Lars and the Real Girl in the Film Gallery by Marilyn Meyers

I am showing this film in the inaugural exhibit in  the Virtual Psychoanalytic  Museum as it illustrates issues of attachment and early relational traumatic loss. This film  is deeply moving and addresses  early core issues that  are reflected in adult relationships . Furthermore, the film illustrates the power of comprehending the deficits of early loss and the path to mature relating. I have shown the film in the introductory session of a course on Attachment that I teach. There is usually not a dry eye in the house.

The story:

At the manifest level, this film is a story of an isolated  young man who cannot relate in a “normal” way.  By that I mean that he avoids  and is terrified of forming relationships. At the more profound level it is a story of traumatic early loss and a creative and desperate  drive to revive the capacity to relate and form deep attachments.  At the beginning of the film , we observe an adult man who lives alone in the garage of the family home that his brother and pregnant wife now occupy. He is terrified of contact with them or anyone else. He rejects all invitations to join them for dinner or have any interactions with co-workers. Through a co-worker he learns about life size, anatomically correct, inflatable female dolls.  He orders such a doll . Once he receives his doll, he names her Bianca and introduces her to his brother and sister-in-law. They are both stunned and worried about him as he brings Bianca to the dinner table and talks to her and about her as if she is “real”.  He talks about her likes and dislikes with regard to food, clothing  and interests. He tells his sister-in-law that Bianca’s luggage was lost and asks if she can borrow some clothing. While dismayed and worried about Lars, she agrees to this request. Lars’ brother and his wife  consult with a psychologist with the  assumption  that he is psychotic and needs to be hospitalized. The psychologist differs with them and accepts his relationship with Bianca fully. As the story unfolds, we learn that Lars’ mother died in childbirth and that his father retreated into a deep depression.  There is an extremely moving scene in which the psychologist  attempts to touch Lars’ arm. He flinches and recoils. She is gentle with him  and progresses slowly, always checking with him as to his tolerance for touch.  I imagine that Lars was starved for skin to skin contact as an infant following his mother’s death and the father’s withdrawal and thus, terrified of it.

One of the most touching aspects of the story is that the entire community (church, beauty shop, schools, PTA, etc.) gradually accept Bianca fully. In fact, there is a point at which Lars gets very angry  that she is developing a separate life from his. In his mind there was to be a merger. He feels abandoned and rejected by her. This , of course, symbolizes the separation of mother and child that he never traversed. Now the child is feeling abandoned as the mother develops her own separate life.  (re: Jessica Benjamin Bonds of Love) There is, however, a kind of confusion of boundaries. Who is doing the separating? Is it the “mother” leaving the child or the child leaving the mother? Perhaps both? Lars  does, however recognize that this phase is inevitable. The community and his family help him to understand this.  Bianca’s  “need” to separate allows him to find his own autonomy and somewhat paradoxically relate in an adult romantic relationship. Perhaps the most poignant part of the story is when Bianca is dying. There is profound grief (perhaps the grief he never had a chance to feel as a baby). The brother, sister-in –law, psychologist and women of the church community join him in mourning the loss. The church ladies sit with him and knit and feed him. “This is what we do when someone dies” Bianca is rushed  to the hospital by ambulance, on a gurney with an IV. There is deep respect for Lars’ grief by the hospital staff. In fact, it appears that the grief is felt by everyone else as well.  Bianca has a full church funeral and burial.  Lars then allows himself to desire and embrace a romantic relationship with a rather shy young woman who has been flirting with him. Up until then , he had fled her advances. The story ends on a hopeful and positive note that illuminates the longing  for attachment and the creative means of achieving that.

I encourage everyone who has visited this first exhibit in the film gallery to watch this film in its entirety. Bring tissues!!

Clinical Relevance:

The initial task in  psychotherapy is to provide a safe enough place that allows for reflection and exploration. Without the formation of a secure attachment there is little room for psychological growth. In my experience some of the people who seek help through psychotherapy are the products of various kinds of insecure attachment relationships in early life. These can result from families that have suffered their own  unresolved losses and traumas. The parents can be cold and rejecting, punitive , unreliable and frightening. The children of such  parents  have developed  defensive attachment styles in response to the early difficulties and traumatic attachment experiences of the early years.  It does no good to reassure that we, as therapists,  are trustworthy . Building a trusting relationship  is a process and may take center stage in the treatment. In fact, establishing an authentic trusting relationship  may evolve as  the central goal in the treatment.

Clinical Examples:

Mr. J:

In the initial sessions with Mr.J. I was being tested as a safe person. He came to his early sessions with an imaginary “friend”.  This ‘friend” had a name and I was asked to understand him and accept his presence in the room. I felt confused by this, but never questioned or challenged the interaction. At some level,  l knew that this was important, although I had no idea what the meaning was.  My work with Mr. J was often infused with a state of “not knowing” and confusion. In my musings I found ways to make meaning of the sessions. Sometimes I thought that I was the baby with a  psychically “not there” mother. Sometimes I thought I was the mother trying to understand her baby.  As time went on, we developed more of a relationship, although I often felt irrelevant. When I was to be away and I inquired about how he might feel about that, he would respond by being totally dismissive of my importance to him. In following years he might say that he would know what he felt about my absence when I was gone. Now, many years later, we have authentic conversations . There are two fully sentient people in the room with a give and take. He can show concern for me and I for him. He anticipates and feels my absences and can ask for and accept my help.

Ms. M

In the initial sessions with Ms. M she entered the room, sat down and cried, tears streaming down her face. It was remarkable that she cried in this way without moving or sobbing. I had never seen anything quite like this. Following this beginning of our work, a dynamic developed wherein she found it extremely disorganizing for me to utter a sound. It disturbed her for me to say “uhhuh” or “can  you go on”? I silenced myself to the best of my ability and internally tried to make sense of this phenomenon. Over our lengthy work together I have come to understand the multiple levels of meaning this held. Ms. M’s mind had been hijacked by parents who could not tolerate the existence of a separate mind in their child. There could only be one mind in the family and thus only one mind in the room. While we have developed a two person relationship, over the years some aspects of the work have not changed. At the start of every session, Ms. M conducts a kind of ritual. She moves the chair to a specific spot, touches her watch, smoothes her hair, and performs other gestures before settling in. She calls this “getting acclimated”. This brings to mind the disorganized/ disoriented responses to the Strange Situation in children who have unpredictable parents.. The videos of these reunions show a child who may literally bounce off the walls upon re-union with the parent. I never challenge or comment on Ms. M’s rituals. I see them as serving an  important function for her. This brings to mind Thomas Ogden’s autistic/contiguous position (The Primitive Edge of Experience, 1989, Jason Aronson, p.30) . Ogden describes this as a “psychological organization in which sensory modes of generating experience are organized into defensive processes in the face of perceived danger…Psychic organization is derived in large part from sensory contiguity…connections are established through the experience of sensory  surfaces “touching” one another.”

I believe that Lars’ psychic organization was at this level wherein bodily intactness was at risk in his infancy. His relationship with Bianca enabled him to establish a sense of intactness (with the help of his therapist). He then was capable of functioning  predominately in the Kleinian depressive position thus enabling him to form a “mature’ adult relationship. I believe that my work with Ms.M may eventually bring us to that place.

I encourage everyone who has visited this first exhibit in the film gallery to watch this film in its entirety. Bring tissues!!


Marilyn B. Meyers, Ph.D. is on the faculty of the Washington School of Psychiatry, where she teaches and supervises in the post graduate Clinical Program on Psychotherapy Practice. She is past-chair of the Clinical Program and Chair of Admissions. She is past-president of the Section on Couples and Families of the Division of Psyhoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. She is co-editor and co-author with Dr. Nancy Goodman of The Power of Witnessing: Reflections, Reverberations and Traces of the Holocaust (Trauma, Psychoanalysis and the Living Mind), (Routledge, 2012). Her other publications include: “When the Holocaust Haunts the Couple: Hope Guilt and Survival in Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Couple Work, 2005, and “Am I my Mother’s Keeper?; Certain Vicissitudes in the Mother-Daughter Relationship Concerning Envy” in The Mother-Daughter Relationship (Jason Aronson, 2008). She is particularly interested in the effects of relational trauma on attachment throughout life. In addition she has presented papers inter nationally on the use of film to illustrate the aftermath of massive trauma and the inter-generational transmission of Holocaust trauma. She maintains a private practice in Bethesda, MD.

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