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Articles- Part XXVI
Nature Vs. Nuture: An Adoptee's Experience
A.M. Homes- The New Yorker (12/20/2004)
Christmas,1992, I go home to Washington, D.C., to visit my family.
The night I arrive, just after dinner, my mother says, "Come
into the living room. Sit down. We have something to tell you."
Her tone makes me nervous. My parents are not formal people--no one
sits in the living room. I am standing in the kitchen. The dog is
looking up at me.
"Come into the living room. Sit down," my mother says.
"There's something we need to talk to you about."
"Come and we'll tell you."
"Just tell me now, from here." "Come," she says,
patting the cushion next to her.
"Who died?" I say, terrified.
"No one died. Everyone's fine."
"Then what is it?"
They are silent.
"Is it about me?"
"Yes, it's you. We've had a phone call. Someone is looking for
After a lifetime spent in a virtual witness-protection program, I've
been exposed. I grew up knowing one thing about myself. I am the mistress's
daughter. My birth mother was young and single, my father older and
married, with children of his own. When I was born, in December of
1961, a lawyer called my adoptive parents and said, "Your package
has arrived, and it's wrapped in pink ribbons."
My mother starts to cry. "You don't have to do anything about
it you can just let it go," she says, trying to relieve me of
the burden. "But the lawyer said he'd be happy to talk with you.
He couldn't have been nicer."
"Is he sure she's the right woman?"
"I think he's fairly certain that it's her. Do you want her name?"
I shake my head. "Where does she live?"
In my dreams, my birth mother has always been a goddess-the queen
of queens, the C.E.O., the CYO., and the C.O.O. Movie-star beautiful,
extraordinarily competent, she can take care of anyone and anything.
She has made a fabulous life for herself as ruler of the world, except
for one missing link--me.
In the morning, my mother comes into my room with a scrap of paper;
she sits on the edge of my bed and asks me again, "Do you want
I don't answer.
"It's the same name as a friend of yours," she says, as
if trying to warm it up, make it more palatable.
"You can just leave it on the desk," I say.
Her name is Helene. (I have changed some names and locations to protect
I call the lawyer. "I'd like a letter," I say. "I
want information: where she grew up, how educated she is, what she
does for a living, what the family medical history is, and what the
circumstances of my adoption were."
I am asking for the story of my life. There is an urgency to my request,,
I feel I have to hurry and ask everything I want to know. As suddenly
as she has arrived, she could be gone again.
Ten days later, her letter arrives with no fanfare. The postman doesn't
come running down the street, screaming, "It's here, it's here!
Your identity has arrived." It comes in an envelope from the
lawyer's office, with a scrawled note apologizing for not having got
it to me sooner. It's clear that the letter has been opened by the
lawyer, presumably read. Why? I am annoyed but don't say anything.
I don't feel I have the right. This is one of the pathological complications
of adoption--adoptees don't really have rights, their lives are about
supporting the secrets, the needs, and the desires of others.
The letter is typed on Helene's stationery, simple small gray sheets
of paper, her name embossed across the top. Her language is oddly
formal, less than artful, grammatically flawed. I read it simultaneously
fast and slowly, wanting to take it in, unable to take it in. I read
it and then read it again. What is she telling me?
At the time I was carrying this little girl it was not proper for
a girl to have a child out of wedlock. This was probably the most
difficult decision of my entire life to make. I was 22 years old and
very naive. I was raised very sheltered and very strict by my mother.
I remember being in the hospital with her and dressing her the day
we both left the hospital. I have never forgotten the beautiful black
hair and the blue eyes and the little dimples in her face. As I left
the hospital with the lady who was picking up the little girl, I can
still see myself in the taxi and her asking me to give her the baby.
I did not want to give her the child, however I did realize, I did
not have the wearwithall to take care of her myself. Yes, I have always
loved this little girl and been tortured every December of my life
from the day she was born that I did not have her with me.
She writes that watching television shows like "Oprah" and
"Maury' gave her the courage and the confidence to come forward.
She lists the facts of where she was born, what street she lived on
as a child, how she grew up. She includes the names of her parents
and when they died. She says how tall she is and how much she weighs.
Each bit of information swims through me, then takes root, digging
in. There are no filters; there are no screens. I have no protection
from this. She closes her letter by saying, "I have never married,
I have always felt guilty about giving this little girl away."
I call the lawyer and ask for another letter, with more information,
a medical history, a more detailed explanation of what happened, what
she's been doing since, and a photograph of her. A day later, in a
panic, I call the lawyer again. "Oh," I say, "I forgot.
Could you ask her who the father is?" Not my father but the father.
"What is his name?"
Within days, a second letter arrives. I suppose now, I should tell
you about Stan. This is difficult for me because to me it is turning
back the hands of time. I went to work for Stan at his shop in downtown-Washington
D.C. when I was 15 years old. I worked for him on Thursday night and
on Saturdays. During the summer, I worked fulltime. Stan as you know
was much older than I. He was very nice to me. This relationship started
very innocently. He would offer to drive me home and we would talk
about many things on the way. Then one day while we were working he
asked me if I would like to go to dinner with him. This was the beginning.
At age 17, he called my mother and asked if he could marry me. My
mother said, "she is too young." Hung up the telephone,
turned to me and said, I do not want you to see this man ever again.
At this time, I was in love and nothing she said would stop me. I
have always been a very determined person. Stubborn if you will. This
Stan is married at that time and promises to get a divorce and marry
me. This was not my idea, but his. Time goes on, I become pregnant
with the young lady. He thinks I should go to Florida, says he will
buy a house for the both of us. About three months later, I am very
unhappy, I return to Washington. Stan and I start to have disagreements.
During the last three months of the pregnancy I stayed with my mother
in Virginia where her home was. Shortly before the baby was born,
Stan again said he would marry me. He asked if he could come and pick
me up and take me to buy things for the baby. I told him no. I did
not call him when the baby was born.
To the best of my knowledge he lives in Virginia. He has four children.
All of his children were born prior to the birth of our child. He
was an all American Football Player. To the best of my knowledge his
father was Jewish, his mother Irish. I knew only his mother. She was
a little, chubby lady. Very kind and very nice to me.
You asked about my general health. I periodically do have a problem
with bronchitis. This is treated with medicine. Damp weather is not
for me. I do take pills for high blood pressure. Other than that,
I am fine. I am nearsighted and do have soft teeth. Both inherited,
my eyes from my father, my teeth from my mother.
She ends her second letter: "I have a great fear of being disappointed
with what I am now doing."
I follow up with a call. Her voice is low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely
animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, "Oh, my God! This
is the most wonderful day of my life." Her voice, her emotion,
comes in bursts, like punctuation--I cant tell if she is laughing
The phone call is thrilling, flirty, like a first date, like the beginning
of something. There is a rush of curiosity, the desire to know everything
at once. What is your life like? How do your days begin and end? What
do you do for fun? Why did you come looking for me? What do you want?
Every nuance, every detail, means something. I am like a recovering
amnesiac. Things I know about myself, things that exist without language--my
hardware, my mental firing patterns, parts of me that are fundamentally,
inexorably me are being echoed on the other end, confirmed as a DNA
match. It is not an entirely comfortable sensation.
"Tell me about you--who are you?" she asks.
I tell her that I live in New York. I am a writer. I have a dog. No
more or less. She tells me that she loves New York, that her father used to go to
the city and always brought back presents from F.A.O. Schwarz. She
tells me how much she loved her father, who died of a heart attack
when she was seven, because "he liked rich food."
This causes an immediate pain in my chest: I now have to be careful;
I could die of a heart attack early in life.
She goes on, "I come from a very strange family. We're not quite
"What do you mean `strange'?" I ask.
She tells me about her mother dying of a stroke a couple of years
earlier. She tells me about her own life falling apart, how she moved
from Washington to Atlantic City. She says that after she gave birth
to me her mother wouldn't come to the hospital to pick her up. She
had to take the bus home. She tells me that it took all her strength
and courage to come looking for me.
And then she says, "Have you heard from your father?" (When
the lawyer opened the second letter, he saw my father's name and called
Helene: "If you're going to pass on this information, you'd better
contact him and tell him what you've done.") "It would be
nice if the three of us could get together," she says. "We
could all come to New York and have dinner."
She wants everything all at once, and it is too much for me. There
is a deep fracture in my thoughts, a refrain constantly echoing: I
am not who I thought I was and yet I have no idea who I am.
I am not who I thought I was, and neither is she the queen of queens
"I can't see you yet," I say.
"When can we talk again?" she asks as we are hanging up.
"Will you call again soon? I love you. I love you so much."
Our conversations are frequent -- I call her a couple of times a
week, but I do not give her my phone number. The calls are seductive,
addictive, punishing. Each one shakes me; each requires a period of
recovery. Every time I tell her something, she takes the information
and holds it too close, reinventing it and delivering it back to me
in a manner that leaves me wanting her to know nothing.
She tells me that she never got along with her stepfather and that
her mother was cold and cruel. I feel that there's more to the story
than she's telling me, that something was happening at home involving
the stepfather, and that the mother knew and blamed her for it which
would explain the animosity between them, and also why Helene, a young
girl, was so easily propelled into the arms of a much older, married
man. I never ask her the question directly. It seems intrusive; her
need to protect herself is stronger than my need to know. Her lack
of sophistication leaves me unsure whether she's of limited intelligence
or simply shockingly naive.
"Did you think of having an abortion?"
"The thought never occurred to me. I couldn't have."
Pregnancy, I gather, was a way out of her mother's house and into
my father's life. It must have seemed like a good idea, until my father
refused to leave his wife. He tried. They got an apartment together;
for four days, he lived with Helene. Then he went back, claiming that
"his children missed him." Helene had him arrested, under
an old Maryland ordinance for desertion. At the time, his wife was
also pregnant, with a child who was born four months before I was.
"At one point, he told me to meet him at his lawyer's office,
so that we could figure out a way to `take care of everything,' "
she says. "I sat down with him and his lawyer and the lawyer
drew a diagram and said, `There's a pie and there are only so many
slices of the pie and that's all there is and it's got to go around.'
'I am not a slice of pie,' I said, and walked out. I have never been
so angry in my life. Slices of pie. I told my friend Estelle I was
expecting a baby and didn't know what to do. She told me she knew
someone who wanted to adopt a baby. I told her the baby must go to
a Jewish family who would treat her well. I couldn't take care of
you myself--young ladies didn't have babies on their own.
She interrupts herself. "Do you think one day we might have a
portrait painted of the two of us?" Her request comes from another
world, another life. What would she do with a portrait? Hang it over
her fireplace in Atlantic City? Send it to my father for Christmas?
She is living in stopped time, filled with fantasies of what might
have been. After thirty-one years, she has returned to reclaim the
life she never had.
"I have to go," I say. "I'm late for a dinner."
"O.K.," she says, "but, before you go out, put on your
cashmere sweater so you don't get chilly."
I don't have a cashmere sweater.
"We'll talk again soon," I say and hang up.
I am losing myself. On the street, I see people who look alike--families
where each face is a nuanced version of the others. I watch how they
stand, how they walk and talk, variations on a theme.
A few days later, I try Helene again.
In the background, there is a flick, a sharp suck of air--she is smoking.
"Why won't you see me?" she whines. "You're torturing
me. You take better care of your dog than you take of me."
Am I supposed to be taking care of her? I wonder.
"Don't be angry with me forever," she says. "If I'd
known where you were, I would have come and taken you away."
Imagine that kidnapped by your own mother, the same mother who gave
you away at birth. For years, Helene lived less than two miles from
the house I grew up in, not knowing who and where I was.
"I'm not angry with you," I tell her, and it is true. I
am horrified at the way I see myself in her--the loose screw is not
entirely unfamiliar--and appalled that in the end I may end up rejecting
the one person I never had any intention of rejecting. But not angry.
Not unforgiving. The more Helene and I talk, the happier I am that
she gave me up. I can't imagine having grown up with her. I would
not have survived.
"I'm surprised your father hasn't been in touch," she says.
It occurs to me that "my father" may be having the same
reaction to her that I'm having, that he equates me with her, and
that that may be one of the reasons he's keeping his distance. It
also occurs to me that he may think that she and I are somehow in
this together, conspiring to get something from him.
I write him a letter of my own, telling him how surprised I was by
Helene's appearance, and suggesting that although this is something
that neither he nor I asked for, we try to deal with things with some
small measure of grace. I tell him a little bit about myself. I give
him my name and a way of contacting me.
I go to the gym. Overhead, there is a bank of televisions CNN, MTV,
and the Cartoon Network. I am watching a cartoon in which a basket
containing a baby bird is left outside a wooden door carved into the
base of a tree. The words "Knock, Knock" appear on the screen.
A large rooster opens the door and picks up the basket. A note is
pinned to the fabric covering the basket:
Please take care of my little one. Signed,
The rooster looks inside, and a small but feisty baby bird pokes
up. The rooster gets excited. An image of the baby bird in a frying
pan dances in the rooster's head. A chicken wearing a bonnet comes
into the house and shoos the rooster away. The rooster is disappointed.
I am on the treadmill, in tears.
There is a message on my machine, the voice raspy, coarse: "Your
cover is blown. I know who you are and I know where you live. I'm
reading your books."
I dial her immediately. "Helene, what are you doing?"
"I found out who you are, A. M. Homes. I'm reading your books."
It is the only time in my life that I regret being a writer. She has
something of mine, and she thinks she has me.
"How did you get my number?"
"I'm very clever. I called all the bookstores in Washington and
asked them, `Who is a writer from Washington whose first name is Amy?'
At first, I thought you were someone else, some other Amy, who wrote
a book about God, and then one of the stores helped me and gave me
She stalks me. Every time the phone rings, every time I call in for
messages, I brace myself
"Do you live with someone on Charles Street? Is he there? Does
he not like it when I call?"
"How do you know I live on Charles Street?"
"I'm a good detective."
"Helene, I find this very upsetting. How do you know where I
"I don't have to tell you," she says. "Then I don't
have to continue this conversation," I say.
"Why won't you see me? Do I have to come up there and find you?
Do I have to come to Columbia University and hunt you down? Do I have
to wait in line to get your autograph?"
"I need to be able to do my job. I need to teach my classes and
go on my book tour and do all the things I'm supposed to do without
worrying that you are going to hunt me down. You can't do that. I
have to be able to lead my life."
The above text covers the first four pages of this thirteen page article. For the remainder, visit the archives of the New Yorker Magazine at www.newyorker.com/archive.
Psychoanalysis & Film
Glenn O. Gabbard (Ed.)
Chapter 7. Arthur Penn's Night Moves, A Film That Interprets Us
Emanuel Berman, Israel
'So it's really just a series of concentric circles. The outer reality just goes out and out in those circles; the inner reality, and the inner detective story, is there to be examined--if he would examine it.' Arthur Penn (in Gallagher, 1975, p. 88).
Having been interested in the detective's search as a metaphor for the psychoanalyst's quest, I found myself drawn to Night Moves ever since I first saw it. I offer the following interpretive viewing with the assumption that it represents neither an objective deciphering of the film's `true' meaning, nor solely a projection of my inner world, but rather a new significance that has emerged in the transitional space opened up by my intense personal and transferential encounter with Night Moves (Berman, 1997, 1998).
While my earlier thinking focused on the way I could interpret the film, I recently became more cognisant of interpretation as one of the themes in the film itself (as often in drama; Simon, 1985), and of the film in toto as an attempted interpretation (`The mystery is inward, and perhaps the solution is inward'; Penn, in Gallagher, 1975, p. 87). Contemporary art has absorbed (sometimes ambivalently) psychoanalytic interpretation, both as a topic and as a tool.
Ellen: `Who is winning?'
Harry: 'Nobody. One side is losing slower than the other.'
The film's plot interweaves and juxtaposes two equally important stories: detective Harry Mosby's attempt to decipher the disappearance, and later the death, of an adolescent girl, Delly Grastner; and his struggle to save his disintegrating marriage to Ellen. At the background of both stories stands a common emotional theme: failed parenthood, and its sequela--the helpless yearning, despair and rage of the abandoned child.
Harry (Gene Hackman) was abandoned by his parents as a child, and brought up by relatives. We hear this story in the context of a renewed abandonment: his wife's infidelity. Harry discovers the affair in which Ellen (Susan Clark) is involved, but is unable and unwilling to speak to her. Instead he violently invades the house of Marty, Ellen's disabled lover. Marty (Harris Yulin) defends himself by interpreting: `I am beginning to get you in focus, Mosby. Ellen talks a lot about you, how you were left by your parents when you were very young ... It's a clue, isn't that what you do, look for clues? Didn't you track down your parents? I am sure you were trailing Ellen when you saw us'.
Marty and Ellen have come to think of Harry's childhood trauma as the source of his restlessness and action-proneness, of his occupational choice, of his inability to communicate and to invest in family life (Harry's childlessness at 40 is striking, though never brought up). Harry is infuriated by Marty's interpretation, but does not dispute it. It eventually appears to enable him to seek renewed closeness with Ellen. In their first intimate conversation, at a later stage, he finally tells her the truth: he managed with great efforts to find his father, but upon seeing him on a park bench, just a little guy reading the funny pages out of a paper, mumbling the words through his lips', he watched for a while and went away, without ever talking to him.
We hear nothing at all about Harry's mother, and wonder: was she dead, or was tracing her more than he could even attempt? Still, a yearning for a motherly bosom appears predominant in the film's visual imagery. The first time we see Harry meeting Ellen he slips his hands into her blouse (but later, right after discovering her affair, he rejects her offer of cocoa); their first open conversation is accompanied by his gently caressing her bare breasts with his toes; another protagonist, Paula (Jennifer Warren), seduces him by telling him of the first time a boy touched her breasts, and by putting his hand on them.
Harry is unexcited, however, when Arlene (Janet Ward), while hiring him to trace her missing daughter, boasts about her own lovely tits'. The film makes a sharp distinction between desirable good breasts that can be easily lost (Ellen: Paula, who also betrays Harry), and destructive bad breasts (Arlene's silicone-boosted breasts); the place of Harry's mother in this split remains enigmatic. When Harry finds Delly (Melanie Griffith), she too initially appears as a dangerous temptress (her full name is Delilah), and her seductiveness towards him is also expressed by baring her breasts; but with her he appears embarrassed, and turns his head away.
Harry's growing affection towards Delly, most evident after her nightmare, is tender, parental and non-incestuous. When he holds her to calm her down, she talks about feeling `before you were born, tour mother's heart beating on your back'. His identification with her is striking. `Did you ever run away from home?' she asks, and he jokes: `Me and my parents, we had a different arrangement'. He appears to know that these `arrangements' are inherently similar: Delly was practically abandoned by her father, and his money appears to be the main reason why her mother wants her back home. Arlene has always been more involved with her lovers than with her daughter, and Delly's escape from home is accompanied by repeated efforts to seduce her mother's former lovers, including Delly's ex-stepfather Tom (John Crawford). Indeed, Harry manages to locate her in Tom's house in the Florida Keys thanks to a dynamic, oedipal interpretation: `Maybe she is trying to even up the score'. Ellen: `It has taken us a long time to get this far, I don't want to pour it all away. Please:
We could ironically speak of `the two analyses of Delly G'. The first `analysis' takes place while Harry is being betrayed by his wife. His mute expression when first seeing Ellen with Marty is a vivid depiction of painful primal scene affects. This personal preoccupation is part of Harry's `countertransference' in analysing Delly's case, and contributes to his focus on interpreting oedipal dynamics. This first analysis is seemingly successful: Harry is able to help Delly renounce her incestuous affair with her former stepfather, and return home. But homecoming deteriorates into a violent row, and Harry appears shaken by the sarcastic confrontation of Delly's boyfriend Quentin (James Woods): 'Are you satisfied? You got another happy family together'.
When learning later of Delly's violent death, Harry must reconsider his understanding. The second part of the film is a `second analysis', in search of the fuller truth, external and internal. Harry is reunited with Ellen, and starts grappling with questions he evaded before: `the identity of his wife, his relation to her, his relation to his father, his identity, who he is and what he is' (Penn, in Gallagher, 1975, p. 87). He is now able to see that his oedipal-sexual focus (a partially correct but insufficient interpretation) may have blinded him to Delly's plight as a rejected child; and in returning Delly to her mother he may have actually colluded in her exploitation by her mother (repeating Delly's past injuries rather than curing them as he wished), and endangered her life.
Harry's rage towards destructive parenting mounts. `Delly had no chance with you as a mother, she was on a downhill flight right from the start', he screams at Arlene in their last furious encounter. Arlene bitterly answers: `Delly wasn't the only kid who ever had it rough'. We may be reminded of the gunshot suicide committed by Arlene's father (when she was 8); but this casual early bit of information remains in the background, and Arlene never gains our empathy.
Harry's guilt towards both Delly and Ellen preoccupies him in his second, more daring and more penetrating search. In going again to Florida, he abandons Ellen once more. But the two parting scenes are markedly different. In the first, each of them is in another car, and Harry angrily rushes to go, refusing to talk with Ellen who begs him to stay for one more day. In the second, Ellen accompanies him to the airport, he explains to her why it is crucial for him to go and figure out the truth, and promises to be back `no later than Friday'. He tells her affectionately: `I know you have been alone a lot, even when I was around. And I know when you get ... when we
get like that we reach out for other people'. Offering Ellen an empathic interpretation, he also remorsefully hints at his affair with Paula; and in switching to 'we' he acknowledges his and Ellen's common anguish. Earlier on, when Ellen used the word `we', Harry exploded with projective moralistic blaming. The change of outlook and of tone is striking, as after a successful working through of a painful experience.
Although Ellen is visibly sad and worried, she also probes him not to miss his plane, saying: `If you don't go now, you can't come back'. While made jokingly, this comment seems to convey her awareness that solving his `inner detective story' is for Harry a crucial step towards forming a more real relationship with her. This too is an empathic interpretation, recognising the different meaning of Harry's present departure in comparison to his driven disappearances so far. And while many scenes in this film are cut short, contributing to its unsettling effect, in this scene the camera lingers attentively on lonely Ellen after Harry boards his plane. We know she wants him back.
The final sequence in Florida is very intense. Harry discovers that Tom, Paula and Quentin were all part of a ring smuggling precious antiques from the Yucatan, and that Delly was probably murdered after she discovered their plots. At the end of a bloody trail, an aeroplane appears, Harry is shot and wounded, Paula is killed, and when the plane drowns Harry recognises the face of the dying pilot: his older friend and confidant, the charming stuntman Joey Ziegler (Edward Binns). Joey attempts to talk to Harry, but through the drowning plane's thick windowpane only his lips are seen moving, like those of Harry's father when he finally traced him years ago. The discovery that fatherly Joey was the ringleader, possibly had killed Delly, and attempted to kill Harry, brings us full circle to the initial betrayal by the father.
Wounded Harry manages to start the engine of his boat (called `Point of View'), but cannot steer it, and the scene fades out with the boat going around in circles. For me, however, there is a shred of hope in this bleak ending: the fantasy that Harry can be discovered and brought to shore, allowed to recover at Ellen's bosom.
Paula (watching Harry's chess manoeuvre): `It's a beauty!'
Harry: `But he didn't see it. He played something else, and he lost. Must have regretted it every day of his life. I know so would I. In fact, I do regret it, and I wasn't born yet.'
Paula: `That's no excuse.'
Harry is in many ways an heir to Hammett's Sam Spade (Marty challenges Harry to hit him, `the way Sam Spade would'), just as the precious antique is a variation on the phallic Maltese Falcon. Loyal to the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald image of the detective, he is violent, sexual and troubled himself, and yet an uncompromising truth-seeker.
But the film markedly differs from genre traditions. While The Maltese Falcon 'is completely devoid of any explicit reference to inner feeling states or motives' (Bauer et al., 1978, p. 283), Night Moves is psychologically minded and often interpretive. While Spade and similar protagonists maintain a detached cynical view of self and others, Harry Mosby evolves out of that position, acquiring insightful and empathic capacities. And while women in most noir detective stories and films remain two-dimensional, and Spade's final victory signifies `asserting his invulnerability to the seductive powers of [deceitful] Brigid' (Bauer et al., 1997, p. 294), Ellen represents a possibility of overcoming splits and projections, of integrating sexuality and companionship, vulnerability and strength.
These unique aspects of Night Moves make a purely oedipal understanding (the detective as an aroused, inquisitive oedipal child; see Bauer et al., 1978) insufficient. There are strong oedipal motives and primal scene allusions (including the film's name), but they are better understood in a broader context of object relations and self-development. Being an unwelcome child ('regretting every day of his life what happened before he was born') underlies Harry's oedipal conflict; his incapacity to handle the triangular situation ('he didn't see it ... and he lost') stems from his despair about dyadic relations, preventing him from full relatedness to a woman, as well as from parenthood.
Reliving--through Delly's tragedy--his childhood abandonment, re-experiencing his rage, gaining insight into repetitioncompulsion in his work and personal life, and rediscovering Ellen's devotion, enable Harry to grow. The film follows him through pain and disillusion, but allows him new vistas, and therefore some hope.
BAUER, S. F. ET AL. (1978). The detective film as myth: The Maltese
Falcon and Sam Spade. Amer. Imago, 35: 275-296.
BERMAN, E. (1997). Hitchcock's Vertigo: the collapse of a rescue
fantasy. Int. J. Psychoanal., 78: 975-996.
--(1998). The film viewer: from dreamer to dream interpreter. Psychoanal. Inq., 18:193-206.
GALLAGHER, T. (1975). Night Moves. Sight & Sound, 44: 86-90.
SIMON, B. (1985). `With cunning delays and evermounting excitement': or, what thickens the plot in psychoanalysis and tragedy? In Psychoanalysis: The Vital Issues, Vol. 2, ed. J. Gedo & G. Pollock. New York: Int. Univ. Press, pp. 387-435.
Psychoanalysis & Film
Glenn O. Gabbard (Ed.)
Chapter 13. Narrating Desire and Desiring Narration:
A Psychoanalytic Reading of the English Patient
Diana Diamond, New York
The English Patient plunges the viewer into an ambiguous world of visual splendour: a wash of luminous golden colour, a brush drawing a figure on a grainy surface, a hieroglyphic, a swimmer, a woman swimmer; contours suggestive of the desert or a woman's body. The figure floats over desert dunes, until it merges with the shadow of a small plane carrying a woman, pale and seemingly asleep, and a man, a pilot with goggles and a leather helmet. As the plane flies over a desert ridge, it is fired upon by German troops. The figures become incandescent with fire, and as the man falls burning from the sky, `the flames erase all that matters--his name, his past, his face, his lover' (Minghella et al., 1996, p. 4).
In subsequent scenes the figures first seen soaring over the desert are replaced by the image of a man lying in the sand burned beyond recognition. We hear his laboured breathing, we view the Bedouin caravan, the itinerant Arab doctor, the searing sun in part through his makeshift mask of plaited palm leaves; and these shots of perceptual subjectivity establish our primary filmic identification with this anonymous man who comes to be called simply, `the English Patient'. Among the few possessions that survive the smoking wreckage of the plane is a worn leatherbound volume of the Histories by Herodotus, filled with letters
and clippings, in which is a drawing of the film's opening image of the female figure.
These two artifacts, the figure drawing and Herodotus's Histories, introduce the film's major theme--the centrality of representation and narrative, both imagistic and lexical, to human experience. It is not until later in the film that we learn that the constructed figure, the first image of the film, is a replica of human figure paintings in the cave of swimmers; figures that were copied by an Englishwoman Katherine Clifton and given to the Hungarian Count Laszlo De Almasy, an explorer and discoverer of the cave paintings, to paste in his copy of the Histories as a remembrance of their time in the desert, and as an emblem of their as yet unspoken, but palpable love for each other. The opening image of the swimming figure thus foretells the film's personal narrative-the reconstruction of the identity of Almasy (the English patient)--and the film's historical narrative--the exploration of the desert by the Royal Geographic Society of which Almasy was a member, and its colonisation during World War II.
This review interprets The English Patient in the light of controversies about the nature and construction of narrative in contemporary analytic theory and practice--the interconnection between narrative and identity (Ricoeur, 1985; Schafer, 1992); the relevance of relationships, both transferential and otherwise to narrative construction (Hanly, 1996); and the points of contact and divergence between narrative and historical truth (Schafer, 1982, 1992; Spence, 1982). My use of clinical psychoanalytic theory towards an analysis of a cinematic text is inspired by the potential interplay between psychoanalytic narrative processes and cinematic narratives, and their impact on the spectator (Gabbard, 1997; Hanly, 1996).
The English Patient is about the reconstruction of Almasy's identity and life history, an account in which historical and narrative truth increasingly converge as he engages more and more deeply with significant objects in his life, both internal and external. Identity is constructed in part through the accounts that we give about ourselves and our lives (Ricoeur, 1985), and these accounts often comprise a set of varied narratives which reflect varied selves (Schafer, 1992). The English Patient constantly reworks the story of Almasy's life in flashbacks that initially have the idiosyncratic and poetic-disjunctive quality of free associations, but that later cohere into a chronological account of his life that he recreates for himself and others.
In this zigzag movement from the private world of memory and desire to the creation of a shared consensual account, the narrative configurations of The English Patient to a certain extent parallel the process of narrative construction in analysis. The assumption of the anonymous identity of the English patient represents a screen narrative (Kris, 1956) which incorporates aspects of the identities of lost others. A man burned beyond recognition lies in a convalescent hospital in Italy, capable of giving only the most truncated and fragmented account of his life to the British officer who questions him and to Hana, the French-Canadian nurse who cares for him. Indeed, Almasy first depicts himself as Geoffrey Clifton, Katherine's husband, a British undercover agent, and recollects images related to him by Katherine, whose memories of her garden sloping down to the sea figured in her last words to Almasy as she lay dying in the cave of swimmers. It is not so much that the English patient has forgotten his name and identity, as that he is resistant to knowing it, as is the case with many analysands.
This screen identity also serves to protect the English patient from the falsifying narratives imposed upon him by others. The English patient is a man whose personal narrative and self-definition as an internationalist opposed to colonisation and ownership, are at variance with the official narratives that circulated during World War II--narratives which affirmed nationalism, borders and ownership. Reflecting on the deforming aspects of such official narratives, Maddox, Almasy's close friend and colleague in the Royal Geographic Society, states, `It's ghastly, like a witch hunt--anybody remotely foreign is suddenly a spy ... We didn't care about countries ... Brits, Arabs, Hungarians, Germans. None of that mattered ... It was something finer than that' (Minghella et al., 1996, p. 148).
Like the analyst in the consulting room, the spectator of The English Patient must penetrate the screen of the patient's obfuscating and partial narratives to construct the patient's identity and history on the basis of his associations and memories, and the viewer's own corresponding associations, inferences and internal schemata (Bordwell, 1985). The complexities of the film's narrative discourse, including the rapid shifts between scenes in Egypt and Italy, between intertwined narratives of the English patient and his nurse Hana, between past and present, visual and verbal narrative mechanisms, places the spectator at the heart of narrative construction.
The dislocations of regular chronology, point of view, and spatial and temporal conventions in The English Patient redouble the tasks of the spectator because they create a disjunction between the storyline or fabula (e.g. the chronological order of events with their spatial, temporal and causal dimensions) and the sjuzet (e.g. the order of events as it is depicted in narrative discourse, or in the actual unfolding of scenes, actions, turning points in the text) (Bordwell, 1985; Brooks, 1984). Such disjunctions, often conveyed in film through flashbacks as is the case in The English Patient, are meant to impede as well as advance the spectator's understanding. The tension between fabula and sjuzet thus demands that the spectator not only constantly recode the film's imagery into a set chronology, but also like an analyst comprehend and construct the nature of characters' inner experience that leads to such narrative fractures and delays.
The English Patient reflects aspects of analytic process not only in its demand on the spectator and in its cinematic techniques which mirror free association, but also in its emphasis on the creation of a shared narrative, shaped not only by the patient's images, words and affects, but also by their affective resonance in Hana. It is the patient's relationship with Hana, the French-Canadian nurse who retreats with him to the abandoned Italian monastery of St Anna de Prenzi that enables Almasy to turn his attention and interest once again to his inner experiences and memories. Schafer (1982, 1992) has reconceptualised free association in the light of narrative theory as fragments of life stories created as they are related in the context of the analytic relationship. Just as the patient in analysis tells his or her own story to the analyst, who listens and tries to make sense of it, so does Hana immerse herself in reconstructing the English patient's narrative,
searching for coherence and continuity in its chaotic configurations, and bridging its chasms and lacunae.
Hana's willingness to become the co-explorer of the English patient's psychic space simultaneously reawakens his desire and fuels his desire for narration. The reawakening of desire and its connection with narrative creation is depicted cinematically through a series of flashbacks that merge past and present. As Hana reads the story of Candaulles and his Queen from the patient's worn memento-filled copy of the Histories by Herodotus, the camera pans to reveal a spellbound Almasy gazing on Katherine telling the same story, her being illuminated by the fire from the camp of the Royal Geographic Society. Just as Candaulles urges his friend Gyres to gaze on his naked Queen in the original and timeless sphere of the myth that Hana reads to the patient from Herodotus' Histories, so does the English patient gaze on Hana in the present, and finally and most vividly, in memory, on Katherine as she dramatises the story in the past.
The use of the filmic technique of cross-cutting from present to past, as though the past were located in space rather than time, establishes the simultaneity of past and present as veridical regions. This cinematic condensation of space and time establishes the present and past as coexisting sheets or strata in the psyche `each region with its own characteristics, its "tones", its "aspects", its "singularities", its "shining points" and its "dominant themes"' (Deleuze, 1989, p. 99). The specific tones of past and present are enhanced by the cinematic depiction of the past world (e.g. the world of the desert) in bright bold tones and clear crisp images. In contrast, the present world (e.g. the world of the monastery of St Anna De Prenzi) is depicted in a series of diffuse, muted watery tones and long liquidy shots (Minghella et al., 1996), which render the present dreamlike and indistinct. This juxtaposition of vivid past with muted present reverses the usual pattern of films with two time scales and brings a sense of urgency, immediacy and heightened reality to the past.
The parallels between the English patient and his nurse, and that of an analyst and analysand are, of course, limited. As Gabbard (1997) points out, we cannot talk about a psychoanalytic process without the patient's associations and the here-and-now lively interplay of transference and countertransference, free association and resistence. However, echoes of such elements do appear in the film. The complex relationship between Hana and the patient is transferential in nature for both, in that they each represent a new object for the other, which is identified with past objects. However, just as in an analysis, this new object relationship revives old unconscious wishes, fears and conflicts, which catalyse new development, but also create new distortions. For example, the patient's recollections of his relationship with Katherine are motivated not only by his need to reconstruct his story and identity, but also by his need to again be known and fully seen by another (Hana). However, the patient presents only kaleidoscopic fragments of his past, fragments which captivate Hana, but which obscure the more ambiguous and problematic aspects of his history and identity. In a similar vein, Hana sees the patient through the distorting mirror of her own wartime losses of fiance, father and best friend. After the latter is killed in a land-mine explosion, Hana asks the patient, `I must be a curse ... anyone who loves me, anyone who gets close to me, or I
must be cursed. Which is it?' Her participation in the creation of the patient's identity is clearly reparative in nature; but it also functions to help her evade painful aspects of her own identity and experience. Thus, the transference love between the patient and Hana--as in an analysis--both facilitates understanding and transformation, and becomes a source of resistance and avoidance.
Just as the English patient recovers the depth of his passion for Katherine through Hana's ministrations to him, both physical and psychological, so does Hana come emotionally alive again through her association with the sensuous, enigmatic Kip, a Sikh member of the British army who takes up residence in their region to defuse land mines. A complete discussion of Hana's relationship to Kip and its parallels to Almasy's relationship to Katherine is beyond the scope of this paper. However, both relationships illustrate how passion may catalyse human symbolic expression, as well as the forces of potential destruction. Indeed, Kip's dangerous specialty of landmine sweeping itself may represent the excavation of libidinal and aggressive forces, eros and thanatos that forms part of any analytic process.
The convergence between the two relationships is reinforced in the magical scene where Kip shows Hana the spectacular frescoes by Piero della Francesca in a Tuscan church by candlelight, a scene which parallels Almasy's discovery of the cave of swimmers, and its revelation to Katherine, earlier in the film. Both scenes, which involve the illumination of images in the context of darkness, are also a metaphor for the visual pleasures that cinema affords us. As Hana swings through space, the rope encircling her waist manipulated by Kip who is in darkness, illuminating the frescoes with her flare, giving us glimpses of faces, bodies and angels, we are reminded how much visualisation, like representation, emerges from a relational context. Hana's exhilaration, rapture and kinesthetic movements are reminiscent both of erotic desire (Minghella et al., 1996) and of early rocking and holding. The array of luminous but fleeting cinematic images re-evokes the process of the early visualisation that emerges erratically out of the matrix of early mother-child transactions, where the mother's face and form become the vehicle for visual construction, just as Kip becomes the vehicle for Hana's visual pleasure (Lichtenberg, 1983; Diamond & Wrye, 1998).
The two film clips just shown indicate that desire, as it is scenarised in The English Patient is depicted to have both oedipal and pre-oedipal roots, both of which infuse the film's narrative mechanisms. Part of the film's ubiquitous appeal is undoubtedly the triangular relationship between Almasy, Katherine and her husband Geoffrey (and the corresponding triangle between Hana, Kip and the patient), with its timeless oedipal themes of desire and renunciation, rivalry and pursuit, betrayal and loss that often characterise classic Hollywood narrative films (Gabbard & Gabbard, 1990). As Barthes states, `Today we dismiss Oedipus and narrative as one and the same; we no longer love, we no longer fear, we no longer narrate' (1975, p. 47). But the intense admixture of love and aggression, misogyny and obsession, raw sexuality and tenderness, possessiveness and repudiation that characterises Almasy's love for Katherine clearly contains preoedipal as well as oedipal derivatives, as do most love relationships (Kernberg, 1995). Significantly, after he makes love to Katherine, Almasy plays the Hungarian folk song 'Szerelem, Szerelem' (love, love) which he tells her was sung to him by his Daijka (nurse) when he was a child in Budapest. Heard episodically from the opening takes of the film, this plaintive folk song functions as an `acoustic mirror' (Silverman, 1988), a vocal evocation of Almasy's early sensuous preverbal experience, and its significance for his dual interlinked passions for exploring Katherine's body and the desert. Indeed, we first see Almasy in dialogue with an ancient Arab, drawing a map of a ridge that is likened to the curve of a woman's back. Later in the film, contemplating the hollow at the base of Katherine's throat, Almasy states: `I love this place, what's it called-this is mine ... I'm going to ask the king permission to call it the Almasy Bosphorous' (Minghella et al., 1996, pp. 100-101).
In his exploration of both Katherine's body and the desert we see echoes of Klein's observation that the imperative to explore is often a derivative of early `phantasies of exploring the mother's body' (1975, p. 333). The admixture of aggression, love, curiosity and greed in such early phantasies, as well as the impossibility of realising them, leads the child to substitute a territory for mother, a territory in which he can escape, recreate and realise the early attachment. The thrust towards exploration is also bound up with the desire for reparation; that is, with the desire to restore and replenish the good things that the child phantasises he/she has plundered from the mother's body--a body which Klein reminds us is often unconsciously equated with the earth.
In The English Patient Katherine is equated with the dangerous, treacherous land (motherland) that must not only be explored, but subdued and conquered. At the same time, Katherine represents a genre of women travellers and explorers in film who, as Kaplan (1997) observes, accentuate their feminine masquerade to avoid reprisal for their strivings. Such women, with their combination of strength and vulnerability, pose a challenge to the often tenuous sense of masculinity of the men around them, who also are prey to terrors of the unknown. These fears are often projected, as in the scene where Almasy cautions Clifton not to leave his wife in the desert because it is too harsh. Clifton's reply, `Why are you all so afraid of a woman?' speaks to the projected anxieties described above. Hence we must see Almasy's gaze on Katherine as not only a subjective and adoring one that seeks mutual recognition, but as an objectifying one that seeks domination and control over its object (Kaplan, 1997).
Such an objectifying, dominating gaze subtly distorts the perception of Arabs as well as women in the film. The Palestinian poet Hussein Barghouti sums up the portrayal of Arabs in The English Patient as follows: `Foreground action: white people, noble fine feelings, strong full of laughter, walking in gardens, taking showers, standing up. Background action: Arabs, shifty, mysterious, dirty, untrustworthy, sitting down' (quoted in Hare, 1998, p. 84). Such a view is discrepant with the conscious ideology of the film contained in Maddox's nostalgic rendering of the camaraderie of the Royal Geographic Society cited earlier: `We didn't care about countries ... Brits, Arabs, Hungarians, Germans. None of that mattered ... It was something finer than that' (Minghella et al., 1996, p. 148). Such discrepancies between verbal and visual, lexical and imagistic filmic texts remind us that The English Patient, like most commercial Hollywood films, is structured through an interplay of contradictory and diverse codes, which together convey the film's conscious and unconscious ideology about gender and nationality. The film text may thus be said to be fissured; evidence of such fissures is found in such contradictions between lexical and imagistic depictions and in breaks in narration.
An example of such a narrative fissure is the account that Almasy gives to Katherine about the song 'Szerelem, Szerelem'. He tells Katherine that this lullaby that was sung to him by his Hungarian nurse is really `the story of a Hungarian count, he's a wanderer, a fool. For years he's on some kind of quest, for--who knows what? And then one day he falls under the spell of a mysterious English woman--a Harpy--who beats him and hits him and he becomes her slave and sews her clothes and worships the hem of her' (Minghella et al., 1996, p. 100).
This fantasy reveals that, for Almasy, intimacy with Katherine unearths primitive anxieties about subjugation to an all-powerful female object, as evidenced by the gender role reversal implied in Almasy's fantasy quoted above (Person, 1985; Stoller & Herdt, 1982; Wrye, & Welles, 1982, 1994).
Indeed, the relationship between Katherine and Almasy capsizes in the maelstrom of such primitive anxieties; for them, reparative strivings come too late. In contrast, the relationship between Hana and Almasy offers the possibility for the expression of reparative strivings for both, which in turn enables them each to fully reconstitute their lost objects in memory. `Why are you so determined to keep me alive?' asks the patient. Hana's deceptively simple reply, `Because I am a nurse', evokes such reparative themes. One also senses that the patient stays alive because he senses that Hana needs him to do so, and thus his repeated statements to her, `I'm still here' (Minghella et al., 1996, p. 64).
If the relationship between Hana and the English patient epitomises the reparative nature of narrative insights that emerge from a here-and-now telling to another, other aspects of the film remind us that such narrative constructions may be partial. Reconstruction of historical aspects of patients' lives, with reference to early life circumstances is essential for the development of a complete and comprehensive narrative (Hanly, 1996). One such source of past history is the Herodotus itself, written, as the English patient tells Katherine, by the father of history. The volume of the Herodotus, which merges mythic, personal and historical narratives, provides clues to the patient's ambiguous identity and history, and catalyses the multiple flashbacks which are the film's primary narrative mechanism. As such, it embodies the film's reverence for narration, its centrality to Almasy's past as well as present life, but also affirms the importance of historical reconstruction, or of locating narrative in the context of history, individual, social and political. Almasy first affirms the depth of his emotional connection to Katherine when he agrees to paste her copies of the cave paintings into his book. She in turn becomes aware of his love for her when she sees her name in the Histories where Katherine also records her final words, as she lies dying in the cave of swimmers, waiting for Almasy to return.
The Histories by Herodotus also becomes the vehicle for the recognition of Almasy by Caravaggio, the Canadian spy who has been tortured and mutilated by the Germans--as an inadvertent result of Almasy's actions during war. `I saw you writing in that book. At the embassy in Cairo when I had thumbs and you had a face and a name', he tells Almasy (Minghella et al., 1996, p.52). Initially, Caravaggio is also a vehicle for the introduction of the type of distorted
narrative that can be created when the actualities or consequences of one's actions are separated from their subjective meaning or intent. As such, his presence is depicted as sinister and menacing, like the crows that Hana chases from her garden in the scene just before Caravaggio appears at the monastery gate.
Caravaggio poses a challenge to the shared narrative forged by Hana and Almasy, suggesting that the English patient may not be English at all, but instead Hungarian and a Nazi collaborator. He introduces certain historical realities, some of them heretofore unknown to the patient and/or to Hana, without which Almasy's understanding of his life and fate would be incomplete. For example, Almasy learns from Caravaggio that Maddox, his best friend and colleague in the Royal Geographic Society, shot himself when he learned that Almasy had given their expedition maps, which showed the way through the desert, to the Germans in exchange for a plane that would enable him to return to the injured Katherine. Confronted for the first time with the full historical, as well as personal, ramifications of his love for Katherine, Almasy recreates for Caravaggio the full circumstances of his betrayal by and of the British, including his unjust incarceration as a Nazi collaborator and spy and his unwitting complicity in the deaths of both Katherine and Geoffrey Clifton. 'So yes she died because of me, because I loved her, because I had the wrong name' (Minghella et al., 1996, p. 166).
By integrating historical actualities, derived from confrontations with Caravaggio and with his own writings in the Histories, and subjective realities, derived from his mutual exchanges with Hana, Almasy finally becomes the agent in the creation of his own narrative (Schafer, 1996). The multiple versions, images and points of view are woven into a complex tapestry of his own design, making Almasy, `one person telling stories about single selves, multiple selves, fragments of selves and selves of different sorts ...' (Schafer, 1992, p. 51). The creation of such a monistic and integrative narrative, that blends narrative and historical truth, enables the patient finally to die, and Hana finally to relinquish him. (In one of the film's most poignant moments, he communicates his readiness for death nonverbally by silently pushing a lethal dose of morphine ampules towards Hana as she prepares his daily injection.) Just as narrative construction was at the centre of his life, so, too, does it ease his way into death. As he dies, Hana reads to him Katherine's last words, and the camera discloses Katherine on the eve of her death, writing in the Histories as she awaits Almasy's return to the cave of swimmers. 'We die, rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed ... bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we have hidden in like this wretched cave ... I want all this marked on my body. We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the name of powerful men ... that's all I've ever wanted-to walk in such a place with you, with friends, an earth without maps' (Minghella et al., 1996, pp. 171-172).
As she reads, Hana's voice alternates with that of Katherine, until the two women, the two storylines, past and present, and the two types of representation, imagistic and lexical, visual and verbal, merge into one restorative narrative in which past experience is recovered, represented and mourned.
The English patient's death is rendered bearable because the narrative of his life has been completed and will endure, visualised symbolically by Hana scooping up the Histories lying on the bedside table as she leaves the monastery for the last time. In its final integration of past and present, memory and actuality, narrative and historical truth, the film's concluding sequence cuts from Hana catching a last glimpse of the monastery from the back of a truck driven by Caravaggio, to a long shot of Almasy and Katherine in the cockpit of a plane, clearing the ridge of the Gilf Kebir and the Cave of Swimmers, and then soaring freely over the desert, this time its contours fully defined and unmistakable.
Acknowledgements The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Drs Emanuel Berman, Catherine Portuges and Harriet Wrye. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Madge Friedman Alschuler in acxknowledgement of a life so gracefully lived and so generously shared. Her account of her participation in the Red Cross during World War II deepened my understanding of the historical period depicted in this film.
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