Below are the remarks from the October 15, 2015 “Off the Couch” viewing of Spotlight with Mary Anderson, PhD, MTS, MFA, Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
When the Boston Globe’s tenacious “Spotlight” team of reporters delve into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church, their year-long investigation uncovers a decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal, and government establishment, touching off a wave of revelations around the world. Directed by Academy Award-nominee Tom McCarthy, Spotlight is a tense investigative thriller, tracing the steps of one of the biggest, pervasively covered up crimes in modern times.
It is an honor to offer a few words about Spotlight here in Boston, reflecting on the film and its content with you tonight. I will begin with a few interrelated points, then open the floor to questions and comments.
Spotlight is a film that allows us a view into our history; its narrative provides an aesthetic distance, the distance necessary for seeing to take place. It is a cinematic construction, an interpretation that allows us to experience, at a distance, what was insidiously too close, too imbricated and hidden, too painful, to see. It renders visible not only “the way power operates in the absence of accountability,”[i] but too, the violence of idealization and the moral blindness that can infest our lives and cultural institutions. The film subtly and factually sheds light on what is not explicitly represented: those crimes against humanity, appallingly perpetrated against children by men who claim to represent – “in persona Christi” – the face of God in the Church, the community, and the world. Spotlight is powerful in its understatement of this radical elision of power, church, violence and moral responsibility.
The film effectively conveys the ethical and spiritual horror of the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, precisely because it does not focus on them, the priests, but instead, on the investigative process. We follow the Spotlight journalists and their incremental uncovering of these crimes and their cover-up by people who chose silence and deference to “authority” over their personal responsibility to human beings, to innocent children from primarily low-income families, each with a face, a history, a name – Patrick, Joe – and a story to tell. Spotlight listens to these courageous individuals and to their lawyers, breaking the silence of “charitable immunity,” “confidentiality,” and the “cardinal’s guide to the city of Boston.”
How, we might ask, can such horror occur? Spotlight asks and responds to this question; we bear witness to the intricacies of the emerging story through the journalists’ work and their lives. Twice, the film makes parallel reference to the Holocaust – in Mike Rezendes’ off-hand accusation, “Good Germans,” and when the church’s lawyer, Jim Sullivan, shouts at Robby, “I was just doing my job!”
Psychoanalysis also responds to this question. The psychic trauma that runs as an undercurrent throughout the film – from the opening scene of the arresting officer’s comment about Fr. Geoghan – “What arraignment?” – to the final scene of the phones ringing, most of which are from victims – is illumined by the psychoanalytic insight that “a person is formed through their sexuality…”; “…in the development of the human subject, its unconscious and its sexuality go hand-in-hand; they are causatively intertwined.”[ii] We can now begin to perceive the irrevocable pain and trauma of the victims’ lives: at the very origin of their experience of love and desire they have been traumatically fractured, molested by persons whom they trusted, persons who represented “God.”
Why was this abuse tolerated, obfuscated, for so long by so many? Spotlight brilliantly depicts the human and societal toll of what Sigmund Freud called “disavowal” – a process of defense, [a splitting of the ego], in which contrary and incommensurable views of external reality simultaneously exist. Through disavowal we can, paradoxically, hold two incompatible positions at the same time. Spotlight is riven with instances of disavowal: it is operating in the character portrayal of Cardinal Law, in the obscene yet legal construct of “charitable immunity”; it is there as the Church lawyers “turn child abuse into a cottage industry”; in the editor, Ben Bradley Jr.’s, initial dismissal and conflicted relationship to the story – did Phil Saviano’s box of information land on Ben’s desk five years ago? Disavowal is powerfully yet implicitly represented in Robby’s not following up on the Metro story of Fr. Porter and his twenty victims years before, and in Fr. Paquin’s saying, “Sure I fooled around but I never felt gratified myself.” Disavowal is even poignantly present in the families’ willingness to sign a statement of confidentiality, and in the seemingly benign gesture of a victim’s mother putting out cookies for the priest.
As a film, Spotlight listens and represents the victims, those who as children were sexually abused. Without their willingness to put their initially unspeakable trauma into words, there would have been no witness and no exposure. As a film, Spotlight enlarges this witness and exposure to human life and society; it shows that an outsider – “a meddling outsider,” the other, someone different (as exemplified by Martin “Marty” Baron, the new Boston Globe editor) – is necessary, to help grind the lenses through which we begin to see and recognize ourselves.
[i] A. O. Scott, Review: “In ‘Spotlight’, The Boston Globe Digs Up the Catholic Church’s Dirt,” The New York Times,
November 5, 2015.
[ii] Juliet Mitchell, Introduction I to Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: W.W. Norton and Pantheon Books), 2.
Mary Anderson, PhD, MTS, MFA, is an interdisciplinary artist-scholar, writer, educator and consultant, working at the intersections of philosophy, theology, ethics, aesthetics and psychoanalysis. Her consulting practice focuses on the ethical and aesthetic articulation of meaning in human life and art. A recent academic graduate of candidate training at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, Dr. Anderson coordinates the Global Humanities Curriculum Project at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. She is currently writing a series of essays on representation and the ethical ‘turn’ within human consciousness.
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