Members Clinical Corner

Commentary on Lisa Butler PhD & Oxana Palesh PhD, `Spellbound: Dissociation in the Movies’, JTD, Vol.5 (2) 2004, pp.61-88.

Pam Stavropoulos, Editor, Member’s Clinical Corner

Dear Fellow ISSTD Members,

For this edition of MCC I have taken the liberty, as MCC editor, of contributing a commentary myself. This is largely because despite a few invitations from both myself and ISSTD News Editor Kate McMaugh, few readers have volunteered to contribute a short commentary on a paper of their choice from any past issue of JTD or the new clinical e-journal, “Frontiers”.

So, in introducing my own commentary on this occasion (on Butler and Palesh’s 2004 paper `Spellbound: Dissociation in the Movies’) I would like to again invite ISSTD members to register your expressions of interest to write a short (1000-1500 word) commentary on any paper previously published in JTD or “Frontiers”.

Please don’t be intimidated! ISSTD News aims for a more casual and relaxed article than a formal journal article and, as highlighted above, submissions can also be much briefer than a typical journal article. You do not need to be an ‘expert’ on the topic. This an opportunity for peer comment and analysis… or even just some intellectual pondering on the topic. Perhaps you have always wanted to write a journal article, but haven’t known where to start? Well, start with us! As Editor I can work with you and help you shape and develop the article, if necessary.

If you are interested there is an archive of previous MCC articles on the Website (to access the archive, please log in to the ISSTD Member’s Corner and click on “Member’s Clinical Corner” on the left side of the screen) This archive is currently in the process of being updated, but will still give you an idea of previous content. In addition some more recent articles are available on the ISSTD News Website (MCC Archive)

Submission dates for commentaries can be quite flexible; it would be great at this point to hear from those of you who think you may like to write such a commentary anytime in the future. The beauty and pleasure of this task is that due to the vast array of papers accessible in the JTD archive, as well as the new journal “Frontiers”, your choice of topic is virtually limitless.

Please contact me directly if you think you may like to write a commentary for MCC at any time over the next twelve months.

One of several papers addressing the theme of dissociation in culture, `Spellbound: Dissociation in the Movies’ explores issues of interest to researchers and clinicians alike. As the lead author notes in her editorial for this special issue of JTD, at the time of writing (2004) consideration of culture represented, as far as she was aware, one of the first attempts `to explore dissociative experience across a variety of relatively common, and surprisingly normative, life activities’ (p.1). As such, it also foreshadowed and delineated recurring challenges in conceptualization of dissociative processes and phenomena. Over a decade later, the questions to arise remain salient.

Of all the cultural practices to which the lens of dissociation can be applied, what is more richly suggestive than that of movie making and viewing? In `Spellbound..’, Butler and Palesh advance the provocative thesis that film makers both examine and exploit `the plot-expanding possibilities that inhere in the topics of memory, identity, and multiplicity’ (p.61). In so doing, we are told, `film-making and film-watching experience rely on the audience’s innate understanding of dissociative phenomena’ (p.61).

The authors further contend that reliance on innate audience understanding of dissociation suggests `the pervasive nonpathological presence, integration and use of dissociative processes in everyday life’ (pp.61-62). Indeed, Butler and Palesh suggest that `the act of watching a film may be viewed as a voluntary engagement in a positive dissociative experience’ (p.61).

In considering this paper, it is helpful to attune to the organising perspective which underlies it. This is the `continuum’ model of dissociation to which other contributors to the special issue on culture and dissociation also subscribe. If, as Butler outlines in her introductory editorial, `mental disorders typically reflect alterations or perturbations in what are usually ordered processes, it would seem reasonable to look for the functional value of ordered dissociation in everyday life’ (Butler, 2004:4; original emphasis).

Intriguingly, Butler does this by identifying the `pathological counterparts’ of `three general varieties’ of dissociation in everyday life – namely, dissociation as `a forum for mental processing’, dissociation as `an escape’, and `positive dissociative experience as reinforcement’ (p.5). In the first case – that of dissociation as `a forum for mental processing’ – the normative experience of, for example, dreaming, has its pathological counterpart in the processing failures of intrusive, repetitive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, and traumatic re-experiencing (Butler, 2004:7, referencing Horowitz, 1986).

In the second case (dissociation as `escape’) the potentially restorative experience of distraction from daily life stress has its pathological counterpart in `involuntary immersion’ in maladaptive behaviours deployed to manage and potentially stave off disturbing affective states (p.8). In the third case, `positive dissociative reinforcement’ relates to the narrowing of focus in activities of personal significance of diverse kinds (and which potentially include `flow’ and `peak’ experiences). This variety of dissociation has its pathological counterpart in peritraumatic dissociation, in which the gratification afforded by self-efficacy is precluded by a challenge which `exceeds or overwhelms existing resources and capabilities’ (p.9).

The above is a fascinating encapsulation of the conceptual challenges posed by dissociative phenomena and processes. It repays consideration even if the reading of dissociation as `ubiquitous’ in `normative human activities’ (p.3) is contested. For Butler et al, the corollary is that `when voluntary phenomenal self-awareness is curtailed, when the full scope of internal and external reality is no longer engaged or accessible, when symptoms persist or reactions are overgeneralised, dissociation has become maladaptive’ (p.4).

The lead author of `Spellbound..’, as all contributors to this special issue of JTD on the topic of dissociation and culture, subscribes to the continuum model of dissociation according to which adaptive, non-pathological expressions fall at one end and dysfunctional, maladaptive manifestations at the other. This is a perception, we are told, which `both the classical and modern dissociation literature’ upholds (p.63).

As compelling as a continuum model of dissociation is, however, not all in the field subscribe to it. For example, van der Hart et al (2006) caution against too capacious a reading of dissociation, and seek to distinguish and preserve `structural’ dissociation from the many other and more benign forms of psychological experience to which adherents of the `continuum’ model lay claim. The Haunted Self was published after the issue of JTD in which `Spellbound’ appears. Nor was it the brief of Butler et al to examine the limits of a reading predicated on the pervasiveness of dissociation in everyday life.

Butler’s above described distillation of the `normative/pathological’ problematic remains enormously suggestive, and deserves wide citation for its succinct presentation of dilemmas we continue to debate. Nevertheless, while the `continuum’ understanding of dissociation remains powerful, it needs to be noted that not all in the field would agree with it.

So how does `Spellbound’ elaborate its contentions? Butler and Palesh contend that many Hollywood directors have `long intuitively recognised…and capitalized’ on recent epidemiological findings that dissociative experiences `are far more common to everyday experience than previously recognized’ (p.63). Referencing Greenberg and Gabbard (1999), a particularly interesting observation is the `mysterious parallelism’ between cinema and science as alternative but complementary sites for exploration of `the same inchoate notions about perception, consciousness and memory which arose synchronously in the collective mind-set because the time was ripe’ (p.76).

Not only is this a fascinating observation in its own right. It also evokes the disconcerting notion of popular culture (in this context via the medium of movies) as generator – albeit influenced by the findings of science – as well as contributor to conceptions of mental health.

As vehicles for portrayal of interior landscapes, movies possess a number of advantages. Film, say Butler and Palesh, `is the only medium in which time can be objectively expanded or condensed to parallel the subjective change in time perception commonly reported by trauma survivors’ (69) While home entertainment systems and a plethora of devices now challenge the monopoly of the multiplex, movies retain singular advantages in depicting the myriad complexity of psychic life.

Nor is it only trauma-related dissociation that movies compellingly convey. Of course audiences view movies for entertainment. But also not only for the purpose of pleasurable distraction. As Butler and Palesh (referencing Gabbard, 2001) point out – `audiences do not attend films merely to be entertained…. The screen in the darkened theatre serves as a container for the projection of their most private and often unconscious terrors and longings’ (p.73)

In addition to the 1945 Hitchcock thriller for which the paper is named (and which `conveys two major themes that have recurred in films since: the restorative potential of examining traumatic life events and the necessity of continuity in autobiographical memory for the maintenance of coherent identity’, p. 74) `Spellbound’ surveys a wide range of movies which, Butler and Palesh contend, presuppose dissociative experience even when it is not depicted in the plot line.

A major means by which this is achieved and exploited is via the mechanism of suturing, whereby `the filmgoer is able to connect and integrate separate scenes into a coherent narrative in spite of distinct story lines and cinematic editing cuts’ (p.61, referencing Silverman 1992). Successful suturing means that critical reflection and judgement is suspended, `viewers lose awareness of their surroundings and perceive the events on the screen as life-like’ (p.65). This is a process which `parallel[s] elements of some nonpathological dissociative experiences such as hypnotic states’ (p.65).

Unconscious processes including time disruption, depersonalisation, derealisation, and other dissociative indicators are portrayed with singular effectiveness by the medium of film, which, irrespective of the particular plotline, has a range of cinematic techniques at its disposal. Thus movies do not need to be `about’ dissociation per se (even as interestingly many are) to draw upon and amplify what Butler and Palesh contend to be the innate dissociative capacity and tacit acceptance of dissociative processes by audiences.

The plethora of movies surveyed in `Spellbound’ span a broad period. They include Three Faces of Eve [1957], Psycho [1960], The Manchurian Candidate [1962], Sybil [1976], Total Recall [1990], Color of Night [1994], The Matrix (1999); Fight Club [1999; there is a wonderful separate paper on this movie by Steven Gold in the same issue], Vanilla Sky [2001] and The Bourne Identity [2002], among others. In light of this `breadth rather than depth’, and the sheer scope of the authors’ key claims about the prevalence of dissociative phenomena and processes in everyday life, it might be surmised that Butler and Palesh draw too long a bow.

But this would be to misunderstand their intention. In inviting us to reflect on `the big screen dramatic elaborations of the smaller experiences many of us confront in daily life’ (p.80) Butler and Palesh challenge us to consider instances of normative dissociative more seriously. Correspondingly, they challenge us to explain why, and on what grounds, a vast array of everyday practices are not normatively dissociative if we want to contest their reading.

In `Spellbound’, Butler and Palesh contend that `the active pursuit of (nonpathological) dissociative activities…may represent a cornerstone of everyday existence – one so common and so second-nature, that its role in our lives has not been fully appreciated or examined empirically’ (p.67; original emphasis).

Even for those who disagree with the first part of this claim, it is hard at many levels to contest the second. In their enlivening account of the processes (and frequently plotlines) represented in and by movies, Butler and Palesh have also amply succeeded in highlighting conceptual challenges around dissociation which, well over a decade later, remain ongoing.

Butler, L.D. (2004) `The Dissociations of Everyday Life’, JTD, Vol.5 (2) 2004, pp.1-13.
Butler, L.D. & Palesh, O. (2004) `Spellbound: Dissociation in the Movies’, JTD, Vol.5 (2), pp.61-88.
Gabbard, G.O. & Gabbard, K. (1999) Psychiatry and the Cinema, 2nd edit, Washington DC, American Psychiatric Press.
van der Hart, Onno, Nijenhuis, Ellert & Steele, Kathy (2006) The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization, New York: Norton.

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