There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
Susan Obrecht, Faculty, Supervisor, and Training Analyst at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, and avid film buff, reviews the new Brian Wilson Biopic Love & Mercy.
Love & Mercy: A Psychoanalyst Reviews
How can musician/composer Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys survive an environment of terrible physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father and emerge to write such beautiful ballads as “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations” and later, much later, “Love & Mercy?” The movie Love & Mercy directed by Bill Pohlad brings us into Wilson’s aural world and the richly creative musings that inspired him, and the dark auditory hallucinations that haunted him.
Played by two actors, Paul Dano as the younger Wilson and John Cusack as the over-medicated, aging recluse, the film moves back and forth in time between the actors in a fluid reflection of Wilson’s alternating “self-states” (Bromberg). Dano is particularly remarkable in his portrayal of Wilson’s rapture in the recording studio and awkward discomfort with the rest of his world.
As a psychoanalyst I found one early scene to be of particular interest. The older Wilson decides to buy a new car. The saleswoman, Melinda (a luminescent performance by Elizabeth Banks), engages Wilson with such warmth and curiosity that we understand why Wilson asks her to sit in the showroom car with him. She obliges. He shuts his car door, so she shuts her car door, and they just sit in the silence. Unaware of his celebrity status she is simply responding to his cues for contact. Wilson begins what could feel like an initial analytic session as he tells her he is still mourning the drowning death of his brother. He also confesses he is not married anymore; he is a lonely man in terrible grief and Melinda responds with a calm and tenderness that we will find has been sorely lacking in Wilson’s life.
When Wilson power-locks the doors at the start of their “session,” Melinda responds with a mix of wariness and humor. She seems to have assessed his behavior as quirky but his intentions as harmless. So where is the danger? Is it Wilson’s “bodyguards” we see lurking outside the car, or his omnipresent therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giametti) who approaches the car in a menacing manner? In this “confusion of tongues” (Ferenczi), the lines between security and danger, care and manipulation, protector or predator, are blurred. It is Landy’s imperious rapping on the car window that interrupts their “session” but not before Wilson has had a chance to leave Melinda a secret note describing in three adjectives his tortured emotional state.
Daniel Shaw’s book Traumatic Narcissism, Relational Systems of Subjugation (Routledge, 2014) speaks to this film’s repeating refrain of the influence of the traumatizing narcissist on the vulnerable other. Wilson’s father and then his therapist, fueled by their evident envy of Wilson’s extraordinary musical gifts, demean and diminish him, projecting their fury and shame on to him. Wilson’s father physically beat him as a child so severely that he caused the loss of 92 % of Wilson’s hearing in one ear. Physical abuse transitioned into emotional abuse or what the Wilson brothers’ called their father’s black magic. These beginnings primed Wilson to be the masochistic object of Landy’s abuse.
Shaw, a psychoanalyst and cultic expert, describes the very features of the cult leader that Dr. Landy presents in his exploitative treatment of Wilson. Along with denying Wilson access to his daughters, controlling his budding romance with Melinda, claiming the better of the two California homes, Landy restricts Wilson’s food allowance while over-sedating him on medication. When a starving Wilson asks to be fed during a beach barbecue, Landy is so busy extolling his (meager) accomplishments to Melinda that he refuses to acknowledge Wilson’s desperate hunger. He berates Wilson as if he were a small child as he spews his shame-inducing invectives–a harrowing scene of subjugation.
Landy gradually appropriates a variety of roles in Wilson’s life: private investigator of his friends and staff, legal guardian with the power to re-hospitalize him, executor of his will and even an attempt at music producer. There is a dramatic contrast between Wilson’s early scenes of playfulness and bliss in the recording studio surrounded by the legendary studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew versus the dark, heavily sedated scenes in a home studio as a solitary musician being verbally abused by Landy, who demands immediate musical output.
It is here, in his home studio that Melinda responds to Wilson’s messengered requests for help. And it is her recognition of his suffering and her heroic efforts at rescue that ultimately saves Wilson’s life. While Landy has been surveilling and “caring for” Wilson, it is Melinda who truly sees and ultimately rescues him.
Susan Obrecht, LCSW is Faculty, Supervisor and Training Analyst at Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis and NIP. She teaches courses in Dreams and loves film because, as Orson Welles says, “a film is a ribbon of dreams.” She has a private practice in Greenwich Village.