Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Psychodynamic Interpretation Of The Movie "The Prince Of Tides" written by Beth Bramble 11/1998

The movie "The Prince of Tides" represents the struggle of a family that endeavors to endure their Southern heritage in an attempt to maintain family, cultural and societal values.  The plot deals with the motivations and development of interpersonal relationships among the central characters.  This article will examine one of the principal characters in the movie, also known as the Prince of Tides, in relationship to a psychodynamic approach, or more specifically, Objects-Relations/Self-psychology Theory.  An examination of the structured aspects of Tom and the enduring and distinctive patterns of relationships that characterize his family will be analyzed.  Tom's relationship with his sister's therapist, his journey towards integration and the discovery of his true self will be discussed.

Discussion of the Theories

Self-psychology and object relations theory is grounded upon the idea that all people exist in relationship.  Internalization of these early relationships occurs as the individual matures psychologically.  If the parent's are empathically accommodating to the child, they will understand and respond appropriately to an infant's egotistic, idealizing, and mirroring needs (Kohut 1971 cited in Hamilton 1996).

Successful fulfillment of self-object functions culminates in the child's development of a sense of internal cohesiveness and their interpersonal environment.  Kohut (1971, cited in Hamilton 1996) called this process "transmuting internalization."  According to Hamilton (1996), adults continue to require sustaining self-objects throughout their lives.  Psychopathology emerges when empathic failures disrupt this process of self-cohesiveness.

Donald Winnicott, theorized that "a good enough mother" was necessary for every child to mature.  He postulated the notion of a "holding environment" which provides an optimal amount of constancy and consolation for the infant whom is totally dependent on their mother.  Winnicott (1965, cited in Turner 1996) defined "holding" as a protective condition that constructs a facilitative milieu, which the reliant infant needs.  According to his construct, the "true self' is the innate potential that creates the essence of the child.  Its continuing development and establishment are facilitated by a good-enough mother who provides a sound environment and consequential responsiveness to the infant's sensorimotor and postural self (Turner, 1996).  In contrast to the "true self', the concept of a "false self' asserts the deficiency of a true self, and can occur if the mother is unable to care for "the id self' within the infant and imposes herself and her own needs on the child (Turner, 1996).

According to Freedman, cited in Edward and Sanville (1996), the formation of the mind is best understood when seen as a consequence of a complicated process of internalization evolved from ongoing interactional patterns.  The emphasis in object relations theory is on how internal object representations are constructed and how they interact within the psyche, thereby forming the self out of this exchange.  (Mitchell 1988, cited by Freedman in Edward and Sanvill, 1996).  Object relationists (see Kernberg 1976 and Mitchell 1983) explore primary forms of internalization, referred to as introjection (the taking in of parts or fragments) and projection (the placing onto objects parts of the self or fragments of an emerging self).  Internal experiences are integrated and established over time in relationship to affect-producing components generating memories of good or bad images of objects, thus facilitating criterion for further modes of attachment.

Developmental markers, which integrate the essence of the self in relationships, include the ability to form appropriate boundaries of self and other, and the integration of good and bad objects with the desire to regain the lost parts of the self (Ogden 1986, Seigel 1992, Steiner 1993 cited by Freedman in Edward and Sanville 1996).  Klein, cited in Turner (1996) described this phenomenon in her work which she called "splitting" or the tendency of the infantile mind to separate impulses into good, bad, damaged and undamaged. She contends that this process continues throughout life (Strean 1996, Turner, 1996).

A concept that is related to Klein's splitting is projective identification.  This entails seperating qualities of the mind that are viewed as dangerous, projecting them onto some other person, and then identifying with that individual (Segal cited by Strean in Turner, 1996).   Klein's studies of the superego uncovered the critical role reparation plays in a person’s psychic existence.  She theorized that reparation involves a variety of processes by which the ego undoes harm in fantasy and restores, preserves and revives objects (Turner, 1996).  This concept has obvious clinical implications which shall be further explored in the analysis.

Description of the Characters

Tom is one of three siblings in his family who are bonded through adversity: his older brother Luke, who serves as the family protector, his twin sister, Savannah, who serves as Tom's expressions of feelings and Tom, who serves as his sister's memory.  Initially, they create parts of a whole, but Tom and Savannah eventually break free, integrate and find their own true selves.

Tom spent his childhood years living on a Carolina Sea Island in a small, white house won by his great uncle, Winston Chadrick, in a horseshoe game.  He describes himself as the child of a beautiful woman.  His father, Henry Winger, was a shrimper.  Tom was proud of his father's occupation and consequently "fell in love with the shape of a boat as a young child."

He described his mother, Lila, as "a perfect woman who had a love of language and an appreciation of nature."  Tom's disappointing discovery of his mother's human condition becomes apparent when he declares "he wasn't the first child to be wrong about his mother."  Tom describes the relationship between his parents as a "war" in which the only prisoners they took were their children.  Interestingly enough he remarks that he can't recall when the war started.  What he does remember, and with vivid detail, is that when his parents were fighting, the children would engage in a ritual.  They would run outside, hold hands and jump off of the pier into the salt water where they would form a "circle bound by flesh and blood and water and when our lungs betrayed us we would rise towards the light."  Tom states that that was a long time ago, before he chose not to have a memory.

Tom is married and has three children, all of them girls. They are about 6, 12 and 15.  His wife, Sally, is a medical doctor.  They live in a fairly large house on the beach in one of the Carolina's.  Humor and witty remarks characterize his relationship with his children.  His relationship with Sally is remarkably strained at the start of the film.  The couple is divided and struggling with issues of intimacy within the marriage.  According to Bader and Pearson (1988) cited in Miehls (1997), individuals with a history of trauma may unconsciously couple with others whom they hope will provide a corrective experience for them.  It is interesting to note that Tom chose to marry a doctor.

Tom's defense mechanisms are evident throughout the movie.  The most conspicuous is however, his use of the "southern tradition" (in Tom's words), which translates into denial, repression and the use of humor in order to avoid the experience of feelings.  He uses reaction formation, projection, splitting, sublimation and suppression in an attempt to cope and keep himself safe from danger.  Tom's ego functions (and dysfunctions) are motivated out of his fear of intimacy, feelings of shame and a damaged  identity.  These  conflicts were born out of his childhood history of sexual, physical and verbal abuse.  He is quite ambivalent regarding issues of trust, which started as a result of his mother's narcissistic style of parenting and his father's blatant abuse. As a result of his childhood experiences, Tom developed a theoretical construct that equated love with danger and intimacy with death.

A very significant incident was the traumatic home invasion by three escaped prisoners who subsequently raped Lila, Savannah and Tom. The whole nightmare ended when Luke came in with a rifle and shot two of the men. Lila stabbed the third. This is an interesting use of metaphor, as Lila's character can clearly be seen as "back stabbing" throughout the movie.

All three of the men were dead and Lila ordered the boys to bury the bodies as well as the memory. Lila cleaned the bloodstains off of the walls while repeating the words, "this never happened, this never happened" over and over as if to drive the experience deeper and deeper into her psyche.  The children were sworn to secrecy.  No mention was ever made to Henry (father), to the police or to each other.  The struggle for this family was then the deafening silence of a most horrible secret which was necessary in order to maintain loyalty to the organizational structure, to their family and to the southern tradition.  Tom's most prominent super ego mandate and thus his psychic struggle becomes his loyalty to the secret and to his mother's concept of "the southern tradition. "

The start of the movie sets the stage by informing us that Tom's brother Luke died two
years prior and his sister Savannah had recently made "another" serious attempt to commit suicide. Tom and Lila have a very passionate argument when Lila tells Tom he must go to New York City to be with Savannah.  Lila can't go because her (new) husband's birthday is in several days.

Character Analysis

Tom arrived in New York City, and as he stepped out of his cab into the confusion, he remembered that he and Luke hated New York City because it had nothing to do with their childhood.  He recalled that Savannah loved it for just that reason.  In spite of the pain associated with Tom's childhood, he continues to hold fast to the southern tradition, as if it were the very environment which represented his "self'.  Indeed, the Carolina sea island can be seen as Tom's "construct" or "holding environment" within which he is safe to experience the reparation of his childhood in his adult life.

One of the best examples of this is his relationship with his wife, which is marked with conflicts related to issues of trust and intimacy.  There are two interpretations of the conflict.  The first includes Tom's childhood memories of a narcissistic mother who's self-centeredness, and self-importance taught him that love was convoluted and not to be trusted.

His most powerful example of this, though he may have been too young to fully appreciate the implications, was her denial of the home invasion and subsequent rape.  One can think of no more damaging form of invalidation than this secret which served only to shatter Tom's sense of trust and security in the world.  Tom easily understood why he should distrust; even hate the perpetrators of this crime, though he was unable to integrate the experience of denial his mother used to cope with her own anguish.

The introjection of this experience sets the stage for Tom to struggle with trust, as he learned at this tender age that the person who he is supposed to trust the most to take care of him, was the person he must trust the least.  His mother was incapable of providing the necessary holding environment, or to perform as the "good enough mother" in order for healing to take place.  Tom internalized this experience, which likely shattered his internal cohesiveness that was already fragile at best.  He then gave "pieces of himself' away for safekeeping (projection).  For example, he gave his strength and courage to Luke (good object), his insight and emotional sensitivity to Savannah, the poet (good object) and he gave his anger and hate to Lila, (bad object).

An alternative interpretation lies in the notion that Luke's death represents the loss of Tom's good object and consequently leaves him "less than whole" and thus his experience of being damaged and unworthy of love.  An important piece to this loss is that Luke died while fighting for the right to stay on the Carolina Sea Island where they had grown up, after Lila selfishly betrayed the family and sold it.  Luke's best quality, his courage and willingness to fight back also turned out to be his fatal flaw as he was shot and killed in the standoff with the government.  Undoubtedly, this added to Tom's experience of a "back stabbing" mother.

A very important piece of Tom's clinical picture includes his apparent "post traumatic" experiences of his childhood.  These episodes seem to be triggered by affect-producing, current family events, that should provide pleasurable feelings for him.  Instead, he is often on the periphery, coping with the experience of a flashback (bad images of objects), watching the current scene as if he were an observer rather than a participant. 

In fact, Tom's flashbacks play an important role in the reparation of his childhood into his present life as they serve to interfere with his attachment to his family thus maintaining his internal object representations and their interactions within his psyche.

Tom's Journey Towards Finding His True Self

Tom's relationship with Dr. Lowenstein began at her request for information in order to treat Savannah.  At the time, Savannah was unable to recall important pieces of her childhood and Tom was to serve as her memory.  It is interesting to note that Savannah and Tom are twins and seem to need the other in order to be complete.  They also need one another in order to break free.

According to Graham-Berman, et al., (1994) cited in Leavitt et al (1998), children who have experienced sexual trauma may divide survival tasks and as a result they may lose the ability to function on an emotional level separate from one another.  Towards this end, it became necessary for Savannah to become sick in order for both of them to "get well".  Tom's new environment helped him to step outside of his old patterns and gave him some distance from his relationship with his wife. He was fighting for Savannah's life, thus fighting for his own.  For her sake, he was forced to face his own demons.  This meant challenging his defenses and questioning his loyalty to the "Southern Tradition", which equates with keeping the family secret.

Tom's relationship with Dr. Lowenstein was complicated, to say the least.  He was not her patient in a traditional sense.  He was not paying her for psychotherapy but rather he was meeting with her in order to provide family information for the treatment of Savannah.  In any case, the relationship was composed of therapeutic elements as well as a mutual friendship, that grew into an intimate sexual union.  Again Tom chooses a "doctor" with the unconscious hope that the relationship will provide a corrective experience.  Clearly this sexual relationship poses an ethical dilemma, though it won't be dealt with in this article.

Clinical implications

Dr. Lowenstein provided the necessary holding environment for Tom, which enabled him to begin to integrate his emotional self with his intellectual self.  She served as his good enough mother, and became his object, through which he then introjected a more positive, capable self, replacing the "bad object" (Lila) and thus the "bad" or damaged self.  By providing a safe environment Tom was able to re-experience love and intimacy with an Object (mother) that was healthy rather than narcissistic and invalidating.

This love relationship clearly emerged out of transference.  Tom saw Dr. Lowenstein fiercely advocating for his sister, much in the way a mother would protect and fight for her own daughter.  She was a "beautiful woman" like his mother, though she possessed empathic qualities and was capable of acting as "the good enough mother."

Another component is the fact that she was a doctor like his wife, and Tom may have unconsciously been hoping that their relationship would provide a corrective experience.  An important scene that symbolized Tom's experience was when he saw the blood stain on his sister's floor.  It was there from her suicide attempt and represented the pain and anguish related to the trauma of their childhood, most significantly the rape.  The neighbor commented that he had tried to remove the stain but that it wouldn't come out.  This is in contrast to the bloodstains on the wall immediately after the home invasion and sexual assault. In that scene the mother washed the walls clean.  There was no evidence of a crime.  The bloodstain provides powerful symbolism of the existence of the "blood" in spite of his silence for all these years.

With this insight Tom was able to finally break the silence and to defy his mother's interpretation of the "Southern Tradition".  This experience was a major catharsis, reducing Tom's high levels of anxiety.  The conflict becomes conscious allowing him to utilize insight to reorganize his internal environment, which strengthens his ego.  His super ego mandate thus becomes loyalty to his family rather than to a family secret.  Tom redefines the "Southern Tradition" and begins to regain the lost parts of his "self."

Good examples of this process include Tom's work with Dr. Lowenstein's son.  Through coaching, Tom was able to regain his occupational identity, which he had previously discarded.  This demonstrates Tom's journey towards autonomy.  The second example is when Tom began to see Dr. Lowenstein's vulnerabilities and pain.  He responded to this by moving out of the victim role and into a caretaking/protecting role.  More evidence that Tom has reclaimed lost parts of his "self."

Once Tom took the necessary risk to engage in these relationships, he had begun his journey towards finding his "true self," a self that had more strengths and effective coping strategies than he had previously imagined.  Tom's psychic structure was changed, as his unconscious conflict was resolved. This provided the necessary bridge to re-establishing a more healthy intimate relationship with his wife and family and to resume his career as a coach, which he had quit due to his internalization of his mother's belief that the job was beneath him.  Tom no longer carried with him his mother as object.  He was free.


According to Coker in Edward and Sanville (1996), it is most ideal for the client to bring up the topic of termination.  In any case Coker (1986) recommends a period of at least six weeks to prepare the client for termination.  The following four steps are recommended: (l) informing the client before the start of treatment, (2) leaving time for discussion, (3) facilitating the expression of feelings, and (4) recognizing indirect expression of reactions, as perhaps in dreams memories, or other themes of separation.  Both the psychotherapist and the client need to recognize that something good has resulted from the therapy and from the meaningfulness of their relationship (Coker, 1996).

In Tom's case, termination was addressed in several ways.  Dr. Lowenstein first mentioned it when she predicted that Tom's wife Sally would agree to reconcile.  Of course, prior to that it was implied that the relationship would be terminated when Savannah was out of danger or significantly improved.  In the end it was Tom who made the decision to terminate.  They had hours rather than weeks to process their feelings.

Tom was certainly able to recognize the significance of the relationship.  This is depicted with an interesting metaphor at the conclusion of the movie when Tom was driving over a very long bridge and he spontaneously shouted out "LOWENSTEIN!"


The experience of trauma is a key organizational element in the life of an adult.  Defenses such as denial and avoidance are used both consciously and unconsciously in an attempt to contradict the reality of the traumatic event.  Sexual trauma has lasting effects, often manifesting in the form of issues related to trust, self-esteem and attachment.  This is the foundation of the object relational assumption of childhood trauma.  A sexual trauma is seen as an abandonment of the child both by the perpetrator, who in this case was a stranger, and by the non-protecting, or in this case the invalidating parent.  A child is not equipped to reconcile this betrayal and endeavors to psychically shelter the parental bond (Dalzell, 1998).

Effective treatment is directed at encouraging regression, in which dissociated memories can emerge. The psychotherapist must then effect a holding environment in which the patients' "internalized world of traumatogenic self and object representations" emerge (Davies & Frawley cited in Dalzell, 1998, p. 73).  According to Dalzall (1998), transference is an important element of treatment, which should be encouraged and subsequently examined in order for the client to begin to replace their old methods of thinking and behavior with newer and healthier patterns.  In the end Tom found his "true self" and the strength to love and forgive his mother and father because "in family there are no crimes that cannot be forgiven."


Coker, M., (1996). Ending where the client is: A psychodynamic approach to forced
terminations. In J. Edward & J. B. Sanville (Ed.), Fostering healing and growth: a
psychoanalytic social work approach (pp. 353-371). Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.

Dalzell, H. J. (1998). Childhood sexual abuse: psychoanalytic perspectives. Journal of Analytic Social Work, Vol. 5(1), 63-75.

Freeman, E., (1996). Psychoanalysis and the world of two: object relations couple therapy. In J. Edward & J.B. Sanville (Ed.), Fostering healing and growth: a psychoanalytic social work approach (pp. 353-371). Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.

Hamilton, N. G., (1996). The self and the ego in psychotherapy. New Jersey, London:  Jason Aronson Inc.

Leavitt, K. S., Gardner, S. A, Gallagher, M.M., & Schamess, G. (1998) Severely traumatized siblings: a treatment strategy. Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 26 No. 1, 55-71.

Miehls, D. (1997). Projective identification in sexual abuse survivors and their partners:  couple treatment implications. Journal of Analytic Social Work, Vol. 4(2), 5-21.

Strean, R., (1996). Psychoanalytic theory and social work treatment. In F.T. Turner (Ed.), Social work treatment: interlocking theoretical approaches (pp.523-580). New York, London: The Free Press.


  1. Very Good article and .

    Your definitely going to need to actually "like" to READ to get through this short story blog on The Prince Of Tides by Beth Bramble .
    Although well written and interesting I still got scared looking at all that txt by about the third line.

    I am more of a Vlog lover..

    Me I love graphics pictures design and color, but so do you you may just not know it or reccognize that it is what attracts you to a page or brand or blog post or even a company web site in order to choose a certain service...

    Design matters. Period.

    Example of Great Design Web Site My fav functionality while clean and still lighting fast while having multiple graphics and text nodes as well as video and motion graphics. Amazing. This is what attracts the part of your brain you may not actually talk to that often. Design...

    Music turns on both sides of your brain and is the only thing that does. This is why it was a class and taught in schools.

  2. Thanks for great information you write it very clean. I am very lucky to get this tips from you

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    1. Thank you. What a nice thing to say! More than happy to take requests.

      Best, Beth