The Damages Of Living
Under Someone Else’s Thumb

Living under someone else’s thumb is damaging to the spirit. We see that very clearly in the different ways the parents in American Crime try to control their kids. In my office, I see the effects of the shoulds. The “have to’s.” The chain of believing the only way to be loved is to please. It’s damaging to be what they want – and deep inside, hating it. Really hating it. But seeing no way out.

Not being accepted for who you are is a devastating thing. It eats away inside. Subtle or not-so-subtle revolts set in. In the form of drugs, desperate actions, getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, sexual acting out, or being too good until something has to give. We see the evidence unfolding week after week in American Crime.

I’m not blaming the parents. They have their own understandable pain and fear. It’s important, though, to know the effects. What can we learn from the characters and from each situation as it’s slowly revealed?


We don’t yet know what happened to Aubry (Caitlin Gerard). Why she became a foster child. Or, exactly, who these foster parents are.  Whatever happened to her, it wasn’t good. Her foster parents want to help. They come through in a crisis. Yet, as hard as they try to do the right thing, they don’t “get” Aubry or her desperate need to be loved for who she is. Carter does.

That’s his appeal. And, drugs make everything else disappear. There’s no question Aubry needs help. But, what kind of understanding and care does she need to accept that help? If her mother stays in Modesto – is it to understand Aubry, or another maneuver to keep her under a watchful and controlling eye?


Carter’s (Elvis Nolasco) past is a mystery too. We don’t know about his parents. We’re getting to know his sister. We certainly know that he’s lived under the thumb of “Whitey,” as his sister says. And all the prejudices and stereotypes that have landed him exactly where he is. He’s fighting those stereotypes as hard as his sister.

Yet, he doesn’t lump all whites into the same category. He loves Aubry. His sister, though, has her opinions about how he should live. And, she’s angry that he’s taken “one of their women” and ended up in “their cage” because of her. Has he? He’s as hungry for love and acceptance as Aubry. But his desperate behaviors put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Gwen’s (Kira Pozehl) family is moralistically consumed with what’s right and what’s wrong. Especially Tom (W. Earl Brown) (“She’s not our child. She’s not the girl we raised”.) The girl they raised. That says it all. Not a person in her own right. Gwen was likely under pressure of some pretty unbending expectations growing up – perfect daughter, beauty queen, good girl; perfect wife.

Yet, she isn’t.  Nor, I’m sure, did she ever want to be. Yet, she too seems conflicted about what’s right and wrong. Expressed in her sado-masochistic need to engage in sex that hurts and punishes her. What does she imagine she should be punished for?


Tony’s dad was so terrified of raising his kids alone when his wife died that he controlled their every move. Tony (Johnny Ortiz) especially. Tony hates his dad for making him feel always wrong and never good enough. His dad’s attempts to protect him actually made Tony extremely naïve. And, vulnerable to the lure of street-smart guys; the ones his dad was scared he’d become.

He especially admires that they do what they please. It gets him in trouble. One of them tutors him to give the authorities at Juvenile Hall what they want in order to be released. His anger at his dad is still lurking undercover.


Matt’s brother – Barb’s son.  The good one – Barb (Felicity Huffman) needed him to be. She had no one except her boys when Russ left. And it looks like Mark (David Hoflin) stepped up to the role of always being there for her to lean on. Barb might “do” the right thing, but she’s so needy and controlled herself she has nothing emotionally to give.

Matt turned to drugs like Aubry. Mark became the boy who didn’t have a childhood. He does what’s expected; so far. But, in his own words, “my family’s all busted up”, and he suffers for it.

Each one of these characters in American Crime suffers. The pain of the past, the bad situations, the controls exerted over them have driven them to extremes of behaviors and consequences. Matt is dead. Gwen traumatized. Carter wrongly accused.

Aubry and Tony and Mark struggling. Will they get the kind of help they need? Will they pull it together in the end? It could go either way for any one of them.


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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.