Joker gets some things right on mental illness

  • Deep resonance: Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film Joker (Photograph by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros/AP)

    Deep resonance: Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from the film Joker (Photograph by Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros/AP)

  • Robyn Bahr is a film and television critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Robyn Bahr is a film and television critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts

When I was 7, my mom took me and two friends on a play date to see Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The animated film is set at Paris’s iconic cathedral, but as a little kid who knew nothing about Catholicism, I had no way of anticipating that the story would be chock-full of Christian themes and imagery that would be like serrated knives to my afflicted mother.

She possessed a zealotry born from severe and paranoiac mental illness, which targeted every major religion that was not our own. Sitting in the theatre, she became increasingly agitated, talking loudly to herself and trembling in emotional discomfort. My friends were disturbed by the disruption and I was so afraid she would explode in rage, as she so often did, that I could barely pay attention to the screen.

I blamed myself for picking this movie. Eventually, she abruptly yanked us from the theatre, confusing my friends. To this day, I have a hard time sitting through the movie, as it brings me back to this alarm and humiliation.

I’ve returned to these memories recently while engaging with the derisive conversations about Todd Phillips’s Joker, the billion-dollar, 11-times Oscar-nominated juggernaut that reinterprets the origin story of Batman’s greatest nemesis. According to the vitriol of many of my fellow film critics, Joker might as well be a cinematic abomination. But as the child of a parent with a severe psychiatric disorder who died in state care, the film, for all its bombastic stylisation and glorified bloodshed, deeply resonated with me.

I have complicated feelings about the film’s depiction of mental illness, but it does capture the often callous and ungenerous ways we treat those who live with mental illness.

Joker follows Arthur Fleck, a failed party clown and fledgeling stand-up comic who lives hand-to-mouth in Gotham City with his mother, who also has a history of mental health troubles. Arthur has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh involuntarily, which the film suggests may stem from a traumatic brain injury caused by childhood parental abuse.

Throughout the film, he experiences undefined psychiatric symptoms that include paranoia, visual hallucinations and delusions of grandeur. Arthur depends on social services for medication, but when these programmes shutter because of budget cuts, the strain of this abrupt change combined with his increasing social ostracism leads him to brutality.

It is a film I never want to see again. Not because it is painfully basic, “dumb as hell”, or an ode to white male rage, but because it called me to account. The film brought me to tears many times as I watched Arthur face cruelty from those around him, people who either ridicule his verbal tics or take advantage of his vulnerability.

Truthfully, I had often been cruel to my mother in my youth: mocking, temperamental, even verbally abusive. I witnessed others treat her like this, and I absorbed their behaviours.

My coping mechanism was to “other” her, to shrink her power by making her feel the pain I felt when she endangered us by picking fights with strangers in public or purposefully destroying my childhood friendships when her paranoia overtook her. These moments in the film cut me to my core, but they also helped me face the guilt that has festered inside me in the 12 years since her death from cancer. “She was sick,” I often cerebrally tell myself or others. Joker reminded me to feel this.

There is no question that the film has its faults. Sure, the underlying nihilism is politically on the nose. Sure, the narrative exposes its Scorsesian seams a little too openly. And some of Phillips’s choices veer unnervingly hard into ableism, particularly the “spectacle” of psychosis and the violent atmosphere Arthur ultimately foments.

The script draws a false through line between Arthur’s illness and the pleasure he feels when he kills, which ultimately reinforces the very stigmas the film-maker is trying to dissolve.

Statistically, people with mental illnesses are more than ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than neurotypical folk, but you would never know that from what’s on display here. Arthur eventually breaks down, killing the mother who traumatised him and ascending as the leader of disaffected radicals who terrorise the city.

Sometimes, however, mental illness is spectacle. Early in the story, Arthur sits on a city bus and kindly attempts to entertain a child by making faces, but a freaked-out mother quickly insults him. Throughout the film, he giggles uncontrollably and for long, socially alienating periods of time.

These scenes transported me to my mother’s own raging public outbursts, such as her verbal altercations with other patrons in the Costco parking lot or at the public library. Or the time in second grade when she banged on my school bus in the pouring rain and frightened my schoolmates, screeching at the driver to let me off in front of our house instead of two doors down at the regular stop.

Watching Arthur continuously panic and edge closer to the psychic abyss rooted me to these memories, like I was still a kid constantly monitoring my mom’s behaviour for any signs of seismic eruption.

A week before my 14th birthday, I was called down to my guidance counsellor’s office in the middle of eighth-period Earth Science. I had imagined this very scenario since middle school, preparing myself for the possibility that my mother, who often threatened suicide, would be found dead.

Showing up at the office, I listened intently as my counsellor explained my mother had attacked our neighbour with a knife and was now in custody. Only one sentence stays with me: “The cops said the house was filthy.”

My mother’s violence had not shocked me, but an outsider learning of our secret squalor did. Decades later, I still feel flooded with the white-hot shame, fear and embarrassment of these moments, which I know now, intellectually, were completely outside her control.

I have noticed that those who have never spent much time around people with paranoiac psychosis and auditory hallucinations usually don’t have the faintest idea what it’s like to interact with them.

I have seen many films attempt to use psychosis as a mere narrative device, from Fight Club to Black Swan.

Joker is an imperfect depiction of mental illness, but it is one of the few that captures the logical illogic of these staccato conversations. Few people understand what it’s like to learn, as a child, to ignore or re-steer your caretaker when they spew a torrent of hate speech thanks to these voices convincing them of evils lurking in plain sight.

This skill demonstrates that I was lucky enough to have another parent who could anchor to reality. Conversely, Arthur grows up believing his mother’s delusions about her former employer, who they believe will rescue them from poverty.

My mother’s demons were like unseen characters in my life; they had names and sometimes they shared messages with her through the television set, which she then relayed to me and my dad.

Learning my parent’s verbal triggers became my second language, as I had to grasp the art of circumlocuting everyday phrasing so as not to upset her. (I literally could not use the pronoun “him” around my mother because it reminded her of Jesus Christ, a figure her brain had deemed the centre of all malevolence.)

For my father and me, this was just life with Mom. And if he were alive today, he would be still chuckling about the time Secret Service agents knocked on our door because my mom had been ranting about the death of Bill Clinton at a local courthouse.

Our unspoken motto was to turn this distress into laughter.

However, we were still distressed, and that surely shaped the way we related to her. In the middle of Joker, we get a glimpse at Arthur’s joke journal, where he has scribbled an entry: “The worst part about having mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Perhaps that was the crux of my conflict with her, especially during my hellish preteen years when I resented her for any action, even ones that seem more impish than malicious in hindsight, like her nicking my lipstick.

I was adamant to relatives that I didn’t want to live elsewhere, that I didn’t want different parents.

I knew my mother could not be cured or forced to take the alleviating medication that also unjustly tranquillised her, but I didn’t want her to act sick, either. It is clear to me now that my unfair expectations suffocated her as much as I felt suffocated by her symptoms.

Perhaps Phillips has orchestrated moments such as these for maximum manipulation, but if I find some healing power in Arthur’s words, then who is anyone else to deny me this?

Robyn Bahr is a film and television critic based in Cambridge, Massachusettsw

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Published Feb 7, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 7, 2020 at 8:10 am)

Joker gets some things right on mental illness

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