“Silver Linings” and Other Stories We Tell About Mental Illness

“Silver Linings” and Other Stories We Tell About Mental Illness July 26, 2013


By Ryan Masters

There’s a scene in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s tension. Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) are sitting in a diner on Halloween, surrounded by people in costumes. Pat orders Raisin Bran so that Tiffany will understand that this is not a date, a gesture that obviously bothers Tiffany. The purple, single-serve box of Raisin Bran becomes the arbitrary boundary between the two mentally ill people—it’s Pat’s way of saying, “You stay on your side and I’ll stay on my side.” He wants to keep their relationship strictly business. Later in the scene, after Pat goes out of his way to point out that he is nothing like Tiffany, she goes on a rampage, and smashes the Raisin Bran off the table, into the crowd of adults wearing disguises, and runs off.

On his way out, Pat sheepishly pays for his cereal.

What makes this scene so important is the way it plays into the movie’s overall approach to mental illness. Russell stubbornly insists throughout the movie that mental illness is not simply a matter of positive thinking and medication. The movie pokes fun at both of these psychiatric “cures” from its beginning, first showing Pat spitting his medication into the halls of a mental institution, and later making his “positive outlook” into just another manifestation of his disease. What is really important to the story is not the need to stay positive and patient for a “silver lining moment.” What is important is Raisin Bran. What will resolve Pat’s issues with anger is dealing with those purple, single-serve boxes he erects between himself and those around him.

Much of the current public discourse about mental illness isolates the individual in the same way, so that what is abnormal might be easily diagnosed and eliminated. The shape of this discourse has been determined mainly by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) which, as Talitha Stevenson writes in The Financial Times, “shapes our concept of the human mind and ‘normality.’” Stevenson’s article, written last month in the lead-up to DSM-5’s May release, examines recent scrutiny of the manual and its implications. DSM has long held canonical status in the field of psychiatry, and has given clear form to necessary abstractions like “normal” and “healthy” in the public discussion about people’s psychological lives. It is the reason that we can distinguish a “bipolar” person from a moody one.

But as useful as the DSM can be in naming the conditions of those suffering from they-know-not-what, the manual creates the illusion that what’s wrong with a person’s mind can be determined merely by observing an individual’s symptoms. Many assume that mental illness is an objective phenomenon, isolated within individual bodies that behave in abnormal ways. However, it has become more and more obvious that it’s just not that simple. “Billions of research dollars have been spent on trying to establish a link between neurotransmitters and mental disorder, and the attempts have failed,” Stevenson writes. “For all the scientific terminology, psychiatric diagnoses are based on subjective judgments.” Scrutiny of the DSM originates from the growing awareness that complex, subjective matters like grief, financial insecurity and loneliness—matters that cannot be discussed outside a person’s community—must become part of the conversation.

But how then can we talk about how a community functions for and with its mentally ill?

Let’s consider Silver Linings again, and its Raisin Bran-discourse of mental illness. What I find sneakily brave about the way Russell tries to tell Silver Linings‘ story is that he makes the story’s resolution about more than just Pat. Don’t get me wrong: the movie’s ending is indeed hokey and a little contrived, as many have pointed out, but it is so because Russell works so hard to make the mental health of all the movie’s characters depend on one another. He tries to find a way that they can all get better together, and this requires some plot gymnastics, involving a hard to watch dance routine and an outlandish double-or-nothing bet. But what gets lost in all this narrative weirdness is Russell’s implicit suggestion that mental illness isn’t the problem of the diagnosed person alone, but one that the community around that person shares. The language of healing that the movie invokes goes beyond its pep-rally words—“Excelsior” and “silver-linings”—to retrieve more important words like “forgiveness” and “confession.” When Pat finally confesses that he really is a lot like Tiffany, the boundary between them dissolves and they can begin to experience forgiveness and love. Ditto for Pat and his family and friends, who accept him into a community where “normal” isn’t rigidly determined by a handbook, but rather is under construction. Silly though the movie’s resolution may be, it is everyone’s resolution, and it is a necessary step toward their collective healing.

As a person affected by mental illness, I really appreciate Russell’s input. For a long time my mother has been marched through diagnosis after diagnosis, from depression to bipolar to anxiety disorder to schizophrenia. And with each diagnosis and its attendant drug my family has breathed a sigh of relief. Prior to a diagnosis, my mother was just unpredictable and self-destructive; afterward, she was sick and getting treatment. Those orange bottles that filled our cabinets were the fragile pillars upon which we erected our hope. They changed the language of my mother’s behavior, gave it shape and scope. As long as we knew what was wrong and how to treat it, we knew she would get better. Eventually.

Yet the struggle goes on to this day.

Perhaps our main problem has been our collective inability to understand the function of community rituals like confession and conversation in the healing of those such as my mother. But the conversation is changing, and will continue to change so long as we tell our story alongside the story of those that we love who suffer mentally. And Russell is leading the charge. When asked on NPR’s “The Dinner Party” why he decided to make Silver Linings into a movie, he said, “I was looking for a story to tell that could make my son feel a part of the world.”

Would that we could continue to tell such stories.

Ryan Masters just finished his M.A. in English at Liberty University. There, he picked up several chronic social habits, including an obsession with existential Christian literature, Spaghetti Westerns, and pop music. He lives with his wife and newborn son in Lynchburg, VA.

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