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All in the Family: What 'The Fighter' Reveals About the Power of Blood Ties

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The Wards of Lowell, Mass., are no ordinary family. Dicky was a contender and knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (or did he slip?) earning him the title "The Pride of Lowell." He taught his younger half-brother, Mickey, everything he knew about fighting so when Dicky went on to a life as a crack addict and felon, Mickey stepped up, hoping to become welterweight champion of the world. But in his corner, as trainer and coach, was Dicky. Their manager? Alice, their chain-smoking mother of nine, through at least two husbands, who never stopped believing -- in Dicky and her invaluable role in the lives of her children.

This is the family we meet in a depressed city straining as well to restore its pride, lost long ago when industry turned its back on towns like Lowell, and others throughout the country. This is the family we get to know (and dislike so many of its members) in "The Fighter."

Families are not just collections of shared genetic material. They are living, complex organisms whose every part contributes to the whole. Never you mind that one part may seem so different from the whole, even toxic to it. Never you mind that one member may be as unlike the others as, say, Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) was to his son-in-law Michael, known affectionately as "Meathead" (Rob Reiner), in "All in the Family" -- or when we see a priest and a convict emerge from the same family.

We are the sum of our familial and developmental parts. Those parts are the building blocks of our person -- inescapably put in place by parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents, and those nuclear to our family and our community. Try to take away a part and see what happens? Things don't seem to work so well. That makes sense because something, someone, fundamental is missing, like a body without a heart, or brain or organs, or like a car without a transmission, or brakes or roof to keep out the rain.

As I watched "The Fighter" I wondered, even as a psychiatrist with what I think of as years of experience, how could Mickey tolerate his insufferable mother? How could he not see how his family was ruining him and continue to subordinate himself to his crack-addicted and destructive brother? Or not laugh at his bizarre gaggle of sisters with more hair than brains? I had turned off my psychiatrist's brain. I had forgotten that we are attached to our families for better and for worse, and that trying to move beyond them is no easy feat, nor is it necessarily done by leaving them.

So it is with the Wards, as we are mesmerized by their tale in "The Fighter." Mark Wahlberg is Mickey, the younger of two brothers who cannot find the spine to assert himself in his family. Dicky, brilliantly played by an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale, must find a life beyond his fantasy of a comeback at 40 and the corrosive effects of crack addiction. Melissa Leo, as mom, delivers a portrayal of one of the most despicable mothers I have seen in a long time. But the story is as importantly about O'Keefe, the Irish cop from the neighborhood, and George (Jack McGee), Alice's harassed but not humbled husband, and the muse, Charlene (Amy Adams), the redheaded college dropout and bar waitress that Mickey must win in order to achieve a life beyond his family and become a champion boxer.

The brothers need each other. They are family. But they need a family that is not driven by self-absorption and drugs, but one reconstructed in its unique crucible of failure, pain, prison and brotherly love. Mickey and Dicky need to find a way beyond the past, a means of transforming themselves in their dysfunctional family and on the impoverished streets of Lowell, Mass.

Mickey cannot, and must not, leave his family. He discovers that leaving is not the answer. He needs his family, as he needs those who take him beyond his family, like Charlene and O'Keefe do. Severing a part of himself like his family (like cutting off an arm, another recent metaphor for survival) is not how Micky survives and achieves. It is by finding himself -- by doggedly fighting to create the terms by which he will be a part of his family -- namely, his own terms. That's the winning punch.

The opinions expressed herein are solely Dr. Sederer's own, as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.

Dr. Sederer receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

Visit Dr. Sederer's website at www.askdrlloyd.com -- for questions you want answered, reviews and stories.

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