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It Takes a Village…: Review of Spotlight

by Alvin G. Burstein

The winner of the 2016 Oscar for best film was Spotlight, an account of the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of child abuse by that city’s Catholic clergy and the attendant cover-up. The film is powerful. The power is rooted in its realistic feel and in the psychological phenomena it captures.

The movie meticulously recreates the offices of the Boston Globe, the environment of the Spotlight team, the country’s oldest continuously operating investigative journalism unit. The film begins with the arrival of Marty Baron, a new editor-in-chief for the Globe. In his meeting with his new staff, he directs Spotlight to abandon its current project and begin an investigation of a reported case of child abuse by a parish priest and what appears to be cover-up attempts by the hierarchy. He makes it clear that he is more interested in the systemic issues than the singular case.

The poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke of the importance in literature of the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” Spotlight’s recreation of detail is such that there is no sense of a need to suspend disbelief. We feel like eye-witnesses to the actual events. The danger inherent in a faux documentary is an issue to which I shall return. But the artistic power of this film to sweep the viewer into a sense of being there is remarkable.

We watch the investigators as they pull at the strings of the tangled events, slowly revealing, not just a single case of abuse, but a staggering epidemic of child sexual abuse and clergy whose misdeeds are swept under the carpet, hidden by undisclosed financial settlements and non-disclosure agreements. The sordid manipulations, which include moving errant clergy from place to place and enriching the lawyers involved in “mediating” claims, are traced all the way to the diocese’s archbishop.

As we become privy to the reporters’ encounters with individual victims painfully sharing their scarifying betrayals, we feel the investigators’ mounting frustration at having to continue the painstaking assembly of information. That frustration becomes almost unbearable, when on the verge of being able to break the story, the 9/11 tragedy demands a refocusing of journalistic efforts.

Ultimately the story breaks, revealing, not a Bostonian bad apple or two, but hundreds of errant Catholic priests and over a thousand known abuse victims. The enormity of the crime is emphasized by the listing as the film ends of the cities of the world where, it is now clear, a parallel situation exists.

The emotions portrayed in the film and those stirred up in the viewer testify to the destructive potential of betrayal. A central point in self-psychology is understanding the role of parents as trusted, indeed, idolized figures upon whom the child initially depends. Healthy development involves the gradual de-idealizing of parents while retaining the ability to look up to and admire others whom we strive to emulate. Traumatic betrayals by one’s trustees are excruciating, and especially early in life, can warp and deform subsequent relationships. Thus the special burden of prudence in professions that require trust-clergy, therapists, teachers, physicians, lawyers-and that therefore have the potential to reawaken childhood dependencies and to reopen old scars.

As a faux documentary Spotlight claims, like investigative journalism, to get at the truth. Do documentaries, does investigative journalism have a responsibility to get at the whole truth? Given the compression of events stretching over years into a two-hour film, totality is out of the question. The film reveals but doesn’t explore the ability of basically decent people, a village as a whole, to close their eyes to disquieting truths. It appears that the leader of the Spotlight team had, years earlier while editor of the Metro section, printed but not followed up on a story about several cases of sexual abuse by local priests. It had been sent to the paper by one of the bad guys, a mediation lawyer.

Spotlight is a riveting film, stirring feelings, disturbing assumptions, raising questions.

All The Pretty Horses

by Alvin G. Burstein

I have been addicted to oaters ever since Shane and High Noon. Being, in addition, a fan of actor Matt Damon and author Cormac McCarthy, I decided to take a belated look at All The Pretty Horses.

The movie begins with striking scenes of a vanishing West and herds of wild ponies. It takes us quickly to the dilemma of Damon as John Grady Cole, whose grandfather’s money-losing ranch is being sold despite Cole’s life-long wish to continue a cowboy life. He and his pard, Lacey, riding purloined horses, light out for Mexico where they hear there are still huge ranches. En route, they meet up with a young teen-ager who gets them embroiled in legal difficulties when the youngster tries to recover his stolen horse and gun, killing a Mexican officer in the process.

The boy disappears and Lacey and Cole ride off, ultimately finding a large ranchero where Cole and Lacey’s bronco breaking abilities earn them jobs. Cole gets involved with Alejandra, the beautiful daughter of the ranchero’s wealthy patron. The family, outraged by the impropriety and having heard of the earlier difficulties, have the two Americans arrested.

Cole and Lacey find themselves in a Mexican prison reunited with the impulsive teen-ager and in the hands of a sadistic Capitan. Imprisoned, they helplessly look on while the officer has the boy shot. Cole gets badly injured in a knife fight with another prisoner, losing sight of Lacey. After he recovers, Cole learns that he has been bailed out. Alejandra has persuaded her family to do so by promising never to see him again—attesting to her love.

Cole, unable to persuade Alejandra to break her vow and marry him, kidnaps the sadistic officer and uses him as a hostage, enabling Cole to recover the horses that had been taken from him and his two companions. He leaves el Capitan to an uncertain future with a former prisoner, and rides back to Texas to be reunited with Lacey.

Psychologically, the story revolves around three sets of loyalties. The first is the one between the three cowboys. The second is between the two lovers, Cole and Alejandra. The third is between Alejandra and her family, especially her father. Alejandra reinstates the Oedipal link to her father by disowning her sexual tie to Cole. The film contrives closure by Cole’s avenging the death of the teen-ager and rejoining his pard, Lacey. And Cole seems, at the end, satisfied by the bromance.

Maybe all good oaters have that pre-genital quality.

The Revenant

A Review
by Alvin G. Burstein

To say that this film is gripping is an understatement. It confronts us with realities that cry for denial. To what Freud called “the crushingly superior force of nature” the movie adds the human capacity for brutish betrayal and exploitation. And the story unfolds against a backdrop of classic beauty that highlights the gouts of blood and pain it frames.

In a biopic, The Revenant takes us back to the antebellum period, but rather than the plantations of the southeast, we follow a hunting party in the northwest. The protagonist, Hugh Glass, is one of the hunters collecting valuable animal pelts while trying to avoid the danger of engagement with sometimes hostile Indians. Glass, having survived injury in a raid by Indians, is horribly mauled by a grizzly bear. Broken and bleeding, unable to speak, barely breathing, his remains are dragged by his colleagues toward their base. Weather, unforgiving terrain and the dangers of more attacks drive them to abandon his crude litter. To assuage their guilt at abandoning a dying comrade, the group agrees to an eventual supplemental financial reward to a pair who are to stay behind with Glass, at least until his death. The group leaves, but all too soon his guardians follow suit, leaving Glass, still clinging to life in a shallow grave, but bereft of the means of survival.

Abandoned, Glass manages to pull himself out of his grave—a revenant—and maimed and crippled, manages to claw his way back to what might be called civilization. The film describes that harrowing trek, often a crawl, of over a hundred miles through an unforgiving wilderness. Few of the details are left to the imagination.

The psychological question posed is that of the motivation fueling Glass’s incredible achievement. Accounts that precede this biopic, and the film itself, suggest that Glass’s burning rage and thirst for revenge on his betrayers powered him. The film elaborates on that speculation by adding two elements to what is, in fact, known about Glass.

First, the film adds a half-Indian son—one Hugh is not known to have had—to the hunting party. The ignominy of Glass’s betrayers is magnified by their killing of the boy as a prelude to their flight. The elaboration may simply reflect a directorial effort to heighten the potential for rage.

But there is more. The film is studded with hallucinated flash backs to Hugh’s married life to a Pawnee woman, the mother of their slain child, though there are no contemporary accounts of such a marriage. One of the flash backs shows her being killed in a military raid on her village, and Glass, to comfort their son, reassuring him that he will never leave him. When Glass crawls out of his grave and discovers his clearly murdered son, this should serve to bring his thirst for revenge to white heat.

However, marring the narrative thrust of the film, in the biopic as in fact, after the gut-wrenching effort to track down his betrayers, Glass fails to revenge himself. He forgives one of the pair that abandoned him and leaves revenge on the second “to God.”

Perhaps to provide adequate closure, the film ends with another revenant, a hallucinated ghost of Glass’s wife beckons him to follow her.

I think the hokeyness of this ending reflects the movie maker’s feeling troubled by questions about Glass’s motivation.

In reflecting on just those questions, I was reminded of Primo Levi’s, Survival In Auschwitz. In concentration camps, too, survivors were faced with “crushingly superior” forces that only very few were able to survive. Levi described the musselmann, who slumped into helplessly apathetic surrender, and survivors, who held on to agency, who managed to invoke control over some corner of their otherwise hopeless situation. A minor callisthenic, a mental ritual, anything to demonstrate their will, their control of self, their human selfhood, potentiated survival against overwhelming odds.

Psychoanalysis has paid scant attention to this aspect of what might be called positive psychology. Maybe modern amenities cushion us sufficiently to predispose us to that omission. Maybe Hugh Glass reminds us of agency’s importance.

The Force at the Flics: A Review of Star Wars

by Alvin G. Burstein

Like, apparently most of America, I was caught up in the hoopla that attended the announcement that they were back: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, the whole Camelot assembly. And like, apparently most of America, I rushed to see the new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. My reaction is mixed.

The film, viewed with its 3D glasses, has a massive visual impact, augmented by a booming soundtrack. And although Chewbacca seems to be ageless, there was something engaging about seeing Han and Leia showing their thirty years.

What the film’s director/writer, J. J. Abrams, has done is to have repackaged pieces of the original trilogy. The story opens with an orphaned outlander acquiring a droid that conceals a vital bit of information—sound familiar? The orphan, Rey, is repackaged as a woman scavenger and the droid, BB-8, every bit as cute and beepy as R2-D2, propels itself on a roller ball rather than the two legs of the older model. But BB-8 has the same puppy dog, follow you-home personality as its predecessor.

There is also the interplanetary bar scene populated by a variety of exotic unhuman types with unsavory vocations and unattractive habits. And the Millennian Falcon retains its entertaining combination of ramshackle but remarkable performance.

It’s all there and quite entertaining.

And yet there is a hollowness in the plotting that leaves me feeling like artistry has been displaced by prospect of preparing for a sequel.

What made the original tale so compelling was its reference to the Oedipal theme of Luke’s relationship to his father. Murderous striving is dissolved as Luke matures into an adulthood powerful enough to try to rescue his weakened father. Further, Luke’s power is rooted in a mastery developed in his relationship with Obi Wan and Yoda, male mentors that foster and contribute to his slow and painful efforts to grow rather than seeing them as a challenge—a promise that there can be good enough fathering as well as mothering.

In this sequel Rey, whom this sequel hints will become the first female Jedi knight, displays instinctive powers, unearned by laborious apprenticeship. She bests Ren, Darth Vader’s grandson and successor as an evil force, in a light saber duel. Earlier she spontaneously exhibits mind control powers that Luke had to struggle to achieve. Even her companion/protector, Finn, finds himself able to snatch up Luke’s old light saber and challenge, though unsuccessfully, Ren. For them, potential knighthood seems to come easily, rather than requiring a struggle to develop.

Finn is perhaps the most interesting character in this tale, the only one that shows real change. He makes the transition from being a frightened escapee whose only concern is to protect himself to that of a person capable of heroic self-sacrifice. I was left wanting to see more of him, and I suspect therein lies some frankly commercial artistry.

In the original tale Leia seeks to locate Obi Wan, one of the last of the Jedi, in order to save the Republic from being overwhelmed by the Empire. Here Rey enlists Han and others in the search for the new last of the Jedi, Luke.

Luke, like Obi Wan, has buried himself in obscurity. When Rey finally finds him, the immediate threat from the Empire’s successor, the First Order, has already been defused—and in the same way as the Empire’s Death Star. The movie ends with Luke’s turning to face Rey who offers him his light saber.

Will Luke accept it to become Rey’s Obi Wan? Will Ren, whom the evil Supreme Leader Snoke has ordered be brought to him, become the new Darth Vader? What role in Rey’s life will Finn play when he recovers? For that matter, who will Chewbacca and the droids partner with?

Are we being set up for something? Will the Force protect us?

A Wing and a Prayer: Too Big to Fail? Review of It’s A Wonderful Life

by Alvin G. Burstein

With Christmas approaching, I found myself wanting to re-view the 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life. It is said to be director Frank Capra’s favorite film, one that he screened for his family each Christmas season. Not just Capra’s favorite, it is listed as the most inspirational American film of all time, one that you will almost certainly have a chance to view this season.

I found it on Amazon, happily still in black and white, the format reinforcing the film’s evocation of an earlier time in our county. Or maybe more accurately, no time, a perennial moment.

The film begins oddly, with a celestial conversation. Angels represented as cartoonish stars are discussing the immanent suicide of the protagonist George Bailey. An intern angel, Clarence, one still lacking wings, is assigned to save Bailey, thus earning his wings. The frank irreality of this introduction contrasts with the black and white everydayness of what follows. Like the formulaic “once upon a time,” it is an effective invocation to suspend disbelief, an announcement that what follows is a parable rather than a history.

To prepare Clarence, he is shown flashbacks of George’s life, which we share as the opening movement of the story. George’s leit motif is altruism, what in Freudian terms would be called moral masochism. He saves his younger brother from drowning at the cost of losing his hearing in one ear. He forestalls a fatal mistake by a local pharmacist and is wrongfully punished. Most poignantly, he relinquishes his dreams of leaving the dusty little town of Bedford Falls for travel and education so that his younger brother can so indulge while George takes the place of their father in the family savings and loan business.

This last sacrifice is the crux of the tale. In Bedford Falls, George’s father has dedicated himself to a communitarian effort to help people own their own homes. His opposite number is Henry Potter, grasping, devious and selfish, who seeks control of the town and his own enrichment. When George’s father dies, George deliberately abandons his dreams, successfully replacing his father as the town’s bulwark against Potter’s schemes.

Two events trigger a catastrophic eruption: George’s dotty uncle, employed at the family savings and loan, misplaces eight thousand dollars needed to avoid bankruptcy and one of George’s children becomes ill. Hitherto generous and loving George explodes in rageful recriminations and abuse, terrifying his family and friends. Raddled with anger, shame and guilt, George prays fruitlessly for help and is on the verge of throwing himself to his death in the town’s wintery waters.

The prayers George thought fruitless were those that occasioned intern angel Clarence’s assignment. Clarence forestalls the suicide and undertakes to persuade George that his life was worth living by creating an alternate reality, one in which George had never been born. George learns what Bedford Falls would have been without him: a trashy Pottersville unhappily peopled.

George begs for a second chance and is transported back to a reality where he joyfully finds his wife, family and friends working to fend off the impending bankruptcy. An outpouring of grateful financial contributions from the beneficiaries of his caring life saves him and the family business. Surrounded by a laudatory crowd his friendships make him the richest man in Bedford Falls-and Clarence earns his angelic wings. The film is a moral parable, a psychoanalytic one and an existential one. Morally, it affirms the value of communitarianism over unbridled capitalism.

Psychoanalytically, it highlights the potential for disruptions in a false self, one that disowns a vital personal agenda thus generating a disavowed part of the self and a consequent potential for eruption.

Its existential message is that we are not alone in an uncaring world-or so we hope.

Out of the Past, Thundering Hoof Beats: Review of Bridge of Spies

by Alvin G. Burstein

Holy Moley, a thriller without special effects, splattered gore or colliding cars!

Much makes this Spielberg/Hanks movie both remarkable and memorable. It deftly recreates the 1950’s and 60’s, when Kruschev and Eisenhower were fumbling on the edge of open conflict and the Berlin wall was going up.

Early in the film we see a painter doing a self-portrait. We see the painter, the mirror image he is using as a model, and the image he is creating on canvas—a distinctively Spielbergian gesture calling our attention to the complexity of reality.

The painter turns out to be Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy. He is arrested and James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, is appointed to defend him. Donovan is reluctant on two grounds: lack of experience in criminal work and concern over the impact on his family of his involvement in a politically unpopular effort—defending an enemy. He reluctantly agrees to accept the responsibility because of his ethical commitment to the principle that everyone is entitled to a defense. Not the sham of a defense, but the best possible defense.

When his client is convicted, Donovan persuades the judge not to impose the death penalty. Despite pressure from colleagues and from the judge to be content with ritual efforts, he continues to fight hard for his client, appealing the conviction to the Supreme Court, arguing that Able is a loyal fighter for his own country, not a traitor to ours, and protesting the legality of evidence against him, seized without a warrant. The appeal is lost.

A few years later, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia, and its pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowel) captured by the Russians. Donovan is recruited to go to East Berlin and negotiate for the exchange of Abel for Powers. To avoid admitting American involvement in spying on Russia, he must represent himself as a private citizen, not a U. S. official.

Donovan learns that, in addition to Powers being held by the Russians, the East Germans have jailed an American student, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers), as a spy. During the negotiations, Donovan, against pressure from the CIA that he not do so, ups the ante, saying that the exchange must be two for one: Powers and Pryor for Abel. The situation is complicated by East German insistence on demonstrating autonomy from both the United States and the Russia.

The heart pounding climax of the film is the scene of Donovan and Abel waiting on one side of the Glienicke Bridge near Potsdam with Powers and his captors on the other. The Russians press for Abel to cross over immediately. Donovan insists on waiting until they hear that the East German government has brought Pryor to checkpoint Charlie and his freedom.

Building from the moment of Donovan’s arrival in East Germany, the uncertainties of a deal constantly on the verge of collapse because of the competing motivations of the parties involved generate tension which, in the final scene, explodes from the cerebral to the visceral.

What especially recommends this film to me is its presentation of Donovan as a genuine hero, a person who eschews personal safety, convenience and popular pressure to adhere to principle.

If you watched the Lone Ranger as a kid, you will love this film. Everyone deserves a defense, and we need heroes
to admire.

Dealing With The Devil: A Review of Black Mass

by Alvin G. Burstein

The biopic’s title prepares us for a consideration of moral perversion. Johnnie Depp’s chilling portrayal of James (Whitey) Bulger, the Boston mob boss, his bloody career, and his relationship with the FBI provide that opportunity, raising questions, some of which go unanswered.

The film describes Bulger’s transition from a member of the Winter Hill mob of “Southies,” Boston toughs at war with the Italian mafia centered in north Boston, to a crime kingpin in that city, one whose odious tentacles extended abroad. His success, perverse indeed, was grounded in his murky collaboration with the FBI as much as in his elaborate murderous sadism.

From a dramatic point of view, Depp’s depiction of Bulger is extraordinarily effective. I find myself feeling an unreasoning reluctance to suggest an Oscar because of the evil of his creation. And the film director’s blood-splattered horror scenes of torture and murder will doubtless gratify any inhibited or displaced aggressive drives in eager audiences.

From a psychodiagnostic point of view, the movie poses a question about whether the portrayed Bulger is a psychopath, a person without the capacity for empathy and lacking a moral sense or whether he is a sociopath, someone whose morality is deviant, a person whose social surround and consequent morality deviates from that of the larger society.

Many of Bulger’s associates would appear to merit the second diagnosis: sociopath. They are loyal to their fellow crooks, see law enforcement as the enemy, and the larger society as naïve in its inhibitions. Bulger himself, despite the film’s nod in the direction of his having a love for his mother and his son, violates a basic law of his deviant tribe by becoming what the FBI called “a top echelon informant.” In that capacity, he was later claimed to have contributed to the conviction of many members of the mafia. But he also escaped prosecution (until many years later) for serious crimes of his own.

A central question raised by these anomalies is the degree to which the FBI itself displays a kind of sociopathic readiness to collaborate in some criminal activities, perhaps even murder, in order to pursue other illegal practices. In the film, the FBI’s collusion with Bulger is regarded as the work of a few bad apples, but some commentators have suggested that a code of silence operates at the FBI level as well. Some have suggested that the Bulger’s success in avoiding capture for a decade and a half was due to the desire by the FBI to avoid questions about a practice instituted by J. Edgar Hoover in 1961, to develop “live sources within the upper echelon of the organized hoodlum element.”

The film does not go deeply into two fascinating loyalty issues. One is the tie between John Connolly and Whitey Bulger. Connolly was a fellow Southie who joined the FBI and who recruited Bulger as an informant. Connolly was one of the few of Bulger’s associates who did not agree to testify against his old buddy in return for a reduction of sentence. Like Bulger, Connolly is still in jail. And then there is Bulger’s younger brother, Billy. A long-time member of the state senate, Billy went on to become president of the University of Massachusetts. When it became clear that he had been lying to investigators about being in touch with his fugitive brother, he was forced to step down. What he has said about Whitey is, “…I cared about him deeply and I still do.” There is no indication that he ever suggested to his brother that he turn himself in.

One is left wondering about how Whitey, the sadistic murderer, feels about them.

Looking Back At Lucy: A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein

The movie takes an intriguing theme, evolution’s goal, adds glitzy special effects, a heady mix of exotic locations, and invokes three solid thespian performances, but manages, nevertheless, to disappoint me.

Without turning a hair, Morgan Freeman, as Professor Norman, gives us a Nobel quality neuroscientist who is loveably warm and wise. Scarlett Johanssen, as Lucy, adroitly manages the transition from terrified victim to super-heroine with just an edge of humor. Amr Waked, as Del Rio, is a wonderfully Gallic flic whose hormones barely manage not to dislocate his professionalism.

The plot involves Lucy’s stumbling into a situation where she becomes an involuntary mule forced by a nefarious Korean drug lord to smuggle a new drug, CPH4, across international borders. The drug is a synthetic form of a human hormone said to power the developmental spurt during the sixth week of pregnancy. The drug packet, surgically buried in Lucy’s abdomen, leaks triggering an unprecedented increase in Lucy’s brain potential. What ensues is a race between the drug lord’s no-holds-barred effort to recover the drug and Lucy’s development of unimaginable mental ability to control her body and her environment.

The staging begins with the pre-historic Lucy, the first hominid, drinking out of a stream, using her hand to scoop up water. Inter-cut with this are scenes of Professor Norman lecturing on the evolution of the human nervous system. The point of his lecture is that the earliest humans used a small fraction of their brain potential, and that evolutionary progress in the animal kingdom involves a progressive increase it that fraction. Modern humans use perhaps a fifth of their mental capacity. Norman opines that evolutionary increase in that fraction will endow humans with amazing abilities.

That story line shifts to the events in which Lucy is forced to have the packet of CPH4 inserted into her body, its leakage and her development of those amazing abilities. She has the capacity to control her bodily processes and her environment, but she is left unemotional, in fact, robotic.

She commits herself, with the help of Del Rio and the police, to disrupting the smugglers’ plans and reaches out to Norman for his participation in gaining control of what is happening to her.

The core of the film contains high action chase sequences and shoot-outs. In the finale, Del Rio manages to kill the drug lord, and Lucy’s body disappears morphing into a series of amorphous interconnections with vast computers in Norman’s laboratory. The mass extends a finger drive to Norman—think of DaVinci’s God reaching out to Adam in the Sistine Chapel—presumably endowing him with what she has learned. Del Rio cries out asking where Lucy is. A message appears on his cell phone: I am everywhere.

This ambitious film is marred by several fumbles. Among those is its heavy reliance on the neuro-babble falsehood our species utilizes only a fraction of its brain power, and bio-babble about miracle hormones. Another is the glossing over of improbable events: Lucy’s walking into a hospital operating room with pistol in her hand without being stopped, the implausibility of a Korean drug lord with an unchecked martial potential exceeding that of the Mafia, to mention a few.

The original African Lucy is usually regarded as the mother of our human species. The eponymous Lucy must be taken as fostering the next stage of human development. I was most disappointed in the film’s failure to raise the unspoken questions. Does evolution imply improvement? Is an emotionless, non-material being more human? Is it a better human? Is it more god-like?

Stress As Positive – 2

Last month we started a review of recent research that suggests that stress has some positive benefits. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Stanford psychologist, is researching this topic for a new book she is writing. McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. Among the studies discussed last month were the U of Wisconsin study of 29,000 respondents and a larger epidemiological study of nearly 186 million. In general people who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

In a prospective study, Dr. Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo interviewed 850 people (34 to 93) living in Detroit, asking about major stressful events in the last year and how much time they spent in the last year actively helping others. Obituaries and death records were then tracked over the next 5 years. Dr. Poulin’s team found that every major stress event increased an individual’s risk of death by 30%. But high rates of helping others reduced the stress-induced mortality risk. So, the authors concluded that helping others is a possible antidote to the negative effects of stress.

Looking more directly at how stress can be positive, a 2013 study out of UC Berkeley showed that moderate stress can lead to cell growth in a rat’s brain learning centers. Adult rats were stressed by being immobilized in a small space for 3 hours. Two weeks later, the rats were given a fear-conditioning test. The immobilized rats showed an increased level of stress hormone corticosterone (rate equivalent to cortisol in humans) as well as an increased growth of neural stem cells in the hippocampus.

To put the information into better context: these studies do not really prove that stress is positive. They do show the benefits of doing things to manage one’s stress, such as helping others and how that can lead to positive benefits that can counter the negative effects of a major stressful life event. Some of the studies, such as the 2013 UC Berkeley study, are defining “stress” slightly differently from the host of studies that relate the health dangers of stress. The big difference is those studies that associate stress with health risk are looking at chronically high levels of stress not a 2 or 3 hour learning session, which is considered mildly stressful because any thinking increases cortisol. But, since we cannot go around all the time without thinking, it seems best to think of mild stress as a positive and chronic stress as harmful as what you need to manage by balancing it with relaxation, exercise, sleep, meditation, and many good works for others.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, September 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Creepy Crawly

A review of Ant-Man
by Alvin G. Burstein

Dr. Pym is a scientist who has developed a secret particle that makes objects shrink by reducing inter-molecular space. Because, like atomic weaponry, the discovery will change the nature of warfare in frighteningly unpredictable ways, he guards the secret. A one-time protégé, Dr. Cross (double?), has ousted Pym from control of the latter’s company, and is seeking to discover the secret and sell it to the highest bidder for rewards that are more than financial, they involve world domination. Because of his age Dr. Pym is no longer able to utilize his discovery; he cannot himself become the Ant-Man. So Pym recruits a convicted burglar, Scott Lang, to work with him and his gorgeous daughter, Hope.

Scott is to don the Ant-Man suit, learn to master its potential—augmented by a crash course in martial arts taught by Hope—with the aim of frustrating Cross’s nefarious scheme. That need is critical because Cross has succeeded in developing an anti-super hero: The Yellow Jacket, and is about to close his megalomaniacal deal.

Scott, desperately trying to go straight in order to restore his relationship to his almost too adorable pre-school daughter, is manipulated into the illegalities required to foil Cross. He is aided in his efforts by a Keystone Kops crew of unreformed felons and hordes of Formicae. There are predictably breathtaking battles, hair-breadth escapes and nods to other Marvel comics super-heroes.

Thinking of this film in terms of genre is interesting. In an Aristotelian sense the film is a comedy. The important characters invite us to feel superior, to look down on them. Scott is a crook, his fellow crooks are bumblers, Pym is enfeebled by age, Cross is corrupt.

The audience laughs as Scott fumbles through his Ant-Man training; when Cross meets his doom, we feel smug satisfaction, not the surge of pity and fear occasioned by tragedy visited upon those we admire.

The emotional catharsis, the psychological release, provided by Ant-Man is more related to schadenfreude, feeling superior in the context of misfortune involving someone else. That seems an ironic twist in a tale devoted, not just to heroes, but to heroes in spades, super-heroes.

The film is visually impressive, and has a self-mocking humor that Paul Rudd, playing Scott, demonstrated mastery of in his earlier parodic effort, The Interview. Unlike the protagonist in that film, a spoof about North Korea’s Great Leader, here Scott also shows a lovable side in his devotion to his daughter and in his loyalty to Pym.

And he gets the girl.

An audience looking for dazzling special effects and inside humor will enjoy this film. I found it a bit frothy. It leaves some sci-fi intricacies of internal space underutilized, and some questions of human/non-human differences unexplored. I was struck by the irony of super-hero being an Ant-man while the ants in the film function as servants, slaves to their human master.

From a psychodynamic point of view, Ant-Man’s heroics have an essential psychological hollowness, a weakness of other members of the super-hero genre. After all, super-heroes are inherently implausible.

Self psychology argues for the gradual de-idealization of the parental imago—our first omnipotent, omniscient super-hero figure—into an important element of the self: the ability to admire mentors, to look up to figures that help shape our aspirations. As we mature, the capacity for realistic admiration, can link to healthy self-esteem, the outcome of developmentally tamed infantile self-centeredness. Looking up to others and healthy self-esteem, in tandem fuel valuable activities, actions aimed at important contributions to the well-being of others, and to human culture.

Super-heroes may furnish material for primitive fantasy; they fail to constructively shape our being, to help us become our best selves.

Stress as Positive

Recent research suggests that stress has some positive benefits. This should not be a surprise if you realize that a big part of being human is having a nervous system that allows us to use and manage our stress. After all, would we even be able to exist without a “flight or fight” reaction? Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist who translates academic research into practical strategies for health, is looking at the “upside of stress.” Her example, however, of how stress benefits daredevils like aerialist Nik Wallenda and Evel Knievel, may go a bit too far in the opposite direction.

In his career, Evel attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980. He suffered more than 433 bone fractures his career. Knievel died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida, aged 69. I am not sure that adrenalin junkies are good examples of perceiving stress positively. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the inverted U relationship between anxiety and performance where too little and too much anxiety interferes with performance but some anxiety (or in this case – stress) can be helpful.

McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. McGonigal reviewed several studies that suggested stress may actually be correlated with longevity – if a person does not view it as a negative. Researchers at the U. of Wisconsin in Madison asked 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year and to rate how much (a little, moderate amount, or a lot) they believed this stress influenced their health. Public death records were reviewed for the next 8 years to see how many of the subjects died. People who reported high levels of stress and who believed stress had a lot of impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

Another study looked at the perception that stress affects health and its relation to mortality. 33.7% of nearly 186 million Americans believe that stress affects their health a lot. Those people who reported a lot of stress and a belief in the high impact of stress on their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death according to Keller et al (Health Psychol. 2012 Sept; 31(5):677-84).

Next month, we will look at other studies that suggest it is better to view stress as “mostly harmless” like the entry for Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, August 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

X Marks the Spot: A Review of Ex Machina

by Alvin G. Burstein

As a fan of RoboCop flicks, I looked forward to this film. Ex Machina explores the same question as RoboCop: the difference between man and machine. That exploration puts it in an established genre, one occupied not only by its predecessor, but by Collodi’s Pinocchio, who hungers to be a real boy, and by Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data, who struggles to feel emotion and to understand jokes.

This movie explores the question with considerably less violence than RoboCop, but with an ending that is more suspenseful, and raises questions that, if not more profound, are more complex.

A young programmer, Caleb at the mega data firm Blue Book is recruited to spend a week at the mountain retreat of Blue Book’s genius owner, Nathan. There he learns that he has the assignment of applying Turing’s test to an embodied computer, Ava. The issue is to determine whether Nathan has successfully created artificial human intelligence. The wrinkle is that in Turing’s original test, the judge sits at a computer and makes a judgment based on what appears on the screen in response to his input. The question is whether he can tell whether the responses are machine generated or from another human being.

Caleb is presented, not with a monitor, but what is clearly a robot, one with an attractive female face and feminine shape, Ava. He and Ava are separated by a barrier that permits them to see each other and to talk, but cannot communicate in any other way.

Ava’s sexualization has enormous consequences. It is the basis of Caleb’s falling in love with her. To him and to Nathan that implies that she has passed Turing’s test, that Nathan has acquired the god-like capacity to create a human. The unfolding plot intentionally raises intriguing questions about that conclusion. Ava pleads with Caleb to save her from being replaced by more elaborate updates, in hoary plot terms, “to take her away from all this”, and to find a way for them to be together, in equally hoary terms, a “happily ever after conclusion”.

The movie rejects the romantic cliché. Ava is manipulating Caleb. When Caleb reprograms the security system, Ava is freed. She kills Nathan, and abandons her rescuer, who remains trapped in the isolated mountain top retreat. And Ava? She finds her way to a busy big city intersection where she can acquire more data on human behavior.

The audience is left to assign Ava a grade on Turing’s test. Does her ability to manipulate Caleb, her desire for freedom and her curiosity demonstrate human intelligence?

The film hints at an answer. Early on, Caleb asks Nathan why he has embodied Ava, why he has given her an attractive face and feminine shape. Nathan responds by reminding Caleb that we encounter human intelligence in the context of gendered people, and he assures Caleb that he has endowed Ava with the capacity for genital pleasure.

This element of the film has generated a feminist critique arguing that it reinforces a view of femininity centered on male sexual desire. That critique is reinforced by Caleb’s expressed belief that Nathan chose Ava’s face by gaining access to Caleb’s visits to online pornography sites. It is also reinforced by some of the raunchier elements of the film centered on Kyoto, another “feminine” robot created by Nathan to serve and to service him.

As a psychoanalyst, I would broaden the feminist critique. Ava gives no evidence of having physical pleasure centers other than genital. She shows no awareness of the pleasures of eating. She knows nothing of the experiences of being mothered, the delights of being fed, the frustrations of deprivation. She lacks the experiences of expelling things from her body, spitting out, excreting in other ways. She is unaware of the social implications of dealing with such matters. In brief, she is a stranger to ambivalence, to the experience of conflict, to seeing others as simultaneously necessary to well-being and a risk to that.

The lack of ambivalence is what permits her to kill her maker, Nathan, without regret and to walk away from Caleb, her lover, without feeling after he has sacrificed himself for her. Whatever her problem solving capacities, she is not human.

Is that an “F” on Turing’s test?

How Does Stress Affect Blood Pressure?

Many people believe that stress and high blood pressure are directly linked. However, this is a popular myth since blood pressure is not ‘nervous tension.’ Actually, it is more correct to say that stress can only cause temporary rises in blood pressure. Stress does not cause hypertension. Once the stressful situation has passed, blood pressure will return to whatever is ‘normal’ for that individual. And, conversely, if you are diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension), this does not mean you are stressed or overly anxious. You could be perfectly calm and still have hypertension. On the other hand, it is true that chronic stress can have an impact on hypertension. However, we really do not know why or how much stress actually contributes to hypertension.

Just because stress is not directly related to hypertension does not mean you can dismiss the importance of reducing stress if you are suffering from diagnosed hypertension. Particularly if your blood pressure is difficult to control, you should pay attention to the chronic stressors in your life and try to reduce them.

Even simple changes in your daily schedule can have a positive impact on your health and well-being. For example, adding a daily walk in the fresh air in the morning before work or in the evening after work can dissipate built up stress. New research indicates that taking up yoga can lower your blood pressure. Exercise in general can help reduce stress and manage weight, and being active will certainly help reduce your chances of getting high blood pressure. This doesn’t mean you have to join a gym, in fact here are some ways to quickly and easily incorporate more exercise into your day

  • Walk or bicycle rather than take the car to work
  • Take the stairs rather than the escalator or elevator • If you travel by bus get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way
  • Cycle short journeys rather than take the car
  • Walk a bit further every day with the dog
  • Get out of the office at lunchtime and have a walk


By far the most effective way to reduce blood pressure AND manage chronic stress is breathing. This is so easy. Five to 10 minutes of measured slow breaths where you breathe in to a shorter count and breathe out with pursed lips to a longer count is guaranteed to take you out of sympathetic distress and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Add music to anything you do and double your benefit. This is a good time for a Relaxation Break.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, July 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Far From The Madding Crowd

by Alvin G. Burstein

This 2015 movie, like the novel by Thomas Hardy with the same name, is titled with a quotation from Thomas Graves’ Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray,
Along the cool sequester’d way of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Graves’ reference to the gloom and finitude embodied in the graveyard locale implies a superiority to another way of living characterized by hub-hub both physical and spiritual.

Hardy’s novel, enlarging on the allusive title, like most of his work, idealizes rustic living close to nature, while recognizing the harsh and confining nature of the place and time in which his stories are situated. Ironically and effectively the sparse environments seem to highlight the drama and complexity of the human relations embedded there. Graves’ “noiseless tenor” only emerges as a contrived happy ending.

The movie remains true to much of the Hardyesque genre. The male protagonist, Gabriel Oak, is the personification of integrity allied to hard work and perseverance. He is unrealistically flawless, reminiscent of the laborers in Communist Russian posters of the 1930’s. He is in love with Bathsheba Everdene, impulsive, flighty and proud, who, as her biblical name connotes, is the irresistible object of male desire. She is pursued not only by Gabriel, but also by the morally shallow, but dashingly good looking Sergeant Troy as well as by Boldwood, a wealthy, inhibited older neighbor who wants to protect her.

The stage is set for testosterone saturated male rivalries with their Oedipal overtones. They take a lethal turn when the older Boldwood kills the soldier while protecting Bathsheba.

There are even darker overtones, turns of fortune, that derive from Hardy’s sensitivity to the harsher elements of life. A former lover of Troy’s dies in childbirth and is buried with her stillborn infant. Boldwood, killing Troy, becomes, not a respected landowner, but a convicted murderer.

An unexpected psychoanalytic depth in Hardy’s story, to which the film is faithful, is its attention to what Freud called Ananke, fate, after the Greek mythic figure that even the Gods could not master. The founder of psychoanalysis is best known for his attention to unconscious motivation in derailing conscious intentions—the celebrated Freudian slips. However, Freud also called our attention to the role of non-psychological factors in frustrating human intentions and shaping human lives. His characterization of anatomy as destiny has stirred controversy in the debates about gender roles, but resonates with emerging views of sexual determination.

Somewhat less controversial is his argument in The Future of an Illusion that religious views are rooted in to human feeling of helplessness in the face of mortality and natural disasters, our confrontations with Ananke.

In Hardy’s story and in the movie, events are critically shaped by random chance, unchosen events, an element of Ananke. Gabriel Oak is initially attracted to Bathsheba when she saves his life from an accidental nighttime fire while he was sleeping. Gabriel loses his flock of sheep when a fence gives way during a storm, and he is forced off his land and forced to seek employment by Bathsheba. Bathsheba, barely knowing Boldwood, sends him a valentine as a prank when a book falls open by chance. Sergeant Troy’s bride to be goes to the wrong church. That eventuates in his attraction to Bathsheba, as well as the latter’s horrifying disillusionment in Troy. Chance, Ananke, shapes their lives.

I think the spectacular cinematic beauty of the movie distracted from rather than highlighted its darker elements, diminishing its Hardyesque quality. In addition, Carey Mulligan’s perky little grin in her portrayal of Bathsheba for me became an annoying mannerism.

On the whole, though, I found Far From The Madding Crowd a film that provoked thought as well as stirring feeling, a film well worth seeing.

What Really Matters?

One of the most intriguing findings of the 2014 study by the American Psychological Association on America’s stress is that overall Americans rate their stress as 4.9 on a 10-point scale where 1 is “little or no stress.” This rating is down from the 2007 level of 6.2. Despite the fact that the 2014 study shows a decrease in perceived stress, the reported stress levels remain higher than is considered healthy. Even more surprising, however, is the finding that 42% of the adults who reported in the study say that they are not doing enough to manage their stress. Twenty percent said that they are not engaging in any stress reduction strategies or behaviors at all.

The people who responded to the study reported the primary sources of stress as: money (64%), work (60%), the economy (49%), family responsibilities (47%) and personal health concerns (46%). The most frequently reported symptoms of stress included being or feeling irritable or angry (37%), feeling nervous or anxious (35%), having a lack of motivation (34%), fatigue (32%), feeling overwhelmed (32%), and being depressed or sad (32%).

Unfortunately, the study does not point out the obvious – that the sources of stress that are the most frequently cited in the 2014 study – money and work – are also among the main reasons that many people feel that they do not have enough time in the day to reduce stress because they are too busy working to make enough money.

In short, these facts and figures as well as my own experience working with people from all walks of life show that too many of us believe we have no choice. We do not have the time to find time for ourselves. And, too many of us have come to simply accept that we live in a frenetic, hassled society. The old beliefs about the early bird getting that worm and you only get what you earn are deeply ingrained. How many professionals do you know who feel somewhat guilty when they take a little much needed time off to recreate? Are you one of those who feels like you are supposed to be super busy to be successful? Have you ever refused work because you need to spend some time taking better care of you? Are you impressed by colleagues who have their fingers in many pies and are super-achievers?

If you are, please consider taking stock of what really matters to you. Is success more important than your health, happiness, and family or friends? Take a careful look at your schedule, your lifestyle. Work some relaxation activities and breaks into your schedule. It is important to make time, not find time. It is typical for younger people to believe that there is always tomorrow and you can take time for yourself when you get ahead. All too often the stress catches up in the form of having trouble falling asleep, shutting off the mind, health problems creep in, and you begin to see those tell-tale signs of premature aging. Do yourself a favor. Look at what is most important to you and adjust your lifestyle to match.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, June 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).