The following is a conversation I had with Jonathan Stillerman about the upcoming film he’s presenting, Lars and the Real Girl, at the MAGPS Cinema Series, Saturday September 29, 2012 at the home of Lorraine Wodiska. Reserve your space or get more information at magps.org (limited to 35 participants).
LP: Jonathan, what drew you to this film?
JS: I was originally looking for a movie that dealt with themes of men and masculinity. I thought about Buck. I thought about The 40 Year Old Virgin. But when I discovered Lars, I was blown away. Not only does it address masculinity, but it speaks to so many other issues on the cutting edge of mental health and psychotherapy – neuroscience and the mind/body link, attachment, trauma, therapist authenticity and self disclosure, what constitutes therapeutic action (a.k.a. what actually heals us).
LP: So what does the movie say about masculinity?
JS: I think it highlights the conflict many men have around being close to and depending on another human being, truly letting someone else in. Diane Elise wrote a great article called Unlawful Entry, which speaks to men’s longing for and terror of being emotionally open. Traditional masculinity has a lot to do with this bind. Boys constantly receive messages from family, peers and popular culture about how real men must be self-sufficient and emotionally controlled or risk having your MAN CARD revoked. As a result, I believe boys often deny their relational needs and relinquish their ties to caretakers, mothers in particular, long before they are developmentally ready in order to avoid being labeled a mama’s boy and becoming sissified in the eyes of society. Lars losing his mother during childbirth, to me, represents a kind of normative trauma most boys endure in the face of traditional masculine norms.
LP: How did you get interested in the psychology of masculinity?
JS: In my former activist life, I co-founded and co-directed a nonprofit called Men Can Stop Rape which empowered male youth to work as allies with their female peers in preventing gender-based violence. Much of that work involved helping young men examine the messages they receive about masculinity, consider the consequences of buying into what we called the “dominant story” of manhood, and redefine male strength to include non-violence, empathy and equality in relationships. Since then, I’ve continued to teach widely on these issues. For the past several years, I’ve also run a therapy group for men where many of these struggles come alive in the here and now.
LP: You mentioned group therapy. Does Lars have implications for how we practice group psychotherapy?
JS: I think the movie makes a strong case for the healing power of group treatment. In this film, the group is the community which embraces Lars, meets him where he is developmentally – at a preverbal level initially – and over time, through containment, empathy and some confrontation, helps him to grow up. Lars’ relationship with the psychologist in the film also raises some important questions about what role therapist self-disclosure and even physical touch can/should play in a therapeutic encounter, whether it be group or individual treatment.
LP: Besides the community’s influence, how else do you understand why Lars’ undergoes such a transformation in the film?
JS: There are many healing forces at play – human and non-human. Lars is fortunate to have no shortage of good enough mothers in his life that provide him with a corrective emotional experience – his sister-in-law, coworker, psychologist. And of course, there’s Bianca (the doll), a perfect transference object that Lars uses so effectively to replay and repair the trauma of losing his mother during childbirth (and his father to grief).
LP: Speaking of Bianca, some would say this movie is about a sexual fetish or a perversion. Do you agree?
JS: No. Lars is a baby, not a pervert. Bianca is a symptom, a communication, a bridge, an attempt at repair. He’s not looking to have sex with her. He’s looking for love, safety, physical contact, permanence, a secure base to help him develop the capacity for relationships and the courage to explore the “real” world. Bianca is the equivalent of the terry cloth-covered wire monkey that Harlow used as a maternal surrogate in his experiments on the impact of social isolation in rhesus monkeys.
LP: In your clinical work, have you encountered men similar to Lars? Or is this more Hollywood than reality?
JS: If you count men who retreat into pornography or seek out prostitutes as a safer, more controllable form of “relating”, then absolutely. In researching this film, I also discovered entire subcultures of men who have chosen to live like Lars. There’s a great BBC documentary called Guys and Dolls focused on these men in the U.S. and Great Britain. There’s also a subculture in Japan known as 2D, which includes men who have fallen in love with female anime characters and carry on relationships with life-size pillowcases printed with their images. So this movie is more about art imitating life.
LP: I can’t wait to see it. I hope all of our readers will join us on Saturday, September 29, 2012. More details, the film’s trailer, and registration information are available at magps.org. Best of all, its FREE!