Here’s Looking At You, Sherrybaby

The narrative lines of movies about addiction, substance abuse and recovery often follow a predictable arc: protagonist at the bottom of the pit, clambers up its steep sides, slips back again and again, a moment of truth, a new dawn. Sherrybaby (written and directed by Laurie Collyer and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Sherry) doesn’t work quite like that.

When the movie begins, Sherry is already clean and has been for years. She is now exploring the contours of the landscape exposed by the new dawn (on the outside of the prison from which she has been released on parole), and what she finds on the outside of the pit is that there are more steep sides to be traversed and more slipping to do: the drug-free world is dreary and stubbornly resistant to manipulation by fantasy if you are sober. Sherry knows one way to make it work better for her: she can still use her sexuality. Her seemingly indiscriminate bedding of strangers suggests, possibly, some deeper pathology, one revealed later in the movie in subtle yet creepy fashion and which serves to illustrate, perhaps, a great deal of her history.

Inevitably, the most difficult reconciliations for Sherry are with family. Sherry’s daughter is now in the custody of her uncle and aunt, and she has grown as accustomed to her foster parents as she has to the absence of her mother. Besides, Sherry doesn’t seem to know quite how to reckon with her girl anyway: Shower her with gifts? Make up for years of absence in a couple of visits? The foster parents who have been taking care of the little girl with love and affection and care are understandably suspicious. Drug addicts, even supposedly recovered ones, are difficult creatures to deal with; we are left to imagine a time when Sherry must have lied, stolen, and wheedled her way to the next fix. And even in this, her new clean state, Sherry’s persona shows traces of the devastation wrought on her psyche by her years of addiction and imprisonment: her temper is unpredictable, her temperament is prickly, hostility and suspicion come easily.

Sherrybaby‘s resolution of the mother-daughter relationship crisis is its most distinctive feature. There is no magic day in the sun, no childhood memory of a lullaby, or cooking of a favorite treat that produces a loving, teary, reconciliation. Instead, Sherry comes to realize–after an episode of falling off the wagon–that motherhood is a little harder than she might have thought. She acquires that painful knowledge that many parents possess: that parenting is not ‘natural’, that the biological bond with a child is a tenuous one and merely the preliminary deposit on a bond that needs considerable strengthening, that caring and nurturing a child is difficult and tedious even for those who might be sober, that no amount of extravagant, short-term affection can substitute for slow and steady caretaking.

The world of substance abuse and recovery remains relatively impenetrable to third-person descriptions; the precise contours of the inner maelstrom of the addict can perhaps only be mapped by the addict. But Sherrybaby is a brave and unconventional attempt to chart this strange land.

Indoctrination and Recovery from Addiction

Today at lunch, a conversation about the difficulties of quitting smoking cigarettes and of persuading smokers to quit, about possible strategies for inducing smokers to leave their habit behind, and so on led quite naturally to a discussion about the nature of addiction and so-called ‘addictive personalities’ (and subsequently, a discussion of why some strategies for recovering from addiction work and some do not.) This discussion reminded me that recovery and rehabilitation from addiction can be thought of as a kind of indoctrination into new modes of behavior. In that regard, the following description of indoctrination, taken from Erik Erikson‘s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, from the chapter ‘First Mass and Dead Ends’ describing Luther’s initiation into monkhood, is of much interest:

Indoctrination is charged with the task of separating the individual from the world long enough so that his former values become thoroughly disengaged from his intentions and aspirations; the process must create in him new convictions deep enough to replace much of what he has learned in childhood and practiced in his youth. Obviously, then, the training must be a kind of shock treatment, for it is expected to replace in a short time what has grown over many formative years; therefore, indoctrination must be incisive in its deprivations, and exact in its generous supply of encouragement. It must separate the individual from the world he knows and aggravate his introspective and self-critical powers to the point of identity-diffusion, but short of psychotic dissociation. At the same time it must endeavor to send the individual back into the world with his new convictions so strongly anchored in his unconscious that he almost hallucinates them as being the will of a godhead or the course of all history: something, that is, which was not imposed on him, but was in him all along, waiting to be freed.

Note: I have quoted previously from Erikson on this blog and will do so once more. And on a related note, Freud himself was an addict who recovered: from a habit of conspicuous cocaine consumption, one that he transcended by (among other things) a rigorous work schedule.