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August Film Series
Sponsored by the Houston Psychoanalytic Society and the Jung Center


Commentary by Margaret Jordan, PhD
August 13, 2015

           Let’s begin tonight’s discussion with the question, “What is wrong with Carol White?”  There are a number of ways to answer that question, and Todd Haynes, the writer and director of this film, does not give us clear answers.  At a societal level, Carol is an upper-middle class woman whose role is restricted to decorating her home; serving her husband, including sexually; maintaining an attractive appearance; and participating in women’s social activities.  She lives in a male-dominated environment in 1987 that seems somewhat, but not completely, dated to us now.

          On a personal level, Carol is a woman whose life seems to have little meaning.  Her relationships are shallow, and there seems to be very little substance to her.  She struggles to articulate anything about her experience.  Both her desire and her aggression are virtually absent.  She begins to have panic attacks and mysterious physical symptoms that the medical establishment can find no explanation for.  If this sounds familiar, it may be because the descriptions I have just given are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the female patients who figured in the origins of psychoanalysis.

          In 1895, Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud published Studies on Hysteria, a series of case examples of female patients treated by them for mysterious clusters of symptoms that did not seem to have organic origins.  In the famous case of Anna O., who was treated by Breuer until he abandoned her because of his fear of her feelings about him, Freud began to lay out fundamental principles of psychoanalytic theory and the “talking cure” method of psychoanalysis.  The women of Studies on Hysteria were affluent women whose societal roles were very limited, and whose experiences of sexuality were strictly confined by Victorian-era values.  Some of these women had also been sexually abused by men in their childhoods.  Breuer and Freud identified the phenomenon of transference, the transfer of feelings for someone else, usually a parent, onto the doctor.  With the help of Anna O., they discovered that allowing the patient to talk about her experience, along with interpretations of what was unconscious for her, led to healing.  But they also discovered that the relationship between the doctor and patient was essential to the therapeutic process.

          This comparison of Carol White with Freud’s and Breuer’s early patients leaves out the part of the story of our film tonight that has to do with environmental pollution and the issue of chemical sensitivity.  It’s certainly true that we have allowed our earthly habitat to become contaminated with noxious pollution.  But the diagnosis of multiple chemical sensitivity or environmental illness is not recognized as an organic, chemically caused illness by the World Health Organization or the American Medical Association.  Patients who have diagnosed themselves as having this illness are likely to have a depressive, anxiety, or somatoform disorder.  From a psychoanalytic perspective, we might view Carol’s experience with pollutants as a projection of her own aggression into the air around her, which she then feels is attacking and poisoning her.

          Todd Haynes has given us a story that raises a lot of questions and gives few answers.   The first half of the film shows us how Carol becomes increasingly desperate as she becomes increasingly ill.  She turns first to her doctor, who becomes somewhat frustrated that he can’t find a cause for her illness.  He passes her off to a psychiatrist by handing her husband the psychiatrist’s card.  Unfortunately, the psychiatrist fails to grasp what is needed.  He remains distant behind his desk and tells Carol she must talk about herself without depending on him to ask questions.  She is not able to do this, so she abandons this approach to getting help.  If only she had been referred to a therapist who could have seen that Carol needed a more active approach and the provision of a psychological environment that had the potential for feeling safe and caring, things might have gone very differently.


          Instead, Carol pins her hopes on a community of fellow sufferers at Wrenwood, which turns out to be a cult-like retreat led by a charismatic leader who tells people they are to blame for their suffering and pain and they have the power to heal themselves if they love themselves enough.  This message is repeated in the context of what we see actually going on at Wrenwood.  The leader is wealthy enough to live in a mansion on a hilltop while the others live in basic, bare quarters.  Someone dies while living at Wrenwood, and his widow is very angry, but her anger is labeled as the cause of her illness, not as a natural and understandable reaction to her loss and Wrenwood’s failure to cure her husband.  Another resident was the victim of child abuse, and she is told to rid herself of her feelings about that.

          Todd Haynes has said in interviews that one of his inspirations for writing Safe was a book by Louise Hay called The AIDS Book: Taking a Positive Approach, in which the author declares that AIDS is caused by a lack of self-love, and self-love can cure it.  He wanted to show the absurdity of such an idea and its kin in New Age thinking.  We see Carol becoming sicker at Wrenwood and disappearing as she loses weight.  Julianne Moore has said that she wanted to be as thin as possible in showing what is happening to Carol.  While filming she became anorexic, lost 15 pounds, and stopped menstruating for six months.

          At the end of the film we see Carol entering the chamber where the man had died, and we can see that the same fate is likely for her.  She has been unable to connect with anyone who might be able to develop a relationship with her that could lead to healing, not even Chris, who seems to want that with her.  As psychoanalysts and therapists we know that Carol desperately needs a therapeutic relationship, and she has been unable to find one.  Instead, she now lives in a cold, hard, sterile environment and is sicker than ever.

          There are many other points for discussion that we might pursue in talking about this film, and I will close here so that we may hear from you about your response to this movie.  Thank you.

Breuer, J. and Freud, S. (1895).  Studies on Hysteria.  SE 2.
Hay, L.  (1988). The AIDS book: Taking a positive approach.