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Presented at the Film Program Sponsored by
Houston Psychoanalytic Society and Jung Center

Gretchen Heyer, MDiv, PhE, LPC 
August 4, 2016 

            To talk about this film is to talk about space. The very title gives us a sense of boundaried space: Is the space small or large? What happens in that space? The Jungian analyst Pat Berry writes about ways both psychoanalysis and film emerged with the urban industrial age at the turn of twentieth century, when our senses began to be more and more stimulated. Berry says the bombardment of stimulation in our time means that a kind of digesting zone has became necessary. Berry sees films as part of this digesting zone because films frame an experience, and the very act of filming transforms what is filmed—much like the work of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis that emerged around the same time. Both of these activities are responses to the bombardment of the senses and our human need to find ways of organizing the overwhelming stimulation.

            The heart of Room is a tiny ten-by-ten garden shed, a space with many characteristics of the time before the industrial age onslaught. Intense attention is given to minute-by-minute details of every day domesticity; waking up, washing hands, eating a meal, baking a cake—details that impact all of our lives, but usually as a back drop to preoccupations we consider more compelling. Room shows us patterns of psychic activity in both what it takes to grow within a space, and what it takes to emerge from that space into something larger.

            To begin, Jack’s eyes show us Room: the snake made of egg shells, the smell of boards in Wardrobe, the Dora cartoon that provides an odd juxtaposition to a larger world Jack has no access to. In the world of Room we see the way love has shaped Jack, and terror is muted because Ma shields him from it.  Jack gives us his view of boundaried space with inside and outside.

            Inside and outside are often taken for granted, but they are significant in a variety of ways. There is the inside and outside of our bodies, our family, our social world. For some of us, barriers between inside and outside are thick. This is particularly relevant in social and political conversations of today. There are those wanted, and those unwanted. Gates are locked and heavy to keep the unwanted out. Inside and outside also define a space in which growth can occur. Attachment has an inside to it, and an outside. The therapy hour has an inside and outside. Our homes and our safe spaces all have an inside and outside. But inside and outside are never completely separated, no matter how thick the walls or how heavy the gates. The boundary between inside and outside also connects them. The film makes this point particularly clear when the power goes out because Old Nick has not paid the bill. Inside Room is dramatically impacted by outside Room.

            The world outside Room does not matter to Jack as much as the world inside.  In fact, he has no intimate knowledge of what is outside Room other than what is mediated by Ma or the television or the skylight and Old Nick’s visits. In some ways we might say this is true for every childhood; that is, if we are lucky enough. Those early years are boundaried by the eyes and hearts of those who love us and mediate what comes towards us. Through Jack’s eyes we see this small boundaried Room filled with joy and learning and those small necessary griefs of being alive and growing. The story would be very different if it were told by Ma who has known the outside of Room, and who has lost a great deal to enter it. Yet it is because of Ma that Jack is able to exist so freely within the walls of Room. It is her creativity, her love, her bravery, her ability to see him as a separate person with needs and eyes and a heart of his own, that makes it possible for Jack to narrate the beauty of Room.

            Then there is the night Jack comes out of the wardrobe, drawing the attention of Old Nick to him.  This is the second part to the pattern of emerging from a small space into something larger. First is the love, the boundaries, the innocence, the learning and attachment, then there is the violation, a glimpse of knowledge that disrupts and opens the small safe space. It is much like the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, there is the bite of the forbidden. There is the moment when knowledge enters.

            Jack does not fully understand what he has seen, or the danger this puts him into. Ma does. She has been captured and imprisoned and raped and she will do all she can to keep this from happening to her son. As watchers, we are horrified with her as she tries to free her son, first feigning his illness, then his death, trying to prepare him for a world he has never seen or known. And when Old Nick finally rolls Jack into the rug and takes him out of Room where Jack glimpses sunlight for the first time, Jack is bewildered. Shaken. This was an experience Ma could not prepare him for, because for her, sunlight was natural and not something to be warned against. She could not warn him because her world had not been the world of Room for her entire life.

            This takes us to the third part in the pattern of emerging from a small space into something larger. So often we want to believe that if we are brave enough and determined enough, if we take the risk, we feel sure we will know what we need to do, and be able to do what is needed. But whenever we enter a new psychological state, a larger space in our world, there is disorientation, a way of feeling off balance. The power of this film is not merely that we feel for Jack, but we can recognize in ourselves a similar moment of being blinded by the new, and we know such moments do not always result in entry into those new states. 

            Jack is not only bewildered and shaken, he is suddenly no longer dependent on the wisdom and love of Ma, but on the wisdom and attention of strangers. We can’t be sure these strangers will listen. And when they do, we can’t be sure they will understand what it is Jack is saying, what he needs. In all of our lives, this can be as much luck as anything else. Jack could have met someone who wanted to believe the man carrying him off. He could have met someone who was not patient or attentive enough to his way of communicating.

            In all this I am using Room, and the emergence from Room, as a metaphor for leaving a psychological space that may have served us rather well, but now needs to be let go of.  Some of the more obvious of these old patterns that become too small are: leaving school, leaving home, leaving a job that has become outgrown. Some of the subtler transitions are leaving ways of being, such as a pattern of constant business, or mothering everyone, or obsessing over money when it is no longer needed. To emerge from one psychological space into another is seldom something we can do alone. This is because we are not created alone.  We don’t really have a story, a psychological state, or even a psychological change that is fully our own, because we are always in relationship to others, to a set of norms, to a social world. Inside and outside intermingle, or, as Jung so astutely observes, the soul is always found in a you.

            Jack shows us that his mother has intimately formed him, and his courage to change is also intimately informed by his mother. His change would not have been possible otherwise. Yet his fear and terror is unavoidable. This also is part of emerging from one state to another.  When we dare to change we are confronted by great risk and uncertainty. Judith Butler, a post-structuralist theorist, says that one of the consequences of fear and terror, is that we become morally accessible. That is, we are faced with the knowledge that we are not masters of the universe, events do not happen under our control, or even within our understanding, and we gain an intimate awareness of that which is beyond us. This is another way of touching on Pat Berry’s ideas about the bombardment of stimulation that we need a digestion zone for. When we are overwhelmed, we are faced with our inability to master or even adequately touch much of what we see and feel, so we must find a way to chisel the important from the unimportant, we must shape patterns to make meaning of what comes to us.

            The film beautifully depicts the otherworldly overwhelm of emerging from one space into a larger one. The images it shows are almost on another planet, foreign landscape, foreign people, foreign food and smells and tastes, foreign showers and germs. We do not emerge into the familiar, but the unfamiliar. There is a bombardment of new information for Jack, as well as for Ma, complete with psychotherapists to help with sorting the information—psychotherapists Ma has little use for, not fully recognizing her own overwhelm, or that questions emerge in context, and questions change as the context changes.

            The later portion of the film deals with the adjustment to the new psychological space and shows a number of different ways to do this, or not do this.  Jack’s biological grandfather reduces Jack to genes unable to see him as a boy independent of Old Nick. Jack’s grandmother struggles with her own grief, but is able to see Jack as a full person. His step-grandfather accepts who Jack is, offering new experiences when Jack is ready for them. And while Jack makes the shift into the new space and dares to connect in ways he has not before, this is built on the smaller space where he had the loving and consistent connection with Ma.

            Ma’s entry into the new space is more complicated. She has been repeatedly raped. She developed learned helplessness in Room, empowered only for Jack. Now in the larger space Ma is confronted with her losses. She is overwhelmed. She is bombarded with her parent’s divorce, her new stepfather, her friends having other lives, her hammock no longer in the back yard. Ma refuses to reach for help and with her suicide attempt, it feels inevitable that Jack find her, becoming key to Ma entering treatment.

            Jung tells us that every act of individuation is an act against nature. I think what he is trying to get at is how, in emerging from one psychological space into something larger, what is natural and familiar is left behind for the unnatural and the unfamiliar. The tug is to go back to what we know and are comfortable with, even if the old and comfortable is grief and helplessness, as it was with Ma. And as the film winds to a close, it is Jack who gives us a clear image of what it means to leave a space behind, honoring what it has been. Goodbye, wardrobe; Goodbye, wall; Goodbye Room.


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