Brian Wilson’s Biopic Shows Little Love or Mercy for Psychiatry
As the mother of a teenager who has bipolar disorder and a mile-wide creative streak, I was pretty excited to see the new Beach Boys biopic, Love and Mercy. Composer and musician Brian Wilson has been completely and heroically transparent about his struggles with mental illness. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Wilson works tirelessly to promote an end to stigma through creative projects like the SMiLE sessions.
But sadly, the movie was not at all what I expected. As an all-too-familiar modern fairy tale of the evil psychologist overmedicating and imprisoning a creative genius, Love and Mercy contributes to the merciless stigma that surrounds mental illness. Most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Love and Mercy, with its deliberately framed stories of Brian Wilson’s success and subsequent mental illness, oversimplifies Wilson’s journey, pitting Eugene Landy (note: Landy is not a psychiatrist) against the fairy princess Cadillac saleswoman who becomes Wilson’s wife. The middle of the story, where Landy coaxed Wilson from three years in bed and a 150 pound weight gain
to regain some semblance of his creative life and artistic promise, is only alluded to in the film, and the post-Landy period is a mere blurb as the end credits roll.
Yes, Landy was a bad guy. Love and Mercy’s Paul Giamatti does a brilliant job at showing Landy’s failures, but the fact that the story is true does not make it any less damaging, at a time when the profession of psychiatry is desperate to attract talented physicians in the face of a growing public health crisis. Worse, it's not the whole truth: While what Eugene Landy did to Brian Wilson was truly horrible, Brian Wilson's life before Landy was arguably worse, which is certainly not a justification, but it does show just how awful life can be for people with serious mental illness.
For the many thousands of children and adults who are in prison, or live homeless on the streets, a mental health professional can be a guide on the path to help and hope. Contrary to myriad negative media portrayals of psychiatrists, most mental health professionals are dedicated to improving their patients’ lives. That has certainly been my son's experience. Yet a 2014 study concluded that “medical students enter medical school with distinctly negative attitudes toward a career in psychiatry compared with other specialties,” which explains why only three percent choose to specialize in psychiatry each year.
Love and Mercy is just the most recent example of an unbalanced cinematic portrayal of mental healthcare professionals, what Sharon Packer has termed “cinema’s sinister psychiatrists.” In a study of mainstream movies, Wedding and Neimic (2014) found that for every balanced portrayal (Antwone Fisher, Ordinary People), there were four times as many unbalanced portrayals (What About Bob, Silence of the Lambs, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, etc.) .
The whole Love and Mercy story is this: Brian Wilson regained his life because of his family, his mental healthcare providers, and his own desire to seek recovery. As he told Ability Magazine in a 2014 interview, "Yes, I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist once a week for 12 years now, and he’s become a really close friend of mine. We talk and he helps me out.” He also takes medication to manage his condition
I'm not suggesting that Eugene Landy’s treatment of Brian Wilson was anything but unethical and immoral. It's just not the whole story. For every bad mental health professional like Landy, there are many more good mental health professionals, like the UCLA doctors who correctly diagnosed Wilson, or his current psychiatrist. All I’m asking is that Hollywood tell that story—the story where Wilson is correctly diagnosed, finds the right treatments and supports, and lives the life he deserves.