Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Anger Disorder (Part Three): A Cinematic Tale of Post-Traumatic Embitterment

Depicting Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder in the movies.

Moonstruck (1987), starring Cher and Nick Cage, is one of my favorite movies. The screenplay by John Patrick Shanley is smart, tight and psychologically savvy. Cher is brilliant. Cage is convincingly intense and passionate. He plays a man who has lost his hand in a tragic accident, and with it, his fiancee and all hope for future happiness. Cage's character could be viewed as providing a perfect dramatic depiction of the American Psychiatric Association's newly proposed Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder. (See my previous post.)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder is, at present, only a proposed addition to the forthcoming DSM-V. Like PTSD (see my previous post) , PTED will, if included, probably apply to a person experiencing, witnessing or being directly confronted with a highly traumatic (though, unlike PTSD, not necessarily life-threatening) event or events (e.g., difficult divorce, major losses, serious illness, disability, physical or emotional abuse, etc.) leading to chronic ( more than three months minimally, but more realistically, I would say at least one year) feelings of anger, resentment or rage, and the obsessive, sometimes compelling desire for revenge and retribution. As with most diagnosable mental disorders today, the degree of embitterment would need, by definition, to cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

Cage's character, Ronny Cammareri, has been angry for five years following the accidental amputation of his hand while slicing bread at his bakery. He bitterly blames his brother, Johnny, for what happened, when, in fact, it was his own negligence due to distraction while talking with his brother. When tragedy strikes, we all tend to want to blame someone or something. Ronny's volcanic rage is palpable and primitive, pouring out of every pore like molten lava. So is his constant state of torment, suffering, isolation and near-suicidal despair. This is a classic case of post-traumatic embitterment. Ronny hates the world, bitterly rejecting life because of its perceived unfairness. He has pretty much withdrawn from the field of battle. He has become one of the "walking wounded," not only physically, but both psychologically and spiritually.

Then Ronny meets Loretta Castorini, his brother Johnny's fiancee. She has come at his brother's behest to try to convince him to attend their wedding. Fate unexpectedly intervenes. Loretta (and we) find him toiling in the dark, hot Dantean purgatory of his bakery basement, complete with fiery oven, over which, like Satan in Hell, he bitterly rules. Loretta (who has been living in her own, less dramatic but no less life-deadening inner hell) immediately empathizes with Ronny. She relates to him, his blatant bitterness resonating powerfully with her own far more repressed and rationalized resignation, despair and resentment-- the result of having lost her beloved husband to a random motor accident almost a decade ago.

When Loretta, much in the manner of a well-meaning cognitive therapist, points out the irrationality and unfairness of his vengeful hatred toward his brother, to whom she is betrothed, Ronny furiously rants:

"I ain't no freakin' monument to justice! I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride! You want me to take my heartache, put it away and forget?"

These are the often unspoken underlying sentiments of post-traumatic embitterment. Evil has been unexpectedly encountered, and life's previous meaning lost. Faith has been broken. Frustration, grief or hurt turns to anger, eventually becoming rage, and then, resentment. Hostility. Disillusionment. Nihilism. Bitterness. And depression. Ronny is also despondent and sometimes suicidal, as are many trauma victims. Forgiving and forgetting is, for him, as for most embittered psychotherapy patients, not an option, much like the "mad" (i.e., bitterly angry) Captain Ahab, who was unable or unwilling to forgive the great White Whale (symbolizing the daimonic nature of life) for taking his leg. Indeed, Ronny's festering rage ( like Ahab's), seems a replacement for his loss of limb, love and meaning in life, one of but two surviving passions--the other being his passionate love of opera. How can he let it go? How can he forgive his brother, whom he so bitterly blames for ruining his life?

Loretta seems surprisingly unafraid of (rather, drawn to) Ronny's rage, accepting him where he is, and suggesting they go up to his apartment to speak privately. She nurturingly cooks dinner for him, forcefully insisting he eat his steak "bloody." She boldly asks for a glass of whiskey, drinks it, and then offers her own archetypal interpretation of Ronny's tragic loss and present predicament:

"That woman didn't leave you, okay. You can't see what you are, and I see everything.... You are a wolf! ....That woman was a trap for you. She caught you and you couldn't get away. So you, you chewed off your own foot. That was the price you had to pay for your freedom.... And now, now you're afraid because you know the big part of you is a wolf that has the courage to bite off its own hand to save itself from the trap of the wrong love. That's why there's been no woman since that wrong woman. OK? You're scared to death of what the wolf would do if you try and make that mistake again!"

While Loretta is no psychotherapist, she sees something primal and positive in Ronny, and feels compelled to try to help him. Her interpretation may sound far-fetched to some, but it speaks directly to his fear of intimacy, commitment and his Steppenwolf-like nature. And it points out his own existential responsibility for what happened to him, what continues to happen to him, and for healing himself. Ronny (resembling a kind of sensitive Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire) angrily gets up, violently knocks over the kitchen table, literally sweeps Loretta off her feet and carries her off to his bedroom, where they make passionate love. They fall head over heels for each other, lifting the spell, the "curse," they had both fallen under long before meeting. This feeling of being cursed, destined to be the victim of only bad luck, is not uncommon in post-traumatic embitterment. In this sense, the therapeutic treatment of post-traumatic embitterment involves finding some way to break the evil spell, to counteract, neutralize or reverse the curse.

The movie ends with Ronny and Loretta happily engaged to be married, and with Ronny finally forgiving and reconciling with his brother--and himself. How did Ronny get past his post-traumatic embitterment? What healed him? Being loved and accepted, despite his profound anger, bitterness and woundedness. And permitting himself to love again. Love can conquer bitterness. While this is just a movie, there is more than a little truth here. Healing post-traumatic embitterment requires an acceptance and appreciation by the psychotherapist of the daimonic anger roiling beneath the bitterness, its value, validity, and its source. And a fearless, unflinching, sometimes aggressive stance toward confronting it. Recovery also requires a fundamental shift in attitude on the patient's part, a courageous recognition of life as it truly is rather than how we think it should be. As Ronny so poignantly expresses it:

"Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn't know this either, but love don't make things nice -- it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren't here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit."

Through his intimate encounter with Loretta, Ronny finds the courage to live again. Not just to exist or survive. But to truly live. And to love. Despite life's tragic quality. This is precisely what the deeply disillusioned, discouraged, embittered patient must be helped to do during psychotherapy. To relinquish his or her childish, naive notions about life, to bravely face the existential facts of life and to accept--even embrace--life on its own terms, including his or her own and others' imperfections, flaws, complexes, neuroses, and daimonic tendencies. To muster the courage to recommit to life, to be vulnerable, to take chances, and to love passionately, accepting the inevitability of loss, suffering and, ultimately, death. Only through such an alchemical process can bitterness be transmuted into love, vitality and creativity. The unlucky curse lifted. The evil spell broken.

More from Stephen A. Diamond Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Stephen A. Diamond Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today