Jul 16

Psychology of Authoritarianism: Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Others

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat‘s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020) contains helpful information about the psychology of authoritarianism. Included in her book is demagogue Donald J. Trump, among many others of his ilk. Below are selected quotes from her book; additional quotes provided are from Rachel Maddow, Barbara McQuade, and Steven Levitsky/Daniel Ziblatt.

First, what is authoritarianism? From a Ben-Ghiat post: “Authoritariansm is about converting rule of law into rule by the lawless. It is about taking away the rights of the many, including the right to free and fair elections and trials, and giving the few new liberties to steal, lie, and plunder womens’ bodies, the workforce, the economy, and the environment and not be held accountable.”

The following statements, directly from Strongmen, are pertinent to the psychology of authoritarianism:

The special psychological climate that strongmen create among their people—the thrill of transgression mixed with the comfort of submitting to his power—endows life with energy, purpose, and drama.

From the start, authoritarians stand out from other kinds of politicians by appealing to negative experiences and emotions. They don the cloak of national victimhood, reliving the humiliations of their people by foreign powers as they proclaim themselves their nation’s saviors. Picking up on powerful resentments, hopes, and fears, they present themselves as the vehicle for obtaining what is most wanted, whether it is territory, safety from racial others, securing male authority, or payback for exploitation by internal or external enemies.

It is [fear] that makes people so willing to follow brash, strong-looking demagogues . . . capable of cleansing the world of the vague, the weak, the uncertain, the evil. Ah, to give oneself over to their direction—what calm, what relief.

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Once the ruler is in power, elites strike an “authoritarian bargain” that promises them power and security in return for loyalty to the ruler and toleration of his suspension of rights. Some are true believers, and others fear the consequences of subtracting their support, but those who sign on tend to stick with the leader through gross mismanagement, impeachment, or international humiliation.

Other authors of recent books also address the psychology of authoritarianism and fascism:

From attorney Barbara McQuade, Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America (2024):

Tactics in the authoritarian playbook include appealing to emotion over reason, exploiting divisions, undermining critics, dismantling public institutions, stoking violence, and creating an image of the Great Leader as both an everyman and a superman. Disinformation is the catalyst that allows these tactics to work.

Political commentator Rachel Maddow, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism (2023):

One big appeal of fascism, if nothing else, was its unapologetic embrace of cruelty. Cruelty towards others, coupled with hypersensitivity towards any slight to oneself.

Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future (2018):

The drift into authoritarianism doesn’t always set off alarm bells. Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled even as it happens before their eyes.

Jul 09

“Baby Reindeer”: Multiple Traumas and Themes

Baby Reindeer, a realistic and popular series on Netflix, tells the true-ish story of Scottish comedian/actor/writer Richard Gadd, the victim of a relentless stalker.

In order to address the various themes of Baby Reindeer, including another actual instance of severe trauma Gadd endured in his twenties, I am providing some spoilers. 

Victimization of a Male By a Female

Bartender (and aspiring comedian) Donny Dunn (played by Gadd) sympathizes with Martha (Jessica Gunning), a sullen and broke bar patron he’s just met. He cuts her a break, and it (the stalking) gets its origins.

Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, Psychology Today, points out a few things, these included:

    • The invasive stalking is misunderstood and/or mocked by many in his sphere.
    • Some wrongheadedly blame the victim.
    • The offender finds ways to skirt the authorities.

Nicholas Balaisis,PhD, RP, Psychology Today, theorizes that attachment theory can explain Donny’s vulnerability to “abuse and manipulation” as well as his traits of conflict-avoidance and people-pleasing that contribute to the ongoing dynamics involved.

Victimization of a Male by a Male

Before the stalking episode, Donny had fallen prey to an experienced writer, Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill), who was ostensibly a potential writing mentor but was actually a groomer who on multiple occasions plied him with drugs and sexually assaulted him.

Effects of Sexual Trauma

Silva Neves, Psychology Today:

One of the most common questions that survivors are asked is why they kept going back to the abuser after they were raped. Often, survivors blame themselves for it: I must have liked it; I must have wanted it; Maybe I was the one who seduced him. But the reality is that it is none of those reasons. Sexual abuse most often happens within that tight web of deep psychological manipulation to disable the survivor from finding a way out of it…

Changes in sexual behaviors often occur after rape, often accompanied by additional self-blame and shame. Donny’s “changed in a way that may be perceived ‘out of control’ or ‘hypersexual’…”

Romantic Relationship with a Trans Woman

Teri (Nava Mau) also happens to be a therapist. She gets much of what he’s going through and makes helpful observations—but of course can’t fix him.

Silva Neves, Psychology Today: “It was refreshing to see a trans woman as a person who was authentic to herself, grounded, with a good job, living a ‘normal’ life, but without ignoring the discrimination that currently exists against trans people.”

Cyclical Nature of Abuse/Trauma

Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes. For example, Teri winds up getting hurt by Donny as well as by Martha.

An intergenerational example: Donny’s father was probably abused in childhood by at least one Catholic priest. Parents with their own unresolved childhood trauma often fail to teach sufficient boundaries to their offspring.

Martha’s Mental Illness

Chrissy Callahan, Today.com: Therapist Avigail Lev speculates that Martha has both borderline personality disorder and erotomania, a delusional disorder in which one’s attention becomes highly fixated on someone. Her borderline tendencies include wild love/hate swings and lack of emotional regulation.

By the way, a stuffed reindeer (hence, “baby reindeer”) was Martha’s object of comfort amidst her own childhood trauma.

Donny’s Mental Health Issues

Lev cites the possibilities of PTSD and Stockholm syndrome, the latter a “psychological response where hostages or abuse victims develop a bond with their captors or abusers.”

In addition, “Donny could also be trauma bonding with Martha, which occurs when a victim feels ‘increasingly worthless and ashamed due to the abuser’s actions’ and ‘becomes dependent on their abuser to alleviate the suffering they cause.'”

Jul 02

“Am I OK?”: 30-Something Female Comes Out

There is something to be said for queer women managing a story about queer women. Elizabeth Weitzman, The Wrap, regarding Am I OK?

Am I OK?, a new movie to HBO Max, is about a 32-year-old woman, Lucy (Dakota Johnson), who has been noticing attractions to other women. As with other confused women in this not-uncommon situation, she’s harbored a considerable degree of anxiety, lack of self-confidence, and possibly depression for some period of time.

Lauren Pomerantz, the writer of Am I OK?, is an example of someone who came out in her thirties; the script is based on her reality. Also, one of the film’s two directors, Stephanie Allynne, who’s married to the other director, lesbian Tig Notaro, was a self-identified straight woman before she met and fell for Notaro. (Notaro, by the way, also has a brief but funny role in the film.)

Coming out in adulthood is a significant and interesting turning point, but for some reason one film critic, John Anderson, WSJ.com, had the need to say that Am I OK? “has no story to speak of.”

No story?!

Alissa Wilkinson, New York Times: “…(W)ith a late bloomer, the world’s possibilities have been shut down a little…Decisions about career, friendships and family have already been made; the stakes of change are higher.”

Valerie Complex, Deadline: “Coming out in your adult years is confusing and stressful…”

Angie Han, Hollywood Reporter: “Am I OK? is sensitive to the specific anxieties that come with the timeline. Lucy cries…that she should have figured it out by now…”

More about Lucy’s world from Wilkinson:

[She] has settled into a quiet, unchallenging Los Angeles life…She spends most of her free time with Jane (Sonoya Mizuno), her childhood best friend, and keeps her life ripple-free. She’s never been in love. At the end of dinners with Ben (Whitmer Thomas), the guy she’s ostensibly dating, she shakes his hand.

By her own admission, Lucy is nervous all the time, ‘scared of everything.’ Worse, she says, she’s not sure if she’s ever been happy, or what even makes her happy. She has built herself a comfortable box to live in, as long as nothing changes.

Things do change, though. (A few spoilers ahead.) Jane is given an opportunity by her boss (Sean Hayes) to relocate to London for work. Her supportive boyfriend will go with her. While Lucy grapples with what this loss means, she also finally admits her secret to Jane. Although surprised, Jane wants to be nothing but helpful. This includes encouraging Lucy to act on her budding interest in coworker Brittany (Kiersey Clemons).

Jocelyn Noveck, APNews: “Brittany is flirting like crazy with Lucy, who finally gets up the courage to respond. She brings Lucy out of her shell, but with ultimately disheartening results.” This, as Noveck acknowledges, is “one of the most moving passages in the film” and an example of Pomerantz’s insight into what’s felt “when a straight woman toys with [one’s] emotions (and more).”

Unfortunately, Lucy and Jane in the meantime have had a falling out, so Lucy now lacks her confidant. States Wilkinson (NY Times): “Really, ‘Am I OK?’ is the story of a friendship growing from one stage to another — of the moment when youthful naïveté about life and friendship, the idea that we’ll just go on together this way forever, has to grow up. It turns out both Lucy and Jane have hard lessons to learn about the selves they’ve grown into, and it’s in their longstanding trust and care that they can start to become more than who they are. Their friendship is blooming into a new era, a bond with a future, and the world is full of possibility.”

See the trailer below:

Jun 25

“The Great Lillian Hall”: Will Dementia Stop the Show?

The Great Lillian Hall is a new HBO Max film about an acclaimed theater actress (the great Jessica Lange) who faces a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia.

Notably, writer Elisabeth Seldes Annacone loosely based her script on Marian Seldes (1928-2014), her late aunt who had the same disorder and was also a stage legend.

Peter Travers, ABC, describes Lillian’s current life and the cast of characters around her:

Lillian’s support system includes a daughter (Lily Rabe) she’s neglected since childhood, the living memory of her late theater director husband (Michael Rose), a neighbor (Pierce Brosnan) she flirts with on her Manhattan terrace, and her long-time, long suffering assistant Edith (Oscar winner Kathy Bates, magnificent as usual) whose tough love she truly needs.

Of course, the lifeline Lillian needs most is the theater. She gets sympathy from her young Turk director (Jesse Williams), but only cold impatience from her producer (Cindy Hogan), who’d fire Lillian in a heartbeat if the play’s box office wouldn’t crater instantly.

Pete Hammond, Deadline: “Rabe, whose theatre credentials go back to being the daughter of the late Jill Clayburgh and playwright David Rabe, is perfectly cast here as the daughter who fights against the idea that she was always second to her mother’s love of theatre. She gets a fiery emotional scene confronting her mother about why she was not told about her condition, and she delivers it authentically.”

(See my previous post “An Unmarried Woman” for a sense of Jill Clayburgh‘s work.)

Where does Lillian go from here? Christian Zilko, Indiewire: “…(I)f she can’t memorize lines anymore, she faces the possibility of losing her life’s work without anything to show for it. So against the advice of her doctors and family, she decides to put everything she has into rehearsals with the hope of taking the stage one last time.”

See the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Times: Besides its elegant handling of the parallels between Lillian’s character and her own life, the movie’s most interesting gambit is the way it breaks from the lazy habit of portraying stars as narcissistic, destructive monsters…(S)he is also capable of kindness and loyalty, along with a pleasurable wit.”

Brian Lowry, CNN: “…(T)he film doesn’t turn over new ground but nevertheless yields poignant moments, primarily in the interplay between Lange – a fierce lioness in winter, hungry for one more curtain call – and Bates, who could play this part in her sleep and still makes the most of it.”

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: “There are a couple of scenes that tap into the agony of dementia (and Lange, at those moments, is powerful), but ‘The Great Lillian Hall’ is mostly a feel-good movie about using acting to turn the lemons life hands you into a grand illusion of lemonade.”

Jun 18

Pride Films (LGBTQ) You May Have Missed 10+ Years Ago

For your viewing consideration, below are seven Pride films (LGBTQ) from more than a decade ago.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

Romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein depicts themes regarding sexual fluidity. Neither Helen (Heather Juergensen) nor Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt) have been in a same-sex relationship before. Helen, though, already identifies as bisexual and appears more comfortable, while previously “straight” Jessica faces such fears as telling her mom (Tovah Feldshuh). 

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Among the more mainstream Pride films is Lisa Cholodenko‘s comedy The Kids Are All Right. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore portray a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules. Their two teenagers were conceived with the aid of an anonymous sperm donor. The women’s relationship teeters on the edge when they actually meet the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who’s been found by the kids.

Albert Nobbs (2011)

In a period long, long ago both Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) and newfound friend Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) are women pretending to be men in order to have work and income.

As stated by The Opinioness, “The tragic story of Albert Nobbs lingered in my memory long after I left the theatre. Its exploration of female friendship, lesbian love, class and poverty, gender roles and a woman’s self-discovery, truly make it a rare gem.”

Tomboy (2011)

In this French movie, directed by Céline Sciamma, a 10-year-old girl named Laure (Zoé Héran) moves with her family into a new neighborhood and, only among her peers, pretends to be a boy named Mikael. Laure’s younger sister and parents don’t know about this other identity.

Roger Ebert:Tomboy is tender and affectionate. It shows us Laure/Mikael in an adventure that may be forgotten in adulthood or may form her adulthood. There is no conscious agenda in view. There is just a tomboy. Not everyone needs to be slammed into a category and locked there.”

Pariah (2011)

Pariah features a 17-year-old girl, Alike (pronounced “ah-LEE-kay”), not easily accepted for who she is: a tomboy who’s a lesbian who’s black. Writer-director Dee Rees based this story on her own experiences coming out as gay.

Alike (Adepero Oduye) resides in Brooklyn with her conservative parents—a mom who’s devoutly Christian (Kim Wayans) and a dad (Charles Parnell) who’s a police detective.

Keep the Lights On (2012)

This realistic film is based on the past relationship between New York literary agent Bill Clegg and the film’s director, Ira Sachs.

David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle, states about the codependent relationship of Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth), “It’s a volatile combination for a couple: One man is addicted to love, the other to crack cocaine.”

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Differing from the aforementioned Pride films, this one’s lead character is a “vocally homophobic antihero” (Peter Debruge, Variety). Matthew McConaughey portrays Ron Woodroof, who gets diagnosed with AIDS. One individual who tries to help him is a transgender AIDS patient (Jared Leto).

Debruge believes viewers will likely “recognize Woodroof’s knee-jerk bigotry as uncool. And thus, the film manages to educate without ever feeling didactic, and to entertain in the face of what would, to any other character, seem like a grim life sentence.”

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine: “It’s difficult to talk about the beauty of Leto’s performance, because he just, well, is. The transformation is so complete—­physically and vocally—that it’s hard to believe he could ever be anything else. Rayon (née Raymond) is high on being Rayon, to the point where you sometimes forget that he’s dying, too.”