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The Role of Community in Healing

Lessons from "Lars and the Real Girl."

A patient recently told me during a therapy session about a movie she recommended I see. As always, when a movie is discussed as meaningful to the psychotherapeutic process, I was intrigued to see what it is about and how it might further elucidate significant inner issues.

The movie was "Lars and the Real Girl," a 2007 film written by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Nancy Oliver, who was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for this film. In 2008, she won the Humanitas Prize for "Lars." The film was directed by Craig Gillespie and starred Ryan Gosling as Lars; he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, along with several other nominations. The cast included such other greats as Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, and Patricia Clarkson.

While the movie is in the genre of romantic comedy and drama, I was struck by the profound mental health implications of the film and the transformative power of community it artistically communicated.

I remember being presented with a concept somewhere in my intellectual travels—that in some ancient tribal cultures, when someone developed a mental illness, instead of being ostracized, they were brought into the center of the tribe and received the attention of everyone. Nowhere is this idea portrayed better than in "Lars and the Real Girl."

In the film, Lars develops a delusion that a life-sized synthetic woman doll he purchased is his girlfriend, Bianca, whom he hopes to marry. His brother and his brother's wife were initially shocked by Lars’ bizarre behavior and sought medical advice from the small-town physician who was also a psychologist.

Instead of medicating Lars, Dr. Dagmar Berman viewed the delusion as a necessary vehicle for healing. Lars’ brother and sister-in-law were enlisted to participate with Lars in taking care of Bianca, and eventually, the entire town grows to organically develop a relationship with Lars and his delusion through Bianca.

What is so moving about the film is that everyone in the community is transformed by the roles they take in Lars’ delusion. It is clear that real-life mental illness does not often work the way it is portrayed in this beautiful movie. However, I believe there is still something important for humanity to learn from the loving way the community embraces Lars who is suffering from deep, traumatic loss for which his only way to cope became a delusional relationship with a doll named Bianca. The healing potential of an ideal community that compassionately embraces someone suffering from mental illness is beautifully depicted and deserves a close study by mental health professionals who are willing to think outside the narrow pharmaceutical approach to mental illness.

Lars teaches us something about community that seems we have all but forgotten—something that needs to be remembered more at this time than any other—namely, that love and compassion are the only things that truly heals the individual and the group. These are the qualities that trump fear and madness and for which we all long.


Suggested Reading

Stanislav Grof, M.D. and Christina Grof, (Eds.) (1989). Spiritual Emergency. When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Richard Sterba, M.D. (1982). Reminiscences of a Viennese Psychoanalyst. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.