Why JOKER Was A Love Letter To My Childhood
I put off watching Todd Phillips critically-eviscerated, billion-dollar megasuccess for quite a while, so forgive me if I’m late to this party. Most people who watched every excruciating minute of this two hour spectacle wouldn’t necessarily use that term to describe the film, but for me it was a beautiful, stark, and stunning example of how mental illness unfolds in the real world, and, in particular, how I watched it unfold for my brother.
I may have put off watching Joker for a few months, but it’s nothing compared to how long I waited to watch One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. That movie’s filming location was my brother home off and on for many years when I was in high school. It happens that this state mental institution is located conveniently near my high school alma mater and it also happens, very inconveniently, that I was the only remaining kid at home available to attend family sessions or visiting hours with my parents. To add to the awkwardness of family discussions about the family secret, and to my early teenage years, some of those visits were also days I wore my cheer uniform to school. Walking in to the men’s criminally insane ward (my brother experienced the harshest of sentences for the slightest incidents) wearing such a costume is an event seared into my memory-something nearer to Silence Of The Lambs meets Girl, Interrupted than Bring It On. When they picked me up from school for this mandatory event, my parents were so overwhelmed by one child’s trauma they neglected to see how this might create trauma for the other. It is no surprise that some of the more traumatic moments related to my brother’s gradual decline into schitzophrennia are also best described by movie moments — the darkest sides of mental illness are just that, in the dark, and rarely do we see the full picture or even a representation of it in our dialy lives. Like most families who experienced what mine did, its not something you act out at at your friend’s BBQ, if you can help it. What is a surprise, is finding myself lying awake at night, fully moved, and deeply impressed by comedy impresario Todd Phillips’s ability to paint such an accurate picture of my brother Todd’s slow decent into a marginalized life. Two Todd’s who’s lives unfolded in the most opposite of ways.
I was the youngest of four children, and the only girl to boot. My dad was a coach and mentor to many and he raised me not as a girl who was equal to boys, but like there was no difference to begin with (that’s another, more uplifting post for another time). Todd was the golden boy, 11 years my senior, Irish twins with my oldest brother and generally the best-looking and most talented of us all. Certainly the smartest, his IQ tested out at genius level. He was 6'0 tall, with blonde flowing 70’s hair and a super athlete like my dad, an all-American college football player and my uncle, who briefly played pro ball with the Mets. One day, after a fight with his high-school girlfriend, he broke a plate glass window with his fist, shattering his hopes of playing college baseball in as many pieces as the glass and creating the watershed moment for the diagnosis he would have the rest of his life. He soon dropped out of high school after his 4.0 GPA plummeted and took to living in our basement alternating between meds that made him sleep 18 hours a day and meds that kept him awake aimlessly pacing and shakily chain-smoking. My earliest childhood memories are of his roaring fights in the kitchen with my parents, the beginning of Todd’s massive mood swings and the beginning of my deep fear of him. My family lived in a hilly, isolated area of town, so bike-riding was non-existent and going over to a friend’s house was akin to a holiday like Labor Day or a birthday celebration. (I never learned to ride a bike to this day, but I can ride a horse like a cowgirl in a barrel racing competition.) Having a friend sleep over was super special and required pick up and drop off finagling with my busy, working mom. On one such occasion, my very cool older friend Katrina, 10, was my guest when I was about 8. I was prettly lonely with no neighbor kids out in the middle of nowhere and hopeful to create a friendship that would lead to more sleepovers. About two hours into some imaginary game we were playing, my brother emerged from his room and proceeded to play a game called “chase us into the basement with a very big knife”. Needless to say, I never saw Katrina again. That was the day I learned to navigate my brother with a healthy dose of spacial awareness at all times, and also the beginning phases of developing an extra sense for the slightest change in someone’s mood — a skillset I still use regularly on everyone, to the utter amazement of my friends.
I could continue on with more stories that could curl hair and create a goosebump, but it would be doing my dear brother another disservice in a long lifetime of disservices. His story unfolded not unlike Arthur Fleck’s with inneffecitve social services, well-meaning but under-qualified therapists, medications repeatedly being dropped, multiplied or altered, services being cut and people’s cruel reactions to his obvious struggles creating a vicious cycle of more isolation and paranoia. I learned at an early age to tell my friends who saw him at the local mall picking cigarette butts out of the public ashtrays that he had a brain tumor rather than utter the dreaded “schizophrenia”. People are truly afraid of what they don’t understand and somehow a large mass growing in your brain was less scary than a 10 letter latin word for split mind. Its also less likely to be the butt of a joke like what we saw happen to Arthur in his tv debut. My brother certainly experienced that level of lack of compassion in multiple forms, even from me at times, and it unquestionably contributed to his dissasociation. But that’s not all that I learned from my days with him in the backseat of my parents car going to church, listening to him laugh at things I couldn’t hear, and my nights home alone worried he’d show up unannounced and in a deeply disturbed state when I’d have to reluctantly call 911 on him to protect us both. I realized a deep compassion for someone who’s mind is not in their control. I developed limitless respect for my parents staying married through this wrenching nightmare that happened to their child. I refined an acute distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and well-meaning social workers. I created an almost phobic reaction to the use of drugs in any form — my brother’s schizophrenia was most certainly triggered/exasperated by marijuana use (also another post and most definitely one that will get multiple angered comments). It also created an empathy for families who struggle to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped and doesn’t thing there’s anything wrong to begin with. But it wasn’t until I married my second husband, who is an executive in behavioral health, that I learned my most valuable lesson — that those of us who had a front row seat for overwhelming mental illnesses are exceptionally qualified as advocates for mental health compassion and understanding and as fierce protectors of the family members trying to navigate the labyrinth that is the health care and social services system. That’s why Todd Phillips’s movie is a love letter to my childhood, it shows the slow evolution of the part we all play in the development of a mental illness that ends up harming people and making headlines. I have no idea if Todd Phillips is just a huge Batman franchise fan or if he wanted to show everyone he can do more than just frat boy humor, but it feels like he watched my brother’s life unfold as if he were right there, as if he knows what it feels like to see someone’s mind completely collapse as society unequivically abandons them. If that movie disturbed you, if that movie was “too dark” or “miserable” then you should thank your higher power that you were able to turn it off whenever you wanted and go back to your pleasantly sane lives. I’ll be thanking DC Comics, Warner Brothers, and everyone who created this piece of cinema for disguising a powerful message about how we allocate resources to some of our most injured humans and how real “monsters” are created in the dark recesses of society…in a superhero movie.