By Dr. William Sharp
BGSP began its Spring 2018 movie series with Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.
The first words in the movie, spoken by Connor, are “How does this story begin?” to which the monster replies, “It begins like so many stories. With a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man, and a nightmare.” Much like treatment beginnings, we don’t know what any of this means yet – but all the answers are there, in codes we can’t yet decipher until we know the person better. We have to look at the data the we are presented with to begin making sense of it all, and the group at this BGSP event rose to the challenge.
Our main character, Connor, displays a disconnection from people. Symbolically we see this as he draws a yew tree he can see from his bedroom window, but Connor includes the frame of the window, implying some distance or barrier between he and the outside. Later, he is at his grandmother’s house and on two occasions doesn’t enter his mother’s old bedroom. Rather, Connor looks through a keyhole, again keeping him removed and limited in his experience of the full room. We see his problems with connection concretely in his behaviors. We learn Connor’s mother is ill, and his grandmother has come to help after a post-cancer treatment seems to be especially difficult. When his mother collapses, Connor can’t enter the room to give her the medicine to help. He is frozen in the doorframe. A visit from his father who is now living with his new family in America, brings some short lived joy into Connor’s day, but the flight into the fantasy of living with his father is painfully cut short when dad says, ‘there just isn’t room Connor.’
Enter the Monster. Connor is visited by a “monster” yew tree. Unlike my initial association to the movie’s title, the Monster is benevolent and here to tell Connor 3 stories, and then to listen to Connor’s own nightmare story as the fourth tale. Like many middle school aged patients, Connor is resistant to meeting this Monster (therapist?). But with the right amount of love and hate, in a containing structure, the Monster is able to give Connor the message that he is here to help, although not in the way Connor might wish.
The stories are fairytale-like, but end up being anything but black and white. A Monster Calls accurately portrays how we understand personality as psychoanalysts. The Monster says, “…humans are complicated beasts…How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a savior? How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking? How can a parson be wrong-thinking but good-hearted? How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?” and elsewhere, “Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.” To understand this, I drew upon two sources, Bion’s concept of linking (Attacks on Linking, 1959) and Spotnitz’s concept of the Narcissistic Defense (1976).
Bion’s paper on linking asserts that connections between people, objects and even ideas can’t be made in the mind of someone who is stuck with overwhelming unprocessed anger. We see Connor stuck and not able to acknowledge the gravity of his mother’s situation (that he clearly ‘knows’) in the hope that some other outcome is possible. He is stuck. His social-emotional development is arrested. Bion writes, “… lack of progress in any direction must be attributed in part to the destruction of a capacity for curiosity and the consequent inability to learn. (p293)” Often in treatment, the therapist can be struck by how a patient’s predicaments, options, and best solution is obvious to everyone, except to the patient. The best course of action for the therapist, is to hold the space in treatment, and be curious herself about what gets in the way of the patient “seeing” a way out or into a situation.
To understand the theory of a collapsed space and mind, we can turn to the idea of Spotnitz’s narcissistic defense. Ideally there are people who help each of us process anger and make it something constructive. In treatment the therapist can do this by inviting the patient to say everything and draw out what seems stuck or hidden. In the end, this interchange actually can create mind. In the narcissistic defense however, aggression is turned against the self. This can happen when the patient feels there is no acceptable or viable object outside of the self to help make aggression less toxic or even constructive. As a result, one’s own mind becomes the target of the more destructive and toxic aggression.
Getting to Connor’s truth, his nightmare, the one that needs to come out lest he “never leave this place,” is about how he wishes his mother would just die. He considers this angry and violent thought unacceptable, and as the monster/therapist points out, Connor would rather sacrifice himself (his own mind) than acknowledge that part of himself that would like an end to his own pain. Connor finally is able to say, “I wanted it to be over… I let her fall… I let her die. I knew forever she wasn’t going to make it…. She told me she was getting better, I knew she wasn’t.” And with that, Connor’s nightmare is told and ends. This moment in treatment with a patient is powerful and noteworthy as once the emotional blockage goes away, all sorts of feelings can come in, and the emotional system can come back to life in a fully functional way. We see this in the film as Connor is able to enter more fully into a whole realm of feelings- mad, sad, and glad- with his mother in her last moments. He is able to hug her and have all his feelings, leaving everyone involved with a deeper sense of peace in the end.
This movie is a powerful and emotional experience. There were numerous side stories that came out as the audience discussed the role of adults in helping children develop, the importance of Klein’s concept of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, the role of defenses in surviving, and of course story telling in psychoanalysis. The piece that makes the movie “go” in my mind however, is the importance of having all your feelings. Trying not to hate usually clogs up the emotional system. Although it can seem counterintuitive, sometimes hating can lead to loving more deeply.