05 Jan Psychology 101 for Realistic Characters – Addicted Failed
Watching Billie Woodruff’s Addicted, I could barely restrain myself from grabbing a tomato and joining my Rotten Tomatoes compadres in throwing it at the screen. The 8% of critics who gave their approval of this psychologically offensive project must have been feeling particularly generous that day. What could have been a sensitive and even insightful look at a woman struggling through the throes of sexual addiction was instead a misguided mess that—not withstanding the cast of beautiful actors who appear in various stages of undress throughout—was often difficult to watch. I’m not usually one to have such extreme reactions to a film, but I was squirming in my seat, wanting on too many occasions to shout: “No! You’ve got it all wrong!”
As a psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing for over 30 years, I’ve seen firsthand how sexual addiction ruins the lives of those afflicted. Besides the obsessive behavior and overwhelming guilt that inevitably ensnare the sufferer, the actual fallout from this disease—the responsibilities, husbands, wives, children, loved ones, (not to mention any shred of self-regard) that inevitably fall by the wayside—certainly merit more than a character whose history is inconsistent, poorly thought out, and makes little sense. A person tormented by such out of control sexual urges certainly should not be subjected to a so-called “therapist” who voyeuristically smiles as she asks her new patient in their first session if she “acted on her impulse.” The true story of sexual addiction needs a kind of serious consideration this film failed to offer and it definitely doesn’t deserve an abrupt and Pollyanna-ish ending. Here are some of the many ways Addicted sends the wrong message:
ONE: History Matters. No one develops addictive and obsessive symptoms without serious trauma. Yet, there are simply too many inconsistencies and gaps in Zoe Reynard’s (Sharon Leal) story to begin to accurately understand the real reasons behind her actions. First and foremost, in constructing a history of a symptom, it’s important to listen to the patient. The only clear thing Zoe tells us is this: “All the good things in life can’t fill the void that’s always there.” What is that void? The filmmakers apparently don’t think to ask that question and the film grossly fails to help us understand. Even worse, Zoe’s therapist never pays any attention to the fact that a void exists. Would a gang rape leave a void Zoe was hungry to fill? Unlikely. The void, I’m sure, existed before. I kept wondering – where is her father? An absent (or sexually seductive or abusive) father whose attention is desperately needed and wanted would be a more understandable trigger for Zoe’s sexually addictive behavior than a gang rape, the latter more likely leading to rage, a desire for power, or terror of sex.
In contrast, Quinton Canosa’s (William Levy) history and his resulting behavior actually make much more sense than Zoe’s. If we take Canosa’s family story at face value, he is essentially living out his mother’s abandonment by trying to possess another man’s wife – an unconscious obsession to get his mother back. He’s drawn to S&M to control the woman (the mother) he couldn’t control. And when he gives his heart away for the first time since his mother left and, then, is left by Zoe (“How could a mother leave a child like that?”) – she becomes his mother with the full force of all the pain, rejection, loss, and rage, he’s been running from ever since. Now, that’s a history that hangs together.
TWO: Why Now? Symptoms don’t develop or appear in a vacuum. Repressed memory of trauma is certainly a possibility. But, if an obsessive symptom like sexual addiction suddenly emerges where it’s never been before, we need clear reasons for what has stirred up the earlier trauma. There is no evidence in anything we see of Zoe’s life that is consistent with the triggering of a repressed memory of gang rape; a history of neglect or abandonment would be much more in accord with the storyline we’re given. What starts her sexual behavior rolling in the film? An absent husband (Boris Kodjoe) preoccupied with his work and not enough with her. Clearly, setting off feelings of abandonment and frustration, which seem to re-activate an earlier trauma.
THREE: Let’s talk about that therapist. As a psychologist who takes my work and training very seriously, this dangerously inaccurate portrayal of a mental health professional feels almost like a personal affront by the film industry. The role of Dr. Marcella Spenser (“You can call me Marcella”), played by a terribly miscast Tasha Smith, is one of the worst recent examples I’ve seen. Marcella smiles inappropriately. Marcella is too familiar, curled up on her chair. Marcella doesn’t know how to listen. Later, Marcella is clearly irritated and too forceful—when sensitivity about something traumatic in Zoe’s history is instead required. And, couples therapy? Please. This is one extreme example of how far off the mark this film goes in understanding the nature of sexual addiction. Zoe’s problem is not in the couple; the problem is in Zoe. She has a myriad of old feelings and fears she’s having a terribly hard time facing and needs help to do so. Dr. Spencer has no idea how. Because, she doesn’t, she unfortunately colludes with Zoe’s fears and understandable desire to place her problems elsewhere. Poor portrayals of therapists like this not only give members of our profession a bad rap, but worse – they discourage people from believing in therapy at all.
FOUR: No magical cures. There are no magical cures for such a serious problem with early trauma at its roots. There is no one-time admission: “I’m a sex addict.” Nor is there any place for idealization in therapy. Gratitude? Maybe – after a long arduous working out of the problems. But when we get to the Pollyannish ending of Addicted – we have a therapist who has done little to deserve the accolades.
The only realistic offering in Addicted is to show how sexual addiction ruins the lives of its sufferers who continuously yield to obsessive fantasies that leave no room for the pleasures of real life and relationships.
However, Addicted gives viewers no realistic answers. There’s no question that a 12-step program can provide much-needed support and help in controlling out-of-control behavior. But it does not and should not replace intensive, multi-session psychological treatment to get to the root of the problem. If this doesn’t occur and if some stable and lasting change isn’t put into place over considerable time – there is a risk of another destructive re-triggering of the trauma.
True to its name and the nature of the problem the film misrepresents, Addicted left me feeling frustrated, deflated, and wanting more. What I wouldn’t give for Hollywood to consistently recognize and act responsibly by seeking help from the pros when they decide to explore serious psychological issues….