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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA

 

 

Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

My Left Foot

Director: Jim Sheridan
Producers: Arthur Lappin , Steve Morrison , Noel Pearson, Paul Heller
Screenwriters: Jim Sheridan, Shane Connaughton
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis , Hugh O'Conor , Brenda Fricker, Alison Whelan, Kirsten Sheridan, Declan Croghan, Eanna MacLiam, Fiona Shaw Ray McAnally , Ruth McCabe , Fiona Shaw , Hugh O'Conor , Cyril Cusack , Alison Whelan , Declan Croghan , Don King , Jacinta Whyte , Lucy Vigne Welsh
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1989

Review

My Left Foot tells the true story of Christy Brown's life, based on his autobiography (first published in 1954) and on the memories of those who knew him. Christy is born and remains almost completely paralyzed by cerebral palsy. He is one of 22 children (13 survived into adulthood) of a bricklayer's family. They live in a Dublin slum - painfully poor, often deprived of essentials, yet very resilient.

 

For the first 10 years of his life, Christy is considered to be hopelessly retarded in the eyes of everybody but his mother. His entire body is in revolt against him, both twisted and paralyzed. He can neither walk, sit, feed, nor dress himself. The boy is unable to communicate through recognizable speech. Sometimes he shows his mother a vague smile. With his lips pulled over to one side, his eyes wobbling upward in their sockets, Christy speaks in a series of guttural syllables, which get translated by his mom. Some people refer to him within his hearing as an ''idiot'' and a ''half-wit.''

Christy's mom never gives up - not because of a sense of duty but because of love. When it appears to her as if there is a brick wall between the disabled boy and his brothers and sisters, she makes a big effort to pull it down brick by brick. With the help of his brothers, Christy eventually begins to associate with other children. They take him with them when they go out to play in the streets, pushing him along in a rusty old go-car.

One day, Christy's whole life changes and his mother's faith in him gets rewarded. While the family is sitting around in the kitchen and the boy is lying on the floor, he picks up a piece of chalk with his left foot and writes letters on the floor. This is his first successful attempt to communicate with his family.   Everyone is amazed except for mom, who had always believed that he understands what is going on around him. She can see it in his eyes. On one Christmas Paddy, one of Christy's brothers, gets colored paints and a brush. Some days later, Christy starts using them to paint with his left foot.

One flashback in the movie shows his father going into the local pub to have a pint of beer shortly after Christy's birth. Considering the fact that his son has been born handicapped, he states that no son of his will be sent to a "home." The decision to raise him in the midst of a large and loving family might have saved his life, because his bright spirit would most likely have been destroyed by living in an institution.

People notice that Christy's gifted mind is fertile, restless, and questing. He attracts a physician's attention and attends treatment in a hospital for several years, which improves his muscle coordination and his speech. Through the unself-conscious love of his family, and the patience of his doctor and nurses, he learns how to be understood when he talks. He also receives tutoring by several people in his family home. A local priest teaches Christy philosophy, mathematics, literature and language skills. He develops into a successful poet, a novelist, a painter, and a lyrical chronicler of his own life.

But Christy's brilliant mind stays trapped inside his imperfect body. He uses alcohol as a way to "escape" from the cage of his body and is sometimes hard to live with. At times, he is manipulative, willful, stubborn, and arrogant. Forced to depend on others, he is often filled with frustration. For example, one scene shows Christy backstage in the library of a great British country home, where he is soon to be brought out to be given an award. He has a pint of whiskey hidden in his jacket pocket, with a straw that allows him to sip it. But a hired nurse is watching him. Trying to get her out of the way, Christy asks her for a light for his cigarette. "But Mr. Brown," she says, "you know that smoking is not good for you." "I didn't ask for a fucking psychological lecture," he replies. "I only asked for a fucking light."

The movie's protagonist develops a crush on a teacher who works with him on his speech. She loves him, but not in the romantic way that he imagines. When he learns of her engagement, he creates a scene in a restaurant that expresses his hurt and anger.

Christy knows he will always be different. That doesn't prevent him from attempting to realize himself creatively and romantically. Eventually he enters into a relationship with a woman he loves. One of his nurses, Mary Carr, becomes his wife.

Cinema Alchemy

Jay started therapy to work on his self-doubts in regards to his career. He appeared to be an exceptionally intelligent person who felt stuck doing menial work for a living. His dream was to become a film director. He had studied film in college and successfully created some short films. He worked on a bigger film project when he was not busy with his "day job".

We inquired into the origins of his self-doubts, and Jay revealed that he had been diagnosed with adult ADHD many years ago. Even though he took medication for this condition, and therefore experienced minimal symptoms, he believed that he could not be successful because of it.

"I will never be able to create something special", he said.

Jay liked my following metaphor: "Our eyes and ears can be likened to a camera and microphone, through which we see and hear the world. We watch what I call an inner movie , on a screen inside our heads. And this screen, it turns out, is often unreliable. Our inner movie plays the story that we tell ourselves about the world around us and about who we are. The plot of our inner movie frequently tells a story that is based on earlier life experiences."

I also told Jay that using certain feature films in therapy can help him become more conscious of his inner movie and question its plot - his negative beliefs. I asked him whether he could think of a movie, in which the protagonist was able to create something special, despite his or her personal limitations. As a filmmaker who was knowledgeable about countless movies, he immediately came up with My Left Foot . I instructed him to watch this film again. Jay was to pay attention to the beliefs that everybody in the movie has about Christy during his earlier years of his life and how these beliefs change over time. I also encouraged him to imagine himself taking on Christy's belief about his own creative potential.

When Jay came back for his next session, he said: "I get it now. It seems to me that Christy was able to create art and his book because he didn't let self-doubts get in his way despite his severe limitations. My limitations are absolutely minimal in comparison. I can very well imagine that I am capable of creating something special - perhaps a great film."  

I instructed Jay to write this new, positive belief on several pieces of paper or cards, and to place these notes at prominent places in his house so that he could see them frequently throughout the day. This way the new copy of his healthier inner movie could sink more deeply into his unconscious.

Within a few weeks Jay developed a more positive self-image that led to increased confidence in his creativity and success with his film project.

Theoretical Contemplations

When I work with the negative beliefs of clients, I often explain to them that some of their beliefs are formed in earlier years, as an adaptive response to their reality at that time. Later, these beliefs about them or others turn out to be inaccurate reflections of their current reality. In other words, they are cognitive distortions. These distortions can prevent my clients from developing healthy self-esteem and realizing our goals in life. I usually give them a list of cognitive distortions and ask them to identify the ones that apply to them.

To explain this concept metaphorically, I sometimes tell my clients that the creators of motion pictures have selectively chosen to highlight some events and leave out others, in order to evoke certain feelings and focus our attention on certain themes. They create an illusion of reality and we make a decision to accept it as real. In a similar way, we look at our everyday reality through a highly personal lens. We may think and feel as if we are seeing an objective reality but, in fact, we choose to edit out certain information and experiences and focus on others. We see life through the filter of our own personal histories, beliefs, and blind spots. These beliefs can help us or they can mislead us.

Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions to Clients

• Do you have a negative belief about yourself that holds you back in your life?

•  Do you remember a movie in which the protagonist is successful because he or she does not have such a negative belief or is able to let go of it?

•  Watch this film again and imagine taking on the characters perspective.

•  What true positive belief about yourself can you adopt from this character?  

•  Write this new belief on cards and place them at prominent places in your house.

 

 


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