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Robert David Jaffee

Robert David Jaffee

Posted: February 25, 2010 12:39 PM

Mental Illness at the Movies

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Avatar, a film that has broken box office records, is likely to win a number of Oscars at the upcoming Academy Awards. But one of the films that recently caught my attention and may win a few Oscars next year is Shutter Island, a haunting noir directed by Martin Scorsese.

Much has already been written about Shutter Island, but my perspective may be a bit different because the film reminded me of my own state of mind years ago, in 1999, when I was having my second psychotic break.

Like Leonardo DiCaprio's federal marshal, I too once sensed that every subtle wink, nod or gaze from the patients, orderlies or doctors at a psychiatric ward could mean a conspiracy at work.

My psychosis did not involve the Nazis or the House Un-American Activities Committee, two preoccupations of DiCaprio's character, but it did take on a political dimension. I feared that I would be blamed for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and believed that President Clinton, who was in the process of being impeached, was one of the few people who could save me.

Some critics have argued that Shutter Island tries to do too much, in jamming in all these red herrings, but psychosis is often like that, a kitchen sink of conspiracies roiling in one's head. The delusional person extrapolates very easily, from the benign to the sinister. So, it is completely convincing to me to have all these MacGuffins in the script.

Those are not the only aspects of the film that ring true. Just as DiCaprio's character worries about experiments being done on patients, I worried that the nurse at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute (now known as the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital) was going to contaminate my medication.

Finally, there is DiCaprio's performance itself, which is quite impressive. While some have mocked his Boston accent in the film, DiCaprio does a fine job of demonstrating what it is like to lose one's sanity. It does not happen all at once; it trickles in slowly, until you start to question the strange looks of all of your seeming adversaries. I sometimes wonder how our brains can conjure all these details into a parallel reality akin to a horror film.

Shutter Island's actors notwithstanding, we often see over-the-top portrayals of the mentally ill. Consider the patients, other than Jack Nicholson's Randall McMurphy, in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, many of whom have a tic of some sort, or the extremely florid turn of Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. Then there are the reductive diagnoses of the mentally ill in movies like Spellbound and Psycho. Who can forget the embarrassingly trite conclusion to the latter, when the psychiatrist tells the family of Janet Leigh's character that Norman Bates was attracted to her sexually!

Of course, there are exceptions. We all remember Russell Crowe's excellent performance as a schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. Like DiCaprio, Crowe showed a range of emotion in that role, which pleased me since the mentally ill are as likely to have depth to their personalities as the non-mentally ill.

Another recent movie dealing with mental illness, Creation, is notable not so much for its acting as for its conceit that Charles Darwin, the embodiment or avatar, if I may use the term, of the man of science, experienced hallucinations. His visions were not of blue people but rather of his late daughter, who died in childhood.

It is astonishing to think that the genius, who postulated that over tens of thousands of years we have evolved through natural selection, may himself have been psychotic, an illness that many have wrongly viewed as a weakness or a failure of the will.

As Darwin, Paul Bettany, who essayed Crowe's imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind, plays a man who himself becomes delusional. Grief-stricken over his favorite child's death, Darwin communicates with her ghost, a little sprite who turns up from time to time asking him to tell her sad stories.

Despite the romance that some have about the mentally ill, a person cannot do his or her best work during psychosis. When I had my two psychotic breaks, I had great difficulty reading and writing. I thought that there was a conspiracy to frame me for a series of nefarious crimes.

It may be a minor miracle that I was able to write at all at that time, but I wrote because I had to. It was the one thing that was keeping me sane, the one thing that was keeping me alive.

When I finished my novel, I had no goals, nothing left, to keep me from the flood of delusion. I ended up in the psychiatric ward at USC in 1997 (and UCLA in 1999).

Years later, I have been able to manage my psychosis with good therapy, a lot of love from my wife, Barbara (not unlike that which Darwin received from his wife, as we know from the film), and a determination to write.

As detrimental as psychosis is, it is possible that it has its benefits, in terms of creativity and perhaps even survival. Darwin was enfeebled for decades by a parasite, which he acquired in his travels around the world. That he fought through his illnesses and wrote The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle, tomes that will forever enrich humanity, should tell us that the psychotic strand may in the end be an advantageous trait.