The Healing Power of Film

By: Tom Pecca, MA, CAS, CSAT, CTT
Therapist – The Refuge – A Healing Place

“Robin Williams has taken his own life!” I received that text last week and, at first I thought it was just one more internet hoax like so many others. When I started to see the news reports roll in and, realized this was not a stupid internet prank but, a true human tragedy it began to hit me. I did not know Robin Williams but I knew so many of the characters he played in a way that felt intimate. I watched him grow up on the screen and he has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. I still remember him on Happy Days as Mork from Ork. I watched that show when it first came on. I watched him when he got his own spin off from it. I watched him in so many impactful movies.

You see, I watched a lot of television and movies as a child. My Father passed away from the disease of addiction when I was 4 ½ and my mother struggled with alcoholism and addiction my entire childhood and adolescence. As a result I spent a lot of time alone and, the company I kept was books, television and movies. I truly believe that I would not have survived without these celluloid and parchment companions. They taught me the lessons of life that my parents could not teach me. They taught me about hope, struggle and perseverance. They taught me most importantly that I was not alone in my aloneness.

I originally was going to write this blog on the power of cinema to reach us and heal us. I still intend to so, but as a tribute to Robin Williams, who gave more to me than he could possibly know, I want to do this by looking at some of his films. You see Robin Williams has been in some of the most healing movies ever put on film. I use cinema therapy to help people heal, I have done so for the past 11 years and, his films are ones I have used over and over.

The first film that impacted me from Robin Williams was the World According to Garp. The story of this strange boy growing into a man gave me the opportunity to look at the world through different eyes. There was something about Garp that resonated with me. He was like me in so many ways awkward and different and raised without a father. He struggled to find his place in the universe but he kept moving forward. Cinema allows us a safe way to identify with someone, even if it is just a character. Garp introduced me to empathy and it was easy and safe to do. Garp was not going to judge me or hurt me. Garp was a safe place for me to feel something and that is the power of film.

In 1989 Dead Poets Society was given to me like a gift from the universe. This was not an easy time in my life. I felt very different from the people around me. I was a bit of an oddball intellectual, in an environment that did not celebrate different. As I watched this movie it was like Robin Williams was my teacher to. He taught me about poetry as he was teaching the boys in the class. When he whispered to them “We are food for worms boys, Carpe Diem, seize the day”, he spoke to me to. This movie inspired me in a way few things could at that time. This movie also touched on suicide. I watched that scene with a group the day after his death. It hit me like a wall of sadness in that moment. Robin Williams spoke those words, it is my belief that he lived them in much of his life. But when his time was darkest, he did not remember those words for himself.

In 1991 The Fisher King was released. It is not one of his better known films but it is in my opinion his best. This film touches on so many issues that affect the population we work with at the Refuge. It is the story of a radio shock jock in New York. One of his callers suffers from mental illness and in a moment of radio drama he tells this man that he should just kill all the yuppies. The man follows through on what he perceived as a direction from his idol. The Radio host played by Jeff Bridges loses his very successful career and becomes a drunk. Several years later he comes into contact with another mentally ill man played by Robin Williams. What they don’t know is that Robin Williams wife was murdered in the massacre that Bridges character instigated. This unlikely pair help to heal each other. It is one of the most impactful stories of Post-Traumatic Stress that I have ever seen on film. I believe this is the first place I truly understood the impact that the past has on our present. It also showed how insanity is sometimes the sanest choice if we are to survive. This film also touched on suicide and again I wish Robin had watched some of his own films before making that final choice. Film has the power to inspire and provide hope in hopeless moments. This film did that for me and for many others.

In 1997 Robin Williams played a therapist in Good Will Hunting. This movie taught me about connection with a client in a way no classroom ever could. There is a scene where Robin William’s character confronts Matt Damon’s character. Will is a trauma survivor and he pushes at authority figures and he has done this with his therapist Sean. Will cannot trust and has difficulty building relationships. I watched Sean open himself up to Will and show him his own woundedness. He confronted Will on trying to minimize Sean’s pain over the loss of his wife to cancer. Sean then talks about what he sees in Will and challenges him to step into relationship with him. He tells him “your move chief.” Sean becomes a safe place for Will and together they help Will heal. This is dyadic attachment (a connection between two people that allows healing to occur in both) in its greatest form. This is everything I believe about healing and there it was right up on the screen. Sean was one of the best teachers I ever had. I realized later when I learned to put clinical names to what I already knew, that I had experienced dyadic attachment with the characters in film. I had a dyadic attachment with so many of Robin William’s characters without ever meeting the man. This is the power of film.

These are just three of the films that touched me, there are many more. I don’t have the space here to give his films justice or the power of cinema as a healing tool justice. I invite you to look at the characters that have touched your life and taught you lessons. I invite you to allow them to be more than just a character in a film. I invite you to give them the power of being, teachers, friends, fellow travelers on the path and most importantly, I invite you to allow them to heal you.

Goodbye Robin, I am saddened at the loss of you, and that I will never have a new experience of you. You were an amazing man and a fellow traveler for me. You were a healer for me and I am forever grateful. I will always have your films and for that I am eternally grateful.