Posted by: thealienist | September 9, 2014

Mary and Max: Discovering Each Other

Last night I watched the movie, Mary and Max.  For a while, I wondered what the point of the movie was.  A litany of loneliness, mistreatment, alienation, shame, ineffectiveness, and abuse of the soul?  And in claymation, for goodness sake!  But, just as I was feeling the need for a dose of Wallace and Gromit to cleanse my mind, the movie suddenly jelled and a purpose was found for all the suffering that had been portrayed.  Max and Mary found each other.

For those of you not familiar with the film, Mary and Max is the story of a young Australian girl who (by sheer chance) becomes a pen pal with Max, an old, Jewish, atheist, New Yorker with Asperger’s Disease.  At first, each is simply someone for the other to communicate with.  There is little structure to their letters, but both feel that a contact has been made.  Mary asks anxiety-inducing questions to Max and reveals small, awkward bits of herself to him.  Max writes long letters to Mary to try to answer her questions (though invariably unsuccessfully).  They bond over chocolate and pictures sent through the mail.  For most of the movie, they remain most isolated.  Mary reaching out for the friend she never had.  Max learning to respond to requests for social contact.  For much of the movie, it seems that neither character knows who they are writing to.  Mary’s questions are sometimes disturbingly personal.  Max’s answers do not seem appropriate for children.  I won’t reveal all of the problems that Mary and Max experience in their lives.  You’ll just have to see the movie.

Nevertheless, after almost an hour of depressing, uncomfortable, (and occasionally funny) story, it happens.  The characters start to grow.  Max shows some empathy for Mary and provides her some good advice.  Mary’s life begins to circle around Max.  She gets a job so that she can visit him.  She goes to college and studies psychology so that she can understand Max better.  This growth, however, is not without its growing pains.  Mary and Max have discovered one another, but they experience each other only as objects for their own use.  Mary writes a psychology book analyzing Max and sends him a copy.  Being treated as a person to be fixed enrages him, and he cuts off all contact with her.  When he fails to respond, Mary burns all his letters, abandons her career, and shreds all her books.  Life gets even worse for Mary and Max.

As her life becomes more and more intolerable, Mary sends Max a message — “I’m sorry.”  She starts to see Max as not only a source of communication or a clinical specimen to be intellectualized about and “cured,” but as a whole person with an idea of who he is and what his place in the world is.  She sees him as more than merely an object to gratify her desires (friend, subject for psychological study, substitute parent).  Max, however, is slower to see Mary.  Not until he loses control and assaults a beggar near his home does he realize that, in his concrete Asperger’s way, he has failed to let Mary be human.  He realizes that he is not perfect and that Mary is not perfect.  He forgives her and restarts the pen pal relationship.  This is not the end, but it is as far as I go here.

What can we learn from a movie like Mary and Max?  As a mental health professional, I have a lot of sympathy for Mary.  She is excited about psychology and feels an increase in self-efficacy as she uses her new-found knowledge and skill in understanding Max.  At this point, I am happy for her and excited for her future.  She is published and famous.  Of course she wants to share her success with Max, her only friend.  That is why Max’s anger and rejection are so shocking.  Looking back, mental health professionals are not portrayed very sympathetically in this movie.  Max’s psychiatrist is not very helpful, empathetic, or warm.  It seems that it is the fate of all mental health professionals to objectify their patients — to see them as nothing more that problems to be solved, illnesses to cure, or sources of revenue.  Only Mary in this movie learns to go beyond this and see Max “warts and all.”  This is a good lesson for mental health professionals.

What, then, can we learn from Max?  I like Max a lot.  I like his simplicity, his honesty, his patience in a world he does not understand, his willingness to be himself and enjoy himself despite being thought odd.  I am also sad for Max.  I am sorry he cannot cry properly.  I’m sorry for his loneliness.  I’m sorry that no one pays attention to the things that seem so important to him and frustrate him so much.  I’m sorry that he has to be hospitalized.  As he begins to grow (emotionally and behaviorally), I am proud of him embracing his identity as an “Aspie.”  I admire his bravery in continuing to go places and approach people who make him nervous.  Despite all the adversity he experiences, he keeps going.  He finds things to care about.  He tries to adapt to the people around him.  What can we learn from Max?  I want to be more like Max.

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