Los Angeles Chapter — California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
Los Angeles Chapter — CAMFT
Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.
“I don't know what to do anymore
except maybe die,” Jim.
Those of us who work with adolescents and families sometimes assign them a movie to watch as “homework.” Film can be a helpful tool, offering a psychological mirror that reflect their own difficult issues. One such film is the 1955 classic, Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. The camera lens gives us a close-up look at the alienated, rebellious, defiant lives of three lost, identity-seeking teens and their families. The cars and clothes may look different, but the interpersonal dynamics and psychological truths are the same as they are today, provoking us to look deeper into the unseen factors that are the real causes of adolescent rebellion.
In Rebel Without a Cause, three middle-class, emotionally confused teens — Jim (Dean), Judy (Wood), and Plato (Mineo) — feeling alienated from their families, are unconsciously drawn to each other, seeing themselves as outsiders who share a common wound: emotional neglect and ineffective parenting. Their families, more focused on acquisition of material things and what the neighbor's might think, don’t understand the underlying causes of their children’s acting-out behaviors: the need for validation, belonging, and approval.
We view this world of unruly teens and their anxious families from the perspective of Jim Stark, (James Dean), whose enabling parents have again moved to a new town thinking they are giving Jim another chance to escape from his troubles instead of facing them. Instead, Jim bonds with two equally disturbed teens and makes new enemies. Jim’s deep-rooted anger is at his father for being a spineless “chicken” for not standing up to his mother and grandmother (who make mush out of him). Jim’s fear is he'll end up just like his father — chicken.
From the get-go, the family chaos, drama, and enmeshment is apparent. The film opens with Jim curled up drunk on the street. He is hauled to the police station where he connects with two other problem teens: Judy, whose father can't handle her passage into womanhood, has been found wandering the streets, and assumed to be a hooker; and Plato, whose upbringing and care has been left to a housekeeper, is arrested for shooting puppies. When Jim's family arrives to rescue him, his father makes light of his son's drunkenness and recalls how he, too, got “loaded” when he was a young man. This sparks a family argument, prompting Jim to cry out, “You're tearing me apart!”
Enter Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), juvenile division counselor, who plays the film’s “responsible father figure.” Ray’s stable hand allows Jim’s deep anger to erupt. Jim’s need for an emotionally-present father, draws him to connect with Ray who later offers him an open invitation to talk. This empathic ear is what Jim needs from his own father, an ineffectual buffoon who is henpecked by Jim's mother and grandmother. His angry, domineering mother always wins the arguments, for his father cannot find the courage to stand up to his wife. Jim betrayed by this fighting and his father's lack of backbone, adds tension, unrest and bitterness. The tension in the move escalates when Jim falls for Judy, the girlfriend of neighborhood tough, Buzz (Corey Allen). This gang taunts Jim, slashes his tires, and challenges him to a knife fight. Jim wins — but the gang still calls Jim “chicken!” This unrest escalates until Jim is challenged to participate in a "chickie run," racing stolen cars towards a cliff. Jim goes home to seek his father's advice, but finds Dad on his knees wearing an apron, cleaning up a spilled tray of food. Wanting guidance from his father, Jim talks about a matter of honor, but his father lets him down again by evading his question. At Judy's house, her father scolds her for kissing him, saying she is “too old for that,” causing her to run from the house in tears. The “chickie run” ends in tragedy for Buzz when his car goes over the cliff. Jim tells his parents what happened and reminds his dad about a conversation regarding “a matter of honor.” His father will not stand up for him, which infuriates Jim, who then attacks him. Wanting to do the right thing, Jim heads for the police station. Later, the gang decides to hunt Jim down at an abandoned mansion to “silence him” — permanently — but her Plato gets shot to death when the police arrive.
The tragedy of Plato's death provokes Jim's father to promise to be a stronger father, a man his son can depend on. Herein, rising from the ashes of tragedy, lies the revelation of a new truth, rebirth, bringing forth a new stage of psychological maturity and development. The camera shows us that emotional trials and challenges are not the end, but offer the client opportunities to slay their fears and transcend the (enmeshed) “family” system.
The film has many defining moments that prompt this question, “What do you have to do to be a man?”
The themes of passage into manhood in Rebel Without A Cause are timeless. It is about leaving “home,” searching for meaning, and finding out who you are when there have been no roots to hold you. There is so much to learn from a movie like Rebel Without a Cause. It brings up many questions, such as What does a parent have to do to raise an emotionally healthy child? How does a boy learn to become a man when there is no effective parental role model and no rituals other than a driver's license to honor that transition? How can three affluent, intelligent teens who have been given “everything” have any cause for rebellion?
The answers are clear: teen rebellion has its roots in childhood narcissistic injury, and not in the lack of material things. Material goods cannot replace a child's early experience of emotional abuse and neglect, or the sorrow of rejection, or the lack of nurturing to create self-esteem, or the anger and disappointment of never feeling understood. In this case, the characters' affluent families lack basic knowledge about the “real” needs of their children. Instead, they focus on the façade: acquisition, money, material goods, gender favoritism, and what the neighbor's might think. Each character is seen reacting to the wounds left by their childhood experience and by being raised by those who lacked knowledge about the “real” needs of their children; parents who were clueless about the concept of “healthy narcissism,” and oblivious to a child's normal, developmental need for love.
In Rebel Without a Cause, Ray's empathic attunement with the teens’ we see the contrast with the deficient parental environments. Jim's father, too weak to give his son guidance about what it means to be a man, results in Jim's fear of being a “chicken,” like his father. This fear draws him to self-destruct and nearly becomes his undoing. Ashamed of being thought of as a coward, Jim states, “I'll tell you one thing: I don't ever want to be like him.” As adults we unconsciously search to be filled up by those who are equally empty. It becomes an unconscious pattern in adult relationships. Healthy narcissism is a concept lost on these parents who remain oblivious to the normal, developmental needs of their adolescent children. Jim deepest need is to have someone listen to him, give empathy and helpful advice, but his father, relative to this need, is an empty well.
An implication from Rebel is that mutual attraction to a partner has its basis in similar, but unseen needs and fears. The film teaches us to read between the lines, and uncover what has been hidden. In so many adult love relationships what often attracts people to each other isn't always what's healthy. Jim and Judy “felt” a mutual attraction, like “soul mates,” but the roots of this attraction are in unseen needs and fears. Both are blind to the mutual childhood wounds that drew them to each other. And, although not verbally stated, both characters at depth, felt like “worthless pieces of shit.”
Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who practices in Encino. She leads Women’s Empowerment Groups that help women learn the tools to move beyond self-destructive relationship patterns. She may be reached at 818.501.4123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.drgelt.com.
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