Saving Mr. Banks takes many of us back to delicious childhood memories of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke singing “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and “A Spoonful of Sugar Makes The Medicine Go Down.” Yet, what we couldn’t know as children is the heartbreaking story behind PL Travers’ Mary Poppins; a trauma so deep a spoonful of kindness would never be enough to turn it around.
Fighting Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team at every step of the way in the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins, PL Travers (Emma Thompson) disdainfully shakes her head:
“You think Mary Poppins came to save the children? Oh, Dear….”
But is it really Mr. Banks who needs to be saved? Or is it PL Travers herself – from her guilt? Despite her best efforts, Travers (born Helen Goff) couldn’t save her father – the fun, whimsical, alcoholic, and failed banker, Travers Goff. And, she can’t forgive herself.
A Child Who Can’t Save Her Father
Yet, is a child responsible for a parent’s death? Many children unconsciously think so. Since this kind of self-blame isn’t reality-based, how can we understand these unwarranted feelings of guilt? In the psychoanalytic world, Freud called this omnipotence of thought – thoughts or feelings imbued with a magical power to kill.
Let’s say that Helen Goff, in her disappointment and anger at her father, thought (as most children do from time to time), “I hate you. I wish you’d go away and never come back”. These feelings, for a young child, are usually too scary to be conscious of. When her father died, though, who, in her world of omnipotent thought, was responsible?
Having no help with dark and confusing feelings makes magical ideas even more powerful. Helen, the oldest child, had no one. Her father drowned his feelings with alcohol, and her mother was overwhelmed and suicidal. Helen’s aunt, the real Mary Poppins, came from the East, too late.
A Spoonful of Sugar isn’t Enough
Wasn’t it really this traumatized child that Mary Poppins needed to save? Because if there is no one to turn to, what else can a young mind do but build walls of protection? “I can do it myself, thank you”, PL Travers repeatedly told herself and everyone else. More importantly, what happens to all the feelings that are disowned? Psychoanalysts say they are projected – “given” to someone else instead.
There is an inescapable example of quite tragic projection in PL Travers’ life – the adoption of one twin baby boy and her broken promise to adopt the other. No, she wasn’t the childless woman Saving Mr. Banks made her out to be. The rejected twin stands for Helen Goff, the child self PL Travers fiercely renounced by changing her name; the child pushed aside and neglected by both parents. (A good example? When Disney says; “There’s a child in all of us”, she retorts: “Maybe in you. Certainly not in me.”)
What Helps A Traumatized Child?
Can traumatized children be helped? Absolutely. Yet, think again, though. A spoonful of kindness is not enough to convince a guilt-ridden child (or now an adult one) that there is nothing to feel guilty about. Besides, Saving Mr. Banks gives us the hopeful version – but a much too simplistic solution for such serious trauma.
In typical Disney fashion, Saving Mr. Banks is sprinkled with fairy dust. And, in the end, PL Travers’ sudden change is nothing less than magic. Heartwarming magic to be sure, but nonetheless, important pieces of reality are left out.
We have to ask – was little Helen Goff really saved from the sour tomb of guilt PL Travers kept her trapped in? Saving Mr. Banks makes us believe she was. But what would forgiving herself actually require?
She’d need to take back (and work out) all the feelings she gave to the rejected twin: anger at being neglected and the belief she didn’t deserve to be loved. Did this happen? The facts – not Disney’s homespun magic – would say, sadly, very likely not.