Aug 12

“I Know This Much Is True”: Mental Illness in Family

In I Know This Much Is True, the recent HBO adaptation of Wally Lamb‘s 1998 novel of the same name, Mark Ruffalo superbly portrays 40-year-old twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Whereas the former has generally been a reasonably functional guy, the latter has paranoid schizophrenia and has been in and out of institutions since his early adulthood.

During the course of this six-part mini-series so much tragedy befalls the brothers that critic Lucy Mangan, The Guardian, opines that ” few will avoid compassion fatigue before the end.” I have to agree. Which isn’t to say it’s not worth seeing, if nothing else for the performances and a strong lesson in the theme that mental illness affects the whole family.

Perhaps if anyone in the family had ever received adequate help to guide them through Thomas’s diagnosis, things would have turned out different for the Birdseys—that is to say, better. At the start of I Know This Much Is True, Thomas, for example, may be getting by at his state-run facility known as Settle, but he is nonetheless dangerously symptomatic. Out in public he commits an act of extreme self-harm, which leads to an involuntary commitment to Hatch, a forensic facility notable for its cruelty.

Through many scenes that go back and forth in time we learn that Dominick, on the other hand, has struggled throughout their lives to act as Thomas’s guardian, at times appointed by others, e.g, a teacher or parent, at other times self-appointed. The extreme difficulty of this has raised all kinds of uncomfortable feelings and attitudes, including over-responsibility, confusion, guilt, and resentment. To his detriment, he has carried these mostly on his own shoulders.

Several years before Thomas’s commitment to Hatch the twins lose their mother (Melissa Leo) to cancer. Although their abusive stepfather cares about them he isn’t emotionally strong enough to be sufficiently supportive to either.

On top of all this, “Dominick’s mother never told him who his and Thomas’ biological father was, a mystery that eats away at him long after she’s gone. Her parting gift, a manuscript written by his Sicilian grandfather, dangles the possibility of answers” (Melanie McFarland, Salon).

Dominick, who married college sweetheart Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), a match that once had significant potential, is now divorced. His current girlfriend is more self-involved than attentive, which seems reciprocal on Dominick’s part.

In desperately hoping to have Thomas transferred back to Settle, where he at least had a job and a certain comfort level, Dominick grudgingly becomes acquainted with Hatch’s down-to-earth social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) as well as Thomas’s caring new psychologist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi). Both readily recognize that Dominick—angry, aggressive, and decreasingly healthy—needs professional assistance as much as Thomas does.

Whereas Sheffer tries to prepare Dominick for Thomas’s upcoming commitment hearing, Patel wants this therapy-resistant but desperately lost man to talk to her about his issues. (Shades of Nick Nolte‘s character seeing his suicidal sister’s psychiatrist in The Prince of Tidessans the poor therapist boundaries.) Quality professional help arriving so late in the game, however, fails to prevent mishap after tragedy after trauma in the brothers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dominick feels his life has been “cursed”—a notion reinforced by reading his maternal grandfather’s bio—and that he’s a victim of his various tragic circumstances rather than a participant. By the very end, though, we do know he’s learned a thing or two about such things as self-care and forgiveness.

Jan 20

“Foxcatcher”: Mental Instability and Personality Issues

Foxcatcher, based on a true story, has been nominated for several Oscars, including original screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, best director (Bennett Miller), and best actor/best supporting actors Steve Carell as John DuPont and Mark Ruffalo as wrestler Dave Schultz.

From the synopsis by J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “A paranoid schizophrenic insulated by obscene wealth, du Pont used his family’s Foxcatcher farm as headquarters for a wrestling camp to groom athletes for the U.S. Olympic team; his tangled relationships with wrestling hopeful Mark Schultz [Channing Tatum] and with Mark’s older brother, gold medalist Dave Schultz, ended tragically in January 1996 when du Pont murdered Dave.”

However, offering what’s true and what’s not in the movie, Aisha Harris of Slate states, “Most notably, perhaps, the movie makes no mention of du Pont’s diagnosis with paranoid schizophrenia, which, at his trial, was offered as an explanation for the murder.”

What is acknowledged in the film, states Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, is “a certain, tactful degree of du Pont’s drug use, his personality disorders and bizarre behavior, all documented. Plenty more is elided or left out, especially to do with du Pont’s sexually predatory nature.”

A member of duPont’s actual defense team was forensic psychiatrist Phillip Resnick. In an interview with Michael Heaton, Cleveland.com, Resnick states about duPont’s deterioration: “[He] is an example of a person whose wealth becomes an obstacle to getting needed mental health care. Many of Mr. du Pont’s employees were aware of his paranoia. However, anyone who attempted to force his involuntary hospitalization would be at high risk of losing their job. In that sense, Mr. du Pont’s wealth allowed him to remain untreated and thus set the stage for his personal tragedy.”

DuPont, by the way, was found guilty of murder, but mentally ill. He died in prison in 2010.

More about how the movie portrays the story after this trailer:

FOXCATCHER‘S PORTRAYAL OF DUPONT AND THE BROTHERS

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:

Playing a young man who doesn’t have a clue how to articulate his feelings and suffers for it, Tatum is a smoldering, festering piece of emotional raw meat, able to be manipulated this way and that by his benefactor. You feel his pain. As the older and exceptionally capable older brother, Ruffalo bestows his character with a profoundly genial nature that suggests that no one could possibly dislike this guy, much less be provoked to murder him. But he had emotional wealth, instant likeability and physical capacity, things John du Pont could never buy.

OVERALL REVIEWS

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter: “Shrinks could have a field day with all the complicated dynamics running though these relationships, which help make the drama such a rich experience.”

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic: “There’s something inevitably remote about a movie that refuses so ardently to get into the heads of its characters. The result is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one in which to invest emotionally, even when it enters into its final, tragic arc. Foxcatcher is among the best movies of the year, but ultimately it seems one better suited for awards than for audiences.”

Bob Mondello, NPR: “…Miller uses three superb performances to take us deep into a privileged world where the choreographed struggle of wrestling mixes toxically with the psychological struggles of familial disappointment. The film does not — or maybe cannot — explain the inexplicable: the acts of a mentally ill man. But it can make the plight of those in that man’s orbit profoundly anguishing.”