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Prisoner of Her Past: An Exploration of Hidden Demons

Posted: 02/23/10 12:57 PM ET

For an affliction that has dogged humanity since pre-modernity, surprisingly little is known about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sure, we have come a long way from the days of the first World War, when "shell shocked" soldiers were routinely shot for cowardice, but then this seems a particularly low starting point for dealing with illness.

Prisoner of Her Past, directed by Kartemquin Films' Gordon Quinn, deals with a particularly poorly understood manifestation of the disorder; late onset PTSD, which appears years, or even decades after the trauma occurs.

The film follows Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich as he seeks to unravel the repressed trauma that his Holocaust survivor mother, Sonia, carried for more than half a century before suffering a breakdown.

It is a journey that takes him across America to Eastern Europe, where he finds his mother's childhood home and seeks to understand the shattering events that shaped her personality and eventually caused it to crack apart.

Narrated by Reich, Prisoner of Her Past is a brave work of personal discovery that explores a scandalously under-reported phenomenon. Late onset PTSD has barely been documented; when Reich's mother was diagnosed, hers was the only case study he could find for an article he wrote on the subject.

But there is a danger in using the Holocaust, which occupies a special place in the annals of human misery, as a vehicle for exploring other issues. Occasionally the film suffers from an identity crisis, unable to decide whether it is a story about trauma, or the effects of trauma.

This is not the fault of filmmakers; it is simply that the Holocaust resonates so strongly through history that at times it drowns out the subject of the film, and there are moments when the horrors of the past serve as a distraction from their echoes in the present.

It is a problem that is never fully overcome, although attempts are made to broaden the scope of inquiry. When Reich is sent to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to cover the changing music scene in the city, he meets with children undergoing trauma counseling and is shocked to see similarities between their experiences and his mother's.

This realization is a key moment in film, because it pulls the viewer away from the Holocaust, into another, more immediate world. That the same patterns are being repeated right here in American serves as a stark reminder that genocide is not the only trauma that can trigger the extreme reaction we see in Sonia Reich.

It is impossible not to admire Reich's courage in undertaking the journey at the heart of Prisoner of Her Past. With no idea what he would find, and his mother unable to give her blessing, he took a risk because he wanted to shed light on the issue of late onset PTSD.

In that he succeeds, and we are left with a film that is at once a moving portrait of a son trying to understand his mother, and a stark reminder that, like physical trauma, the severity of a psychological scar is largely determined by the wound's initial treatment.

 

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