Kate Roberts Ph.D.

Savvy Parenting

The Movie "Spotlight" Exposes the Power of Denial

The Spotlight movie depicts the irrefutable consequences of human denial.

Posted Feb 19, 2016

The widely lauded Spotlight movie is tells the story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team’s uncovering of the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church of Boston. And as interesting as that all is, from a psychological perspective the real gift of the  film is it’s  unique glimpse into role of human denial in everyday life, even when atrocities are being committed in plain view.

 The movie effortlessly illustrates the vulnerability of all humans to avoid what they are afraid to face.  It took Marty Baron, a Jewish man previously at the Miami Herald, arriving at the Globe to insist that there was in fact a “big” story for the Spotlight team to go after. 

 The Spotlight story offers us a chance to question our own tendencies towards denial. What is in our home that we are too afraid to look at?   For those of  us are parents, denial comes in many forms. A parent’s blind acceptance of the middle school student‘s insistence that they have” no homework”, only to find failing grades because of missing homework, for example.  Or the parent who fails to acknowledge their child’s blatant drug abuse only to learn that he has become heroin addicted.  Human nature is not immune to denial any more than it is to violence. The movie shows us that when we pretend evil doesn’t exist the result is devastating.

Denial helps us tolerate life’s hard edges that we feel we either can’t or don’t know how to face. In Spotlight, victim attorney Mitchell Garabedian, describes the power of denial with his words “If it takes village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”.  Breaking the societal and familial code of denial is essential to raising healthy children and promoting an able-bodied society. Too often we deny our  reality because of these reasons:

Shame. Nothing promotes denial like shame. Shame is a useless emotion that arises from of a false belief that we are to blame for negative events and circumstances. If recognizing our family flaws makes us feel guilty, it makes sense that we would want to deny them.

Fear of Stigma. We fear that acknowledging a problem exists makes it real.  And yet if a problem exists, it’s already real.  For example, when a well-intended outsider (school personnel, close friend, coach) presents a parent with a concern about their child. Despite their awareness, many parents will reject outside concern claiming that “I don’t want my child labeled”.  If other people are seeing problems, isn’t the child already labeled?

Fear of Judgement. I’ll be viewed as a bad person. Parents may deny a child’s problems as a way to avoid being seen as a “bad” parent.  A child’s behavior is never a result of a single factor. When the problem seems small, parents may try to dodge it, but if left unattended small problems become large problems. Avoiding the inevitable makes it more certain that the worst fear will come true- Being seen as the bad parent.   

Letting go of perfection. Admitting to the problems in our home forces us to give up our “idealized” version of the family and accept the one they have.  It’s a loss and yet denial won’t make a fantasy real.  Accepting reality allows people to work through their pain and begin to heal.

Fear that it can’t be fixed. What if I address this and it doesn’t go away? Sometimes we fear that no matter what we do, our problems can’t be remedied. This is irrational. Intervention is always better than avoidance. While there is no guarantee that you can “cure” things, pretending there is no problem ensures that whatever troubles lurk will remain unresolved.

Fear of giving up control. We feel secure when we feel in control. We struggle to accept what we can’t control- the Parish priest committing crimes against children, for example.  Its human nature to rationalize ugliness by saying things like it’s not really true and my child is overreacting and being over dramatic.  Knowledge is power and when we face the truth we can use that power to take control.

The Spotlight movie depicts a society’s tendency to deny ugliness even when it’s in plain view. The learning point for all of us is that no amount of pretending will make the truth go away; instead problems only gets worse when left unaddressed. We need to learn to face our demons head on, big and small, to allow the healing to begin.