Attachment Disorganization and Creativity in Fanny and Alexander

Attachment Disorganization and
Creativity in Fanny and Alexander
represents Bergman’s struggle to find creative resolution to the traumatic and unintegrated aspects of his own childhood experiences. In a reflecting on his life in film, Bergman stated, “From the very beginning, one
can see that with Fanny and Alexander I have landed in the world of my
childhood” (Bergman, 1990, p. 366). The bifurcated and unresolved nature
of his own early attachment experiences is readily evident in Bergman’s
(1988) autobiography, The Magic Lantern. On the one hand he offers the
global idealization, “I look back on my early years with delight and curiosity. My imagination and senses were given nourishment…and I remember
nothing dull, in fact the days and hours kept exploding with wonders, unexpected sights and magical moments…” (Bergman, 1988, p. 13). On the
other hand, Bergman begins his autobiography by telling us that his mother
had Spanish influenza when he was born and was not able to breast feed
him. He writes, “I suffered from several indefinable illnesses and could
never really decide whether I wanted to live at all” (p. 1).
At the beginning of Fanny and Alexander, Helena, the luminous matriarch of the Ekdahl theatrical clan, echoes this bifurcated view of life when
she confides to her friend and ex-lover, Isaac Jacobi, “The happy splendid
life is over and the horrible dirty life engulfs us.” There is no doubt that, in
Fanny and Alexander, Bergman intended to portray the “happy splendid
life” or the “joyful side of his nature and experience” (Bergman, 1988, p.
Diana Diamond is affiliated with the City University of New York, the Weill Medical
College of Cornell University, and the New York University Postdoctoral Program in
11). He wrote in a journal about the planning of the film, “by playing I can
overcome the anguish, loosen the tension, and triumph over destruction. I
want at last to show the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, joy
that I have so seldom and so poorly given life to in my work” (Bergman,
1988, p. 11). Bergman’s “energy and drive” and “capability for living”
(quoted in Bjorkman, 2004, p. 11) are illustrated in the Christmas celebration of the Ekdahl clan, which shows Helena and her three sons, their
wives, children, and loyal servants, dancing, carousing, feasting, and praying together on Christmas Eve. Shortly thereafter, Helena’s favorite son,
named for her husband Oscar, dies suddenly while playing the ghost of
Hamlet’s father. After his widow Emilie remarries the stern but seductive
Bishop Vergerus, “the horrible dirty life,” as Helena characterized it, begins. The newly reconstituted family is a distorted mirror image of the original family and both are thought to represent aspects of Bergman’s own
family experience (Kalin, 2003).
In the new family, love that previously subsumed and tempered aggression is transmuted into hate; deadly rivalries that were curtailed in the interests of family harmony disrupt and distort family bonds; poisonous envy,
which was contained and limited, erupts, leading to emotional and physical
violence. The two families portrayed in the film represent the bifurcation of
Fanny and Alexander’s experience into two unintegrated worlds resulting
from the sudden and traumatic loss of their father. This loss, at least in Alexander’s case, plunges him headlong into state of disorientation and traumatic mental disorganization, although there is much evidence in the film
of the seeds of insecure and disorganized attachment on the part of Alexander before his father’s death (e.g., his vision of the moving statue and the
death’s head, and his cinematographic scenarios of the woman haunted and
terrorized by her mother’s ghost shown in the beginning film clips, all of
which foreshadow the hallucinatory and disorganized cognition that accompanies mourning and unresolved loss; Bowlby, 1980). Like Alexander,
his child alter ego, Bergman sought creative resolution of such disorganized/unresolved early attachment experiences in his cinematic work, as
indicated by the following statement:
The prerogative of childhood is to move unhindered between magic
and oatmeal porridge, between boundless terror and explosive joy.…
It was difficult to differentiate what was fantasy and what was considered real. If I made an effort, I was perhaps able to make reality stay
real. But, for instance there were the ghosts and spectors. What
should I do with them?…Then came the cinematograph…. (Bergman, 1988, p. 13).
I will briefly summarize the recent research and theory on attachment
disorganization because I believe that it elucidates both the content and
structure of Fanny and Alexander (2004). In their training course for the
Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), Mary Main has illustrated the adult attachment categories of unresolved/disorganized attachment and fearful
preoccupation with loss and trauma with reference to Bergman’s films
(Main, personal communication, January, 2001). The AAI is a semistructured interview, which elicits thoughts, feelings, and memories about
early and current attachment experiences, including inquiries regarding all
important losses, and is designed to elucidate the individual’s mental representations of self and others in relationships (George, Kaplan, & Main,
1998; Hesse, 1999). A coding system based on discourse analysis of the
AAI classifies speakers in one of five categories: secure/autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied, unresolved for loss and trauma, and cannot classify
(Main & Goldwyn, 1998). On an AAI, individuals with unresolved/disorganized states of mind with respect to attachment give narratives that contain areas of unintegrated thinking related to loss or trauma, such as sudden
intrusions of fantasy or dream material related to traumatic or frightening
events, contradictory references to such events across the interview, distortions in spatial temporal and causal relations, and confusion between past
and present. Often these disorganized states of mind are evident in only
momentary lapses in reasoning and discourse and may coexist with organized attachment states of mind, such that the individual shows incompatible and contradictory internal working models of self and attachment figures (George & Solomon, 1999; Hesse & Main, 1999; Main & Morgan,
Lapses in reasoning are evident when the speaker makes statements that
are incompatible with one another, as when a person is described as being
dead and alive at the same time, or when the narrative is inconsistent with
our usual understanding of space time relations or causality, such as the belief that one could have killed someone with a thought. Lapses in the monitoring of discourse are also evident in sudden silence, postural collapse, or
paralysis, or in the sense that the individual is experiencing a high level of
absorption involving events that have as yet failed to undergo normal conscious processing. In over ten studies, attachment investigators have found
a link between parents’ unresolved disorganized discussions of loss or
abuse in the AAI and infant’s disorganized attachment behaviors upon reunion with the parents in the Ainsworth Strange Situation (Hesse & Main,
1999). Disorganized infant behaviors include freezing in immobility when
the parent appears, or falling suddenly to the floor and playing dead.
Interestingly, disorganized children at age 6 show much evidence of catastrophic fantasies involving bodily harm, abandonment, or death in their
family drawings, doll play, and separation related narratives (Cassidy,
1988; Hesse & Main, 1999; George & Solomon, 1999; Main, Kaplan, &
Cassidy, 1985). Although the majority of disorganized children are from
abusive families, a substantial proportion of these children (15 to 30%)
were from low-risk families with no history of direct maltreatment by parents, although their parents were found to be chronically grieving or to be
unresolved with regard to past losses and traumas on the AAI (Hesse &
Main, 1999). The drawings of such children often included bizarre and
frightening elements such as skeletons or ghosts, as do the pictorial scenarios created by Alexander in his cinematograph, such as the one in which a
terrified female figure sees the ghost of her mother (George & Solomon,
Alexander shows much evidence of lack of resolution of loss and abuse
at both the behavioral and representational levels. He freezes into immobility and falls to the floor in postural collapse on a number of occasions in the
film (like the disorganized disoriented child in the strange situation; Hesse
& Main, 1999), e.g., when his father collapses on the stage and again at his
deathbed, although the latter could also be attributed to his oedipal guilt in
the face of his father’s demise. Further, there is much indication of the
dead/not dead ideation (Main & Goldwyn, 1998) in the film in that Alexander sees his father’s ghost on multiple occasions after his death. Indeed, the
ghost is presented as real in that Fanny also sees him. Further, Alexander
believes that he is causal in the death of both father and, especially,
stepfather, even though no material cause is present. In a coincidence, Alexander’s stepfather is immolated as Alexander communes with Jacobi’s
nephew, the violent, deranged, and creative Ishmael. Ismael intuits Alexander’s murderous hatred of his stepfather and conveys to him the idea that
Ismael has the power to merge his mind with that of Alexander and turn his
thoughts into deeds.
Alexander’s attachment disorganization is also evident in the disorientation with regards to time and space in the film. In the scene where Jacobi
rescues the children from their imprisonment in the Bishop’s palace, we see
Fanny and Alexander in two places at once, both upstairs and downstairs,
an aspect of film that has puzzled the critics who have seen it as an inexplicable break in the coherence and logic of the filmic narrative (Kalin, 2003).
This break in the logic of the narrative occurs as follows: Jacobi hides
Fanny and Alexander in a chest that he purchases from the Bishop
Vergerus, intending to smuggle them out of the house when the Bishop
turns his back. However, when the Bishop, suddenly suspicious that Jacobi
means to abscond with the children, opens the chest, the children have vanished. He and the astonished Jacobi find the children stretched out on the
bedroom floor when they race upstairs to check on their whereabouts.
Kalin (2003) comments that such violations of the rules of space and time
puncture the filmic illusion that reality is being veridically represented and
confront the spectator with both the fabricated nature of the filmic narrative
and the concreteness of the medium of film itself. The latter is evident in
the intrusion of whiteness on a blank screen that follows the magical transposition of the children from downstairs to upstairs, a break in both the narrative and the continuity of the medium that is reminiscent of the breaking
of the film in Persona.
Alexander’s catastrophic fantasies, told in a state of intense absorption,
also bespeak his disorganized/disoriented state of mind in that they reflect
the frightening ideation regarding his relationship with the lost father and
the circumstances surrounding and following the loss. Alexander’s fantasy
that he is to be sold to the traveling circus by his mother may reflect his
fears of punishment for Oedipal desires and guilt about Oedipal triumph
over an impotent and debilitated father. It should be noted that at the age of
7, Bergman (1988), by his own report, concocted a similar fantasy. He
imagined that, “My parents had sold me to Schumann’s Circus and I was
soon to be taken away from home and school, to be trained as an acrobat,
together with Esmeralda who was considered to be the most beautiful
woman in the world” (p. 11). When the school authorities reported this fabrication to his parents, he recalls that he was “humiliated and disgraced” at
home and at school and his fantasy, a product of “imagination and daring,”
was “desecrated” (p. 11). Alexander’s fantasy that he sees the ghosts of the
Bishop Vergerus’ former wife and daughters who inform him that they
drowned trying to escape after being locked into a room by the Bishop for 5
days and nights, is clearly a transposition of his own fears of being imprisoned and annihilated by the rivalrous Bishop whom he fears and hates, and
with whom he is locked in fierce rivalry for possession of his mother.
The frightening ideation with regards to the loss of Alexander’s father is
undoubtedly linked to the revivication of Oedipal dynamics for Alexander,
who is at a developmental transition, on the cusp between childhood and
adolescence when oedipal issues and rivalries may resurface. The father’s
death exacerbates an unresolved Oedipal crisis that fuels Alexander’s disorganized mental state (Frankiel, 2005). As Blum (1983) commented, in
circumstances where the reality of parental death galvanizes and substantiates fantasy, there may be a partial obliteration of the boundary between the
two, leading to an alteration of ego functions and to splitting of the ego itself. The splitting of the ego opposes the integration of fantasy and reality,
past and present, comprehension of spatial temporal boundaries and laws
of cause and effect (Blum, 2002)—all aspects noted in attachment disorganization research as well.
Through the aesthetic devices of magic realism, Fanny and Alexander
depicts the constellation of fantasy and representation that are associated
with attachment disorganization in the face of object loss. The discourse of
lack of resolution of loss and mourning informs the imaginative structure
of the film itself. We know that a person cannot be dead and alive at once;
deaths are not caused by malignant thoughts not acted upon; persons cannot be in two places at once; nor can one mind merge with another to effect
material changes in the world. Yet these lapses in the monitoring of reasoning and discourse are the stuff of the fairy tale that is Fanny and Alexander,
leading us to extend the attachment conceptualizations of these phenomena
and to envisage how such lapses in fact may lead ultimately to creative resolutions of loss and mourning. We are reminded here of the film’s final
words, spoken by Helena, in which unresolved/disorganized ideation is
given imaginative structure and form: “Everything can happen, everything
is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy frame of
reality, the imagination spins new patterns” (Bergman, 2004).
Portions of this article were presented at the American Psychoanalytic Association Meetings Symposium, Films of Ingmar Bergman, New York,
January 19, 2005.
I have been privileged to be supported and inspired by a number of colleagues working in the area of film and psychoanalysis. I especially want to
express my gratitude to the following colleagues whose critical reading of
this article improved it immeasurably: Harriet Wrye, Rita Frankiel, Alexander Stein, Andrea Sabbadini, and Lissa Weinstein.
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