We are born with the drive to connect meaningfully with our caregivers and the world around us. When that is thwarted by fate, deprivation, or misdeeds, our psyche rallies to save us. It redirects our instincts to the imaginal world where archetypal forces can care for us, and our intolerable feelings can be hidden in a cast of inner characters. We still long for compassionate connection, but the inner figures of our caregivers are intolerable, so sometimes the archetypal mother hides herself in food—and we follow.
In the recent film “The Whale” starring Brendon Fraser, we meet his character Charlie, an impassioned English teacher trying to motivate his online students. With his camera off, his disembodied voice pleads, confronts, and admonishes them to communicate clearly with him. This defines his great struggle to make contact. When the class finishes, the scene expands, and we slowly see Charlie, a 600-pound man struggling to meet the last few needs he permits himself.
Unresolved relational trauma is like a slowly shrinking room. Year by year, in tiny increments, without noticing it, we give up choice after choice until we are boxed in. Our inner defenses project pain and fear onto more and more encounters until we can barely move. Charlie is living like that. Disabled by his obesity, he can scarcely walk, frightened to be seen food must be left at the door and retrieved when no one is there, and the thought of receiving hospital care for his serious health problems is unimaginable.
The few channels of life that can reach him are his friend Liz, who monitors his vital signs with alarm and despair, and food. He refuses to let her mobilize the health care system, but he does let her comfort him, lovingly resting her head on his chest as they watch TV. He cannot take in any more human touch than that. The one remaining totally unobstructed channel to take in goodness is food, his lifeline beyond the shrinking room, and his comforter. It is a way he can receive.
Unlike his troubled caregivers, food can be controlled and so rendered harmless; it’s allowed in and brings relief and pleasure. Through his many losses and suffering, loneliness, and intolerable grief, eating was the one path through which he could make contact with the outside world. All of us cornered by trauma find a secret tunnel through which some small goodness can touch us. We may retreat into reading for hours each day or sleep 18 hours every night; we may discover anonymous sex grants a few seconds of bliss or alcohol wraps us in a soft haze. It is often a tight and narrow path but feels reliable.
Fairy tales like The Little Match Girl help us imagine ourselves in such an anguished situation. Lighting each of her matches, she is comforted by a fleeting vision of being part of a loving family. Yet her catastrophic reality draws closer with each momentary burst of light and warmth. And here lies the danger. Something draws us inward to survive our early traumas, offering ways to survive terrible deprivations, but those same survival methods eventually injure us.
Throughout the movie, life tries to rescue Charlie, walking through his front door despite his frightened protests. Characters storm in demanding acknowledgment; some slip in trying to meet their needs, some are tricky, and others are sincere. Through these encounters, Charlie is forced out of his shrinking life, and a spectrum of feelings rise up, which he franticly tries to swallow, but to no avail. Without permission, life has come to reclaim him and revive hope.
Raised in a condemning religious community, Charlie became sure he was bad; goodness lived somewhere else where he was not permitted. Then, when love arrived, something was returned to Charlie that had fled decades earlier, a vision of his loveliness. Something his young soul had forgotten. When he lost his lover, intolerable grief once again locked him away.
Obesity is never a choice; it is a sign that other paths to receive have been ruined. Many fight their way free, some are rescued by love, and some seek promising new medications. Charlie fights for love and finally resurfaces, drawn by his daughter’s fierce eyes demanding engagement.
“The Whale” depicts a real-world problem and is also an allegory, a contemporary retelling of an epic story. When we learn to see beyond the surface of people’s specific struggles, we can recognize the great human endeavor we all share– to love and be loved, to know and be known.
HERE’S THE DREAM WE ANALYZE:
“I just moved to my childhood neighborhood with my best friend, and I wake up before dawn. As I walk home to school, my legs melt, and I fall to the floor. A classmate finds me lying on the floor and takes his chance to try and have sex with me. I beg him to please carry me home. Inside, my ex-boyfriend and family became concerned about my state. I need to rest; everything is fine. This new house is big and has a beautiful light, yet it seems old and dusty. There are several pieces of wood of unfinished furniture that I cannot work on now. I leave the house again; everything seems nice, but on my way home, my legs stop working, and I desperately start to crawl. Now I seem not to find the door to the house; luckily, a cleaning worker comes up to help me, then she hands me a caterpillar having babies. She tells me had I been lying on my bed for more time; I would have woken up surrounded by them.”
THE WHALE (film, 2022)
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