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Natural Recovery in “Room”

An Irish-Canadian writer and Irish director made a film about traumatized people that doesn’t diagnose them – what a miracle!

Room is a best-selling novel by Irish-Canadian émigré Emma Donoghue that she has worked into a film of the same name with Irish director Lenny Abrahamson.

I mention the nationalities of the film’s auteurs because something amazing – impossible in an American-created film – occurs in it.

Before saying what that is, let me briefly describe the film’s plot:

Room begins by depicting the circumscribed lives of a 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother (Brie Larson) in a small room where they are held captive by a man who had kidnapped the woman seven years earlier, when she was 17.

“Room” is a proper noun in the book because, in Jack’s world, it has an actual identity.

Intriguing Parts of the Film

In this part of the film, a loving, captive mother has created an ordered – almost reasonable – life amid unimaginable trauma and potential despair. That she is able to do so is a tribute to human spirit and ingenuity and to motherly love.

This first part of the movie is intriguing because it allows us to see how a young mind deals with a world contained in a few hundred square feet without outside contact—except for the odious appearances of the kidnapper and rapist, “Old Nick.”

In this part of the film, a loving, captive mother has created an ordered – almost reasonable – life amid unimaginable trauma and potential despair.As claustrophobic as this part of the film is, the second part of the film—in which Jack and “Ma” escape—is in ways more frightening. Having lived his whole life without ever having been outside “Room’s” walls, how will Jack learn to cope?

Ma, of course, has lived in the real world. And the most fascinating parental and psychological task she performs is to differentiate between the real world and “TV world” for Jack—an exercise that is highly suggestive for parents raising children in ordinary circumstances.

But what about her re-emergence into—and Jack’s discovery of—that real world? How traumatizing, how necessitating of therapy, that process must need to be! This situation is, after all, a perfect expression of post-traumatic shock and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

And, yet, the most remarkable thing about Room is its absence of psychiatric and psychological therapy and labels.

Focusing on the Process of Recovery

The process of recovery is what the latter part of the film is all about, including its downsides, particularly for Ma. But whatever treatment Ma receives is not shown (other than the unwise prescription of painkillers and sleeping meds).

Jack’s recovery occurs virtually entirely outside the world of therapy. A well-meaning but ineffectual, out-of-touch psychiatrist is presented. However, all of the actual healing for Jack occurs through his mother, despite her own problems, and the new people he comes to love—his grandmother (Joan Allen) and step-grandfather Leo (Tom McCamus—incidentally, a Canadian).

Indeed, Leo’s approach to therapy, based on never pressuring Jack, but being aware of Jack’s wary explorations and kid desires, including “cereal therapy” and a therapy dog, are models of sensitive intervention.

While we are describing Ms. Donoghue’s remarkable depictions of therapeutic human interactions, special mention has to be made of the female police officer who elicits from Jack sufficient information after he escapes from Old Nick to allow the police to rescue Ma.

A shambling figure of a man, Leo is especially contrasted with Jack’s actual grandfather (William H. Macy), now divorced from Ma’s mother, who is incapable of accepting Jack as the result of his daughter’s violation.

Leo, a bit of a couch potato, never imposes his values other than to welcome another human being into his own comfort-seeking world. Which is exactly what Jack needs to transition out of Room. We might imagine Leo’s limitations as a role model further out but, remember, Jack is 5, an age when a puppy and another kid who magically appears to play ball with are the height of therapy.

What does it mean to label a pet, a ball-playing friend, and a cupcake-making session with grandma (mirroring a cake-making episode in Room with Ma) “therapy”? It is to give appropriate value to normal human experience. And that is what is most remarkable about Room; it shows that ordinary living – and especially the love of mothers (grandmother Joan Allen’s added to Ma’s) – are the most therapeutic experiences available to humans.

The Disease Viewpoint

As we think about this reality in Room, let me quickly summarize this same natural recovery process in the area of my expertise, addiction.

William White, an important figure in my field who is generally associated with the benefits of AA and 12-step disease treatment, in his exhaustive review of natural recovery presents the exact opposite of the disease viewpoint: “recovery in addiction is the norm.”

White shows that, in most cases, people get better in the normal course of events.

White shows that, in most cases, people get better in the normal course of events: “Recovery is not an aberration achieved by a small and morally enlightened minority of addicted people. If there is a natural developmental momentum within the course of these problems, it is toward remission and recovery.”

Meanwhile, in a much-heralded post for, Maia Szalavitz announced: Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It: Why Is This Widely Denied?

The phenomenon of recovery without therapy, while it may be denied widely throughout American society and medicine, is still part of the real world – at least among Irish writers and filmmakers.
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