Therapists on Film

September 27th, 2010

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Therapists often show up in films and on television, and I like watching to see how they’re portrayed. One of my all-time favorites is Dagmar from Lars and the Real Girl, beautifully played by Patricia Clarkson. Her character embodies a kind of compassion, smarts and empathy that I strive for in my own work.

Lars is a young man who shies away from contact with other people, including his brother and sister-in-law, Gus and Karin. He lives in the converted garage of the family home and goes to work, but tries very hard to keep a low profile. He doesn’t like to be touched.

One day, he announces that he found a friend on the internet who has come for a visit. Gus and Karin are thrilled. His friend turns out to be Bianca — a lifelike, anatomically correct doll that Lars ordered from an adult website. The family is horrified. They take him to see Dagmar, the town’s family doctor, who is also trained as a psychotherapist.

Dagmar assesses the situation and recommends a unique course of treatment for Lars, one that winds up involving everyone in town. I have a lot of admiration for her approach, which is essentially non-pathologizing. Rather than medicating Lars or sending him off for psychiatric treatment or trying to convince him out of his reality, Dagmar is willing to take some time and experiment and rely on his own healing capacities.

I like how the whole town becomes involved in the process and how their compassion and creativity gets ignited. They, too, go on a unique journey. We often think of mental health as affecting only one individual, but in fact, the process of growth and self-understanding can have a much larger and richer impact, as Lars and the Real Girl shows us.

You might also be interested in another blog post I wrote, Arthur Kleinman: Questions for Clients, which discusses the important questions that Kleinman, a medical anthropologist, suggests clinicians ask clients about their own health and illness.

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