How Trauma Created Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker

October 18, 2019

By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing

Put on a happy face, dear readers. This is your final warning for spoilers for the entire movie of “Joker.” We also discuss some rather dark and upsetting subject material, so please be advised. Now, send in the clowns.

Whether you find it a comedy or tragedy, “Joker” is finally here and it seems like everyone has a different opinion. However, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck / Joker is receiving near-universal praise as the tragic, dark, savage, and sad anti-hero of the film. The construction of the character is incredibly nuanced, and Phoenix truly comes alive in the part. Everything from his facial mannerisms to his skeletal frame tell us something important about the character, and it reinforces the upsetting psychological portrait of Arthur / Joker throughout the film and realizes one of the darker (and relatively realistic) portrayals of Complex Trauma in modern cinema.

There is a quick moment about two thirds of the way through the film right after Arthur has stolen a file from Carl at Arkham Asylum (Bryan Tyree Henry) that unveils the true mechanics behind Arthur and Joker. He scampers his way to the safety of the Arkham staircase to finally discover the truth of his childhood. The scene is maybe a minute or two long, but it unlocks the entire character from a psychological perspective. Arthur discovers the circumstances by which his mother was institutionalized at Arkham Asylum. She was deeply delusional and believed her fantasies about a love affair with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) were true. What’s more, she had allowed Arthur to be severely abused by her various boyfriends over the years. When protective services found him, he was chained to a radiator, severely malnourished, and showing evidence of extreme physical abuse (if not other types of abuse). When she is confronted with the abuse of Arthur, she replies that she only ever heard him laughing – he was such a happy child, full of joy and laughter.

From the first seconds of “Joker,” you can tell there is something wrong with Arthur. It’s the kind of gut wrenching, hair standing up on the back of your neck feeling you have when your mind and body are anticipating physical danger like walking down a dark alleyway alone. Maybe you aren’t entirely sure of why, but something seems amiss with him. Based on what we learn later on, Arthur’s extreme psychology comes from a combination of biological vulnerability and severe childhood trauma. Over the course of the film, it becomes obvious that Arthur has inherited his mother’s psychological issues and proclivity for fantasies and hallucinations that muddle the line between fact and fiction. However, plenty of people live with these issues and lead relatively normal lives through the help of support systems, therapy, psychotropic medication, and more. What pushes Arthur into the abyss is the extreme abuse he suffered as a child. Childhood traumas can shape an entire life. These experiences make children grow into adults that are more likely to make poor health choices (e.g., smoking, obesity, etc.), exhibit more high-risk behaviors (e.g., extreme risk taking, poor impulse control, etc.), and more prone to physical violence both to themselves and others. The combination of biological vulnerability and severe childhood trauma (continued into severe adult trauma) coalesce into a perfect storm that creates Joker.

We are told early in the film that Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter is due to an unnamed neurological condition. We watch as he is unable to stop himself from laughing at the most inappropriate times even to the point of choking, physical pain, and gasping for air. However true or untrue the neurological or brain damage aspect may be, it is clear that Arthur’s laughing is his mind’s automatic response to any negative emotion. Emotional intensity and dysregulation are common symptoms of those who survived childhood trauma. The “footprint” of those horrific experiences are apparent in the fundamental belief system that frame Arthur’s daily reality. Arthur’s mind reacts to extreme emotions or situations by turning everything into laughter – however uncontrolled or inappropriate it may be. Arthur is so emotionally dysregulated and out of control, all of his emotions have begun to merge together. Like other extremely dysregulated people, he can no longer differentiate the emotion he is feeling (anger, sadness, fear, etc.) from who he has become. All he feels is the emotional intensity as it overtakes him. He is unable to calm down or control his emotions, so as his mind is overwhelmed by the intensity – his body expresses and releases it as intense and painful cackling.

Over the course of early childhood, our parents teach us how to live and behave properly. One of the main and most important skills we learn is how to regulate our thoughts and emotions and how to soothe ourselves when we are upset or experiencing intense feelings. Up until about the age of four, much of this is done by “co-regulating” where our parents and community teach us how to regulate and soothe our emotions through direct lessons (like calming a crying baby) and by their own example when they are upset. Do they yell and scream, fall into avoidance patterns, or do they deal with their emotions in a healthy manner? However, Arthur didn’t have anything even resembling a normal childhood, and he had no mentorship for these kinds of basic self-regulation skills. His mother was neglectful and his “father figures” were severely abusive to him. Arthur wasn’t allowed to express any negative emotions growing up to either his male abusers or his mother. Her neglect, avoidance, and likely invalidation of anything negative Arthur may have expressed was deeply sabotaging of his development. The laughter reaction may have even been a learned behavior based on his mother’s insistence that he is a happy child who only laughs. The only way for him to receive attention, praise, and validation was to transform all of his negative emotions into overwhelming laughter.

Since he did not learn any coping skills as a child, Arthur has limited ability to modulate or regulate his emotions at the most critical moments. He only exists in the extremes of his emotional life as either completely constricted or overwhelmed and completely lost in the feeling. He goes from zero to 100 in a matter of seconds, and he has no ability to stabilize until the laughing attack episode is over. He tries so desperately to control his emotions, but he can only approach them with avoidance strategies (medication, physically stifling his laughter, etc.). He has minimal ability to experience and master his emotions, so they control him for much of the film.

In a moment of transparency, Arthur confides to his social worker (Sharon Washington) that he feels invisible. When a child is severely neglected, they often experience feelings of invisibility. They are often convinced on a fundamental level that they have no value as a human being. Psychological distress increases exponentially in neglected children. Their cries for help become louder and more forceful, and they begin to exhibit extreme behaviors just to solicit any amount of attention from a caregiver. As the adults in their lives fail to acknowledge them and their pain, they may become increasingly less able to access their emotions on command. It is common for them to swing between complete emotional saturation and emotional numbness.

His mother’s neglect has taught Arthur that he doesn’t matter and no one really cares about him. This neglect is an assault on his sense of himself and his understanding of the world around him. His childhood physical abuse from his mother’s boyfriends have instilled in him that he has no ability to fight back – what the psychological community calls “learned helplessness.” He has no choice but to take whatever abuse the world wants to give him. We see this play out over and over again in the first few scenes of the movie as well – he gets beaten up by a gang of street kids when they steal and break a sign for his job, the social worker ignores and invalidates what he says even though he is just asking for help, he tries to entertain a child on a bus and the child’s mother very strongly tells him to stop bothering them. Arthur continues to recapitulate and reexperience his fundamental trauma every day of his adult life vacillating between neglect and helplessness all the way to physical violence and abuse. However, he has a daily routine and it keeps him relatively grounded and stable.

In the first half of the film, we watch as Arthur’s life begins to deteriorate – he loses his job, he loses his medication and social services routine when their funding is cut, and he loses his idol and pseudo-father figure when Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) makes fun of Arthur on his show. Finally, he loses his sense of self when he rediscovers and remembers his childhood while reading his file from Arkham Asylum. As the list of psychological triggers builds, Arthur begins to carry a gun. When a group of drunken bullies on the subway begin to harass a woman, Arthur’s uncomfortable cackling begins to erupt from his mouth. He desperately tries to stifle it and not attract their attention, but once they see him in his full clown outfit – he is now the target. They saunter over to him, taunting him with jokes and singing “Send In The Clowns” as the sense of dread begins to grow. Something bad is about to happen, and we all know it. They soon escalate and throw Arthur to the floor of the dirty subway car, and Arthur’s laughter fills the car as they beat him mercilessly.

Understand that Arthur is no longer psychologically present. He has been psychologically transported back to his childhood – helpless in a dirty apartment, chained to a radiator, while his abusers ruthlessly pummel him. However, something is different this time. He pulls out the gun and shoots two of his assailants dead instantly. He clips the third who manages to escape at the next subway stop. Arthur pursues him and executes him on the steps out of the subway. Realizing what he has done, he runs away into the night until he stops to catch his breath in a public bathroom, slamming the door shut and panting for air. But then something strange happens.

He suddenly begins to dance. Slowly at first until it builds into a grand display of his physical prowess, it’s like watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon by dancing out of its chrysalis. The grotesque motions of his gangly figure mimicking the nightly dance of his idol Murray Franklin’s entrance on his favorite TV show. We’ve seen Arthur dance before as part of his clown act, but it’s more vaudevillian and silly routines to entertain children. This dance is slow and systematized – almost like a ritualized dance or a celebration of his victory on the subway. In a way it is an entrance sequence, as we see Arthur begin to merge with his new persona of Joker. Instead of continuing to be helplessly beaten on the floor of the dirty subway as Arthur, Joker grabbed the gun, seized control, and defended them both. And y’know what? Arthur seems to like being Joker. He likes it a lot. He feels so good that he’s dancing. In the final flourish of the sequence, he presents himself to the mirror with pomp and circumstance as though to present the manifestation of Joker to the world for the first time. Joker is about power, control, revenge, and violence to get what you want. This is the first time in Arthur’s life that he’s truly defended himself and won. His escalating behavior following this initial incident reinforces and rationalizes the violence since he feels such a sense of empowerment and control through each act.

As we see the transition from Arthur to Joker over the rest of the movie, we witness him finding his voice in violence. He chastises the uncaring social worker, he confronts Thomas Wayne face-to-face, he stabs to death a co-worker that wronged him, he murders his mother for her role in his childhood abuse, and he incites a riot to escape the police who are on to him. His behavior escalates over time and becomes increasingly frantic and more violent.

The only remnants of Arthur that we see are the moments of childlike delight and whimsy over his victims. He even does a little dance sometimes when he realizes he’s won a fight. When we see the final transformation before his appearance on Murray, Joker has taken over fully as he psyches himself up dancing on the stairs outside in a new suit and full clown make up. The slow and exploratory dance in the bathroom has turned into a confident series of spins, stomps, pirouettes, and gyrations. He’s ready. This is his moment. When he meets his former idol Murray face to face, he is fully confident and asks him to introduce him as “Joker” when he walks on stage.

As he saunters over to his chair after being introduced, he realizes that Murray has an agenda. He isn’t there to meet Joker and understand him. This is just another chance to make fun of Arthur for ratings. Joker had planned to kill himself on live TV as a statement against Murray, but that’s not a Joker thing to do – that’s a move Arthur would make. As their confrontation escalates, Joker doesn’t turn the gun on himself. Instead, he shoots Murray in the head point blank. He waits a few beats, drops the gun, and calmly walks away.

In a final step to reinforce his new violent belief system, rioters save Joker from police custody and tenderly lift him out of the police car like a fallen hero. The rioting crowd claps and cheers as Joker dances for them on the hood of the destroyed cop car. Once again, violence has brought him everything he wants – a crowd is now cheering for him as a clown dancing for their amusement. Arthur and Joker are fully merged, and he is finally happy. When we see Joker after a quick time lapse, he is now locked up in a mental institution. He is having the time of his life assaulting the staff and continuing the cycle of violence. What are we as the audience to take away from this dark ending? Violence and pain are often born in neglect and abuse, and the scars of old traumas can create new horrors if left unrecognized and untreated. The mental health system of Gotham failed Arthur Fleck, and they got Joker instead.

As Frank Sinatra reminds us throughout the film, “That’s life.”

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