Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The mysterious life of the psyche: on watching United States of Tara

I hope this blog doesn’t turn into a cut-price television review column, but I’ve been watching the new comedy drama series United States of Tara and had some thoughts about it I just had to share. That Tony Collette recently won an Emmy for her knock-’em-down performance in the series only adds to my need to comment on this innovative show.

For those who don’t watch it, United States of Tara is a US series about a woman and her family struggling to cope with her mental illness – dissociative identity disorder (DID). It’s currently screening on the ABC in Melbourne.

Apart from ‘herself’, Tara’s psyche contains four distinct characters or ‘alters’, one of whom she may temporarily transform into at any time. Each dresses, speaks and acts in their own unique way but most are aware that they’re inhabiting Tara’s body; meanwhile she herself disappears, mentally speaking. Any one of them is most likely to appear when Tara is under stress, and while they are incredibly disruptive, their behaviour indirectly expresses Tara’s own feelings, conflicts and motivations.

Although the show’s makers consulted extensively with DID experts and patients, it does not pretend to be an accurate portrayal of the disorder. The workings of the disease can be more subtle than the obvious ‘switches’ made by Tara’s psyche. And Collette’s depiction of the multiple personalities is highly theatrical; in contrast, alters, apparently, are created by the sufferer as a kind of emotional shield, so tend not to draw attention to themselves.

As well, Tara's alters are always perfectly reflected in her appearance, with meticulously appropriate costumes, props and hairdos, to an extent that it would be impossible for any individual with a complex mental illness to achieve. For example, where did the latest alter, Gimme, who appears to be all Freudian id, get the bright red plastic poncho?

However, that’s all by the by. As even the mental health experts agree, it’s meant to be entertainment.

The reason that I find the show compelling is that every Wednesday night at 9.30 pm I see a woman’s dodgy unconscious causing mayhem in her own life and those of her loved ones. And I see a human being and her family doing their best to cope with the after-effects.

Tara is never portrayed as stupid, weak or childish. She’s a fully fledged person with a career (she paints indoor murals) a family, and the usual concerns of an adult. Her mind, or aspects of it, causes her and her family great difficulties but she is never blamed for them in a lasting sense (her children sometimes blame her momentarily, and her needy sister, Charmaine, sometimes has to be reminded that she is not simply seeking attention).

The subtext seems to be that the kids – Marshall, a sweet, sensitive 14-year-old and Kate, a promiscuous, prematurely tough 15-year-old – will sometimes act out and indeed may suffer psychologically, but in the end have the maturity to keep loving their mother despite her sabotaging alter egos. And Tara’s cute, beefy husband, Max, has endless buckets of concern and love to offer her.

It’s a pretty good model for viewing mental illness in our society. The sufferer is not morally weak for succumbing to illness, just unlucky. Family members are affected by the illness but in the end rally around and some semblance of order is maintained.

But the series is even a bit more sophisticated than this in its portrayal of mental illness.

It’s very common these days to portray psyche disorders as being purely biochemical in nature, with little if any basis in past experiences. There are many instances where this may be the case, particularly when it comes to illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar. But in many other cases, I believe that mental illness has its own logic and is caused by predisposing factors interacting with particular life experiences.

The form that the illness or disorder takes may be determined by the fact that it performs a particular function for the sufferer (for example, enabling psychic survival), rather than being an accident. But the illness is not merely a product of the past – it interacts with the sufferer’s current circumstances as an out-of-date coping mechanism that takes on a life of its own.

The accident, if you like, lies in being predisposed to this form of coping, or even highly sensitive, and having the particular life experiences that led to the original need for such a mechanism. Again, the victim is not to blame. (I’ll reiterate that I don’t think all mental illness has this meaning and function; I’m just worried that all disorders now seem to be portrayed, in the media at least, as being due solely to biochemistry).

Thus, Tara’s disorder is a result of trauma she experienced at boarding school (which incidentally neatly lets her parents off the hook!). Presumably she had a predisposition to the kind of disassociation of which the disorder is an extreme example, but her recourse to alternative personalities is an attempt to deny as well as manage this past trauma.

Yet Tara’s illness also has meaning in the present as a way of dealing with the various difficulties she encounters as an artist, a wife and a parent. If she’s feeling under stress in her parental or domestic role, Alice, the perfect 1950s housewife, rocks up to restore domestic harmony. If her daughter’s acting up, Tara turns into T, the pot-smoking teenage nightmare, forcing her daughter to assume the role of carer. And if her relationship with her husband gets too complex or her children need defending from predators, Buck, the boozy, gun-loving Vietnam vet, makes an appearance.

Again, this doesn’t mean that the sufferer of mental illness is weak or bad. Instead, like all of us, they have an unconscious mind with its own agenda, one that may be contrary to that of the ego.

There are things I don’t like about the show, and my criticisms about it risk sounding hopelessly old-fashioned. But I think what I’m actually opposed to is a kind of solipsism in the characters that poses as sophistication. In trying desperately to be cool, the show wants the characters to be at various times self-obsessed, socially inappropriate, rude and offhand.

There’s heaps of swearing, for example. Don't get me wrong, I’m happy with strategic uses of ‘fuck’ and other expletives. But for me they lose their potency if used too often. I also don't like the disengaged way Charmaine and Kate talk about sex. In the presence of Marshall, a shy gay kid who at this stage is yet to have his first kiss, Kate says of him that ‘he’s chasing cock’, and neither Tara nor Max reacts negatively. The character of Charmaine is particularly narcissistic in the face of her sister's illness, in a way that the show sometimes seems all too happy to endorse (at one point she co-opts a family gathering by pulling her shirt open and displaying the results of a botched boob job).

I know that the show is trying to demonstrate that underneath all this ‘attitude’ the characters are struggling, that they act out in order to cope. It’s also trying to be naturalistic and to avoid being overly sentimental in its portrayal of modern life. And it’s understandably opposing itself to the pious, idealised image of family life peddled by America’s religious right. It must be acknowledged, too, that Charmaine's inability to comprehend that Tara is ill is a common reaction of siblings to mental illness.

But what's actually being portrayed here is the way that pornography and digitisation have combined to produce a new, sexualised uber-consumer, with Kate and Charmaine its most obvious avatars.

This new subject is not confined to the US -- the UK hit movie Love, Actually also portrayed elements of it. But I think in United States of Tara it's combined with a US tradition of straight talking and individualism in an unfortunate way, so that the characters are sometimes applauded for verbally abusing each other (this occurs to a much worse degree in the comedy film Knocked Up -- I don't for a minute believe it comprises an accurate portrayal of Americans, which makes it all the more disturbing). It's a shame, because at times the show is in danger of making some of the characters so unlikeable that I stop sympathising with them.

Still, I’ll definitely be watching United States of Tara for the rest of the series, and hoping the ABC buys the second series. (The story line is continuous, too, which keeps up the suspense). In so many ways it’s infinitely more enlightened than a thousand silly sit coms.

(Oh dear -- I've just realised that although I'm more or less the 'disordered' one in my family, I'm much more like the attention-seeking Charmaine than Tara -- eek! Perhaps that's why I dislike the former so much.)

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