‘The Queen’s Gambit’ — This Is How Traumatized Children Survive

Photo: IMDB
scene from the Netflix show "The Queen's Gambit"
Self

When traumatized children try to survive adulthood, they may have questionable ways of coping.

But there's a difference in the ways traumatized children survive and the ways that actually help them. It’s important to know the difference. 

Beth Harmon from Netflix's The Queen’s Gambit learned how to cope. And no, drugs weren’t the answer.

A note to readers who haven’t finished the series yet: Spoilers are ahead.

RELATED: How To Turn Your Trauma Into Something Meaningful​

Traumatized kids like Beth have a hard time with trust and often learn to be "tough" and hyper-vigilant.  

But besides her mother’s "survival lessons," they’re all Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) had to stave off her horrifying flashbacks after she ended up in an orphanage.

When your mom dies in a car crash at age nine after trying to kill you both, it’s hard to trust anyone.

Beth's mother's "lessons" become necessary when Beth is surrounded by unkind people at the orphanage. She only had two friends: Jolene (played by Moses Ingram) and Mr. Schaibel (played Bill Camp).

Then, she’s adopted by people who aren’t kind either, loses Jolene and Mr. Schaibel, and later, her new mother. She has no choice but to stay tough.

Chess plays its part.

That’s where the name The Queen's Gambit comes in — it’s a chess move to secure control of the center of the board. Beth must keep control of the hurricane of feelings inside herself.

Until she learns that it's OK to let friends help, here are 5 misguided ways traumatized children like Beth survive, as shown in "The Queen's Gambit."

1. "Be tough, you must."

It’s hard to be tough when you’re little.

At Metheun Home, Beth learns to use the "green vitamins" they give all the girls to keep them quiet. She also learns how to win at chess. Both are "necessary."

Stay one step ahead to outwit your opponents, that’s what Beth does. And, the "opponents" from her trauma are flashbacks, terror, and anything that shouts fear, failure, and self-hate.

So, when Beth discovers Mr. Schaibel playing chess in the basement of the orphanage, she sees a lonely person — just like her — taking on the challenges. Beth being Beth, she insists he teaches her.

The "Board World" of chess has its safety: "I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So, if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame."

No one will hurt her again, not if Beth has a say.

2. "Never need help, you won’t get it."

Needing help, losing, and being afraid are things to hate yourself for. That’s just as big a challenge as chess.

If Beth loses, this is how she feels: "You, ugly piece of sh**t, you can beat that f**cker."

She won’t be hurt or humiliated, so Beth has to fake "absolute confidence" with her dark glasses and arrogant, tough strut across the room, letting nothing and no one touch her.

Or she hates herself.

Beth flashes back to "Mama," who hated her. But her new mom, Alma (played by Marielle Heller), says, "I believe I can learn to be a mother."

But isn’t it weak and foolish to count on a mom?

If mothers can’t be trusted when you’re little, you have to be "fine" alone, even when you're not.

3. "I’m fine being alone."

Alma travels with Beth to all the tournaments. Beth beats a Grandmaster in Pittsburg and wins in Houston on Christmas Day.

In an interview, she tells her story about how she learned chess.

"A janitor taught you? It must have been a distraction from such a depressing place. You must have been lonely."

"I’m fine being alone."

Beth must be. That’s what she learned.

Alice, her first mother, told her, "The strongest person isn’t scared to be alone. Someday, you’re going to be alone. You need to figure out how to take care of yourself."

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Yet, Beth lets herself get close to Alma, calls her "Mother," holds her hand, and likes that Alma is proud of her.

Then, Alma dies. Now, taking care of herself and being alone is a reality. Again.

RELATED: The Sad Reason Why Childhood Trauma Is Holding You Back As An Adult

4. "Being weak or sad isn’t an option."

Any weakness makes Beth feel stupid. Flashbacks flood in, so she must keep those ghosts at bay, trying to see what someone else is doing before they do it to her.

U.S. Champion Benny Watts (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) tells Beth she could have lost to Harry Beltik (played by Harry Melling).

"Think out your mistakes, Beth."

She does — all by herself.

Losing isn’t an option. Facing her losses isn’t an option, either. Beth’s sadness is too much.

So, when her mother dies in Mexico City — the number-one thing she can’t control — and she loses to world champion Borkov (played by Marcin Dorocinski), how does Beth go on?

Her adoptive dad won’t help. All she can say at the Mexico City pharmacy, where she goes to get her green pills, is "Mas" ("more").

5. "You can’t trust anyone."

The loss to Borkov and the loss of Mother have shaken Beth to her core. If there’s no control and no one to trust, there’s an escape into that drug-hazed world where she feels nothing.

Benny tutors her before the Paris rematch with Borkov and tries to help her stop using drugs.

"Russians play best because they play as a team. Americans, we play alone. We won’t let anyone help us."

That, in a nutshell, is Beth’s plight, the struggle of a traumatized child.

And when Beth is in Paris, alone, she shows up to her second match with Borkov stoned on tranquilizers, unable to beat him. Her fear of trusting Benny’s help gets the best of her.

At a bar, Beth drinks while a woman sings, "I remember you, but I can’t remember love."

The ways love failed Beth almost makes her blind to the love staring her in the face: her friends.

Chosen family really helps — if you can let them.

At just the right moment, Jolene shows up at Beth’s door. Mr. Schaibel died. After his funeral, ready to face her past, Beth finds something that begins to break through her tough shell.

She finds his bulletin board, featuring a photo of little Beth, shyly standing next to Mr. Schaibel with her hand tentatively on his shoulder, plus every clipping of her success.

He was as proud as a dad would be. She finally cries for all she’s lost.

Jolene holds her and says these healing words, "We weren’t orphans, not as long as we had each other. I’m here because you need me. That’s what family does. That’s what we are."

Beth’s been going downhill fast, but there are friends she didn’t know she had. She needs them to beat Borkov, but mostly to believe in herself without her other "friends," green pills, and booze.

While Beth’s in Russia to face Borkov, her chess friends — Benny, Harry, Townes, Matt (played by Matthew Dennis Lewis), and Mike (played by Russell Dennis Lewis) — are on the other end of the phone in NYC, coaching her and cheering her on.

"She won!"

They’re family, like Jolene — her team.

That’s the message in The Queen’s Gambit. Healing from trauma means accepting the loving help of your chosen family and giving up the "lessons" you learned early on — the ones you don’t really need.

RELATED: How To Recognize If Your Childhood Trauma Is Affecting You As An Adult (& How To Heal)

Dr. Sandra Cohen is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and psychoanalyst, who specializes in treating childhood trauma, persistent depressive states, and all types of anxiety. For more information, visit her website.