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"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.

Originally posted to Alex Lerman on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 11:13 AM PST.

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How did you feel after watchint "The Black Swan"

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Comment Preferences

  •  Charlie Rose, today. (0+ / 0-)
    Everybody who died this past year.

    No abuse.

    Career criminals + Angry White Males + Log Cabin Rethugs + Personality Disorder delusionals + Paid bloggers =EQ= The GOPer Base

    by vets74 on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 11:22:03 AM PST

  •  Can't wait to see it... (3+ / 0-)

    ....should be at least as uplifting as Requiem :)

    No one ever created a vibrant economy by building houses for each other. Houses are built because there is a vibrant economy.

    by Doug in SF on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 11:24:38 AM PST

  •  interesting analysis. (7+ / 0-)

    I hadn't really paid much attention to the "psycho-sexual thriller" aspect that the advertising pushed. I was naively expecting to see an 'artistic" film, or at least a thoughtful approach to art and life. Ofcourse, as it turned out the dancing and the music were so chopped up that the whole idea that art was somehow a part of this story became ridiculous (ballet art in this case is only a symbol of intensely competitive reality). As I read your review I came to see just how singularly focused on psychology (obsessed?) The Black Swan is.

  •  "driven, perfectionistic, joyless and inhibited" (13+ / 0-)

    That could to be the title of my autobiography. Geesh. Not sure me and my PTSD could sit through this film, but your description of Nina could be a younger me in a nutshell, especially as a young adult in college and grad school. I drove myself to two breakdowns that way.

    My earliest trauma was terror of my mother with her unpredictable and frighteningly intense mood swings (due likely to a combination of her own childhood traumas, undx'd ADD and the hormone replacements she was taking at the time). I wasn't dx'd with Asperger's until I was in my later 20's but my first traits of Asperger's presented at 3 year of age--hyperlexia and intersts atypical for my gender and age, along with an intense sensitivity to the moods of others, to my environment and to certain sounds (hyperacusis) that made me withdraw socially. When my mother would have one of her fits, she would start banging things around and be just wild with chaotic emotion, yelling, sputtering incoherently, "busying" herself frantically and often in messy, counterproductive ways that would leave several rooms in the house in a state of disarray. I would hide in my bedroom closet or under my bed, which were the only places I could hide from my mother and feel somewhat buffered from the oppressive noises of her hysteria.

    My mother was hardly empathetic or kind towards my developmental issues--she had my older brother evaluated for autism (he was dx'd as manic-depressive instead), but refused to see my issues as anything more than me disappointing her. She was especially harsh towards my sensitive nature, my need for routine, or my quirks that made me unlike other girls my age--any hint of my differences would make her hostile towards me, berating me for not being the daughter she wanted and how much I embarrassed her. She never physically abused me but I lived in terror of her nonetheless.

    I wish I could say my mother was to extent of the abuse I experienced as a child and teen, but it wasn't. But this was the start of my PTSD. I've made considerable progress with recovering for my mother's treatment of me as a child. She now lives blissfully forgetful of the terror she inflicted on me--if I dare say anything to her that sounds like a criticism of her mothering, it sets her off into a defensive, histrionic rage, and I've found it's better for me to simply accept my mother as she is (and what she will never be to me) and to focus on healing myself. But while I have conquered some of the things that trigger my mother-related PTSD, some still linger. Some of them are a little embarrassing to admit though, because they would seem so mundane and insignificant to anyone else but to my brain, they are indelibly linked to my mother's abuse and a vivid sense of being unsafe, callously demeaned and psychologically assaulted.

    -9.38, -7.95 "Not everything that steps out of line, and thus 'abnormal', must necessarily be 'inferior'." - H. Asperger. Mene Mene Tekel Obama

    by croyal on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 12:04:09 PM PST

    •  your story is exactly what the "Black Swan" is (4+ / 0-)

      about, IMO... I agree with the other poster above, the movie is anything but a 'thriller'.  

      I have known many, many people who have grown up with emotionally unstable mothers - some mothers who recognize and regret their weaknesses (which can really help, if the recognition is sustained) others who respond as you describe, with agitation and rage at any hint of the subject.

      It's really valuable to be aware of how not-alone one is or can be facing such situations.

      Best, :)

      •  Let's not forget.... (3+ / 0-)

        emotionally unstable fathers.  I've known too many screwed up men having grown up (in theory) under the overly-critical eye of their father to leave them out of the discussion.  After all, mothers aren't responsible for all the ills of the world...just most of them (snark).

        The movie is one that lives with you for days and days.  Great diary!  I enjoyed the "analysis".

        It's like, duh. Just when you thought there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, the Republicans go and prove you're wrong. Molly Ivins

        by Arizona Grandma on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 01:39:26 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  About what one would expect from... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ivorybill

    a Darren Aronofsky movie. I'm going to seeit.

  •  All of which,... (5+ / 0-)

    ...or at least as much as I could read, explains why I won't be seeing this film.  After living through parental physical and emotional abuse, I have no desire to buy a ticket to see more of it.  But thanks for giving us the heads up, and for a thoughtful analysis.

    Oh, there you are, Perry. -Phineas -SLB-

    by boran2 on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 12:49:45 PM PST

  •  Hmmm (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LI Mike

    Interesting analysis, really.

    But aren't you overthinking Aronofsky's work a wee little bit (or maybe a lot)?  Maybe it's art for art's sake, and not for a detailed psychological analysis of the characters, rather a construction to facilitate a plot.

    A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism. -Carl Sagan

    by jo fish on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 01:01:53 PM PST

    •  I don't know if aranovsky intended to do a movie (3+ / 0-)

      about abuse - but he succeeded brilliantly IMO.  the best moments of the movie, for me, are the scenes of Nina and her mother - a very rich, disturbing depiction of a certain kind of relationship.

      •  I did expect more of turning point but there is (5+ / 0-)

        no doubt that Aronofsky did intend this to be a psychological study.  It was not about ballet.  People who are drawn to ballet with its rigid classic definitions of everything--long ago made the commitment to shave off little pieces of themselves for "art."  A classic ballerina had to decide at six that is what she wants.  The body has to literally be molded, same for a gymnist, you can't decide at 18 I think I'd like to do that.

        I studied for 14 years to be a coloratura.  I saw an opera performance at 9, that was like an ephiphany.  I had to do it.  There never was a time that i did not know that only 12 women in the world at any one time make a living at it.

        At 9 I was already singing in the church of the mother house of Incarnate Word so my first voice teachers were nuns.  They were great teachers in some ways regarding discipline and practicality.
        What they imposed on me was the concept that this was not my voice but god's voice.  Therefore, I was to stand perfectly still and let him channel through me his music.  I could never get over that and emote which is really what great singing is about.  I never even understood the concept until it was too late.  I could not sell myself so i could not sell a song.

        I did a lot of singing particularly in groups and got paid for it and simple weddings, funerals, etc.  I have sung behind the curtain for a few ingenues.  I understudied and once had to perform for the star.  I really never liked being on stage.  Had I started younger I would have been a director.  It is a person like me who knows what the real problems are and gives permission for the performer to fail in order to find a path to success.  I taught a lot of high school kids and I got a great kick out of watching the aha moment come.

    •  I don't think (3+ / 0-)

      there was any "overthinking" at all.  The ballet was a side "barre" simply because Swan Lake is the classic duo personality drama.  But this movie was about psychological and emotional abuse.  It was about obsessive/compulsive behaviors.  It was about psychosis.  When a movie can present itself as one thing when it is something else entirely - well IMHO - that's when a movie is not just good, but pure genius.

      It's like, duh. Just when you thought there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, the Republicans go and prove you're wrong. Molly Ivins

      by Arizona Grandma on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 01:46:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent but difficult film to watch. (3+ / 0-)

    All those years in ballet and no one sees this and steps up in any way.  Bothered me a lot that it seemed so hopeless for the character to get any form of help.

    Interesting I did not take it that there was any chance of her living.  I thought she was dead.  

  •  Emotional incest (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Regina in a Sears Kit House

    I haven't seen the film but it does sound like it fits the definition. There are many helpful and informative books out there about it. It's how many abusers wreck havoc. Patricia Love's book, The Emotional Incest Syndrome, is a great place to start figuring it out.

    Remove BP's corporate charter for environmental terrorism.

    by Picot verde on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 02:41:17 PM PST

  •  My (step) daughter's mother does this to her. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Alex Lerman

    From what I can piece together it began when she was a baby.  Her mother and now my daughter, do not see themselves as separate.  We hoped that going to college would help create distance and perspective on the difference life can bring.

    Just in the last week we saw our daughter go from a happy excited emerging gal to almost too uncomfortable to be with anyone except her mother.  She came back from a visit (first in a long time) with us which also reunited her with childhood friends and alternate parents, just too happy.  Whatever threats, treatment or habitual behavior is employed, it must be whoppers.  Our friends felt the discomfort and even photos show the change.  My heart breaks for her.

    Her dad has made it plain years ago, anytime she wants a change or another means of support, she has multiple homes, friends and family to call on.  Somehow each time we offer help even ordinary financial support (or not) it becomes worse for her.  And as you say, we watched the process of her internalizing her punishment and lowered expectations and thwarted dreams.

    What is worst, when we fought so hard to maintain ourselves in her life, after a real abduction just after her eighth grade grad, the courts were in no position to deal with that level of craziness. It had to be the dad causing the "attachment disorder".

    We keep hoping she can get far, far away for a long enough time.  To date those opportunities are sabotaged because the mother cannot stand more than a few days of distance.

    I remember as a growing teen our daughter's one goal was to be taller than her mother.  She is in awe of her mother's physical strength.  She was still lap sitting and sleeping with her mother after 12 years of age and in public sucking her fingers.  The one vacation she had with her dad in that time frame, she grew discernibly taller.

    We know of no way to help.  Once she left her mother's home, and went to college it shifted the responsibility or freedom to choose to our daughter. So far she has chosen her mother in almost everything.

    The heartbreak of watching this smart, funny and truly wonderful good hearted girl be convinced she should be tough and not nice, which causes withdrawal and flat affect/depression, is often just too much.

    You have stated in such clear terms what we have seen for years and years, that it is just stunning.  When her odd behavior is seen through the lens you offer here, it makes sense. And for those who may be inclined to dismiss this analysis as unreal or fantasy, I assure you, it is indeed possible to have parents who behave in just these ways with their kids.

    Thank you.

    "Never, desist till we ... extinguish this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, will scarce believe that it suffered a disgrace and dishonor to this country.

    by Regina in a Sears Kit House on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 05:20:33 PM PST

    •  thank you for standing by your stepdaughter (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Regina in a Sears Kit House

      don't underestimate the importance of unselfish love from the other parent - a child will reflect on this and remember as she gets older.

      The less entangled with rage at mother you can stay, the more you can look this kid in the eye and say, with words or not, 'we both know your mom is crazy, you've got your own mile to walk, we're here for you.'

      Keep the faith!   :)

      •  Thank you. My challenge when she was (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Alex Lerman

        young was not to compete or take umbrage when my cooking or whatever was compared negatively to her mother's. In other words not to participate in triangulated competition. Later it was not bad mouthing her when it was clear she was coached and encouraged to disrespect our household and the people.

        As she has grown older, the course to take has become more difficult. Oddly to us, the attachment to unreality has grown stronger not less. Although it feels sometimes like one foot on one side of a growing chasm and one foot on the other. Although if there ever will be a break, as time goes by it will be more and more difficult unless there is some part of life that is better, more fulfilling and as exciting as her mother.

        Not so much rage as pure grief for my daughter, although I wish her mother was not able to reach into her with such ease. I have been surprised to learn most people don't think a step parent can love a child not their own.  I think it just should be.

        Thank you for your kind words.

        "Never, desist till we ... extinguish this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, will scarce believe that it suffered a disgrace and dishonor to this country.

        by Regina in a Sears Kit House on Mon Jan 03, 2011 at 06:04:40 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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