Going Backward To Go Forward
That’s Psychoanalysis

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s kooky and touching new film, Mistress America, gives us Brooke Cardenas (Greta Gerwig), a 30-year-old autodidact, full of life and ideas, but stuck. She can’t get her life off the ground. Brooke needs help, but help makes her feel small: “There’s nothing I don’t know about myself. That’s why I can’t go to therapy. ”What do you do when you have to cover up your shame for not being able to figure things out for yourself?

You either keep running from one thing to the next or … how about a psychic? You can just drop in occasionally, which, for some, is much less scary or humiliating. Since Brooke doesn’t know what to do with her current stuck situation, a psychic it is. And he gives Brooke some pretty decent advice. If I had her in therapy, though, I’d take it much farther. And, it’s that necessity of going farther that makes or breaks what he tells her: “Sometimes you have to go backward in order to go forward.”

Going Backward To Go Forward In Mistress America

As a psychoanalyst, I wholeheartedly agree. Going backward to find and then work out the root of the problem is just what I focus on in therapy. No one is stuck without good reason. The problem is – those reasons generally don’t meet the eye. They’re unconscious. You need someone who sees what you can’t. A psychic can do that to a point. What a psychic can’t do is help you work out the problem once you find it. And, sometimes, what seems like the problem only scratches the surface – as we’ll see with Brooke.

Take Brooke and Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Mamie-Claire’s the one the psychic thinks Brooke needs to go backward, to confront. There may be some truth in that, but it’s not the whole story. You see, Mamie-Claire is the ex-friend who stole everything from Brooke – her fiancé, her T-shirt idea, and her cats. And, she made big bucks on the T-shirts by selling them to a very trendy store. Brooke lost a lot on Mamie-Claire’s account.

So, following the psychic’s advice, she and Tracy (Lola Kirke), her would-be little sister if their parents had gone through with the marriage plans, and a group of their compadres takes a road trip to get even with Mamie-Claire.

Of course, things don’t work out as planned because this isn’t the way to get unstuck anyway. There are ways to go backward that work – and there are ways to go backward, that don’t.  Mamie-Claire’s betrayal is only the tip of the iceberg.  It’s real, but it isn’t what’s keeping Brooke stuck.

If I had Brooke in therapy, I’d be looking for the roots of betrayal, or hurt, or loss – in the past. What is repeated in the present is always a reflection of something long ago. Here’s how I’d go about piecing her psychological story together if I had Brooke on my couch (and she didn’t insist she already knew all there was to know).  I’d start with the little information we have.

What Brooke Needs Help Working Out In Her Past

1. Brooke watched her Mom die. That’s a significant loss.

2. She’s trying to start a restaurant called Mom’s: “It would feel like the home everyone would want to be raised in: a big funny family and the kids would never be lonely.” She must be lonely. Maybe always has been. She wants to bring back to life something she had too little of with her mom.

3. She pleads with her Dad when he tells her the engagement to Tracy’s mom is off: “Please hang in there, Dad. The Cardenas’ always bail.” And, then, in a panic: “What does this make Tracy and me?” He responds, with no empathy at all: “Nothing, I guess.” This “nothing, I guess,” is tantamount to all the things Brooke cannot expect.

What I’d begin to think about and focus on with Brooke – is the feeling that she really can’t count on anyone if she needs something. She can’t expect that anyone will stick around or take what belongs to her seriously.  This is why she must go back to confront Mamie-Claire. Yet, confronting Mamie-Claire is really not the answer.

Learning Not To “Bail” When You’ve Been Left

Brooke needs help with the experience that she’s always “bailed on.” She couldn’t count on her dad (not even to stick around for Thanksgiving, leaving her even more alone after her mother’s death.) She was hoping for a “sister,” a family again, but he couldn’t give her that. And, that almost-sister, Tracy, stole her idea for a book (Mistress America) and wrote about Brooke’s life.

For Brooke, all the people who failed her not only left her lonely – but feeling she wasn’t important; wanted only for what she could give or they could steal. This kind of belief originates early in life and is repeated until its roots are understood. If they’re not, she’ll keep repeating the same disappointing experiences, likely think they’re her fault, and keep running from the feelings of hurt and need.

Because Brooke’s had no help – all she can do is follow in her father’s footsteps and “bail” on herself. Mistress America ends as Brooke runs off (as the Cardenas’ do) to Los Angeles where she can “appear well-read.” No one has to appear well-read or smart or anything else if they really think they are.

As Tracy says in a Voiceover about Brooke: “She couldn’t see she was better than those people she wanted to be.” She too quickly doubts and gives up on what belongs to her. She feels she can only count herself: her need to believe she already knows everything there is to know. An aura of confidence that isn’t really her own.

If Brooke can stop long enough to get some therapy – there’s much more to be understood. She’d have a place to go backward to work out her loneliness, self-doubt, grief, and distrust. In the end, she just might join Tracy in seeing she’s as good as anyone else. And, that wanting and needing something from someone will not always lead to disappointment or loss.

If you are stuck repeating the same thing over and over, call me. We can talk.

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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 sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.