose words that not only accurately convey my meaning (which qualifies itself in so many theses, negations, and sublations, it’s like a pendulum swinging perpetually between opposites), but that also convey it as persuasively and fairly as possible.

By “persuasively,” I mean that I try my best to find reliable sources to back up my arguments, which is easier said than done, given that bourgeois Google is bloody awful. (I don’t have time to sift through fifty pages in a search of an appropriate online article, no matter how hard I try to refine my keywords.)

By “fairly,” I mean I try to minimize bias (something never 100% eliminated by anyone), and I try to avoid promoting prejudiced attitudes against any disadvantaged group. Again, I cannot do a perfect job at that, but I try my best.

As a socialist, I want freedom from unfair advantages (often crudely defined as “equality,” but more accurately defined as, “from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs“), across the board. Social justice isn’t symbolized by a straight, flat line; it’s symbolized by the gentle, up-and-down flowing waves of an infinite ocean.

Still, even my best efforts are opposed by people who won’t read me as carefully as I try to express myself. I’ve had readers who troll me on the basis of only one paragraph, or even just one sentence I’ve written (or even just a part of one sentence!); they have chosen, instead of staying with me and seeing that one problematic passage in context, to jump to conclusions and judge the entire post, or everything on my blog, on that one little fragment.

I’ll give a few examples of such misrepresentations of my writing, starting with some people on the Facebook pages supporting victims of narcissistic and emotional abuse, where I used to share blog posts of my own experiences of that problem…before the ultra-offended began a cowardly campaign of reporting me and putting me in Facebook jail for days, or even a week’s length in time.

What were the usual reasons for this? My occasional criticisms of Trump, for one. My second post on my personal experiences with emotional abuse, which I suffered from my family, titled Narcissism In the Family, while liked by a lot of people, has also generated a lot of criticism, generally from brief comments I made in passing about the Donald, not from the overall content of the post.

Most of this criticism seems to have been centred around my use of Trump as an example of overt narcissism. Now, criticizing him has, for obvious reasons, become a tad political, to put it mildly, and I know we’re not supposed to share political opinions on those Facebook support group pages; so sharing that post–as well as Absence Makes the Mind Go Fonder, which also includes a brief criticism of the Trump administration–is a no-no. Still, let’s be reasonable: is there anything controversial about acknowledging Trump’s most obvious narcissism? In mentioning it, am I going off topic or something?

But even beyond that, let’s consider the politics. How can there be survivors of narcissistic and emotional abuse, in significant numbers, supporting Trump? Do these worshippers of right-wing authoritarianism have Stockholm Syndrome? Why do they think a billionaire narcissist actually cares about them, when they aren’t even in his economic league?

Just because he isn’t part of the Republican/Democratic duopolistic establishment doesn’t make him one of ‘the good guys.’ Trump supporters have no sense of historical materialist, class analysis, something that has been sorely missing in political discourse ever since the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the disastrous dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Trump is merely a dissident member of the ruling class; he’s part of its more nationalistic faction. Like all members of the capitalist class, though, be they conservative or liberal, their main concern is to protect and preserve their class interests, not to care about the common people. One must be willing to acknowledge how narcissistic capitalists are.

Trump speaks out against the wars to gain popularity with the anti-war right, and to be reelected in 2020, not because of his convictions (assuming he has any). His bloated military budget, interventions in other countries’ affairs, expansion of imperialism, bombings, and starvation sanctions are consistent with those of his predecessors.

One doesn’t have to be a pussy-hat wearer, talking nonsense about “Russian collusion,” to oppose him. All one has to do is see him do all the things that the American political establishment approves of him doing. What he says means nothing (except in how it displays his narcissism and lechery); what he does is everything, the same as with other politicians, past and present.

If he truly wanted to “drain the swamp” of corruption, he would never have appointed former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, who has hoped for a coup in Venezuela (and has been replaced by the far more charming Pompeo–sarcasm); nor would he have appointed Steven Mnuchin, formerly of Goldman Sachs.

Some survivors of narcissistic and emotional abuse turn to Christianity to give them comfort, which is no one’s business but their own, of course; but some of these will have a more conservative, fundamentalist-leaning faith. With this inclination, they may imagine that God appointed the obviously sinful Trump to the Oval Office, justifying their absurd convictions by citing where Scripture has given instances of God choosing sinners as kings before (“The Lord moves in mysterious ways,” apparently), instead of these fundamentalists just acknowledging how cognitive dissonance has blinded them, and how the real reason they support him is for his pro-capitalist, authoritarian, right-wing policies (e.g., his support for Israel).

I wonder if God has appointed the corrupt popes and hierarchy of bishops in the Vatican for the same mysterious, divine reason? Have the anti-Catholic evangelicals ever thought of that? I doubt it.

Have these Trump-supporting abuse survivors considered the abuse dished out by ICE at all the Latin American families being torn apart, children separated from parents, and put in cages before being deported? The fact that Obama was the deporter-in-chief of “illegal” immigrants (just so we’re clear, people are not illegal in my opinion; I don’t believe in nations or borders–I believe in people, and these people are often apprehended for minor offences, if any) doesn’t make Trump’s continuation of this injustice more acceptable.

If Trump supporters are so infuriated with the influx of Mexicans and Central Americans across the border and into Texas, have they given any thought as to the cause of this influx? The US government has thwarted most of the attempts of Latin American countries to elect left-wing governments and pull themselves out of poverty, violence, and despair; and these frustrations go right back two hundred years, starting with the Monroe Doctrine and the dwindling of the Spanish Empire’s hegemony over the region, continuing with the Roosevelt Corollary, and fully blossoming with American interference with the governments of such countries as Chile and Guatemala.

American overturning of democracy in their “backyard” has continued unabated to the present administration, with such interventions over the years, successfully or not, to remove Noriega, Chavez, Zelaya, Maduro, and currently…Evo Morales!

The purpose of all of these coups, whether successful or not, is not to promote “democracy” (the US does business with the head-chopping Saudi kingdom, for fuck’s sake!). It is done in the interests of capitalist imperialism: Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, and Bolivia has lithium, whose production Morales wanted to nationalize to help his people, which would have stopped German and other nations’ companies from profiting from it.

With so many Latin Americans languishing in poverty and hopelessness, forcing women and children into prostitution, is it any surprise that many Latinos try to build a future for themselves and their families by crossing the Texan border, and trying to stay for as long as they can? Do the abuse survivors who support Trump have the empathy to consider Hispanic suffering?

The same applies to the ban against Muslims till we “can figure out what the hell is going on?” To stop terrorism and the influx of Muslim refugees into the West, we could start by acknowledging the American creation of Al Qaeda and ISIS, and not “bomb the shit out ofMiddle Eastern countries. Abuse survivor supporters of Trump, how about some of that good ol’ empathy?

Finally, let’s consider Trump’s friendship with such abusers of power as the Clintons and sex offender Jeffery Epstein, who no intelligent person believes committed suicide. Now, to be fair to the Donald, we can’t technically prove if he’s guilty of forcibly raping a 13-year-old girl at one of Epstein’s parties, nor can we be sure if he’s guilty of the many, many sexual misconduct allegations he’s been accused of over the years; but given his manifest lechery, the pussy-grabber is probably guilty of many, if not most, or even all, of those allegations.

And yet there are Trump defenders, many female, who comment on those Facebook support group pages. It truly boggles the mind how these people remain wilfully ignorant of the facts.

Of course, it is possible that many, or most, of those Trump supporters aren’t actually victims of narcissistic and emotional abuse, but are just trolls who seek out anyone online who criticizes their beloved leader, and thus found my writing on those Facebook pages. Erich Fromm wrote much about the mentality of group narcissism, and the identifying with and admiring of the authoritarianism of the idealized leader.

One of these haters of mine actually made a baseless accusation of racism on my blog posts. (No, readers, my quoting of racial slurs used in the movies I do analyses of does not indicate an encouragement or endorsement of their use, let alone the offensive attitude behind them; my quoting of them is meant as a commentary on the problem of racism. I don’t censor the words, just as I don’t censor four-letter words, because I don’t believe in censorship. It’s as simple as that.) I soon learned that my accuser was yet another Trump supporter who didn’t like my criticisms of him. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

But enough of Trump. On the other side of the political coin, and ironically so, since this next case is also a reaction from Narcissism in the Family, a woman blogger who, from her writing, was clearly in a bad mood, got upset about this passage I wrote: “Though the narcissistic father is a formidable bully, I suspect the narcissistic mother is, in many ways, often much worse, if for no other reason than that she can cunningly exploit the stereotype of the angelic, saintly mother who criticizes her victim only out of ‘concern’.”

If I remember correctly, she quoted “narcissistic mother…much worse” in boldface. She ended her snarky response by most eloquently calling me a “muthafucka.” I gather from her response that she believed my passage was a sexist generalization (her whole blog post was an extended rant about every blogger she found who made remarks she didn’t like about females).

To be fair to her, she quoted my passage in context; but she didn’t seem very interested in that context. I did not say that all narcissistic mothers are worse than all narcissistic fathers because the former are women, as she had implied was my meaning. By saying “in many ways, often much worse,” I was implying that narcissistic fathers are also, in many other ways, often much worse than their maternal counterparts (though I hadn’t bothered to mention how). I imagined my qualification would be sufficient in avoiding a dangerous, sweeping generalization. Apparently, I was wrong.

The “many other ways” qualification included the narc mother’s ability to “exploit the stereotype of the angelic, saintly mother.” This wasn’t meant as a promotion of sexual stereotypes; it was just an acknowledgement of the problem. A narcissistic father, on the other hand, could use the stereotype of the ‘paternal authority figure who must never be questioned, only obeyed,’ making him, in that sense, much worse than a narc mother.

My own father had an authoritarian, conservative mentality that did him little credit; but he didn’t exploit it to play mind games on my siblings and me the way my mom did, so I can’t say I know the experience of being raised by a narcissistic father. He was a grumpy, mindless, bigoted old fool, but he was no narc. For these reasons, and not sexism, my blog post focused on narc moms instead of narc dads.

I suppose I should be grateful to that woman blogger for adding a link to my post, as it may bring me some more readers, who I hope will be open-minded enough to scan for the full context of what I was writing about, and thus realize I wasn’t being anywhere near as unreasonable as she was portraying me. I, however, won’t provide a link to her vituperative post, one she herself in her introduction admitted would be an unpleasant read. She can thus consider my omission of a link a favour I’m doing her.

It’s curious: my blog post criticizes a known narcissistic male chauvinist, and people (many of them women) are offended; a few paragraphs down from my brief critique, and I make another brief comment on narcissistic mothers, and it is I who am the male chauvinist. No matter how carefully you try to choose your words, you just can’t please some people.

To end off, I must discuss a recent reaction to my analysis of Belle de Jour, which is about a woman with masochistic fantasies who decides to become a prostitute by day. The reaction was one of offence, since the commenter believes it is utterly impossible that a woman would ever create such a story, let alone ever choose to be a prostitute herself, outside of poverty and exploitation.

Now, I wholeheartedly agree that the great majority of prostitutes in the world, especially in the Third World, are terribly brutalized and degraded (recall my words above about impoverished Latin American women and children, as well as the girls Epstein paid to be raped); in fact, in my analysis of the film, I emphasize the problem many times!

The socialist society I espouse would transform material conditions so thoroughly that everyone–man, woman, and child–would be adequately employed and provided for, thus reducing prostitution to a near 0%. Furthermore, the lack of alienation caused by capitalism would mean that men would no longer be treating women as objects, but as human beings.

That said, well…I’ll just leave these links here in response to what my commenter deems an utter impossibility. Not that I aim to endorse or promote such ideas, but, well…in the parlance of our time…just sayin’.

Seriously, people are way too easily offended these days. How carefully do I have to choose my words to avoid upsetting people?

‘Insidious,’ a Poem by a Friend

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, who also goes by the name Immortal Magpie, wrote this poem about the insidious effects of narcissistic abuse:

Insidiously
You weave your web of lies
Gossamer strands of falsification
Strive to imprison me once more
A myriad of ignoble eyes
Project rose coloured echoes of the past
Evoking flashbacks of tenebrosity and pain

On enlightened wings I rise
Free from the odious taint of your deceit
Familiar to your fallacious words
Impervious to the callous beast
that resides behind the mask

This poem is essentially about her ex-husband’s attempts at hoovering her back into a relationship with him. He’s like a spider, weaving his “web of lies/Gossamer strands of falsification.” I love the musical assonance of these lines, as I do the lyricism and music of the whole poem.

Comparing her narcissistic ex to a spider reminds one of the hubris of Arachne, who boasted that her weaving was better than that of Athena. Just as Athena turned Arachne into a spider for her presumption, Cass’s ex is but a spider in her eyes, one she knows will never weave anything of love for her, no matter how he tries to make her think he will. She won’t ever be imprisoned in those webs again.

“A myriad of ignoble eyes” suggests the ever-watching, invasive eyes of Argus, eyes of judgement we get from narcissists who have few kind words to say to us, but many critical and cruel ones. Still, those eyes “Project rose coloured echoes of the past,” in an attempt to suck her back into the doomed relationship by misrepresenting it as having once been beautiful. She won’t be fooled, though.

“Evoking flashbacks of tenebrosity and pain,” those eyes only trigger painful memories for her, emotional flashbacks that she wants to put behind her forever. Thus ends the first verse, one evoking the pain of the past relationship that she is in danger of being sucked back into. Then comes the second, final, and empowering verse, which looks out into the future.

She flies with “enlightened wings,” knowledge of his true, cruel nature, a knowledge that sets her “Free from the odious taint of [his] deceit.” She is “Impervious to the callous beast/that resides behind the mask” of his narcissistic False Self. That “callous beast” is the lack of love and empathy that he tries to hide behind his fake show of love.

This poem is a delightfully lyrical expression of the pain we can feel in a relationship of narcissistic abuse, as well as the hope of one day putting it all behind ourselves. If you, Dear Reader, have any stories to tell of similar experiences, whether in verse or prose, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll reblog what you write here in a future post. Peace and love! 🙂

Some Preliminary Thoughts on ‘Joker’

Arthur Fleck is my hero.

Sorry, I’m a bit of a joker sometimes…HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!

I finally got around to seeing Joker today. Wow! What a powerful film. Though set in the early 1980s, it’s as relevant to today’s times as any movie can be. Indeed, it’s the first Hollywood movie in a long time (to my knowledge, at least) that has genuine balls.

Contrary to what some of the knuckleheads in the mainstream media have either said or implied, Joker very much has a message. And no, that message is not for sexually frustrated, right-wing men to go out doing mass shootings. The film’s message is firmly left-wing: all out war against the bourgeoisie, and that’s what the ruling class–for whom the mainstream media works–feels truly threatened about.

No, I’m not advocating everyone wearing clown masks going on mass murder rampages, and busting things up. I believe in an organized, well-planned revolution that will result in giving people like Arthur Fleck what they need: decent medical and psychiatric care, guaranteed employment, etc. In short, I seek to eliminate the class system that deprives the have-nots, and which causes the alienation that causes so much of Fleck’s suffering.

I can’t do a proper analysis of this film until it comes out on DVD; then I can watch it twenty to thirty times or so, and savour every detail of this masterpiece, mining it for themes and symbolism. Until then, these preliminary remarks will have to do: after all, so much has already been said about the film in newspaper articles and videos.

Go see the film if you haven’t yet…no, chances are, you won’t become a murderer.

‘I Was a Kid,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here is a kind of prose poem that a Facebook friend of mine, Gerda Hovius, wrote several days ago, to express the pain she felt from having an emotionally abusive father. Actually, I think the poem is in verse (note the mid-sentence capitalization that occurs from time to time), but it was presented to me in paragraph form, and I’m presenting it below in the same form for two reasons: first, I don’t know for sure where she wants the lines broken (e.g., for the sake of enjambment), and this damn blog won’t (to my knowledge) allow me to separate lines within the same blocks to make verses, so we’ll have to make do with what’s below.

The poem was originally written in Dutch, but she translated it as you can see below. In it, she expresses her childhood traumas as I recommended to in this post; and as I suggested here–where I called out to all bloggers to share their experiences of narcissistic and emotional abuse–I want to encourage others to share their pain in words, so I can reblog them here. Here’s the poem:

“I was a kid, A happy child, a child that wanted to be loved. There was no space, there was no time, I wasn’t allowed to cry or be myself. I was not allowed to think what I thought or express that hard or soft. Nothing about me was good enough, Only if I did something he asked me. Then I got a little appreciation, A little attention a little time. I thought it was up to me That everyone saw me as a bother, Whenever I said how I felt or said something, there was always a comment on me. Who I had to be and what I had to be, it takes a lifetime to cure this. I now know better who I am and that I know myself a bit. I was always allowed to be there even though I didn’t feel that way, I was still small. And now if something happens or I get tired, the black clouds cover my sky again. Then I feel again that lonely child who did not belong and was not loved. Yet I know that I just had bad luck, that my father went through it himself. Yet that does not make the sadness go away it is perhaps a little easier to bear if I can access it, as I say now. I still feel hatred when I feel bad and someone is standing in front of me. I am mad at all the injustice here. It is my life it is my destiny, I can give my love my heart is not rotten. I understand that people don’t get it when I’m in the middle of it again. That makes it painful because I feel even more distant from everyone else. And indeed I feel very bad because I am not what is expected of me. But in the end what they do is not relevant, I would like to contact even if it is not possible. Don’t blame me for being an instigator if you don’t understand. It only hurts more.”

I think we can all relate to how, “if something happens or I get tired, the black clouds cover my sky again. Then I feel again that lonely child who did not belong and was not loved.” Elsewhere, “I still feel hatred when I feel bad and someone is standing in front of me,” like that inner critic facing us with his frowns. Still, we know there is good in us in spite of how awful we feel: “I can give my love my heart is not rotten.” The trauma of emotional abuse won’t make our feelings rot away–we’ll survive.

I’ve written before about the problem of feeling “even more distant from everyone else.” As for our abusers, remember that “in the end what they do is not relevant”; they do not deserve the consideration our endless rumination gives them. We shouldn’t be blamed “for being an instigator,” for we have to right to give expression to our pain. If we don’t express it…”It only hurts more.”

Please, Dear Readers, put your pain into words. If you’d like me to post your words here, I’ll be glad to, for we all have to help each other. We all need others to validate us. You can put your thoughts in the comments section, and I’ll quote them in a future post. Peace! 🙂

Putting Trauma Into Words

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

In previous posts, I wrote of the dialectical nature of health and ill health, and every intermediate point, all of these being represented on a circular continuum symbolized by the ouroboros. The two extreme opposites meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail: at the head, feelings of self-love get excessive, bordering on pathological narcissism; at the bitten tail is the threat of (if not the realization of) fragmentation, a psychotic breaking away from reality that is often defended against through pathological narcissism, where the serpent’s teeth are biting. Everywhere else on the ouroboros’ coiled body is every intermediate point from the best of health, just behind the head, to the worst of neurosis, just before the bitten tail of psychosis.

To simplify, we can make three basic categories of mental health and ill-health out of this ouroboros as a symbol of the circular continuum: the biting head is the narcissistic world of what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, seeing an ideal self in the mirror, just as Narcissus, seeing his reflection in the pond, fell in love with himself; the bitten tail is the traumatic, inexpressible world of what Lacan called the Real; and the intermediate, relatively healthy world represented by the serpent’s coiled body is what he called the Symbolic Order, where we’re connected to society through language.

The expression of our feelings, through society’s shared symbols and signifiers (i.e., language), is the basis of our mental health. Bottling up our feelings, never venting them, leads to mental illness. A crucial part of giving expression to how we feel, though, is having people who will listen to us, who will validate us, who will contain our pain as a mother would contain the anxieties, fears, and frustrations of her baby, then transform those feelings and process them for it (since the baby has no mental apparatus yet developed for thinking and processing thoughts on its own), and return them to it in a form it can accept, thus pacifying it. We need people–friends, loved ones, therapists, etc.–who will perform that maternal role for us if we’re ill.

Wilfred Bion‘s theory of a mother containing her baby’s disturbed state (in maternal reverie) is replicated in the patient/therapist relationship, where the patient is in the baby’s role, and the therapist is in the mother’s role. Such a relationship is necessary when, overwhelmed by raw, unprocessed external sensory stimuli (beta elements) that become traumatizing, the patient has psychotic episodes and approaches psychological fragmentation, a terror of disintegration, a mental falling-apart.

This falling apart often happens because there is no one to help the sufferer contain and thus help to process his or her trauma; the therapist must step in and do the containing. This containing (similar to D.W. Winnicott‘s notion of a holding environment) allows the agitating beta elements to be processed and transformed into alpha elements, or thoughts acceptable to the patient. These alpha elements can go into the patient’s unconscious mind–which is structured like a language, as Lacan said–and can be used in dreams and as thoughts to be expressed in words.

Most of us, of course, cannot afford a therapist, due in no small part to the aggravation of wealth inequality over the past thirty to forty years; so we may have to make do with playing the role of therapist for each other. By this I mean being the empathic containers of each other’s traumas and anxieties; for the trauma of having suffered narcissistic and emotional abuse is such that, given no validation of our pain at all from the narcissist’s flying monkeys, we victims are like those crying babies in need of having those agitating beta elements (our trauma) transformed into alpha elements (processed, more soothing thoughts).

So how can we rank amateurs help each other? By listening to our fellow sufferers and validating (containing) the emotional effects of the abuse they went through. Similarly, we can vent our own pain (the contained) in as expressive and vivid a language as we can muster (Richard Grannon calls it ‘Emotional Literacy‘), while others (e.g., our communal online support on Facebook pages about emotional abuse) listen to and validate us. This is how we can move from the bitten tail of trauma (Lacan’s Real) to the upper middle of the ouroboros’ body (Lacan’s Symbolic Order, the realm of interpersonal communication).

I’ll start with some venting of my own pain, which I hope, Dear Reader, you’ll contain for me, then return to me with some soothing validation. (I’ll be willing to return the favour if you send me a link of your verbalizing of your traumas, your ‘contained,’ and I’ll reblog it here, as is my intention with the message given in this post.)

  • Back in the early 2000s, when my mother was prating on and on about my supposedly having Asperger Syndrome, or AS (I’ve never been diagnosed with it, and she didn’t even merit being called an amateur psychiatrist, let alone someone with any measure of authority on mental health issues), I grew increasingly agitated, frustrated, and exasperated with her. When she dismissed my legitimate objections, I just felt unheard, invalidated, and uncared for.
  • In the mid-2000s, when she rejected my wish to fly from Asia (where I live) to Canada to see my sister, J., and her terminally ill husband, rationalizing that I’m “different,” as well as “tactless and insensitive” (due, apparently, to AS–see Part 2 of this), I exploded with rage at her condescending, hurtful attitude, for which she’d never repented. I felt insulted, devalued, excluded, and unwanted.
  • When, not too long after, J. emailed me, telling me to stop complaining to Mom about her attitude, showing me she was 100% on Mom’s side, and trivializing my pain, J. made me feel like a ten-year-old; I frowned like a hurt child, though I was in my late thirties when I read that email. I felt humiliated, disrespected, and infantilized. Her not wanting me to reply made me feel silenced and voiceless.
  • By the 2010s, when I realized that not only was Mom’s talk about AS, but also her labelling me with classic autism when I was a child, all lies, I felt so betrayed and heartbroken, I thought of the whole family, who supported her in her fabrications, as a bunch of perfidious snakes! How awful it is to feel so alone, so isolated, and so unloved. I felt fooled, conned, cheated, deceived, and tricked. (See Part 3 here.)
  • As a child, whenever I got subjected to Mom’s wild rages, or the bullying of my elder siblings, I felt terrified, helpless, overwhelmed, and trapped. Mom’s indifference to, if not outright conniving at, all that bullying just increased my sense of loneliness, of separateness from society, of unworthiness, of inferiority.
  • During the 2010s, when I heard, in the middle of a long-distance phone call from Mom, that she said–after indulging in a spate of bad-mouthing of my youngest cousin, G., about whom she’d never said anything kind in her life–she thought he might have Asperger Syndrome, I groaned in a fury, knowing she was using this psychiatric label to devalue his worth in the family…just as she’d been doing with me. I felt a growing sympathy for my so-unjustly-despised cousin. See Part 4 here.
  • Later this decade, as it became more and more obvious that Mom (an RN, incidentally) was adamant about not wanting to help my cousin, S., who was manifesting paranoid delusions about me, I felt a growing hopelessness, a despairing of the family. No one else, including J., showed any interest in helping S., either: these were the same people who had preached to me for years about the importance of putting other people’s needs in front of your own…and they were now proving they were no better than “self-centred” me! Now, I felt a growing contempt for them and their hypocrisy.
  • When my mother told me a string of lies in the late summer of 2015, the year before she died, and I heard the most blatant untruth of them all–that I supposedly had sent my aunt a series of “over-the-top” emails (click here for the whole story, if you’re interested: Part 5–More Elaborate Lies)–I lay shaking in bed, shocked, unable to sleep the whole night (I’d received Mom’s email, with this lie, just before I was to go to bed). I felt disoriented, baffled, confused, and disconcerted. I had no idea who that family even was anymore.

As you read through my examples, note my use of ‘feeling’ words, especially those in italics: agitated, frustrated, rage, betrayed, etc. It is the use of words like these, carefully chosen and made as vividly descriptive–particular and precise in meaning–as possible, that is the key to processing your trauma. Get to the root of your trauma, and get it out of your system; share your words with people you can trust, people who will contain your pain for you, validate it, and send the energy back to you in a transformed way, to pacify and heal you.

The unconscious, as understood in terms of the Symbolic Order, isn’t the unconscious of an individual person; it’s rather a trans-individual unconscious connecting us with everyone else. The unconscious as the discourse of the Other (radical ‘otherness’: that is, all other people out there, not just someone we would narcissistically mirror against ourselves, as a baby and its mother looking into each other’s eyes), a conversation between the self and other, communication and connection between people in which they aren’t extensions of a narcissistic self, but coexist as equals.

As a rank amateur myself, with no formal training in the field, I tend to modify and adapt psychoanalytic theory as I see fit, so when I see a similarity between Lacan’s trans-individual unconscious and Jung‘s collective unconscious, I do so with an understanding that Lacan would probably wince at my conflation of the two.

My point is that it is in this place where all minds meet–a psychic state unified by communication, shared symbols and signifiers (‘language’ here has the expanded meaning of being a signifying system of differential relations–all interconnected ideas, just as our trans-individual unconscious makes us all interconnected), and listening empathically. I like to call it the Unity of Space, an infinite ocean where we can all heal together.