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Elizabeth Wagele
Elizabeth Wagele

How I Relate to “The Black Swan”

Separating the real from the fantasy.

Perfectionism and Passion

For several years while I was majoring in music in college I accompanied ballet classes. Students would begin with exercises at the bar and end doing excerpts from ballets like Swan Lake. I saw the precision with which the ballet movements were performed, not entirely different from the precision needed in performing the piano. Great artists combine perfection with a passionate temperament, so it's magical and amazing every time one comes along.

When children express music beautifully we can't imagine where they got their musical wisdom from. In performance art, some have to learn to manage their nerves, too. Both dancers and pianists have to deal with envy, competition, the question of talent, money for training, and managing time to train.

Ballet dancers and pianists have similar needs and obstacles, but at least music isn't brutal on our toes. So I related to that part of the movie, "The Black Swan." I also related to having difficulty separating from a parent.

When I was very small, I felt guilty about my attachment to my mother. I handled that fairly well, but as a young adult my attachment to my father was more difficult. Nothing I did was good enough for him and I internalized his critical voice. When he died I missed him terribly but I appreciated feeling more separate. I still struggle with that voice at times, however.I didn't relate to the habit Nina had of cutting herself.


"The Questioner" Enneagram type fits the character of Nina Sayers. Questioners come in two main forms, phobic and counter-phobic, and sometimes express both. At the beginning of the movie, Nina is timid (phobic or fearful), reluctant to join in with the other ballet dancers, and overly obedient. She becomes more determined to land the starring role and more assertive (counter-phobic or going against her fear).

The director is manipulative and cruel as he tries to develop her dark side to prepare her. Nina's picking at her skin become exaggerated and we realize we're watching some fantasy horror scenes. Some Questioners report having nightmarish fantasies of things that could happen to them, too, that most of us are not as likely to have. Nina is not a healthy example of this type.



Nina is heading for a breakdown. It's not necessarily her mother's fault; perhaps she isn't as negative and overly protective as the bad mother fantasies lead us to believe. What's real in this movie? Can Nina separate herself internally from her mother? In order to assimilate her dark and light sides, and to individuate enough to stop her self-mutilation, Nina has a long journey ahead. It can't be forced. Real ballet dancers, like concert pianists, can't be THIS delicate.

I liked what my friend, Berkeley therapist Annemarie Sudermann, had to say: "I was drawn more and more into Portman's portrayal of the dancer as she struggled internally with her conflicts: the need to be perfect and to cut off all bad feeling (leading to cutting herself to be able to feel) and the need to separate from her mother in order to find herself and her blocked sexuality. Yet at the end, was there any real transformation? Her comment that her performance was ‘perfect' was chilling. Was she dying like the Black Swan? Had she transformed anything? Had anything in her consciousness really changed, making her a more whole person? Or was she still as unconscious of the depth of her inner fragility as she awoke to her awareness that she had cut herself and wounded herself badly?"

About the Author
Elizabeth Wagele

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.

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