“Ad Astra” and Early Life Trauma

September 23, 2019

“Ad Astra,” Early Life Trauma, and the Sins of the Father
by Dr. Sylvia Gearing and Chris Gearing

Hello fellow astronauts! The following article contains pretty much every spoiler possible for the new film “Ad Astra,” so please be warned if you care about that kind of thing.

There’s a quick moment in “Ad Astra” when Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) says aloud, “I don’t want to be like my father.” This statement seems at odds with what we hear from almost every character Roy speaks to on his journey to Mars – his father is a hero, his father is the reason they became an astronaut, his father was the best of the best, etc. The constant praise of his father invalidates Roy’s own experience and his feelings regarding the event and the man that has shaped much of Roy’s life.

His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), chose to abandon Roy and his mother to go on what was likely a one-way trip to Neptune for the next few decades (or likely until he died) to search for alien life. It’s a betrayal of a magnitude few people will ever understand, and Roy is obviously still processing the fallout almost thirty years later. This one choice by his father has shaped much of Roy’s life including joining the space program for reasons he can’t quite put into words, his emotional and physical distance from anyone who tries to enter his life, and his utter detachment from the events and people around him. In fact early in the film, Roy is praised by his superiors because his heart rate has never gone above 80 beats per minute at any time in the space program; not even when he was falling back down to Earth from low orbit after a major catastrophe in the opening scene of the film. They confuse his complete detachment for bravery. However over the course of the film, Roy must come face-to-face with not only his father but how this initial deep trauma shaped the entire course of his life.

The film opens with a brief introduction to our protagonist and his current state of affairs. As he reports to a mechanized “psychological profile” how he is stable and competent, we see flashes of his personal life in shambles. There are scenes of a recently failed marriage due to his emotional distance, the over whelming disconnection from his colleagues on the space antennae, and his life of extreme isolation and loneliness and solitude. We see a man who is imprisoned in his own pain from the past and is helpless to change it. Brad Pitt’s character shows a pattern consistent with a childhood or early life trauma. To understand his character, it is important to understand how childhood trauma changes a person’s relationship to danger. Since many children lack experience and, in this case, proper coaching and guidance from adults, they begin to define and understand their world through rigid and pervasive belief systems. Not only is this one adult or situation that hurt me dangerous, but ALL adults or situations like this are dangerous. To avoid the possibility of even the slightest chance of emotional pain or suffering, they keep everyone at arm’s length at all times. Roy is no different and his trauma has caused him to keep a safe distance from everyone around him. He was repeating the cycle of abandonment that wounded him so deeply when his father left. In addition, all of these initial circumstances (isolation, turmoil at home, etc.) are considered psychological vulnerabilities by psychologists and make Roy more likely to experience intense and volatile emotions during times of stress. Good thing nothing stressful is about to happen, right?

The first authentic emotional reaction we see from Roy is when his superiors start to talk with him about his father. He mentions that his father must be dead after all this time. He likely convinced himself of his father’s death long ago so that the issue of reconnection or reconciliation is not possible. Abandonment often prefers finality. If we are abandoned by someone that we were attached to, we prefer to keep that door closed to prevent more trauma. However, Space Command believe Clifford is alive and he may be causing these electrical surges on Earth (wink wink, psychologically-minded audience), and Roy is their best hope of reaching him to get him to stop these attacks. They hope that Roy can appeal to his father’s emotions or paternal instincts, if necessary. They don’t understand what they are asking of Roy. Not only is he vulnerable due to his recent circumstances, but they have asked him to re-open his oldest, deepest wound. To contact the person who hurt him the most in the world and then to beg for mercy is unfathomable for Roy. Also if Roy fails to convince his dad, Earth and likely all of human civilization will be destroyed by these catastrophic electrical surges. No big deal.

Even as an audience member, you can feel the overwhelming burden that has been placed on Roy when he already wasn’t feeling too hot. However, Roy keeps a stiff upper lip and touts emotional compartmentalization as a means of getting through the tough times and soldiering on. Compartmentalizing is one of the oldest and most dangerous means of emotional avoidance. However, Roy is not going to be able to avoid his father or his interior life on this mission.

Over the course of his journey to Mars, Roy learns a number of things that bolster and support his own experience of his father. First, let’s take a second to understand how invalidated Roy must have felt when the person who abandoned him is praised as a hero and “one of the best” for Roy’s entire life. Not only because of Clifford’s actions during his service or bravery in the line of duty, but he is idolized specifically because he abandoned Roy. The entire world agrees that it was the right choice for Clifford to abandon Roy, and Roy has just had to swallow that down his entire life. However, Roy learns that he wasn’t alone in abuse from his father. An old colleague, Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), tells Roy how he and his father used to be close (they “even went to Purdue together”) but had a massive falling out which ended in Clifford calling him a traitor. That was the last time they spoke. On Mars, Roy sees a video of his father explaining that he killed most (if not all) of his crew during an attempted mutiny. He shut down the crew’s life support systems and killed “the guilty and innocent alike” all because some of the crew wanted to return home to Earth. These aren’t the actions of a brave and stalwart hero. They’re the desperate acts of a man unhinged, obsessed in an Ahab-like quest to prove the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

Mars is where Roy’s calm, cool façade begins to crack, and his emotions begin to creep back into his life. Many men, particularly those in power or in the armed forces, are regularly rewarded and praised for compartmentalizing their emotions. However, they eventually pay the price emotionally or personally. If you are not effectively managing and dealing with your emotions at the time, the mind begins to refract and expand your emotions so they become even more powerful and overwhelming. Imagine a ball bouncing off the walls of a room, but it’s gaining speed with each bounce. At some point, it’s going to tear a hole in the wall and wreak havoc. Intense and overwhelming emotions undermine our ability to be effective, so all those moments of borrowed time from the past where we compartmentalized to be effective back then come back later with compounded interest. You become overreactive at the drop of a hat and often over the most trivial of matters. Roy has one of these moments when he smuggles himself onto the ship from Mars to Neptune to confront his father face-to-face, but he ends up accidentally killing three other astronauts in the process. He is now alone with his thoughts for the months long journey to the cold, dark rings of Neptune to see the man who abandoned him so long ago.

Many people think parental abandonment is a single act – the cliché story of the beloved parent running to the store and never coming home. However, it rarely goes down like that. Parental abandonment is almost always the end point of a very unstable relationship that has been going on for some time. Usually, the quality of the relationship has never been “good” or even healthy. Abandonment occurs over a thousand tiny steps, not one big leap. This is exactly what we find when Roy finally speaks to his father face-to-face on the edge of the solar system, billions of miles from Earth. Clifford admits that his abandonment wasn’t some tragic accident or martyrdom. He confesses that he simply didn’t care what happened to Roy or his mother. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do. In a heartbreaking moment, Roy replies “I still love you, Dad.” Much like the electrical surges (which we find out were caused accidentally from some damage to the Lima Project station during the attempted mutiny some years ago), Clifford knew the consequences of his actions and just didn’t care. Clifford rejected not only Roy, but all of humanity to search for “higher beings” amongst the stars. Consequences be damned, he was going to find life out there no matter the cost – even if the station he was on killed every other living being in the solar system. At least he’s consistent.

In the climax of the film, Roy convinces his father to come home with him and return to Earth. Let’s take one more minute to step back and understand how monumental of a day this is for Roy. The inciting incident of Roy’s greatest trauma could be rectified today. He is finally able to achieve what he has silently wished for most of his adult life – finding his father and bringing him back home to Earth. It’s a mastery experience unlike any other. Trauma is a condition of powerlessness. Something terrible has happened or is happening to you, and you can’t really do anything about it. However in the span of a few hours, Roy is back in control as he saves humanity by destroying the faulty Lima Project station, tethering his father to his space suit, and returning to his craft to begin the journey back home to Earth. What a day.

But lest we forget, Clifford is consistent. Clifford begins to jettison himself (and Roy who is attached to him) away from the space craft and into the cold abyss of space to certain doom. He tells Roy to let him go, just unhook him, and let him disappear. Roy fights desperately to hang on, but eventually decides to let him go one last time. If he doesn’t, they’ll both die and Roy wants to live. He wants to live more now than ever before. As he watches his father float away one more time into the dark, he seems to make peace with his father’s abandonment at last. Happily, Roy makes it back in time to his ship and journeys home to Earth to start his life anew. As he says in his closing statements, he chooses to love those around him instead of losing everything to his father.

In addition to being one of Brad Pitt’s finest all-time performances and one of the best films of 2019, “Ad Astra” examines deep trauma and grief in a grounded and realistic manner (even flying through space). Many people feel like traumatic events are the end of their life, but in reality – they’re only the beginning of a new chapter. Like Roy, it’s up to us to decide what comes next and what defines us. When you’re ready to regain control of your life and make a change, therapy is much cheaper than a flight to Neptune.

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