I had not been to the cinema in decades really, until Peter Jackson came along with Lord of the Rings. The TV remote was, for a long time, in hands other than mine. Consequently I have missed a lot. My cinematic education has been sadly lacking and lately I have been catching up a little with a few of the films I have missed over the years. I had no idea where to begin, to be fair. There are, however, a few actors who seldom disappoint, so when I saw Good Will Hunting going for the price of a loaf of bread… which is, after all, not good for me… I thought I would give it a whirl. Robin Williams is usually worth watching.
I had watched him as Dr Sayer in Awakenings the night before. The film is based on a true story by Oliver Sacks. One edition of the book is dedicated to W. H. Auden, and bears an extract from his poem The Art of Healing, which seems entirely appropriate:
Papa would tell me,
‘is not a science,
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.’
Ani was concerned… I am not, in her opinion, supposed to sit for half an hour with tears streaming, but I can’t watch that one without the floodgates opening. Briefly it tells the story of a neurologist who administers L-Dopa to catatonic patients producing a short-lived but complete awakening in which the patients have to adjust to the missing decades of their lives. De Niro gave an incredible performance as Leonard Lowe, the patient who shows the doctor the joy of living.
I remembered my own fear for my son, when he lay in the coma, fearing that he would come back to an awareness that was locked in an unresponsive body. This was, perhaps, my worst fear for him. Yet there are more ways than one of being locked in.
In Good Will Hunting, Williams is once again playing a doctor; this time the psychologist helping the angry young genius who has been in and out of trouble with the law. His past is a story of abandonment, bullying and abuse. There is a moment of breakthrough when the psychologist repeats one simple phrase, over and over, with utter conviction. “It’s not your fault…” Each time the young man answers, “I know.” Yet the layers of that ‘knowing’ are challenged by the repetition, from the mechanical response of self-defence which simply says what is expected, to a final understanding. It was not his fault.
I was, as no doubt the director intended, in tears by this point. But not because of the story. Because the child in me recognised… empathised… and wished all of a sudden that someone had said that to me, with as much conviction and as much truth as was needed to break through the barriers and allow me to forgive myself. “It’s not your fault…” And I wondered just how many would watch that scene and feel the same.
Many branches of psychology these days see the small child as self-focussed to an extent that whatever negative events happen to or around them, they may see as ‘their fault’. While such events play their part in shaping all our personalities, for children who are the victim of the harsher aspects of childhood… abuse, neglect, bullying, violence… the reaction can be deeper and more destructive. An extension to that belief that It was ‘their fault’ later comes in that believe they ‘deserve’ what happened because they are ‘worthless’ or ‘not good enough’. They feel they cannot be loved. Are not worthy of love.
Several things may happen as such a child then grows into adulthood. Along with a host of other possible problems from depression to flashbacks, they may seek to ‘buy’ affection in some way, going to extremes to prove their worthiness, or they flee from affection in case it is again taken from them. The outward face may not show to others the inner turmoil, the fear of trusting… even the fear of happiness, for that too can be taken away. It cannot be relied upon and may therefore be turned away from, in fear or apparent coldness. They are afraid to let anyone too close in case they are hurt again, yet paradoxically they yearn for that closeness.
To the casual observer, none of this may show. These broken children may seem supremely confident as adults, happy and satisfied with their lives. That too is a defence mechanism. It keeps people from looking too closely. The search for healing, that wooing of Nature, may last for decades. For many it lasts a lifetime.
These two films seemed to go together somehow. There is an added pathos with the tragedy of Williams’ own life too. I wondered what his feelings had been reading the scripts. I recalled a quote I had seen from another of his films I haven’t seen, Patch Adams. “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”
The simple joys of being alive are denied to those who are locked in, not just by catatonia, but by grief, fear, self-loathing and self-blame. Most will learn and reason, understanding where the damage arose and realising that the child they were was not responsible. “It’s not your fault…” But from knowing intellectually to actually feeling it, that is a longer and different journey. It can be a small thing that finally releases a victim from the grip of these paralysing emotions. For me it was a children’s game. It is only when forgiveness is possible that healing can truly begin and it has to begin with ourselves.