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'Beasts of the Southern Wild': On Trauma and Surviving Adversity

Why did Hushpuppy fare so well? 

Alan Ravitz, MD, MS

Senior Pediatric Psychopharmacologist; Senior Director of Forensic Psychiatry
Child Mind Institute

In Beasts of the Southern Wild a little girl, Hushpuppy, is confronted with a flood, her father's deteriorating health, and monsters set free by the chaos. She has no place to live; she has no one to care for her; and she is beset by fear. Yet she survives, through angry force of will. Not without some cost. After all, what happened to her was terrible.

Trauma is the failure to recover normally from an adverse experience. We can argue about what normally means, but it sort of means "not the worse for." So people can experience profound adversity—in Hushpuppy's case, physical, psychological, and spiritual—and not be the worse for it. In fact, for some, like Hushpuppy, it's for the better.

She learns how to be loved, and she learns how to love. Don't groan. I know this formulation sounds ridiculously corny, as if I'm just being intellectually lazy, but I'm not. I'm sincere. Think seriously about how you receive love and give love (or trust, or willingness to be open and vulnerable). Think about Hushpuppy's relationship with her father at the beginning of the film—how she received and gave love with him. Then think about her relation to the interpersonal world at the end of the story.

Beasts is not about trauma; it's about adversity. Adverse experience doesn't cause trauma—subjective experience does. Also, trauma is a condition that develops over time, not (usually) at one particular moment in time. What causes trauma, then? Certain individuals are more vulnerable than others.

  • Individual factors: Some people have biological vulnerabilities. They are small or weak, or intellectually or emotionally at risk. But what is even more important than biological disposition is previous experience, because experience generates a prediction about what's going to happen next, on a good thing/bad thing, optimism/pessimism axis. Since we all make the worlds in which we live, optimistic people will probably create better worlds for themselves than pessimists.  

    I can't comment on Hushpuppy's biological vulnerabilities. But she is unquestionably an optimist, in that she perseveres in the face of terrible obstacles. At some level, then, she knows she lives in a world over which she has some control. Which likely means that, despite her apparent independence, she grew up in nurturing circumstances and was well cared for. She can be assertive because she expects the outcome of her actions to be a better state of affairs.
  • Proximity factors: Adverse events are more likely to be traumatic if we are physically or emotionally close to them. Hushpuppy experiences the loss of her home, her only parent, and, intermittently, her mind and spirit. She is certainly at high risk based on this one criterion. But remember, subjective, not objective experience causes trauma; also that optimistic (i.e. well-loved) people tend to make better worlds than pessimistic people. 
  • Continuing factors: Trauma is an experience over time; it's not just what happened to you, but what happened to you after that (etc, etc.). So continuing factors play a huge role in determining whether or not adverse events are traumatic. Are there ongoing stressors? Is there an end in sight? Most important, though, is the presence of a support system—the more solid the support the better. In Hushpuppy's case, it often looked as if the end were not in sight, as she experienced stressor after stressor. But her support system was solid (and fortunately for me as a movie-watcher, unsentimental. Nobody did things purely out of the "goodness of their hearts." Rather, people acted in their own self-interest), so they were able to support her endeavor as she supported theirs. 

I think of Beasts as an original, deeply felt, and very impressive work of art. At the end of the story things are better, but they're still pretty primal. Nothing changes all that much, yet everything is different. That sounds about right.

Bonus practical note: If something adverse happens to someone you love, what can you do? First, tailor your intervention to the person. Don't ask for more or less than they can do. Also, take care of yourself; otherwise you're no good to anyone. Then...

  • Focus on helping your loved one feel safe—whatever it takes.
  • Stay calm.
  • Maintain routines.
  • Be yourself—only a little better than usual.
  • Be open to discussion, but also encourage distraction.

Published: February 12, 2013

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