Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MFT
Sitting in front of a blank page this past weekend, I struggled to summon words to speak to an experience profoundly lacking words; to attempt to symbolize the experience of trauma, to speak to the presence of absence. The image of a blank page slowly morphed into a page filled with repetitive fragments, moments written and rewritten with no seeming through line, disjointed and frenetic. The experience of watching Martha in Sean Durkin's 2011 film, Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene is akin to this fragmented experience. Flooded by her unmetabolized "gestures, acts, and affect" the audience is enlisted to make sense of her unfolding disjointed psychic states. Not merely evacuative, Martha's behavior is an attempt "in some obscure way to search for some means of expressing and narrating an as yet non-integrated mental experience" (Roussillon, 2011).
In the film, a young woman flees a cult. After a two-year disappearance, wounded and without words, she returns to her sister and her husband, taking refuge in their rented lake house. An early scene depicts Martha's escape from the cult. She gingerly steps over sleeping bodies and is chased into the dense blur of the forest, toward an obscured future. In a dissociative state she calls her sister for help but confusedly mutters, "I can't stay gone long."
Once safely ensconced in the house, the past she is desperately attempting to flee bears down in intrusive and terrifying ways. Timelessness pervades, an enduring confusion about what is present and past. The audience is immersed in her psychic reality; we feel her dislocation, her uncertainty, her fear. The unfolding of the plot happens in a blurry back and forth told between current time and fragments of memories from the past in a dizzying fashion. Martha asks "How far are we from yesterday?" This visceral confusion permeates the film as her sister and her husband both attempt to understand her but are confounded and disturbed by her behavior.
The audience as witness is pulled in too -- is there imminent danger? Many window shots seem to point to the fragility of their location and suggest that perhaps someone is watching. The noise of acorns dropping on the roof could be random or could foreshadow an imminent break-in. A man watching Martha swim may be a random neighbor or may be a cult member. When diving off a boat she flashes to diving off a cliff, naked bodies writhing in the water, dream-like. Dream language and trauma language are interspersed, creating a hypervigilant, disorienting tone that envelops every scene increasingly. The danger lurking is seemingly externalized and impending and yet is a representation of her internal fractious state, and of the trauma she has emerged from, wounded and indoctrinated. The trauma remains encapsulated, nonrepresentational, leaking out in nightmares, delusions, terrifying flashbacks, and inappropriate boundary violations.
"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or if it's something you dreamed?" This is Martha's attempt to make sense of what is happening to her. She is desperately searching for a mind that can help her metabolize these experiences. Although her sister Lucy is unable to ponder Martha's question, she attempts to make contact, to discuss her regret that she didn't take care of Martha after their mother's death. Her attempt at reparation and dialogue falls flat with Martha.
The ever-growing tension between reality and danger culminates in a row between the sisters in which frustrations and resentments are aired, leading to the decision to get Martha professional help. There is hope that Martha will land with someone able to receive and decipher her distressed communications and help her begin symbolizing and navigating the dense terrain of her psyche.
As Rousillion (2011) states, "The work of psychoanalysis is to suggest a response that tries to restore to those experiences brought into the transference situation their symbolizing potential, which degenerated in the historical development of the person concerned."