Joker: A warning we should heed

At my teenaged kids’ insistence, I took them to watch Joker in the theater, expecting a typical action-packed, comic book movie – not a genre I typically enjoy. Instead, I sat in the darkness, stunned to near-tears by it’s devastating portrayal of how early childhood trauma and untreated mental illness can spiral into tragedy. 

The poignant film explores the backstory of comic book villain Joker: a man named Arthur Fleck who has a disturbing past and a troubling present. It is a compelling and nuanced portrayal of untreated trauma and mental illness. 

Joker is incredibly violent and disturbing, certainly earning its R-rating, but at the same time reflects a reality we are already seeing in our society today. Early childhood trauma is at epidemic levels. Our mental health system is in disarray. We aren’t meeting the needs of the vulnerable around us and sometimes violence and tragedy are the price we pay as a society. 

There’s a huge amount of controversy swirling around the film and it’s portrayal of mental illness. After watching the movie, I believe the real controversy we should be focused on is why we don’t have affordable, accessible, effective treatment for mental illness and early childhood trauma!

"You think Joker is controversial? What's really controversial is that we don't have affordable, accessible, effective treatment for mental illness and early childhood trauma." – Keri Williams Click To Tweet

*** Spoilers Below ***

In the film, Joker, we meet Arthur Fleck shortly after he’s been discharged from a mental health institution. He’s receiving mediocre city mental health services, living in poverty, and attempting to build a semblance of a life for himself.

While the film does not specify all of Arthur’s diagnoses, his symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and feelings of despair, loneliness, and worthlessness. Arthur’s one obvious diagnosis, Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), fits of uncontrollable laughter, results in severe bullying. We also learn Arthur was abused and neglected by his mother during early childhood. This included severe head trauma as well as psychological and emotional abuse. Arthur has never been able to access the treatment he needs to manage his condition, much less heal, or thrive. He’s completely lacking social skills, unable to hold down a job despite his best efforts, and even with medication, unable to feel happy or optimistic.

Unfortunately, Arthur is not simply a far-fetched character. We have “Arthurs” living and breathing all around us – in our daycare centers, classrooms, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Early childhood trauma is a hidden epidemic affecting millions of people. While victims of early childhood trauma and/or people who have mental illnesses aren’t necessarily violent, the combination of untreated trauma and mental illness with psychosis can be dangerous. Furthermore, high-risk children are not receiving effective treatments in residential treatment facilities. They are aging out ill-equipped to function in the adult world and at high risk of criminal behavior and incarceration. Like Arthur, most of these individuals want to be happy. They want to have good lives. However, we, as a society, fail them by not providing effective, affordable, accessible treatments for trauma and mental illness. Like Arthur, these people struggle to navigate even the basics of life.

Arthur, though teetering like a wobbling house of cards, is trying to build a life for himself. He’s trying to find some happiness. But it’s obvious to the viewer that he simple doesn’t have the resources or skills to do so. And so begins Arthur’s devastating spiral that should be a warning for us all. 

  1. Arthur loses his services (therapy, medications, etc) due to city financial cuts.
  2. He’s fired from the job he loves – sure he made a mistake, but he’s given no mercy or compassion.
  3. He follows his dream to be a comedian, and falls flat. He’s mocked mercilessly.
  4. He’s physically assaulted for laughing (his Pseudobulbar Affect) and in self-defense shoots and kills two men on a train. In a panic, he kills another.
  5. He’s cruelly rejected by the man he believes to be his birth father.
  6. He learns his mother abused him as a child and anger that has been festering in his unconscious for decades surfaces.

The spiral tightens. Arthur is drawn to the rioters who praise him as a vigilante for the killing on the train (which was in fact, self-defense). He becomes more violent and murders several people. In his mind, his path has become inevitable as all other doors – all other options – have slammed closed in his face. 

Does this not reflect the crumbling path of so many young people in our society today? People who struggle on the edge of society: to hold down a jobs, to form relationships, to find their next meal, or place to sleep. This instability is the fate of so many people who have experienced early childhood trauma and/or are mentally ill because they are unable to access effective treatment and services. Is it any wonder that they are hopeless, desperate, and caught in a downward spiral? Is it any surprise that some end up engaging in criminal behavior? That some act out violently?

Towards the end of the movie, Arthur has fully transformed into the Joker. Wearing chalky make-up and a sardonic smile, he sits on a talk show stage and casually confesses to the train murders, Before shooting the talk show host point-blank in the face, Joker says, “I’ve got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned me.” And we can’t disagree: He has got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned him.

It only takes thumbing through the headlines to know that far too many of our most vulnerable have been abandoned by society and with nothing to lose have picked up guns and lashed out violently too. Read more about one recent incident here. This will continue until we prioritize affordable, accessible, effective treatment for early childhood trauma and mental illness.

NOTE: In case it wasn’t clear in this post, I am not saying that mental illness or childhood trauma lead to violent behaviors. What I am saying is that untreated mental illness and untreated childhood trauma can put people on a dangerous spiral.

Let's connect!