Tyrants & Bullies
What Do These 2 Have To Do With Childhood Trauma?

What makes someone greedy; heartless; manipulative; and corrupt? So hungry for power that anything goes; even law; morality; & a daughter? Adam McCay’s Vice doesn’t answer questions of what or why. Vice tells the story of who and how. Yet, let’s for a moment think about Dick and Lynne Cheney as two parts of one person’s mind. I can show you how childhood trauma creates a tyrannical mental bully; waiting to steal every bit of power it can.

“He did it like a ghost,” the film’s narrator tells us. And, that’s how a mental tyrant invisibly takes over when, watching helplessly in terror, a traumatized child needs power it doesn’t have. Even if it’s a perverse kind of power. Vice, then, is much more the story of Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams). Dick (Christian Bale) is her pawn.

Childhood Trauma, Helplessness & Mental Tyrants

A pawn? Dick Cheney?

Well, I don’t know the real Dick Cheney. Or Lynne for that matter. But, I do know how they’re characterized in Vice. Dick, a man, meek in the face of the stronger demands; opinions; and schemes; of his wife. Dependent on her. A man who asked Donald Rumsfeld: “What do we believe?” Just as he capitulated to Lynne. A man who can’t think for himself.

Children are helpless; they rely on their parents to learn how to think. To protect them. But, not a traumatized child. And, the Lynne Cheney of Vice was that child; with complicated effects. One is a mental tyrant living in her mind; a bully who gives pep talks; black and white advice; has become a know-it-all: “The VP is a nothing position.”

Mental tyrants take over a vulnerable child’s mind for good reason. They promise safety. But, really, they are insurgents; sneaking in as a kidnapper does; locking away a frightened child; as if it’s for their own good. In fact, they present themselves as protectors. In Lynne Cheney’s case, telling her that she knows best; she’s smarter. She’ll get whatever she wants.

Arrogance offers a “convincingly” skewed sense of power. Designed to keep a traumatized child (later adult) seemingly impermeable; falsely safe; all vulnerability sealed over. In the hands, yes, of an immoral mental “friend.” One who steps in to fill an absence; a scary void; where there’s been no safe parent to rely on.

In Vice, going from early terror to power is Lynne Vincent Cheney’s story; shown in subtle sequences; a 19-year-old wanting to get away from her past. Her drunken father; her helpless mother; a life, she tells the young Dick, he will not make her repeat.

Power Over Helplessness & Terror

At age 19, Lynne Vincent was Dick Cheney’s “best girl;” even then, ruthlessly driving her man. Because Dick was a drinker; a fighter; got kicked out of Yale (she got him in); and two times she dragged him out of jail, she made it abundantly clear:

“Here’s my plan. Stand up straighter or I’m gone. I can’t go to an Ivy League school or run a company. That’s just the way it is for a girl. I’ve seen my dad and mom (her drunk abusive dad; cowering frightened mom). I’m not living their way. I need you to get there. Can you change? Can you?”

She was serious; desperate to get away from her past. She would not live with another drinking man. So, she used Dick; she had to; to build a wall around her anxieties and helplessness. Whether he was a good man wasn’t important, or even hurt people that got in the way of her (their) ambition. Those people had to be sacrificed.

“Beware the quiet man. When others don’t look, he strikes.” But, beware the quietly powerful woman behind the man. And, especially, beware the dictator in that girl’s mind; the one who had to adopt power over helplessness. She’ll be sure she’s the one in control.  She’ll get exactly what she wants.

Lynne will not give in to fear or helplessness … or a drunk man’s ability to rob her of the life she wants (or in her mother’s case; kill her). This is the fall-out of terror.

Eradicating Terror:  A Bully’s Job

Terror is what mental tyrants intend to get rid of. They live as if the past (& all its emotional effects) is gone. Existing, as they do, outside the realm of emotional “law,” (just as Vice’s dark, immoral period in our governmental history did). 

And, a quiet tyrant is who Dick becomes under Lynne’s tutelage. No one will get in the way. “To hell with checks and balances … especially during war.” And terror is war for a traumatized child. As well as a war waged against a too soft heart.

Dick’s role? To do away with the terrorists inside; and any vulnerability. Take George W. Bush’s “greenness.” These mental bullies take over for insecurity. Until seemingly; there is no insecurity left. They have their mechanisms. Where there should be terror; there is no terror to be found. Yes, we saw it operating after 911.

Cheney feels nothing; he isn’t afraid; he’s blown up with the power he can take whenever he turns around. He will order imprisoned anyone suspected of being a terrorist; evidence or not. There’s no reason to be afraid when you can wipe out the very source of any possible fear.

“You have the authorization to shoot down any plane deemed to be a threat.” This too is the justification of a bully that takes over a traumatized child’s mind. There will be no threat; it will be eliminated first.

In fact, a mental tyrant’s task is to drown out any leftover feelings from the past;. Vulnerability; need; and especially fear. To harden a heart to any feeling at all. 

Yet, as we see in Lynne Cheney’s case, her terrors – seemingly wiped out – still exist. 

Past Terrors Are Gone, Right?  Wrong.

Under her cold shell: lives a vulnerable girl, still scared; the old trauma waiting for the right moment to rear its ugly terrifying head. And, it does.

A vicious fight between her parents; a mother drowned; that mother who stayed away from water; and couldn’t swim. A funeral. And Lynne, shaken to the core; hardly able to function; coming apart at the seams. Watching Nixon on TV stripped of his power, warning her young daughter: “If you have power, people will try to take it from you.” 

That’s her dad. He’s the culprit. Always was. He took her power as a child; now he’s taken her power again. We see an anxious rattled Lynne; not the self-assured; pushy; dictator wife she usually is. This vulnerability; this difficulty holding herself together; that’s what her ruthless “ascent” to power was all about. 

How The Past Lives On

The thing is, these mental tyrant self-protective forces never entirely work. They weaken a heart; if we take Dick; for example. The man who isn’t allowed to love his daughter or put her first. There’s no happiness in greed; ambition; and exploitation; even if it covers over trauma.

Yes, it is really terrible to have your heart stolen by callous or cruel parents; supposedly taking care of you. So, corrupt mental bullies step in to seal over feelings; vulnerability; and need. All that was unbearable in early, sad and terrifying childhood. Where there was no safety. No one there to help.

There is a serious problem, though:

To be in the grips of a mental tyrant; a seeming “friend;” only means you risk becoming a copy of those heartless people you needed long ago. Just as Lynne became to her daughter, Mary, selling her out to get her other daughter, Liz, elected to public office. On a platform running against gay marriage; something Mary needed.

And, who really wants to live without a heart?

Well … maybe a select few; who believe love and vulnerability is too much of a risk compared to their need for power. Adam McCay’s Vice has a lot to say about that.

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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.

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