Lessons Of Unspeakable Trauma From The Film ‘Get Out’

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Jordan Peele's brilliantly conceived 2017 film, Get Out, does its job of shattering the myth that we are living in a post-racial America.

My great uncle, Leo Hurwitz’s film, Strange Victory, tried to do the same in 1948, after we collectively won the war against Hitler but came home to racism here in the US. It’s now 72 years later and there’s still too much to be scared of when it comes to racial tension in this country.

Peele says he made Get Out to face his fears of “... Human beings. What people can do in conjunction with other people is exponentially worse than what they can do alone. Society is the scariest monster.”

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Yes, it is. We see what’s happening in America under Trump, his corrupt cronies, and in the surfacing of white supremacy.

Get Out may be a theatrical take, but it focuses on a very legitimate issue and fear for many. We must stop the hate.

The Armitage family in Get Out, puts on full display our inhuman capacities for hatred, blindness, and envy. These emotions incite control, murder, and desires to steal what others have. It's frightening, but Peele has the courage to stand up to his fears. That isn’t easy. He knows the distrust and paranoia that being mistreated for the color of your skin (or your gender) creates.

You can get angry. And you can get scared. It can make you hide. Or your well-warranted fury can make you do something about it (#BlackLivesMatter; #MeToo; #NeverAgain.) Peele unmasks all these reactions in those kept under the Armitage’s spell.

What is it, though, about Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya)? Peele says of his character: “In his racial paranoia, [he] is onto something that he wouldn’t be if he was a white guy and there was a similar thing going on.” But hold on, not so quick. Why is it that Chris “gets out” when Georgina (Betty Gabriel), Walter (Marcus Henderson), and “Logan” (Lakeith Stanfield) cannot?

The truth is that trauma teaches lessons; lessons that are obvious to see in Get Out.

This might seem strange to say, but Chris’s childhood trauma actually helped him. I’ll explain it. I’m not discounting that Georgina, Walter, and Logan had their share of trauma, too. It’s just that you don’t hear about it in the film. You only see the effects of their very strange behavior.

Chris’s trauma raises these questions: How did it help him get out? What was it about Chris’s childhood history that gave him the will to see clearly and take action — especially when his fear, in the past, made him freeze up?

The details of Chris’s trauma are revealed as his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) mother Missy (Catherine Keener), who is a psychiatrist, tries to hypnotize him into the spell she tricks all their Black “guests” into.

It turns out that Chris’s mom died in a hit-and-run accident, and Chris has lived with the belief he could have saved her. But he was a little boy, terrified when she didn’t come home. He didn’t want to think about what scared him most.

Typical of trauma, Chris removed himself from his fears (dissociation). You see, he stared at the TV, closed down his mind, and kept waiting for her to walk in the door. She never did.

Later, Chris discovered his mom didn’t die right away. And he’s lived with the belief that if he hadn’t been frozen in fear — he would have called the police or someone to help her. In his guilt, it’s his fault she’s dead.

This guilt, however, sets the stage for Chris to never again let his fear take over. Yet, it’s not an easy road, and Chris struggles throughout most of the film with what he sees — but doesn’t want to.

That loss — that trauma — set Chris up for the ability to "get out" even when no one else could.

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Chris’s fears begin to surface even before he arrives at the strange and dangerous Armitage home. He’s driving there with Rose to meet her parents. They “don’t know” he’s Black. He loves Rose, but love is complicated and hard to trust when you’ve lost your mom and numbed your feelings in order to survive.

That works, if nothing stirs your emotions up. It’s a good thing something did. Chris needs his wits about him since Rose and her family are not people to trust.

So, when Rose hits a deer on the way to her parent’s house, the wheels of Chris’s early trauma start to spin. He won’t leave the deer. Following it, as it lies moaning in pain in the woods beside the road, Chris stares into its eyes. That deer is his trauma, his dying mother; the mom he was too frightened to help. He’s primed, now, to at least try — to keep his eyes open.

This is the trauma Missy preys on; the trauma she tries to use to weaken him; to sink him into the trap of his old fears and guilt; where he was paralyzed and silenced: “…That day you did nothing … sink, sink …”

There is a "sunken place" within you where your fears reside.

That “sunken place” is the place where fears live deep inside. Missy knows that. And as she twirls her spoon hypnotically around and around and around in her cup of tea … Chris falls, helplessly, through thin air, right into the memory of the room where he watched TV while waiting for his mom.

He’s there. That’s how it is in traumatic flashbacks. Sinking into that old place of fear and loss. Chris feels it's as real as the night it happened. He’s a little kid again under Missy’s manipulation.

At first, he thinks his meeting with her that night was a nightmare, but there are certain clues it wasn’t. This startling awareness is a warning. In a strange way, by inducing Chris into remembering his trauma, Missy actually does him an unintended favor. She “helps” him break out of the paralysis of fear he was in as a young boy who lost his mom.

By doing this, Chris begins to truly "see" the others and recognize the warning signs that something isn't right, even though the others, stuck in their own trauma and paralyzed by fear and guilt, cannot.

The problem is, Chris doesn’t want to fully believe the clues that Rose’s family, and Rose herself, are up to no good. He needs love; he wants Rose’s love. His mom’s death left him alone and this need almost blinds him.

But Rose has lied, and now that Chris can break away from his past frozen reactions, he sees the lies unraveling, and it terrifies him. He tries to leave, but he can’t. Rose doesn’t want him to go. In Chris’s mind, Rose isn’t the Rose who is clearly a part of her family’s “order” and their plot.

Rose, who begs him not to leave (tricking him into thinking she can’t find her keys) is his abandoned little boy/self, frightened of being left; and he vows not to abandon her.

Chris’s fear of abandonment makes him hesitate; clouding over the truth. He’s pulled into the sunken place, the basement of the Armitage house — and, momentarily, into the terrors that threaten to freeze and silence him again.

It’s too late. Or, is it? Will Chris be able to Get Out?

Accepting reality plays a role in Get Out.

The voice of reality still speaks in his mind as he sits, arms strapped to a chair, fighting to keep his eyes open and remember the truth. Chris keeps his wits about him and stays awake, not succumbing to hypnotic mind control. There’s the hope he needs.

It’s him or them — reality or the fantasy of acceptance that doesn’t exist in Rose or in this house. His only choice is to defeat the ones that want to rob him of his strength and identity. These are the Armitages — and, also, a part of his mind that doesn’t want to know or feel.

What almost does him in is the traumatic loss of his mom. But it’s also what saves him in the end.

Get Out is a terrifying story of how trauma, pain, and loss can shape the world you're willing to believe in, and leave you tied to toxic people you would never otherwise be entangled with.

But just as Chris did, you must say no more and #NeverAgain. Chris fought his fear. He stayed ahead. He kept his eyes open. And in standing up to his fears, Chris managed to make it out after all.

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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. Contact her if you have any questions.

This article was originally published at Characters On The Couch. Reprinted with permission from the author.