Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Bastard out of Carolina
Gary Hoffman, Amanda DiGiulio
Dorothy Allison (book), Anne Meredith (teleplay, made by Showtime Networks )
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh , Jena Malone, Dermot Mulroney, Ron Eldard, Lyle Lovett, Christina Ricci, Glenne Headly,
Grace Zabriskie, and Michael Rooker
Narration: Laura Dern
MPAA Rating: R (for strong depiction of sexual and violent abuse, including a rape scene involving a young girl)
Year of Release: 1996
In the 1950s rural South Carolina, pregnant, 15 year-old Anney Boatwright is asleep in the backseat of the Chevy belonging to her brother-in-law, Travis, when the car crashes into a pickup truck. She flies through the windshield and remains unconscious as she subsequently gives birth to her daughter, Ruth Anne. The baby is called "Bone" since her Uncle Earl proclaimed that she "looked no bigger than a knuckle bone" when she was born.
Because the Boatwright clan has always been looked down on by more financially secure families, Anney is horrified that her sister Ruth didn't think fast enough to fake the baby's legitimacy on her birth certificate. She vows to her baby daughter that she will always stick by her side and defend her.
When Bone is three years old, Anney marries and becomes pregnant by Lyle Parsons, a kind man who briefly furnishes stability for the little girl and treats her as his own daughter. However, shortly after the birth of his baby, Reese, Lyle is killed in a car accident. His family blames Anney, telling her that if he had not married into her white trash family and needed to work two jobs, he wouldn't have been on the road and died.
Four years later, weary of poverty and having to provide for her children, Anney neglects the advice of her mom, becomes pregnant, and rashly marries Glen Waddell. Her new husband appears shy and kind on the surface but is possessive and suffers from severe anger issues, which often manifest themselves in fights at work.
During this time, the courthouse burns down and Anney's brother Earl succeeds in stealing Bone's birth certificate, which the family takes great pleasure in burning.
Feeling psychologically impotent, Glen turns his lustful focus to Bone, whom he resents for the attention she receives from Anney. The night Anney goes into labor, Glen waits in the car with Bone and Reese in the backseat. After Reese falls asleep, Glen calls her older sister up front with him where he molests her. The girl appears saddened and confused, not knowing what to make of the situation.
Treated like a black sheep by his well-off father, Glen buckles under adversities such as Anney's stillbirth of his much-desired baby boy and her inability to have more children. In one scene, he catches Bone looking at a photo of her and Lyle. The girl only grudgingly follows his request to call him "daddy". Angry, Glen rips up Bone's picture. She tearfully picks up the pieces and buries them.
Anney's dream of becoming a housewife is dashed by Glen's chronic unemployment. Bone becomes a casualty of her mother's determination to stay married to Glen, although she tries to be careful not to provoke her stepfather. While Anney works double shifts, Glen bolsters his ego by finding every opportunity to lock himself and Bone into the bathroom and beat her. Ashamed, thinking that she is bad, the girl hides her bruises from everyone. But it appears that her step-dad does not break the child's spirit. Even when she is at home, Anney does little to prevent his physical mistreatment of her daughter.
The family constantly moves, never staying in the same house more than eight months. Glen becomes increasingly more violent, screaming at Anney and secretly molesting Bone. During an incident at Glen's father's house, his dad tries to hit him. The young man roughly shoves his father away, saying, "You can't hurt me anymore old man" signifying that he had been physically abused as a child.
Although Anney is unaware of Glen's sexual intimacy with her daughter, she notices that Bone is walking funny, almost limping. When she takes the girl to the hospital, the doctor angrily informs her that the girl's tailbone is broken and that she displays evidence of physical abuse. Subsequently, Anney and her daughters move in with her sister Alma. However, as soon as Bone heals, they move back in with Glen.
When the beating continues, Anney allows Bone to live with her aunt Ruth and keep her company until her death from cancer. Bone tells Ruth that she aspires to be a gospel singer someday, which the aunt encourages. Despite their closeness, Bone can't bring herself to tell her about the abuse.
At Ruth's wake, Anney's brothers beat Glen unconscious after their other sister, Raylene, discovers welts on Bone's body. Subsequently, Bone moves in with Raylene. Glen one day breaks into their house, finds Bone alone and viciously rapes her after she stands up to his bullying. Although she catches Glen in the act, Anney cannot break away from her good-for-nothing husband.
One night, Anney comes to visit Bone in Raylene's house and explains that she never thought Bone would get hurt, and apologizes for what happened. She tells her daughter she loves her, but that she also loves Glen and could not leave him. She leaves Bone with a copy of her birth certificate without the words "ILLEGITIMATE" stamped on it. The girl grows up protected from further brutality from her stepfather but unable to reconcile her mother's words with her actions.
43-year-old Kim came to see me because she had heard that I frequently use movies as a catalyst for the therapeutic process. She told me that she had watched Bastard out of Carolina , experienced a strong emotional reaction, and was not able to sleep afterwards. "I knew what the movie was about and shouldn't have seen it," said Kim. "But I was intrigued. Something in me wanted to gain clarity or understanding."
When I inquired into my client's life circumstances, I learned that Kim had just ended her third marriage and was clearly under-employed. Despite a college degree, she had only worked at menial jobs. She loved to paint, but never felt confident enough to show her art publicly. She also suffered from anxiety and insomnia.
Kim looked frightened and a little confused when I asked her whether Bastard out of Carolina reminded her of her own childhood experiences. She responded, "of course, but I thought that I was over this. It all happened so long ago. The abuse that is shown in the movie happened to me and my younger sister in a very similar way." Kim explained that she had been molested by a babysitter when she was 7 years old. Like Bone, she didn't tell anybody about it because her perpetrator intimidated her.
My client's step-dad sometimes beat her rebellious sister while their mom and Kim watched helplessly. "I don't understand why my mom stayed married to him for so many years," she said. When I asked her how she felt toward her mother about this, Kim looked surprised and said, "I am not sure". I responded by inquiring about her feelings toward the character, Anney, in the movie, and my client stated, "I feel really angry at her for allowing Bone to get abused for so long." This intervention allowed Kim to make an emotional connection between her feelings toward Anney and toward her own mother: she started experiencing anger toward her mom.
When I saw that these feelings confused my client, I explained to her that children tend to feel protective toward their parents. These children might repress their anger toward caregivers to maintain a positive attitude because they depend on them for protection. This can even be the case when parental protection is not sufficiently provided. If this were true for Kim, she might have never questioned her loyalty to her mother up to this day.
We discussed how watching Bastard out of Carolina brought long buried traumatic experiences to the surface of her consciousness. Kim was concerned that she might have experienced lasting emotional damage by watching the film . I expressed that, even though I could not exclude it completely, I doubted that this was the case. Most likely, watching the movie was helpful because it brought her into my office and therefore created an opportunity to start the treatment process. I also reminded her of her intuition that watching the film might lead to more clarity or understanding.
Trauma treatment with a combination of EMDR and hypnotherapy showed success after several months. During this time, Kim felt relieved when she decided to break off contact with her mother for the time being. Eventually her anxiety diminished, she was able to sleep better, developed increased self-esteem, and felt more ready for a stable relationship. Her emotional healing enabled her to start applying for more appropriate and satisfying work. My client also found a cafe that displayed her artwork.
Like Kim, clients sometimes come to sessions telling me about their challenging emotional reactions to violent movies with violent content. This can open the door for powerful therapeutic work.
But these kind of movies are not always challenging. One of my clients, who had violent trauma in her background, found a sense of resolution and healing when the "bad guys" in violent movies get beaten up, killed, or incarcerated at the end.
I very rarely prescribe violent films because they can be re-traumatizing if they reactivate previous psychological trauma. In general, working with movies that trigger fear, anger, or sadness might help clients become more conscious of these emotions, if they have been previously repressed. Some treatment modalities help clients to process trauma within a so-called "therapeutic window". Interventions are done within this "window", when they create enough therapeutic challenge but don't lead to an overwhelming internal experience. Emotional overwhelm needs to be avoided because it can create an avoidance response, like dissociation, etc.
Therefore, certain films, even those with some violent elements - used carefully and creatively - can help clients get in touch with unresolved trauma and therefore serve as an intervention that provides sufficient therapeutic challenge to enter the "therapeutic window".
Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions for Clients who Struggle with Childhood Trauma
Did you see a character experience a similar trauma as you had in your childhood?
How was your story similar?
How do you feel toward the perpetrator/and or an oblivious parent in the movie and in your own life?
How did your childhood trauma impact your life as an adult?
Imagine yourself starting to heal from your trauma.
How would this change your life?
Birgit Wolz wrote and co- wrote the following continuing education online courses:
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy