Pop Psych: Surviving and Thriving Underneath the ‘Moonlight’

Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite pop culture characters. This week: Director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in Moonlight.

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. David Bornfriend/A24

Nocturnal animals, the ones that navigate by the reflected light of the sun, are careful and quiet.  By and large they’re small things, built more for stealth than brawn, and their best survival strategy is to go unnoticed.  Tiny mammals like mice and foxes manage to get by on quiet wits and end up having not too much to fear from larger daytime predators, so long as they stay still and quiet and get just enough of what they need to live without causing a stir.  In their lives, it’s the other quiet creatures that are cause for worry.  Hunters just as stealthy as they are threaten to swoop in on silent wings and catch them in a blindside.

With this in mind, it is no small detail that Barry Jenkins’ new tale of a quiet young man desperate for love is titled Moonlight.  The film follows Chiron – sometimes known as Little, sometimes known as Black – through three critical phases of his young life.  Along the way we see him struggle to understand his own sexuality, as well as his role in this world that seems to want everything from him while offering almost nothing in return.  But that said, it’s not nothing that he gets back life – it’s moonlight.

Chiron’s life is one marked by a sense of almost enough.  He’s raised by a mother who makes it clear beyond doubt that she would have preferred never to have him in the first place, but since he’s here anyway she may as well keep control over him.  In addition to her looming and malevolent presence, he also manages to stumble into the caring hands of Juan and Teresa, maybe the only people in this movie who seem to know precisely who they are.  And while he is offered a level of solace in their warm home, he is unable to accept it fully.

Through the torment he goes through at home and at school, we viewers learn that Chiron needs this connection like a flower needs the sun.

Beyond the adults in his life, Chiron has one true friend and all the boys of the neighborhood.  Kevin, who calls him Black, and then the boys, who call him Little.  Kevin shows Chiron real kindness as he grows up, even though the two are quite different; there’s a magnetic connection between them regardless of their different attitudes and demeanors.  And through the torment he goes through at home and at school, we viewers learn that Chiron needs this connection like a flower needs the sun.

And that’s the thing: it is from these scarce relationships that Chiron has to draw all his emotional nutrition.  We may be loathe to admit it sometimes, but we Humans are by nature social creatures.  We thrive in the presence of others, and sustain ourselves on their memories during periods of solitude.  And when we are young, this need for contact is necessarily stronger; childhood is the most vulnerable time in our lives, and in order to survive we need to be taken care of by adults.

Chiron doesn’t quite have what he needs – he survives, but he never thrives.  And by the time he meets Juan and Teresa, he is unable to attach to them even though it is clear he would like to.  In diagnostic terms, you could say he has what’s known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).  This is one of the very few diagnoses that can be given to infants, as the belief is it develops as a result of being essentially abandoned during infancy.  This diagnosis comes up a lot with adopted children, as their lives necessarily include an interruption in caregiving, but it can develop in anyone who was inconsistently raised.

While it can be long and arduous working with folks who have [Reactive Attachment Disorder], it is not hopeless. Flowers can bloom even in moonlight.

It’s worth noting that RAD has a bad reputation, and an unearned one.  While it’s been blamed for anything from avoiding eye-contact to being violent to animals, the fact is that the accepted symptoms mostly have to do with difficulty in developing and maintaining meaningful relationships. RAD is an Attachment style, and Attachment styles develop as defense mechanisms, not as the result of broken brains.  So while it can be long and arduous working with folks who have this diagnosis, it is not hopeless.  Flowers can bloom even in moonlight.

This seems to be the therapeutic heart of the film, understanding why Chiron becomes who he becomes, and how he can return to who he could have been.  In the first third of the movie, we learn about the kinds of care he receives from his community, and just how spotty it is.  How vulnerable and self-aware he is.  We find out that while he may not know the definition of the word “faggot”, he most certainly knows what it means.  His body is keenly aware of the danger it is in.  And while he knows he needs to fight back, to project an image, he is also self-aware enough to know he is not interested in doing so.

By the time we catch up with him in adolescence, this awareness and resolve is on the verge of shifting.  Bullied, alienated, and hopelessly in love, Chiron does his best to keep his head down around bullies and paramours.  Of course it doesn’t work with either group, and Chiron seems to almost stumble across his friend Kevin late some night on the beach.  They share one of the few and finest moments of relief Chiron has ever had, sitting under the moon in the cool breeze and feeling high.

Looking closely at this scene, there’s a lot going on.  But what stood out the most to me was Kevin’s ability to reach Chiron through his shell of numbness.  Kevin insists that Chiron feel the cool breeze, and in doing so reminds him that he can feel at all.  Chiron, beaten down by the world, has lost track of the simple fact of pleasure.  He has forgotten that the body can feel good, can be a good place to be, that the present is a time that could feel anything besides bad.

Of course, things don’t go well for Chiron, and he gets lost in an even harsher reality for most of his young adulthood.  While he gets by, he is still stuck in the mindset that one can only survive, never thrive.  Kevin calls him from long ago, saying a song he heard on a jukebox reminded him of his old friend, and asks him to visit.  Chiron shows up and  after a tense evening stays the night with Kevin.  They talk in Kevin’s apartment, against the backdrop of his 5-year-old son’s drawing of an enormous sun rising over the beach.

The conversation is poignant and sad, but again Kevin is able to reach his friend through the shell.  He regales him with tales of his adulthood, and demands point blank that Chiron show up in his own life, that he account for himself.  And Chiron lets it work, he allows himself to be touched for the first time in a long, long time.  And though he admits he has not allowed himself to be the lover he knows he is, we get the sense that that may change overnight.

This speaks to the reality of working with Attachment disorder.  It takes a long time, it feels tenuous, and it can be done.  The movie is called Moonlight because for most of its run-time, that is what Chiron gets and it’s also all he can handle.  As a child, he cannot accept everything Juan and Teresa offer him, because it threatens to expose him too much.  He could learn too much too fast.  The love feels like it would destroy him, because in order to survive as a child he had to convince himself he could not be loved.

As an adult, he knows he can survive, even if he doesn’t feel good about it.  Being reminded that the body can be a safe, even pleasurable place, goes a long way.  Growing strong and learning to take meaningful care of himself gives him the resources he needs to accept love, to not be blown away by it.  Of course, this is no easy feat, and it’s a personal choice about whether or not to accept it.  When Chiron does, it is not out of necessity but out of choice.  The choice of a flower to open its petals to the sun and step into its birthright.

James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.

Pop Psych: Surviving and Thriving Underneath the ‘Moonlight’