Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Helping ‘The Help’: Psychoanalysis Comes Alive

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 25, 2011

         “The Help,” both the book and the movie are interesting, but not great works of art. However, they are great advertisements for why psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are so important. Aibileen captures this moment when she says to herself, with great wonder, that she can’t believe someone cares about how she feels about her life. Race relations are so painful, partly for this country’s history of cruelty towards African-Americans, but maybe more importantly because of the history of  how large segments of the population ignored their feelings. Psychoanalysis comes alive in these times because it is a field which validates this notion that people need to be heard and understood, as much as they need to have food and shelter. Skeeter, the main character of the story, took an interest in Aibileen’s point of view. Like a patient who enters into psychoanalysis, this interest, at first, made Aibileen anxious, but over time made Aibileen appreciate herself in ways that she had never experienced before. With Skeeter as an attentive audience, Aibileen had permission to reflect on her life; she had permission to think about how she was thinking. She had permission to feel her feelings.

    Prior to Skeeter wanting to interview Aibileen,  Aibileen’s major outlet for her emotional life took place in her relationship with the children she helped to raise. The movie and the book depicted just how important this attachment was, both for the white child and the African-American help. It was in this connection, that feelings could be expressed, and hope could be felt. Psychoanalysis comes alive yet again. Attachment theory supports the notion that this tender relationship between caretaker and developing child becomes the paradigm for important relationships downstream. Further, psychoanalysis gives credibility to the feeling that not only do children benefit from a loving caretaker, but the caretaker grows emotionally as well. Aibileen understood this. Her life was not all about prejudice and maltreatment. It was also about loving children and helping them grow up to be self-confident and loving adults. Aibileen knew that this pleasure far surpassed the materialism of her employers. 

   “The Help” is a sad book/movie. The themes of prejudice and hatred are hard to watch. Yet, like being a psychotherapist, one witnesses the ugly side of human nature, knowing that good things can grow out of seemingly endless cruelty and unfairness. Aibileen and Skeeter, like patient and therapist, both transformed in the course of the story. They did not transform because of their suffering, they transformed because they had each other. The attachment, the connection, the love, the relationship, whatever we call that, was the instrument of change. Psychotherapists know this. We just need to get that message out. Maybe “The Help” helped us.

10 Responses to “Helping ‘The Help’: Psychoanalysis Comes Alive”

  1. Jon said

    Shirah, you state that “Aibileen and Skeeter, like patient and therapist, both transformed in the course of the story. They did not transform because of their suffering, they transformed because they had each other. The attachment, the connection, the love, the relationship, whatever we call that, was the instrument of change.” I would contend that this is a good example of the existential concept that existence precedes essence. Aibileen and Skeeter both exist before they form their relationship, but the new essence of what they become is because of their relationship. Love, caring, or “whatever we call” it is what builds that essence. Your parallel between their relationship and that of psychotherapy seems most apropos. May “The Help” help us all.

  2. Shelly said

    I love how you and Jon both put that. No wonder “The Help,” both the book and the movie, makes us feel good to read and to see it. But you make a point that is interesting: I know how important it is for a mother to hug and kiss her children–it makes them feel loved and secure, but I know how I feel when I hug and kiss them: it is a need, a physical need that nothing else can replace. So maybe showing love and affection and receiving it–this give and get between mother and child helps helps enforce the bond that will be lifelong.

    • shirah said

      Thanks. Yes, there needs to be more written about how a parent matures through the parenting process. This would also explain the difficulty some folks have with the empty nest. The warmth between parent and child is vital to both, but ultimately there needs to be a transition away from the nest. How each party deals with that transition is likely to relate to the complicated nature of conscious and unconscious feelings, both in the present, and historically speaking.

  3. Melanie said

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this. I have been in psychoanalysis for 2.5 years (4 days a week) and therapy with the same therapist/analyst for almost 4 years. I am also 30 years old and very attached to her — almost like a child is attached to her parent. I saw the movie 2 weeks ago and am also finished reading the book. I just emailed someone who I share my analysis experiences with, and I happened to randomly mention the Help and that I want to hear from my analyst: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” But after reading this, I see that I am Abileen and she is Skeeter in our relationship — but without the mutuality of the give and take, there would be no relationship. But just maybe, I would like my analyst to be Abileen and I would like me to be Mae Moebley so I can know that I have that analytic love that I crave. Thanks again.

    • shirah said

      Hi Melanie,
      Welcome to my blog and thank you for your comments. Maybe you can feel the analytic love, without “knowing” it. .

  4. GT said

    You present a brilliant analogy between the message of the book and psychotherapy … Perhaps one of the best reads I’ve come across about transforming the wounds of racism is this article on psychotherap.net – http://www.psychotherapy.net/article/racism-psychotherapy – worth the read …

  5. Lena said

    How would you explain Aibileen via psychoanalysis? Like what she shows for personality types, stress related problems, dysfunctional families, etc. She’s an odd character but I love her in both the book and the movie.

    • I see Aibileen as a woman who understood the value of relationships. She cared for the children she was hired to care for. She understood that the children’s biological parents were missing out on a wonderful opportunity for attachment. I did not find her to be odd, but rather enormously human and relational. Thanks, Lena.

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