Thursday, September 23, 2010

VIFF Preview: When The Devil Knocks, another must-see

Despite its rather provocative title, I had no particular interest in seeing When The Devil Knocks - official site here, trailer here - since it deals with a mental disorder I didn't think I had much interest in - Dissociative Identity Disorder, also known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Even less interestingly, for me, the film, as I read about it in the VIFF guide, deals with the treatment of this condition, and is based, in fact, on years of videotapes of therapy of a middle-aged Canadian woman diagnosed with it, who ultimately is healed. I have a fairly skeptical attitude towards psychology and psychiatry, for reasons I'll elaborate; I'm not so interested in the healing journeys of others, tending to get a bit crusty around even the concept of "healing," and though at different times in my life I've been fascinated by so-called abnormal psychology, at the moment, I'm finding normal psychology quite challenging enough. I attended a press screening of the film today only because, at 10AM, I had nothing else to do in the city, having come in by the morning train to take care of various bits of business, including a visit to the VIFC (aka the Vancity Theatre, which - let me never cease singing its praises - is still the nicest movie theatre in Vancouver, blessed of the best seats, the nicest design, the most cinephiliacally inclined staff, and state-of-the-art projection and audio, all of which make it a truly excellent place to see films). It was really on a whim that I went: why not kill time for a couple of hours with a free movie, since I was there anyhow?

The film, of course, turns out to have been fascinating, and I'm glad I saw it. It's immensely compassionate and remarkable, stripping away the demonizing taint of Hollywood, where the term "multiple personality" suggests Norman Bates or Session 9; the subject of the therapy, Hilary Stanton of Alberta, is presented as a fully human, gentle, courageous and intelligent woman who has been horribly wounded by a prolonged period of sexual abuse she endured in her childhood. Thanks to the intimate glimpses of her treatment and the lucidity of her narration, by the end of the film, there is nothing that feels alien, scary, or evil about her condition whatsoever, and we feel quite proud of her for having had the courage to cope and survive, by any means necessary, through a life far more difficult than most. More remarkably - because we are witness to a treatment that works, that actually helps her emerge as an integrated, single person at the end - we are forced to overturn any presentiment that we might have that such people are so damaged as to be beyond help. Therapist Cheryl Malmo clearly has a working system in place for helping individuals with DID, and it's quite a remarkable experience to watch Hilary being led through her program - patiently, compassionately, and under the guiding influence of the maxim that "when the devil knocks, invite him in for tea."

All that said, my skepticism about psychiatry, psychology, and so forth survived the experience quite intact. There have been all sorts of models for dealing with mental illness throughout human history, not confined to the systems of modern psychiatry and psychology, but also encompassing religious systems (cf. ideas of "possession"), the biles and humours of antiquity, the antipsychiatric craze of the 60's, and New Age pseudoscience, all of which might invite us to look at the same problems through very different lenses. None may be the equal of modern psychiatry and psychology as means of understanding and treating certain mental disorders, but that does not mean that we should forget that the models we operate under at present are still models, and as such, limited, bound by all sorts of cultural assumptions and extraneous imperatives that limit and channel them, just as all past models have been. To be a bit more concrete about it, there is the possibility that some thousand years hence we will regard the current trend towards wide-ranging prescription of antidepressants and Ritalin and so forth, driven in part by a capitalistic, pharmaceutically-inclined understanding of medicine, as being as barbaric, unenlightened, and widely misused as we now see the VERY RECENT institutional penchant for lobotomy as being. Despite continually believing at any point in our history that we're on the cutting edge, in terms of understanding the human mind, we're nowhere as far removed from the Dark Ages as we think we are, and in the case of a complex phenomenon such as DID or MPD (or whatever term you wish to know it by), I have often wondered if the model for understanding it does not vastly contribute to how it manifests itself. (Repressed memories, another contentious issue, also play a role in this film). I have no doubt that people can house fragmented and dissociated emotional responses to things - even in normal circumstances; I can notice, over time, all sorts of divisions and fragments and dissociations even within my own soul. That traumatic childhood experiences might greatly increase the degree of fragmentation in a human psyche seems reasonable, but I was neither convinced before nor after viewing When The Devil Knocks that it is accurate or necessary to regard each of these dissociative states as a separate human identity, which should be named and addressed as an individual being. I mean, if we lived in a culture that didn't HAVE such a model for understanding extreme fragmentation in an individual psyche, would such phenomenon nonetheless occur?
Maybe my skepticism seems excessive here, particularly given what I've just seen in this documentary, but I would have actually liked it if the filmmakers - anticipating a skeptic like me might be watching - would have sought to completely obliterate such concerns before proceeding to document Hilary's treatment. They don't even acknowledge that there is controversy around the condition, let alone try to lay concerns to rest. Though there is testimony from before Hilary began treatment that there were times she would fail to recognize her family members or behave strangely - say, forgetting how to drive when "taken over" by a "personality" that had never learned - there is no mention of her manifesting specific identities with names and discrete identities until, as I recall, two years into treatment, when suddenly the character of "Tim" asserts itself in Hilary's journal, perhaps as a result of Malmo's coaching. Before long, we've met a whole cast of other characters, and the main figures among the 35 or more separate personalities said to inhabit Hilary are actually given representation through actors, hired by the filmmakers (with Hilary and her therapist participating in the auditions) to represent these apparently separate selves - like Joanie, the victim, who holds the memories of the event most clearly and wants to die; Mary, the protector, who will challenge any threat to her authority; JD, the male rebel who acts out Hilary's anger; or Tim, who abuses Hilary, tells jokes, draws scary pictures, and identifies with the victimizer (it actually did remind me a little of the therapy tapes from Session 9, but without the malign creepiness). The therapy we see in the film does ultimately seem to work (although it takes years and doubtlessly a great deal of money); but it would have been nice if the film had done more than it does to explain how these "alters" functioned prior to Hilary's treatment, and that their "diagnosis" and discovery was not in fact a creative, collaborative process. Without more time spent on Hilary's backstory or the early phases of the treatment, it's impossible to tell how much of the phenomenon we see Hilary manifest are innate to her condition, and how much the result of the therapeutic approach.

Ultimately, however, from a filmgoer's perspective, this is all a bit of a quibble. Whether our current models of understanding, diagnosing, and treating DID are bounded by faulty assumptions, cultural biases, and so forth - and whether in fact they are the BEST model for treating a fragmented and traumatized individual - it doesn't really matter: because it's still fascinating to watch the therapy at work. The footage in this film is remarkable, a glimpse into a circumstance normally completely closed to the public. Having identified each personality and entered into dialogue with them, Malmo wins their trust, gets them into dialogue with each other, and ultimately encourages them to integrate - a process effectively visualized by the filmmakers by means of the actors. The experience of watching this happen is deeply thought-provoking and rare, and the mood one is left with is indeed rather healing, even for crusty skeptics like me... If any of the above thoughts interest you, you should see When The Devil Knocks...

1 comment:

Bountiful Films said...

Thanks for the review of 'When the Devil Knocks'! We've posted it at our Facebook page: