Hope Springs and The Dew Breaker - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Contemplates Atonement


In "Hope Springs", Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, playing a Nebraskan couple - Kay and Arnold - ensnared in a routinized and deadened marriage, seek treatment from Steve Carell's character, a couple's therapist in Maine.  It is surprising that this cast would be assembled to attack, in what is intended to be a directly representative way, a subject as real, everyday and plain as a marriage gone bad.  I remember when I was trying to hang onto a marriage going bad, a friend told me that the difference between the couples that got divorced and those that didn't was that those that didn't, wanted to stay married; but they were no happier.  While I have been privileged to have access to good marriages, there is some truth to her statement - it is hard to sustain an intimate relationship with another across the better part of a lifetime - hard to see their foibles and to have your own exposed, to fail each other, to manage being roommates, lovers, perhaps co-parents, and to emerge unscathed.  Despite the two dimensional nature of the characters and the relationship, despite the unrealistically compressed nature of the treatment - something that seems necessary to keep our attention, and the emphasis on sex as a means of reconnecting, not to mention the Hollywood ending that feels tacked on, there is much that is true and real in this movie, just as there was in my friend's comment about marriage.


The Dew Breaker, a novel by Edwidge Danticat, seems at the other end of the spectrum.  This disorienting book that leaps from short story to short story in confusing and convoluted ways, has, at its heart, a relationship that, on its surface, could not be more different from the story of Kay and Arnold.  The way that the Dew Breaker, a brutal guard during the Haitian nightmare of rule under Baby Doc Duvalier, comes to marry - in so far as he does - the woman with whom he escapes Haiti for New York, is so incredible that it can't be revealed until the author has introduced us not just to the stories of trauma that are woven into the fabric of Haiti, but induced in us, the reader, a kind of dissociative experience as we try to piece together the book, giving up when parts of it just don't seem to coalesce, only to find that, if we try, we can put the pieces together in such a way that, rather than being a tightly tied ending, we discover all the loose ends, all the questions that linger in the air.

So, while Kay and Arnold are locked into a relationship that is functional on the surface, but seethes with unspoken feeling based on long enduring grudges, the protagonists of the Dew Breakers understand and support each other because they don't know or don't acknowledge the intimate ways they have harmed each other and are therefore loving and supportive in ways that seem much more genuine.  On the surface, the movie partners, who have raised two children, have similar values, and work together at living life (symbolized visually by Kay cooking Arnold a single brown egg and a strip of bacon each morning before he heads off to work), seem to be in a supportive, cooperative relationship, but Kay is more willing to acknowledge the void that exists within their relationship.  Despite their  deep and powerful attachment to each other, they are deeply and powerfully furious with each other.  Each has withheld from the other, each has felt deeply hurt by the other, and both fear making contact; they fear that being open to the other reopens them to being hurt, ignored, and rebuffed.

Kay expresses a willingness to engage and seeks out the therapist.  Arnold resists, almost cruelly and we, like another therapist, could make the mistake of believing that it is Arnold who is the impediment - the resistant one - and not realize that they are both hurt, they are both responsible for where they are - and that Kay is just as afraid, just as resistant.  We wonder why she is with him - why she puts up with his cruelty.  But this is not, at heart, a sado-masochistic relationship.  It is a loving relationship.  And so, ironically, is the relationship between Anne and a man so monstrous he can't be named - he is referred to only as the Dew Breaker, the fat man and, by his daughter, as Papa.

The fat man, the macoute, becomes monstrous as an adult.  He joins the regime that has displaced his father from his one acre plot and thereby driven his mother back to the arms of her true but poor love.  He goes to the city, joins the police, and uses his powers, from afar, to right things both for his father but also for other poor families back home.  In his new role as dictator in the prison, however, he becomes the most sadistic of men.  He takes real joy in observing terror - and in seeing the hope that springs when he offers his victims freedom right before he tortures or kills them.  But he feels enslaved by this, and by his awareness of his own precariousness in a system that is based on rule through fear.  He runs - escapes - after botching his work and being physically assaulted.  He runs into Anne's arms, and together they flee Haiti.

For her part, Anne feels great guilt for what she has done.  An epileptic, she had a seizure while she was to be watching her brother at the ocean and he drowned.  I believe that she blames herself for this and does not know how to seek redemption.  She is pleased that her husband is able to achieve some sort of redemption in their new life in New York - in fact she thinks that it is truly a miracle.  But in order to see this, she cannot look too closely at who he is or at how they are linked.  She must keep her vision fuzzy for if she knew, she might not be able to appreciate the resolution that he achieves.

And this is where the two stories diverge.  The atonement - the reconciliation - in Hope Springs occurs because the protagonists quit trying to fight each other off - quit trying to maintain the distance that has kept them feeling safe but cruelly isolated - and engage with each other - they become one - by acknowledging the grief that they share - the grief that they have visited on each other and the grief that they now are wallowing in.  But the Dew Breaker, the one who comes in the early dawn to maim, kill, and steal children, cannot atone - cannot gather together all that he has done - cannot acknowledge what he has done to Anne - nor even what he has done to his daughter.

In Hope Springs, as we unwind the ball of string that ties the protagonists together, we observe how simple it is for them to connect.  In the Dew Breaker, the opposite occurs; as the story unfolds we discover more and more connections between the protagonists,  but these connections are toxic.  They fear, and we the readers fear, that, if known, these connections would do what Kay and Arthur fear will happen if they speak what they are feeling, the connections would drive Anne and Papa apart.  Is there something about a level of trauma, is there a threshold of damage that can't be bridged?  Is the solution that Anne believes the dew breaker has achieved, the miracle of being transformed from working in a prison to being calm, to being patient, to driving forty miles to pick his daughter up to take her to a Christmas eve mass, the best that can be achieved?

Each story, in its own way, has a happy ending.  Hope Springs suggests a resolution - a coming together, a shared reconciliation.  Anne is proud of Poppa in the Dew Breaker, but it is from a distance.  She appreciates his transformation, and he, though tortured by his past and the belief that it will keep him from the afterlife, has raised a daughter and recreated a stable existence for himself.  As a clinician, I would not hesitate to recognize the differences between these two couples, to recognize that different treatments are called for, different outcomes likely; but somehow, as a reader, I am disturbed by what seems to be an inequity.  These people, through accidents of birth and circumstance, have different potential arcs available to them.

Anne and Papa live separate lives; Papa shares neither Anne's love of miracles nor her faith.  She adores him from a distance.  He dismisses her, but with affection, and she worries, as does he, about the fate of his soul.  Kay and Arnold also live separate lives, but the history that separates them is a shared history.  It can have a narrative thread that binds them - they were once in love and they still yearn for connection.  I suppose that both couples will settle into a playfully connected and disconnected latter third of their relationship.

Perhaps what is both disturbing and engaging is that both couples achieve a certain internal atonement - a certain kind of oneness - but the atonement of Kay and Arnold is based in a more realistically tinged view of each other.  The atonement of Anne and Papa is more saturated in fantasy.  Anne's view of Papa is as fantastic as her faith in the miracle that allows a woman to cry crystals.  Papa, who could so closely see the people that he tortured, is blind to both Anne and his daughter.  They are there, but his burden of guilt occludes them, and they are peripheral to his vision of his own damnation.  He cannot even see himself through his daughter's eyes; he destroys the artistic representation she has made of him.  While he may be loved by Anne - and by his daughter - it will ring hollow.  He is ultimately alone with the ghosts that haunt him, that he cannot shake, but that are also, on some level now fantasy figures too - memories of real actions - but memories none-the-less.  I think that Danticat, in the parallel stories she tells, suggests that revenge is not a solution, but also suggests that his guilt, his fantasy of himself as a monster, is its own kind of revenge.  Because he has concern, because he can connect, he can also feel guilt and can be cut off from those who would love and know him.  He cannot reconcile himself to living and is, perhaps, as dead in some ways as the people he has killed.  

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