"Psychological abuse" is one of those terms we all use casually, and apply to such a wide range of human behavior that the term becomes almost meaningless. For me the term has a distinct meaning: it refers to the systematic degradation of one human being by another, in the course of which the victims sense of himself or herself as an autonomous human being is crippled or even destroyed.
This process can occur in many different ways, accompanied by grossly aberrant and criminal behavior; or almost-invisibly, enforced by cues as a raised eyebrow or a rigid smile.
SPOILER ALERT: I DON'T DISCUSS EACH SCENE OF THE MOVIE IN DETAIL, BUT I DISCUSS THE END OF THE FILM AND OTHER SCENES FROM IT.
Darren Aronofsky’s film "The Black Swan" is many things, one of them a brilliant depiction of a mother-daughter relationship that represents the destructive domination of a sensitive child by her mother; and the destruction of the daughter through madness and possible suicide as she attempts to escape. (Aronofsky appears to leave it to the viewer to decide whether Nina actually dies at the end of the film, or has merely plunged deeper into insanity).
One of Aronofsky’s great achievements is to depict just how invisible this process of coercion and mind-control is. Yes Nina -- a gifted ballerina played by Natalie Portman -- can barely take the subway to work without her mother tagging along, and her bedroom is filled with toys and stuffed animals. But we realize only only over time how complete and destructive the domination of Nina by her mother has been.
As the film progresses, we begin to see the hallmarks of psychological abuse more widely: Nina seems to have no interests or close friends or boyfriends; she is anxious, and chronically guilty; her very sexuality seems to have been erased by the grueling demands of ballet – and Nina’s obsessive focus on ballet seems to be one more expression of her mother’s thwarted ambition.
Arranovsky gives us a sense of just how aberrant this mother-daughter relationship is when Nina declines to eat a piece of the (huge) cake her mother bought in celebration of Nina’s winning a lead role in the upcoming ballet – her mother immediately goes to tip the entire cake into the trash. It is clear that Nina’s mother views her daughter’s declining to eat a piece of cake as an unacceptable act of defiance – and she moves instantly to punish Nina, making clear that Nina will perpetually bear the blame for the destruction of the cake.
What’s so notable about the scene is how unsurprised both Nina and her mother are by what occurs – it’s obvious that Nina’s mother has escalated like this dozens or hundreds of time, and that Nina’s instant submission (licking frosting off her mother’s finger like an infant returning to a surgary breast) is conditioned response to her mother’s rage.
Nina’s mother lives on the "borderline" of sanity. As long as she is soothed and gratified by her daughter, she remains calm. Her identification with Nina’s youth and beauty wards off anxieties about lonliness and middle age. Her identification with Nina’s talent eases her frustration with the limitations of her own. Most critically: her sense of herself and her daughter as a single, semi-fused entity contains and largely conceals the malevolent envy and resentment she would otherwise feel towards her young and promising adult child.
All of this is threatened when Nina declines a piece of cake, and all is restored when Nina sucks the frosting off her finger.
Nina is frozen in a state of seemingly perpetual pre-adolescence, but time and events undermine the stability of this arrangement. She is a driven, ambitious young woman. Suppressed as her emotions are, she is nonetheless suffused with rage, desire and yearning for a freer life. Like many young women emerging from a "people-pleasing" girlhood, she is overwhelmed by and terrified of her real emotions, which emerge in chaotic and unregulated form.
Nina can survive as a "white swan", i.e. as a trembling and naïve child. But when the passage to adulthood demands that she face her own envy, rage, and sexuality – the fabric of her mind and personality disintegrates.
But why does Nina descend into madness?
Strict proponents of a "biologic" view of mental illness would argue that Nina suffers from a brain disorder, likely an one inherited from her mother. The textbook features of this disorder include periods of "normal" functioning and others of marked mood instability, swings from elation agitation to depression and despair; and instances of uncharacteristic promiscuity and other aberrant behavior. The more extreme these problems are, on the whole, the better the chance that medication therapy can significantly help.
Most competent clinicians would not be satisfied by relying solely on a "biologic" concept of someone suffering as Nina does. Many aspects of her problems would match the checklist of symptoms such as self-mutilation, identity problems, and classified under the rubric of "Borderline Personality Disorder" – an ill-defined concept that is used to describe many different kinds of people, most of them women, who suffer from more-extreme forms of psychological distress – and add this diagnosis.
Diagnostic terminology can be of some use, but it has terrible limitations. Modern psychiatric terminology is "atheoretical" – that is to say that, by design, the concepts are stripped of any effort to relate human behavior and experience to an underlying model of what we are, what motivates us, what we need to be happy and emotionally stable.
"Sanity" is a notoriously fragile term, and one to be careful with. Many of us dismiss ideas we don’t like, or don’t understand, as "insane". But this misuse of the term captures one of the important aspects of what "sanity" is – the ability to build a construct of "reality" with other people, while still retaining the capacity for autonomous perception and judgment; balancing our need for private self-experience against the equally-important need to share experience with the important people in our lives.
This brings the question back to psychological abuse. "Reality" is not shared in abusive relationships. By definition, the active partner in an abusive relationship imposes his or her often highly distorted version of reality on the passive partner in the relationship. Usually the first and critical distortion serves to conceal the abusive basis of the relationship. Abuse is often disguised as a concerned response to the abuse victim’s incompetence; and thus a second distortion includes a relentless attack on the abuse victim’s sense of self-esteem and capacity to function alone.
But why do abuse victims "buy in" to these distortions? Often they begin in a position of emotional or economic dependency on their abusers, as always the case for children, and often the case in wives. Abuse victims are seek to avoid conflict and preserve family relationships; while abusers use explosive anger, capped with violence or the threat of it, as a tool to enforce their dominance.
But for many abuse survivors a still deeper source of reflexive submission stems from a pathological identification with the abuser, a distortion of the developmental instinct that leads children to accept parental authority, and soldiers to obey their captains. Abusers, unlike loving parents and good officers, pervert their authority; while abuse victims cling to the fantasy that their abuser loves them.
Recognition by the victim of the true nature of the abusive relationship requires a renunciation of that fantasy, something that many find too painful to endure. Most of us readily see abusers as morally perverse; it is important to perceive that the victim’s moral compass can be equally corrupted, fixed in a belief that one’s suffering is deserved, and facing terrifying feelings of guilt at the prospect of assertive and effective behavior.
Pathological guilt, coupled with identification with the abuser, often become a recipe for self-destructive behavior. This can be understood as a conscious or unconscious process of splitting oneself in two, and playing out the roles of abuser and victim simultaneously. Many abuse victims abuse themselves in a variety of subtle or less-subtle ways ranging from compulsive work habits to addiction and self-mutilation. The process of self-harm can serve to internalize rage that feels to dangerous to express directly. Victims trapped in such patterns often feel helpless, believe themselves deserving of suffering, and in extremity deriving perverse pleasure from self-harm.
At the beginning of "The Black Swan" we see Nina as a typical adult survivor of child abuse: driven, perfectionistic, joyless and inhibited; yet stabilize by her demanding routine, both trapped and secured by the intensity of her subordination to her craft. Her promotion triggers an exhilarating and terrifying awareness of her emerging power as an adult in relation to her mother, as an a woman in relation to her mentor, as rival in relation to the former star dancer in her company. The strain of containing her conflicting emotions is too great.
How different Nina’s life might have been had she been able to turn to sympathetic friends, teachers, or other family members for help. Instead, she is trapped in the cutthroat world of performing arts. Nina must content with the heartless manipulativeness of her colleagues; but it is the same traits within herself threaten her the most. At the climax of the film, Nina descends into a horrifying hallucinatory nightmare in the course of which she witnesses bloody, accusatory self-mutilation by the woman she replaced as principal; and then imagines that she impales and murders the dancer who schemes to replace her.
Many survivors of abusive and narcissitic parents suffer in adulthood in various ways. But why does Nina go mad?
Aronofsky, in my view does not really engage this question. Are we to infer that Nina is suffering the onset of schizophrenia, or severe manic depression? This certainly doesn’t appear to be the case. Is this just a case of a talented screenwriter director running away with their storyline? Perhaps.
Another explanation for Nina’s collapse might lie in a history of trauma more far more severe than what is openly displayed in the film. Individuals whom I have known who were tortured by their parents as children, for example, have described to me terrifying hallucinations, flashbacks, paranoid delusions – while continuing to function in demanding jobs, just as Nina, for some time, is able to do.
I return to the moment when Nina’s mother offers to throw the cake in the trash, and Nina instantly submits. Just what occurred in the past to make this reflexive submission so immediate, and so total? What don’t we know about the circumstances of Nina’s upbringing?
Perhaps Nina’s most terrifying hallucinations – blood pouring from her hands, another dancer impaling her face with a knife – represents memory as well as madness, distorted images which take the place memories too terrifying to accept as real. The act of remembering, itself, may represent a violation of the original abusers demand that a terrified child pretend that "this never happened".
I have a patient who suffered the onset of such hallucinations one morning after unexpectedly finding a wire brush - identical to one he was tortured with as a child – on the sofa in his living room. He was able to regain his composure, take a xanax, and go to work. A holocaust survivor I knew was plagued by hallucinations of smells of the death camp.
Nina, of course is, a fictional character. But the places where societies losers wash up – mental hospitals, prisons, emergency rooms, morgues – are stocked with people whose capacity for joy was destroyed by horrific trauma in early life, much of it un-noted and unacknowledged, manifest to the world only in the capacity of victims to harm themselves.
A second possibility is that Nina was not an actual physical torture victim, but experienced severe psychological stress in childhood, leaving her mind fragile and prone to shifts into fantasy and withdrawal. Many children under such stress appear "normal" in childhood, or even struggle to be models of compliant behavior, while they are internally struggling to contain and control terrifying surges of emotion and fantasy. Girls such as this, like Winona Ryder’s character in Girl, Interrupted, can appear to suddenly fall ill with symptoms they have actually been repressing for most of a lifetime.
Whether Nina was the victim of physical violence or "merely" of psychological and emotional violence, as we glimpsed when her mother threatened to throw the birthday cake away; should she survive her apparent suicide at the end of the film, she would face a long and painful road to recovery.
Modern mental health treatments – psychotherapy, medication, dialectical behavior therapy, trauma recovery groups, day treatment programs, art and music therapy, to name a few – can be of real assistance when skillfully combined.
But no treatment of traumatic abuse really begins, until the history of abuse – the gross intrusion and control by one human of a less-powerful human - is recognized. Aranofsky’s film, I suspect, will find a lasting place in the minds and memories of adult survivors.