Friday, 14 August, 2020

Psychological Parasite


Nishtha Shrestha 

"It smells like that"
This dialogue has been taken from the Oscar nominated movie "Parasite" which opened new doors for international films in Hollywood. Apart from the distinct outlook on class discrimination and the daily struggle for survival, the movie also highlights an interesting topic in psychology: trauma.
Our memory is like a deep ocean where one can find unique creatures at different depths. The more one explores, the more mysteries are revealed for better or for worse. We remember facts on a daily basis but what retains the experience more are the stories behind the facts, which in psychology is termed as autobiographical memories.
A familiar song, the whiff of a perfume, taste of a long forgotten dish, or a photograph is all sensory ways in which we store information in our brain. This sensory aspect of trauma is the key to the sustained nature of a traumatic event. Parasite portrays the various sensory memories of the characters and how each becomes a trigger for emotional and behavioural change in them.
The first mention is of the child, a character by the name of Park Da-song. A normal birthday celebration turns into a family secret when he sees a ghost while enjoying his birthday cake in the middle of the night. His birthday therefore turns into a trauma event and the cake as a trauma trigger.
The layman understanding of trauma is portrayed in the movie as the mother tries to celebrate the upcoming birthday by going for camping to avoid reminders. It is a common thinking that children forget and it is best not to talk about painful memories. But the movie highlights the idea that children may not speak but their behaviour shows the trauma they have undergone. For example, the numerous paintings he draws or camping outside in the lawn on his birthday despite the heavy rains which the parents consider as normal behaviour considering the change of plans.
Avoidance is one of the symptoms of trauma and parents mostly tend to overlook this behaviour of children by interpreting them as tantrums or need for attention. Like the child in the movie, other symptoms can be hyperactivity, aggressiveness etc. These behavioural cues often go unnoticed but as children have not been able to talk it out, the triggers are easily activated the next time the situation arises.
The next sensory memory explored is the smell. Though the movie uses smell as a metaphor for the class discrimination evident in most societies, it is also used as a psychological tool. The protagonist, Kim Ki-taek, is an average man who is unemployed and tries to take care of his family with a positive attitude towards harsh realities of life. Poverty is considered a risk factor for trauma with people belonging to lower strata being more exposed to dangerous situations or living under stressful situations for a long time. A partial relief of employment as a driver to a rich family gives some hope to the family but a flooding destroys his home; the only piece of property he has control over. With all these factors adding pressure to the mental state of the character, he is then constantly picked on for this smell. The child of his employer comments on how he smells like the housekeeper, the employer compares his smell to that of those people who ride the subway, the wife of the employer opening the car window to escape the smell all make him conscious of his status; an aspect of his personality which never bothered him before.
The tipping point comes when the employer discriminates an injured homeless man for his smell which unleashes all the anger and humiliation he had buried inside him. Exposure to a disaster is a life threatening event and such individuals though appear normal need time to process their loss and a failure to do so reduces their emotional tolerance.
Not all sensory memories are a pathway to trauma. Some give us relief during times of difficulty while others are a way to mourn our losses in a healthy manner. In the movie, two items promote such positive aspects of sensory memories. One is the bowl of the ram-don which provided feelings of safety to the wife of the employer and helps her share the traumatic experience undergone by her son. In trauma treatment, safety is the first step in helping the people shares their painful experiences. Psychologists sometimes use these sensory elements to help clients feel safe through ways such as art therapy, aromatherapy, music therapy.
The second object used throughout the movie is the stone. Given as a token of good fortune, the character Kim Ki-woo, learns to associate the stone as his protection. The touch aspect of healing is represented by the stone through providing comfort as well as a symbolic way to let go of the painful memories by dropping it in the river.
The movie beautifully captures the role of sensory memories in our lives. While some like the bowl of ram-don creates feeling of comfort and safety while others like the smell of people triggers an avalanche of negative associations. From a trauma lens, the movie shows how people react to traumatic events and the power of sensory memories to act as a trigger to replay those events. It also draws attention to the need to process painful memories which can be done through art, talk therapy or even symbolic methods. Unless the person deals with these emotions, trauma will live like a parasite taking away all the joys of one’s life.

(Nishtha is a psychologist working in the area of mental health for children) 

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