Trauma Of Abandonment
Self-Sufficiency Or Connection?

Director Ridley Scott’s film, The Martian, tells the story of NASA astronaut Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) accidental abandonment on the barren planet of Mars. Early childhood abandonment also creates a desolate emotional landscape. People can’t be trusted. Hope is fractured. On Mars, Mark has two things to turn to 1. distasteful music of Commander Lewis’ (Jessica Chastain) 1970’s disco classics and 2. his own ingenious tactics of survival. For anyone abandoned, these are serious questions: is clinging to fierce self-sufficiency the answer? Or is human connection that has already failed, too risky music to trust?


An unexpected and violent dust storm forces Mark Watney’s fellow astronauts to make an emergency exit from their Ares III mission on Mars. He’s left for dead. But Mark is not dead and he wakes up alone in outer space. And, no one thinks he’s alive. When NASA realizes he is, Vincent Kapour (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mars Mission Director, says: “He’s 50 million miles from home. He thinks he’s totally alone. He thinks we gave up on him. What does that do to a man psychologically?”

What does that do to an abandoned child? Words from Don’t Leave Me This Way, a song on Captain Lewis’ playlist, give us a clue: “I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive without your love.” Indeed, when love can’t be trusted, a child detaches and expects nothing. And, Mark Watney is in a similar situation. There is no one there. Self-sufficiency is the only option.


Consequently, an abandoned child does what Mark Watney does. He fights hopelessness. Learns to go on very little, rationing his emotional needs as Mark rations food. In fact, we see Mark mathematically figuring out how to stretch a very limited supply of food when the food is almost gone. A lonely child with no one to turn to must do the same. Crumbs are fine, starvation (in some instances) even better. And, to this end, Mark tells himself he needs no one. He certainly can fend for himself.

A belief in self-sufficiency offers a certain kind of power. Accordingly, Mark convinces himself, he can do it. He’ll grow food on a planet where nothing grows: “Hey. I’m a botanist. Mars will come to feel my botany powers.” A fantasy of control where there is none is a must. We see Mark, strategizing, working out problems in his head, “science –ing the shit out of it, “ as he says. Finally, what takes over are mechanisms that mimic control: “Think, don’t feel. Figure it out. You don’t need help.”

An insular universe is created. As Mark tells himself: “The University of Chicago says that once you grow plants somewhere, you’ve colonized it. I’ve colonized Mars.” Mars is his; his private world; he is its sole commander. That kind of fortified and private world is what a hurt child wants. No one will get close; no one will hurt him again.

Reaching Someone In Outer Space

This kind of isolation and limited existence can’t last for Mark, an abandoned child, or that child grown into an adult. Stress builds. The carefully restricted food supply dries up (or, in Mark’s case, dies). Everyone needs people. Yet, how does someone, used to living in a space outside human attachment, learn to believe it’s safe to need someone when it never was?

Truly, it’s not easy. The NASA team, on the ground, tries frantically to find ways to reach Mark Watney millions of miles away. Those who’ve been traumatized by abandonment also exist in a sealed-off space far from human contact. And, anyway, help is impossible to trust. A familiar voice champions self-sufficiency: “You know better. Don’t count on anyone to stick around.”

Reaching someone emotionally shut down takes time. Any therapy must move slowly just as Commander Lewis slows down the shuttle Hermes’ acceleration towards Mark to bring him home. The terror and the sadness are overwhelming. We see them in Mark’s face as Captain Lewis tries to reach him. Terror must be respected and understood: “Will I be caught or will I die? Will the person I’m counting on fail me again?” The seemingly safer shell, of isolation (of being Iron Man, as Mark jokes) is a strong lure.

Growing Trust in The Martian

Trust grows little by little. We see Mark beginning to let down his self-sufficient armor when he feels the caring of his team and knows they are coming to get him. His cries. Sadness and grief are the most difficult feelings to reach.  There are oceans of them. It may be comforting to feel that someone cares to listen. Yet, the fear of being abandoned and betrayed again is, for a long time, much more powerful.

At the end of the film, safe in Commander Lewis’s hold, Mark Watney jokes: “You have terrible taste in music.” The Martian shows us, though, that the seemingly soothing song of extreme self-sufficiency is the wrong music in the end. Once a bridge to trust can slowly be built and a terrified person knows he won’t be left, human connection becomes the music that heals.

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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.