Below are the remarks from the November 19, 2019 “Off the Couch” viewing of The Report with Benjamin Herbstman, MD, MHS, Member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
The Report is a riveting thriller based on actual events. Idealistic staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) is tasked by his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) to lead an investigation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which was created in the aftermath of 9/11. Jones’s relentless pursuit of the truth leads to explosive findings that uncover the lengths to which the nation’s top intelligence agency went to destroy evidence, subvert the law, and hide a brutal secret from the American public.
This film struck me as both a remarkable and banal story about a traumatized country’s involvement in torture under the guise of science, effectiveness, and self-protection. Such themes could be found in films about Nazi Germany, Latin American countries like Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, and the United States in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
At its psychological core, this film centers on trauma, its transmission, and our ability to dehumanize and see someone else or a group as an “other”.
Many psychoanalysts have considered trauma including Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and more recent psychoanalysts like W.R. Bion and Ronald Fairbairn. Trauma can be conceptualized as an event or events that overwhelm the ego’s ability to process, think, and feel, often leading to primitive psychological defenses like splitting, dissociation, distortion, and denial. This film captures the way in which, following September 11, 2001, we were a traumatized nation. While most of you were alive at that point, some may not remember the traumatized statements and questions that arose in the immediate aftermath like Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, stating “It’s the end of the age of irony” or comedians asking afterwards, “can we laugh, again?” While humor is considered a higher-level psychological defense, trauma has a tendency to lead to more primitive defenses, a wish for certainty, and fantasies that protection can be assured through paternal figures like psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen in this story. With their unproven, “reverse engineered” SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) techniques, they offered the C.I.A. – depicted in this film as a traumatized agency struggling to find its footing – methods they purported to be more effective than the proven, less aggressive method of rapport building. And in this story, as is customary with trauma, the traumatized become the traumatizers.
In contemporary psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, analysts expect a certain degree of enactment or reenactment where a patient’s core psychological issues get played out in real time between the patient and analyst. For example, if a patient grows up with an unpredictable, authoritarian father, one would expect and hope – if the treatment goes well enough – that the patient would eventually experience the analyst in a similarly threatening way. Such a reenactment would provide both analyst and patient the opportunity to discover how to work through the patient’s history rather than simply repeating it. This film, in a similar way, reenacts a process of “othering” in the way it depicts the C.I.A. officers, and specifically Mitchell and Jessen as villainous, two-dimensional “others.” Portrayed as ineffective, arrogant, and vain characters, the film struggles to go beyond depicting what occurred in order to provide the viewer with a better understanding of how our nation’s agencies allowed misguided, fringe clinicians to torture detainees with inhumane and ultimately ineffective techniques.
The film, however, does highlight our ability to dehumanize and see someone else or a group as an “other,” particularly when our group perceives or is made to perceive a threat. Building a wall against a frightening other is hardly a modern innovation; history provides a wealth of examples of dehumanizing “othering” including the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, slavery, World Wars I and II, among a plethora of others. The C.I.A.’s use of “black sites” beyond the reach of Habeas Corpus that employed Mitchell and Jessen’s unproven but unrelenting waterboarding, rectal “rehydration,” intimidation, isolation, and hypothermia, could only be done if the prisoners had been dehumanized enough to be seen as non-human. In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote in the New Yorker about Nazi Germany’s attempt to hide its actions in what she termed, “holes of oblivion,” an apt description for our contemporary and euphemistically named “black sites.” Arendt wrote:
It is true that the totalitarian state tried to establish holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear but just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of their massacres—through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery—were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their “opponents disappear in silent anonymity” were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.
Enter Daniel Jones, this film’s “one man” who relentlessly pursued a story that many would have preferred disappear into holes of oblivion (other men and women who opposed the program also spoke out throughout the film, with Jones’ report and now this film as the vehicle for their voices). Despite Adam Driver’s skillful portrayal of a man who works away, underground, and mostly unrecognized in the windowless basement of the S.C.I.F. (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) of the C.I.A. for five years, the film mostly portrays him in the hero trope. He has flaws and makes mistakes, such as unlawfully removing documents, but these flaws can just as easily be seen as righteous acts of civil disobedience – again, portraying him as the hero or someone who says on a job interview that their greatest weakness is to not bow to systemic pressure when it is unjust. The director ends the film by demonstrating that the age of irony has not, in fact, ended by displaying a quote on treating captives with grace and respect by George Washington, both a founding father and well-known slave owner. Regardless of the film’s difficulty producing a nuanced story with three-dimensional characters, it does recreate an important part of our nation’s narrative that most of us would probably prefer to forget. It raises issues that we clearly continue to struggle with to this day including the traumatic residue of the September 11th attacks.
 Arendt, Hannah. New Yorker. Eichmann in Jerusalem~V. March 16, 1963.
Benjamin Herbstman, MD, MHS is a member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute where he chairs the Off the Couch film program. Dr. Herbstman is a lecturer, part-time, at Harvard Medical School and an Assistant Psychiatrist at McLean Hospital. He is a member of the Boston Suicide Study Group where he writes about and lectures on understanding and preventing suicide. Dr. Herbstman supervises psychiatry residents and is a faculty member in the MGH/McLean Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program. He has a private practice in Cambridge, MA.
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