Hello. I’m Dr. Sandra E. Cohen. Welcome to Characters On The Couch, my Film and TV blog and Entertainment Consulting site.
As a backdrop to my writings, I’m a certified psychoanalyst and licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Beverly Hills, California. I am also a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of California.
My areas of specialization include childhood trauma; sexual abuse; persistent depression and grief; eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, restrictive eating); anxiety, OCD, and panic attacks; perversions; psychotic and borderline disorders; dissociative states; self-mutilation; and creative blocks.
I love my work. And, I love helping those who come to see me. Understanding the complex feeling-states that create symptoms are like working out a puzzle. Since I also love to write, I have always tried to reach out to those searching for answers to understand themselves more deeply in other ways than coming to psychotherapy.
Film is the perfect medium for me to write about any number of psychological states. In film, we see characters suffering the effects of traumas or difficult family histories, expressing complicated behaviors, suffering losses, and finding love or not. They endure the kinds of problems many of us ordinary people have.
I began to write about film characters many years ago when I found myself watching the first six episodes of Star Wars over and over with my kids. As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I became intrigued by what led young Anakin Skywalker to turn to the Dark Side and ultimately become Darth Vader.
Did you ever ponder the reasons why he couldn’t resist the seductions of Chancellor Palpatine (AKA Darth Sidious)? We can judge him for “making that choice,” but it isn’t that simple. Any more than any of the “bad decisions” we or others have made for reasons that often seem either confusing or just plain wrong.
None of us do it on purpose. There are unconscious reasons, even if we aren’t aware. One of my specialties is childhood trauma. And for Anakin, turning to the Dark Side was motivated by a desperate need to have power over his terror of loss. We see these complex unconscious motivations in many characters. They can help us see our own.
Like you, I’m drawn to film and TV characters because they almost invariably depict real human problems with startling accuracy. Much of what I see and think about in my work is right there on the screen. If we look deeply into these character’s psyches, they have much to teach us about ourselves and those we know and love.
Just like Anakin Skywalker, we watch other characters struggling with difficult pasts and we see something of our own feelings and reactions that we couldn’t see before. We watch love situations that don’t work. Are sad for our own losses and have a chance to understand more deeply what we feel.
We watch characters get into trouble because of their traumas. Remember Bradley Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born? It wasn’t his drinking that caused his downfall and suicide. He drank because of his infant trauma, the loss of his mother at birth, and his fear of Ally (Lady Gaga) leaving him too.
We watch anger we aren’t allowed. Ms. Sofia in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is a good example. She rages, blames others, becomes abusive as a way to avoid her hurt and grief at her husband’s betrayal. We see her maid, Cleo’s numbness as a different reaction to hurt and loss. We know their grief and come more openly into our own.
Films give us permission to feel feelings we don’t think are allowed. We can want what we don’t have. Or see more clearly what gets in the way. Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, The Favourite, shows some of this clearly in the envy and vicious rivalry of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) for Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) favor.
We watch characters blossom in ways we want to change. They come to an epiphany and we want to have our own. We’re given permission to speak our truths as we see characters speak theirs – or how they don’t. The Hate U Give is a good example of overcoming the fear of speaking out. In Can You Ever Forgive Me is someone living a lie.
Sometimes we see ourselves clearly. Yet, do you ever find yourself thinking, why did I do that? What made me react that way? Or, let’s say we’re talking about the movies: do you wonder: why did I fall in love with that character in that particular film; but hate with a venom that other, even one I think I “shouldn’t” hate?
Have you ever puzzled over why you’re drawn to watching again and again – Forrest Gump in Forest Gump, Han Solo in Star Wars, and The Joker in Batman? Or Marge Gunderson in Fargo, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest, or Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
And, what about your intrigue with reruns of Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs? Why Love Actually is your go-to Christmas Holiday flick? Or why you’re curious enough to watch Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Michael Jackson documentaries?
Movies help us feel things we’ve pushed to the back of our minds. When we watch a film and are drawn to or repelled by a character, our unconscious minds are at work.
We don’t always grasp what makes us (or others) “tick.” So we gravitate towards certain characters on the screen with fascination, horror, and/or understanding. Trying to find out more about ourselves and other people in our lives. We relate. See. Want to know more.
As a part of my development as a writer, I’ve had wonderful experiences with other writers in a writing group that includes poets, novelists, and essayists. And, in various professional affiliations with psychoanalytic thinkers, writers, and editors.
I served as an Associate Member of the North American Editorial Board of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (IJPA) from 1999-2000. My film essay on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was published in the IJPA in 2010.
Recently, I contributed a chapter on the film Broken Embraces in the book, Pedro Almodovar: A Cinema of Passion and Desire, co-edited by Arlene Kramer Richards and Lucille Spira, published by IP Books in February 2019.
My paper on the history of my two great-aunts, Marie H. Briehl and Rosetta Hurwitz, who trained in Vienna with Anna Freud and were instrumental in bringing child analysis to the United States will be published in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child in 2020. This article includes my own emerging adulthood out of their shadows.
As you can see from my article on my two great-aunts, I use both film and academic writings to think about and understand myself more fully. Self-awareness is important. As both a writer and psychoanalyst, I am the vehicle for the thoughts I offer my patients in my office and you on my Characters On The Couch blog.
Sandra E. Cohen, Ph.D.
Psychologist • Psychoanalyst
Visit my website at sandracohenphd.com