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Climbing Out of the Well: Trauma and PTSD in CBS’s “CLARICE”

Tuesday, April 27, 2021 | Opinions


The Silence of the Lambs looms large in the world of horror. A critical darling, it swept the big five Academy Awards and its subversion of the male gaze remains a landmark of white feminist filmmaking. It also carries a legacy of transphobia and has led to vilification of the trans community. Its villains, Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb, dubbed “Buffalo Bill” by law enforcement, live on well past the film’s 1991 release, for better or worse. Though the franchise has taken sharp turns, the original film remains Clarice Starling’s story. She is the FBI trainee who deftly navigates a misogynistic workplace and catches a serial killer by trusting her instincts. It’s Clarice’s ability to see victims as people rather than crime scenes that provide key insight and allows her to rescue Catherine Martin, the young woman Gumb holds captive at the bottom of a well as he prepares to make her his latest victim. CBS’s new show continues this tradition with its titular West Virginia agent. Though episodes often veer into the tiresome world of police procedurals, CLARICE shines as a compassionate depiction of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and an authentic look at the process of recovering from trauma. 

I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2018 and have since become familiar with its characteristics and treatments. While I am not a therapist and my trauma is not nearly as profound as Clarice or Catherine’s, I do have an intimate knowledge of what it feels like to live with the symptoms of this mental illness. I was moved by CLARICE’s authentic portrayal of both Catherine and Clarice on their paths to recovery and its representation of my mental illness has made me feel seen and valued. This essay is not meant to be a clinical diagnosis, but a way of exploring how CLARICE presents PTSD onscreen.

We rejoin Clarice in a mandatory therapy session to determine her ability to perform her duties. Though reluctant to talk about what she went through and anxious to prove that she’s moved on, we see almost immediately that Clarice is affected by triggers. Certain words, movements, sounds, or images, cause her to see moths – a symbolic element of Gumb’s crimes – emerging from impossible places, and flashbacks of Gumb in his deadly basement. Clarice is likely triggered by her unnamed male therapist whose cold inquisitiveness feels strikingly similar to that of Hopkins’ Lecter, but these triggers would probably occur regardless of her therapist’s actions and demeanor. He is simply exploiting them to force Clarice to confront a past she’s already stated she’s not yet ready to examine.

One of the hallmarks of PTSD, triggers have been co-opted by the radical right as a way to subvert accountability; there is widespread misunderstanding of the actual phenomenon. CLARICE effectively demonstrates how triggers work while creating empathy for those who experience them. When Clarice is triggered, her focus is sharply pulled to the offending sound or sight. Everything else fades and she is sucked into a reality where nothing else exists but her brain’s cry for help. I suffer from negative responses to triggers every day, and the part of my brain that senses the trigger doesn’t understand time or space, it simply registers danger and I react. Similarly, Clarice’s mind is pulled back to Gumb’s basement regardless of the reality that she is miles and years away. Rational processing takes a back seat to the body’s perceived need to defend itself. 

Clarice (TV Series 2021– ) - IMDb

The inclusion of Catherine in the series adds depth to the portrayal of PTSD by demonstrating that though both women developed the disorder due to the same event, their experiences were vastly different and have led to symptoms that vary in severity and manifestation. While PTSD does have definite patterns, trauma is as unique as the individual who survived it. Targeted for her larger build, Catherine has developed an eating disorder, avoiding most food because she associates her own body size with danger. She isolates herself in her room and is irritable and combative with her mother, Ruth. This harsh persona softens throughout the season, but the irritability is one I know well. Dealing with constant triggers and half-remembered trauma can feel like a sore muscle or crick in my neck. Every movement hurts. When my mental energy is focused on getting through each passing moment, a small comment about what to eat for dinner feels like a painful distraction. I have snapped at loved ones many times because the interaction combined with the mental work feels too draining. 

Catherine is desperate to understand what happened to her and begs Clarice to help clarify her feelings. She questions the reality of what she went through and longs for someone who was there to validate her pain. We learn that Clarice is also unclear about what happened in Gumb’s basement, misremembering the time it took her to call for backup. I have similar holes in my memory. I imagine the traumatic moments of my life living as books on the self of my mind. I’m aware of their titles and what some of the covers look like, but I don’t remember what’s inside them. Some feel like stories about another person, my brain’s way of distancing itself to avoid the impact of acceptance. I constantly question the severity of my experiences, giving my brain the opportunity to minimize them rather than do the hard work of processing.

A large part of recovery from PTSD is pulling these memories up from the subconscious mind and we see Clarice do this in a variety of ways. She remembers writing letters about painful events as a child then burning them. Writing can be a powerful tool in PTSD recovery and one I have used many times. The act of expressing the feeling, then returning to edit and organize my thoughts empowers me to release the emotional charge. In the original Lambs, Dr. Lecter attempts to pull these same memories up from Clarice’s subconscious through questioning in an insidious example of talk therapy. However, his goal is to amuse himself with her pain rather than to help her heal.

In later episodes, Clarice uses hypnotherapy to uncover repressed memories of more recent trauma. Though I have never experienced hypnotherapy, its depiction here is similar to more modern approaches such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Brainspotting: methods of therapy using eye movement to activate trauma stored in specific parts of the brain. The common thread in these approaches is the guidance of a trained professional helping the subject focus on the memory while providing a safe mental space when the process becomes too intense. These sessions often feel like reliving the traumatic memories and can be frightening. I often feel extremely exhausted after a brainspotting session and usually take a walk or listen to music to rest my brain. 

The process of recovery is often long and overwhelming, requiring the support of loved ones. Unfortunately, this often leads to secondhand trauma. Catherine’s mother experiences Catherine’s pain vicariously in attempting to support her daughter’s recovery. Early in the season, Ruth appears heartbroken by the toll this trauma has taken on Catherine, but in later episodes, we see her frustration boil over in ways that are damaging to Catherine’s fragile mental state. It’s not uncommon for secondary victims to experience this kind of frustration. Those who haven’t been there often have unreasonable time frames for how long it should take someone to “get over it.” Many fail to understand that trauma is not something you simply get over. You just learn to live with how it’s changed you.

Ruth uses particularly harmful language when describing Catherine’s response to trauma, saying she ‘fell in love’ with a terrible thing that happened to her and that her late father would be ashamed to see what has become of her. It’s an especially damaging accusation because Catherine already views herself negatively and likely feels trapped by the way her brain now perceives the world. Ruth’s words imply weakness on Catherine’s part for not being strong enough to overcome her mental illness and a selfish choice to harm other people through her recovery. 

Clarice is the one to point out that dealing with shame is part of moving through the pain, a fact I know well. People with PTSD are not always able to control their actions and the shame that accompanies this feeling of helplessness can be almost as unbearable as the trauma itself. It’s understandable for Ruth to want back the daughter she knew, but Catherine was forever altered in the well. She is still herself, but the way she experiences the world has drastically changed. There is no going back, no pretending it didn’t happen. To do so is to invalidate the very real pain of surviving the experience and the hard work of recovery. Healing does not mean going back to the person she was before, it means learning to live as the person she is now. The sooner Ruth admits this to herself, the sooner she can begin to help Catherine recover.

However hard this truth is for loved ones to face, it can be excruciating to admit to oneself. In the opening scene, Clarice struggles to identify herself as a survivor, something I have also grappled with. In order to see myself as a survivor, I first had to admit that I had been a victim – that something terrible did in fact happen to me. Clarice frames her experience in Gumb’s basement as part of her job as an agent to distance herself from the emotional impact. She wants to see herself as Catherine’s savior rather than a person who suffered alongside her. That would require accepting the terrifying knowledge of her own vulnerability and powerlessness. If she was a victim once, she could be one again. 

CLARICE uses the image of the well as a powerful representation of trauma. It’s a deep and dark hole where we can store the secrets we don’t want to acknowledge. I’ve often thought of my own trauma as a well filled with dark water. Sending a bucket down to draw up small amounts is manageable, but I constantly encounter the fear that if I go too far, I’ll sink forever into its depths. But this is the work of therapy: shining a light in the well and beginning to find my way out. As CLARICE’s first season concludes, I hope that Catherine and Clarice find each other in the isolating darkness and learn to support each other in climbing out of the well.


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