Oct 21

“You Should Have Known” Behind “The Undoing”

Based on the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, David E. Kelley‘s six-part mini-series The Undoing premieres Sunday on HBO Max. Stars include Nicole Kidman—as a therapist—and Hugh Grant as her husband.

As some people like to read it before seeing it, this post previews the book. But first, a little background about author Korelitz: her mom is a therapist, who apparently “always brought home cautionary tales to my sister and me about not believing what someone tells you. She went to great pains to get us to understand that just because someone says something doesn’t mean it’s true. We all want to believe that someone is telling the truth – especially if we’re attracted to them” (amny.com).

And thus, main character Grace Reinhart Sachs is a New York shrink whose new nonfiction self-help book is You Already Know: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in Their Lives are Telling Them.

Richard Fitzpatrick, Irish Examiner, about this book-within-a-book: “Grace’s thesis is that women delude themselves when picking men. They’re blinded by the need for narrative — to save the man, or that they’re ‘already the heroine and here comes my hero’. They fail to read their self-deception, unwilling to notice the signs that tell them an embezzler, a liar, or a womaniser stands before them.”

Grace herself is in a long-term marriage to Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist; they have a 12-year-old son. From the publisher, additional info:

…(W)eeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: a violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.

In the first part of the novel readers see how private-school moms live. Then a woman, not someone from her social realm, is found murdered. Publishers Weekly breaks it down further: “Grace, already tense and sad from these events, becomes more and more anxious as Jonathan, at a medical conference in the Midwest, proves unreachable over several days. The author deftly places the reader in Grace’s shoes by exploring her isolation, unease, and contempt for the rumor mill.”

Selected Reviews of You Should Have Known

Maureen Corrigan, Washington Post: “It artfully combines wit and suspense into an irresistible domestic nightmare.”

John Harding, Daily Mail, asks a pertinent question or two: “Would such a high profile therapist really not be having – and indeed never have had – therapy herself, or regular supervision of her work by another therapist? And surely her professional expertise and intuition would have led to clearer understanding of her own marriage?”

Susan Dominus, New York Times:

Korelitz manages to pull off the contrivance that Grace, having written an entire book about blind spots, could be so spectacularly sabotaged by her own: The advice book is understood as the clanging of an alarm, the product of Grace’s own subconscious raging to be heard. In contrast, the novel’s resolution feels surprisingly neat and tidy for a story about the messiness of the mind.

Sep 11

“Big Little Lies” Season Two: Therapist Loses Cred

In a previous post I commented on the competence of the therapist—and how refreshing this was considering how little of this we see on TV and film—in Season One of Big Little Lies. Unfortunately, my opinion has changed after watching the most recent shows. Although Big Little Lies Season Two features the same therapist, she’s different now. I’ll try to explain. Spoilers ahead.

Big Little Lies Season One therapy: In a nutshell, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) addressed being the victim of domestic violence in her therapy with a helpful Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert). But Celeste didn’t have to decide to leave her abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) after all. As of the finale he’s dead.

Big Little Lies Season Two therapy: Each therapy scene is jarringly confrontational and off-putting, but the worst offense occurs when Dr. Reisman asks Celeste not only to focus on remembering her abuse but also to imagine her best friend, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) being abused in the same way. Sure, Reisman probably wants to turn Celeste’s empathy for others inward. But, as Julia Naftulin, Insider, points out, her approach leads to unnecessarily retraumatizing Celeste.

Indeed, one of the goals of a trauma-sensitive therapist involves trying not to trigger the painful memories and flashbacks. Purposely probing for a reenactment of the past is likely to further embed aspects of the trauma into a client’s brain.

Another problem is Reisman’s judgmental attitudes. She pushes Celeste, for instance, to see her marriage in more black-and-white terms, i.e., Perry is bad—someone to get over already. The reality is that Celeste had been in a complicated relationship with a man who yes, did awful things to her—but who was loved as well.

Therapist Kelly Scott gives Insider this sound opinion: “…Dr. Reisman’s approach ⁠— insisting that Perry was purely evil, with no positive attributes ⁠— only could have been effective if he was still alive and Celeste needed a one-dimensional view of him to leave the relationship. But now that Perry is dead, painting him as the bad guy serves no purpose for Celeste or her safety. Rather, it will likely alienate her.”

Madeline and her husband Ed (Adam Scott) also sign up for Reisman therapy after Ed finds out Madeline was unfaithful. In what appears to be their very first session, Reisman badgers a confused Madeline into explaining why she cheated, then out of the blue accuses Ed of being “profoundly disengaged” and possibly as guilty as his wife for their current problems. The upshot: neither is happy with how they’re treated.

For additional info and opinions regarding the therapist in Big Little Lies Season Two, here are a few resources:

Mar 31

“Big Little Lies”: Domestic Violence Therapy

The current and highly rated HBO comedy/drama mini-series Big Little Lies, a suburban murder mystery starring such notables as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård, and Adam Scott, is based on Liane Moriarty‘s 2014 bestselling novel.

One way the TV series differs from the book is that creator David E. Kelley has placed more emphasis on a certain delicate and challenging situation being addressed in therapy. According to Carolyn L. Todd, Refinery29, the series in this way helps “make a very unlikable character more sympathetic.”

That character is Celeste (Kidman), an abused spouse. Although she first enters therapy with husband Perry (Skarsgård), this changes when he has to go out of town.

But in the book, Celeste sees the therapist alone from the get-go. Having Perry participate in therapy makes him seem like a better guy: he’s a domestic abuser, yes, but he knows he has a problem and is willing to work on it. It indicates he knows his behavior is unacceptable and wants to change. Celeste and Perry seem like more of a team. Plus, the tense dynamic of the therapy sessions is riveting, as is watching the pair negotiate in the moment how much truth about their marriage they want to share with the counselor.

Although therapists on TV are often portrayed sketchily or negatively or unfairly, there’s a general consensus that this isn’t so in Big Little Lies:

Caitlin Flynn, Bustle: “Therapy isn’t often depicted on TV and, when it is, the scenes tend to be brief and lack depth. The therapy sessions on Big Little Lies don’t just break that mold — they shatter it.”

Maria Elena Fernandez, Vulture: “Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert) and Celeste and Perry Wright (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård) are so realistic they’re draining.”

Melissa Dahl, The Cut: “And you know who else loves the therapist on Big Little Lies? Actual therapists.” Some of the highlighted factors: the realism, Dr. Reisman’s apparently advanced knowledge regarding domestic abuse, and her astute ability to pick up on subtle cues from the client.

Regarding the advisability of seeing Celeste alone considering that it was supposed to be marital therapy, it’s the existence of domestic violence that allows for this. For the optimal care of the victim, an experienced therapist is aware of the need to further assess the circumstances without the direct participation of the abuser.

Bustle expands on how the therapy in Big Little Lies proceeds:

It was only when Celeste began seeing Dr. Reisman on her own that she very, very slowly began to shed her facade. These scenes hit the nail on the head because Dr. Reisman successfully strikes a balance between needling the truth of Celeste without pushing her too hard, which could cause her to shut down and never come to another appointment. The scenes are lengthy, which allows Big Little Lies to flesh out what therapy really looks like — especially for abuse victims. Celeste can’t bear to speak the truth out loud, and her strongest moments in these scenes are conveyed through facial expressions, body language, and eye contact.

May 09

“The Family Fang”: Based On the Novel

There’s an illuminating moment late in Jason Bateman’s richly captivating film of The Family Fang, when the unorthodox patriarch played with a sardonic glint by Christopher Walken says to his adult offspring, “You think we damaged you? So what! That’s what parents do.” That’s close enough to a key to this smart, tart adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s best-selling 2011 debut novel, which thumbs its nose at the cliches of the over-trafficked dysfunctional family genre to dissect the sometimes lifelong quest of children to understand their parents in ways that are funny and bittersweet, poignant and often bracingly dark. David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Kevin Wilson‘s The Family Fang was chosen a “Best Book” by Amazon when it came out, and the following is a brief plot description from their review: “For outré performance artists, Caleb and Camille Fang, everything in life is secondary to art, including their children. Annie and Buster (popularly known as Child A. and Child B.) are the unwilling stars of their parents’ chaotically subversive work. Art is truly a family affair for the Fangs. Years later, their lives in disarray, Annie and Buster reluctantly return home in search of sanctuary—only to be caught up in one last performance.”

Maureen Corrigan, NPR, adds to this:

The Fang parents aren’t faring so well, either. Historically, most of their performance pieces took place in shopping malls, where a ready audience of shocked onlookers could always be found. But these days, so many folks wall themselves off with earbuds and iPhones that the Fangs’ recent spectacles have fallen flat. As Caleb Fang laments, ‘People have become so stupid that you can’t control them.’ Camille agrees. ‘They are so resistant to any strangeness that they tune out the whole world. God, it’s so damn depressing.’

In The Family Fang film version the parents are played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett. And then there are the adult kids: “Baxter (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Nicole Kidman) have spent their lives in survival mode. She’s an actress and recovering alcoholic reduced to topless scenes in B flicks; he’s a failed novelist with writer’s block,” notes Rex Reed, New York Observer

Andrew Lapin, NPRrelates important developments:

A Fang reunion in their sprawling upstate New York home is quickly followed by the sudden disappearance of the parents, and the discovery of evidence pointing to a serial killer’s handiwork. Annie is too smart to fall for that trick, and starts piecing together any shred of evidence that they faked the whole thing. We’re too smart to fall for it too, and yet the mystery of the Fang parents becomes oddly engrossing, or at least more so than the soul-searching it prompts in the children. Kidman’s character succumbs to an implausible belief that she can somehow change her parents’ essential natures until they’re all a normal family, instead of a gallery piece.

The trailer helps illustrate Baxter’s and Annie’s experiences as children:

Whereas Kyle Smith, New York Post, pans The Family Fang as one “long therapy session”—as though that’s a bad thing!—plenty of others are happy with the translation from book to screen. Rex Reed, New York Observer, for example: “There’s nothing predictable about any of the angles, and [David Lindsay-] Abaire’s script reveals a surprise around every corner. The message is that if you’re in control, the chaos in life will happen around you, not to you. The performances are kinetic and fascinating.”