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Because I realized that I wasn’t capable of creating anything of my own that could truly equal them.” In the novel, by contrast, Leda’s leaving her daughters is not an act of unambiguous liberation. It is, among other things, a mistake—a human one, but a mistake nonetheless—that the protagonist is relieved to have recognized as early as she did. In the book, Nina’s questioning performs an important function for Leda, too. Nina asks the very questions that Leda’s own daughters, in their pain, could never pose: Why did you leave? Why did you return? In response, Leda is finally able to speak truthfully of her past, not simply to warn Nina (“It doesn’t pass, none of this passes!” Gyllenhaal’s Leda proclaims to Nina moments before she gets stabbed), but in an attempt to convey an irresolvable, intrinsic ambivalence. What was hardest for the young Leda in the novel was not keeping all her pent-up energies—sexual, intellectual, creative, destructive—under control but the weight of her tremendous, terrible love for her girls: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” The figure Leda reaches for to express what it was like to leave them is not of an orgasmic explosion but of disintegration: “It was as if my whole self had crumbled, and the pieces were falling freely in all directions with a sense of contentment.” The self breaks up, scatters. She tells Nina, “I was too taken by my own life” to feel “sad,” but she felt a persistent “weight right here, as if I had a stomachache,” and her “heart skipped a beat whenever I heard a child call Mama.”
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It is hard to tell whether the film’s version of Leda, under Gyllenhaal’s direction, is as fortunate. For most of the film, she seems to embody, still, not much more than “a confused tangle of desires and great arrogance.” And the flattening of the character seems to be more than an accidental omission: Gyllenhaal cut from the final version of the film the only reference in her original screenplay to Leda’s ambivalence (“It felt like a lot of things,” Leda says, after Nina reminds her that she called leaving home “amazing”). Over time, however, Stuart was able to admit that his mother was sexual with him. He made several attempts to talk with his mother, but she never admitted to anything, replying that she “couldn’t remember,” and that he was exaggerating much of what he recalled.No doubt, frank portrayals of the tedium and pain involved in raising young children serve the important function of normalizing the bouts of impatience, frustration and anger that are par for the course for parents. Sympathetic representations of such unflattering moments help reassure young mothers that their own struggles to maintain composure and cheer are not idiosyncratic. But reviewers see much more in the film: it breaks a code of silence, they say, freeing us from the harmful cultural prohibition on speaking the truth about the challenges of motherhood and how hard it can really be for women to embrace it. This assessment is almost unanimous: The film “unravels the myth that motherhood comes naturally to women” and shatters “one of our culture’s most enduring and least touchable taboos: the selfish, uncaring, ‘unnatural’ mother—one who doesn’t shift easily to care-taking, who does not relish her role, who not only begrudges but resents her children” ( the Guardian); it is “breaking the taboo on regretful motherhood” ( the New Republic); it “understands the secret shame of motherhood,” challenging “Hollywood’s ideas about what women owe to their children—and to themselves” ( the Atlantic). The film unsettles “the comfortable fantasy of selfless motherhood and whose interests it most serves” ( Vanity Fair). Leading the assessments of the film’s significance is Gyllenhaal herself, who, in an interview with the New York Times, described maternal ambivalence as “a secret anxiety or terror” and said she was driven to make the film out of a desire to “create a situation where … these things were actually spoken out loud.” On this view, the film does not merely bring to light a particular form of suffering, it performs an ideological service of historic proportions. In most films,” Emily Gould writes in Vanity Fair, “a child’s bath time symbolizes tender innocence and womblike safety.” But the most memorable recent scene of bath time portrayed on screen, from Mare of Easttown, involves a young mother recovering from an opiate addiction passing out from exhaustion while her young boy nearly drowns. (She later relapses and loses her hope of regaining custody over him.) The myth that motherhood “will give something without taking something irreparable and valuable away” is “so deeply woven into our culture,” laments Adrian Horton in the Guardian—but who exactly believes today that motherhood does not exact costs? Who ever has? Already in Genesis—no more than three chapters in—we see God cursing Eve: “In pain you shall bring forth children.” To Gyllenhaal, the story of The Lost Daughter exposes the entrenched myth of the “natural mother.” But we need merely to switch from Netflix to HBO to find, in the penultimate episode of the third season of the TV show Succession, Caroline, ex-wife of the grand patriarch Logan Roy and mother to the three contenders to his throne, telling her own daughter: “Truth is, I probably should never have had children. … Some people just aren’t made to be mothers.” The film follows Leda Caruso, a middle-aged English professor on holiday in Greece, and traces the circumstances that lead to her collapse, previewed in the opening scene, on the water’s edge at night. Caruso, the mother of two daughters in their early twenties, is a comparative literature professor. After the manner of a particularly insufferable kind of undergrad, she cannot help but make sure you know where exactly she teaches by repeating, in a cleaned-up middle-class English accent, that she is from “Cambridge, near Boston.” Also in the manner of a certain kind of undergrad, she has traveled all the way to Greece to mark up a copy of Dante on the beach. There she becomes fascinated with a fellow vacationer, Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother of a child of almost three named Elena. The mother and daughter belong to a clan of outer-borough New York City riffraff with ties to the island, complete with gold chains, tattoos and copious quantities of drugstore-variety water-resistant eyeliner. (From the beginning, the film’s aesthetic is fully committed to arthouse gravitas but the portrayal of the family, in particular, frequently threatens to slip into caricature. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets Jersey Shore: “Hey, what’s the big deal?” Nina’s Greek father-in-law says to Leda with a Corleone drawl: “You do us this favor today, we’ll do a favor for you tomorrow…”) In their first encounter on the beach, Leda stares as Elena pours water over the lithe, swimsuited body of Nina, who is lounging like an odalisque in nineteenth-century painting, languorous and detached. Leda seems to recognize something of herself in Nina’s manner, and especially in her relationship to the child. A subsequent series of disappearances—of the girl and then her doll—provokes Leda to interject herself into Nina’s life. In the first instance, Leda retrieves the wandering child. In the second, she takes and keeps the doll to herself. For the rest of her stay on the island Leda watches as the loss torments the child, who, inconsolable, clings violently to an increasingly exasperated Nina. Meanwhile, Nina and Leda become friendly—chatting at the beach and tourist market—and Nina seems to look at this older independent woman with some combination of coy admiration and envy.
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When Stuart was in his 20s, he once told his mother that she should cover up and not wear clothes that exposed so much cleavage. She became angry, said that was “his problem,” not hers, and gave him the cold shoulder for the rest of the day. Gyllenhaal’s Leda does not know of such reasons and, in an exact reversal, declares herself very much alive. Her daughters call her as she wakes up on the shore, still bleeding from the puncture wound: What interests Gyllenhaal most, she told the Atlantic, is those “aspects of all of us that are unlikable and mean, that are unkind.” For Gyllenhaal, the goal of the adaptation is not just to show that in all of us there is darkness, cruelty and blindness to our flaws; she wants to say, further, that it is unjust that we cannot wear them proudly: “This fantasy that … those parts of ourselves are not allowed to be expressed puts us in a box about our own relationship to the world.” Mothers should be whatever they can be, whatever they want to be. Here, Gyllenhaal conflates an important distinction: between the repression of the artistic expression of our flaws, of our humanity, and the equally human longing to overcome those flaws, to be good.Contributing to this sort of blindness, when a mother sexually abuses her son it’s most often covert. She’s subtle and does it in such “loving” ways that even the son is left with questions as to whether abuse really happened. For its courage to portray such an apparently unsympathetic mother tenderly, without condemnation or judgment, the film has received much critical acclaim, some deserved. “Leda is often rude and unkind,” Lydia Kiesling wrote for the New York Times Magazine, but the performances “allow the viewer to inhabit her desperation, rendering judgment irrelevant.” The combined result is a rare, truly realistic representation of motherhood through the ages: “a crafty treatise on maternal ambivalence” (the Washington Post), “an astute portrait of the painful expectations of womanhood” ( Paste).
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Among the things Ferrante told the interviewer she’d missed from the original, she included, alongside her emphasis on the happy moments Leda shares with her daughters, “the curt sentence that ends my story.” Overcoming this taboo about the reality of mother and son incest is not easy for either victim or therapist. But as therapists, we must examine our own reluctance and courageously wade into this unconscious quagmire if we’re going to help our male victims of sexual abuse.
Mama, what are you doing, why haven’t you called? Won’t you at least let us know if you’re alive or dead?”