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September 27, 2015

AsA new doctor finds himself with a ward full of comatose patients. He is disturbed by them and the fact that they have been comatose for decades with no hope of any cure. When he finds a possible chemical cure he gets permission to try it on one of them. When the first patient awakes, he is now an adult having gone into a coma in his early teens. The film then delights in the new awareness of the patients and then on the reactions of their relatives to the changes in the newly awakened.

“Transcendence can also be spoken of in terms of the human possibility of exceeding our limitations, of experiencing wholeness within brokenness, of glimpsing how life was meant to be but is not In the vernacular, we sometimes get a glimpse of Humpty-Dumpty put back together again. T. S. Eliot writes of this as “the still point of the turning world.”

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time. T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets

“Wallace Stevens speaks of the same experience as “a self that touches all edges.” Within our all too fragmented lives, we occasionally rediscover life as a whole, if only for a moment. Here is the other pole of the experiential axis, what I have labeled “The Human” in order to suggest its this-worldly focus.

“A number of movies come to mind: Grand Canyon (1991), Tender Mercies (1983), Places in the Heart (1984), Sling Blade (1996), Secrets & Lies (1995),
Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Forrest Gump (1994), Awakenings (1990), and Life Is Beautiful (1998).

“But again, any filmic story that portrays human experience truthfully has this spiritual capacity Such movies, in the words of writer Anne Lamott, “deepen and widen and expand our sense of life; they feed the soul.”

“Transcendent human experiences are not confined to the traditional religious sphere but occur throughout life’s activity Peter Berger finds such “rumors of angels” in the human activity of play, for example.’° One of John Updiked characters, David Kern, speaks of these human experiences as “supernatural mail on foreign soil.” David’s transcendent experience took place as he helped a cat, which had been hit by a car, die. At the time, he was on his way home from the hospital where his wife was giving birth to their daughter.

“Death and life came together as a moment in time, but out of time. David concludes, “The incident had the signature: decisive but illegible.” ‘The experience was transformative for Updike’s character in conveying a sense of the sacramentality of life. Though such encounters are personal in nature, they are never simply subjective or aesthetic. Rather, they are a revelation about Reality itself.

“What unites these two otherwise disparate understandings of transcendence—what we are labeling The Holy and The Human—is their common recognition of some “Value More that exceeds our current possession.” That is, they are revelatory of something beyond ourselves. David Hay recounts his findings after asking people to describe that “personal experience of the presence or power of whatever is conceived as ultimately real, whether named God, the gods, . . or anything else.” In his surveys, he discovered that when given the opportunity and taboos were allowed to be broken down, three out of four individuals recognized that they had had such experiences. For some, these transcendent experiences were what we are labeling holy. For others, they were human. But however described, they demanded the indidual’s total involvement, were intensely real, were responses to a perceived “given,” and had consequences for their practical lives. Many who were interviewed had not chosen to talk about these experiences before, fearing misunderstanding or rejection. But for most people, transcendence was a known experience.

“Hay observes that his findings match the evidence we have from comparative religion, where it can be noted how: literally any thing or any occasion can be associated with a sudden moment of religious awareness…..There are records of such moments during childbirth, at the point of death, during sexual intercourse, at a meal, during fasting, in a cathedral, on a rubbish dump, on a mountain top, in a slum: in association with a particular plant, stone, fish, mammal, bird and so on ad infinitum. . . [T]hough it is worth repeating that there seems to be no ay of “switching them on.’

“It is this experience of a “reality not ourselves” that suggests for Wallace Stevens an affinity between art and religion. Writes Stevens, “And the wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something ‘wholly other’ by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched.” Nathan Scott speaks similarly as he writes that “the truth of the matter is that both art and religious faith share a common intention to summon us into the presence of what is other than, and transcendent to, the human mind; and, in this, they provide each other rs ith a kind of mutual confirmation.

“Julius Lester, who teaches Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, tells of his experience while teaching a course on religion and Western literature. His testimony is true of the power of story more generally. He says that his students are often bristling with cynicism but want to believe. After reading Eliot, Baldwin, Hesse, and Potok, “students who have not been to mass since coming to college are going again. Jewish students who go to synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah start attending Shabbat evening services. Students who do not come from a religious tradition find themselves, like the Psalmist, seeing God in nature.” He concludes:
I harbor no illusions that many of them will be able to sustain their nascent experiences of transcendent meaning. But I respect these new beginnings, regardless of how brief they may be. The students have cared enough about God to suffer the terror of His absence and they are now willing to suffer the terror of His presence. . Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue – R. Johnston pp. 155f

From a Christian perspective, the most important point of the film is that everyone (even someone who can’t interact with others) is a person and deserves respect. In an exchange between Dr. Sayer and an older researcher (Max Von Sydow), Dr. Sayer asks “What’s it like to be them? What are they thinking?” The answer is that they’re not thinking, because the virus wiped out the higher brain functions. How do we know that? “Because the alternative [that there’s someone still inside that body] is unthinkable.” Dr. Sayer’s fight for his conviction that there really is “someone in there” is uphill all the way, but he’s proven correct. This same entrenched mentality (that if someone can’t respond, he’s not a real person) is faced every day by those in the pro-life movement. The other major point is the preciousness of all the things in life that “ordinary” people take for granted.

The central themes of Awakenings — falling asleep, being turned to stone; being wakened decades later, to a world no longer one’s own — have an immediate power to grip the imagination. This is the stuff that dreams, nightmares, and legends are made of— and yet it actually happened.

Those words of Oliver Sacks capture the essence of the remarkable events described in his book and dramatized by Penny Marshall in her 1990 film of the same name. Liberation took place in the lives of figures “turned to stone” decades earlier by the spell of a cruel virus. It also took place in the lives of all with whom they came into contact. Doctors, nurses, family, friends — none remained unaffected.

…..the theme of liberation as evoked primarily through Marshall’s film. It should however be noted that it is far more than a “film of the book.” The events depicted influenced its making in a profound way, with the actors themselves being deeply moved by the lives which they sought to portray. And when Lilian Tighe, the only living survivor of the patients recorded in Sacks’s book, was brought to the set, dramatic representation and living reality connected in a way that affirmed the genius of the actors and the immense courage of the people who were their subjects.

It was at Mount Carmel Hospital in New York during the 1960s where Sacks first encountered consequences of the sleeping-sickness epidemic (encephalitis lethargica) that swept the world in the 1920s. There he discovered people who had, to all intents and purposes, been “asleep” for years and even decades, largely oblivious to their external surroundings. They were the tip of a huge iceberg of people whose lives had been, effectively, put to sleep by the epidemic. In the 1960s there was “no major country without its complement of post-encephalitics” .

In 1969, using a drug developed for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease known as L-dopa (laevodihydroxyphenylalanine), Sacks caused an “awaken­ing” to take place in the lives of Mount Carmel’s post-encephalitic patients. His work provided unique documentary evidence for the opening of a chemical window in the lives of those patients under his care, and it attracted great interest. In the wake of a TV documentary, which used footage of Sacks’ filmed record, and both radio and stage plays — including Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska — came Marshall’s film.

Robin Williams as Dr Malcolm Sayer portrays the role of Oliver Sacks; Robert de Niro is Leonard Lowe — the pseudonym used by Sacks for one of his patients — and Mount Carmel becomes Bainbridge Hospital in the Bronx. As with any cinema representation of actual events, a degree of poetic licence is taken and a somewhat sanitized picture is presented of patient symptoms and drug side-effects. Yet Awakenings still captures the essence of what happened at Mount Carmel over the summer of 1969. Liberation came to those connected with the events in a variety of ways, the profundity of which is exemplified in the words of the rear “Leonard Lowe” in describing tfie impact of his own awakening:

I feel saved .. . resurrected, re-born. I feel a sense of health amounting to Grace … I feel like a man in love. I have broken through the barriers which cut me off from love .. . I have been hungry and yearning all my life and now I am full. Appeased. Satisfied. I want nothing more.

And in his diary from the same period Sachs recorded the following words: If everyone felt as good as I do, nobody would think of quarrelling or wars. Nobody would think of domination or possession. They would simply enjoy themselves and each other. They would realize that Heaven was right here down on earth.

Liberation is a motif which runs throughout the film and is used significantly to relate to the question of what it means to be human. Essentially, liberation is concerned with overcoming all that prevents a person from becoming fully human. Both the oppressor and the oppressed need to be liberated from actions, attitudes and ideologies that are life-diminishing. This often involves radical, if not even revolutionary change in the lives of individuals, institutions and structures that are responsible for oppression.

Within the Christian religious tradition “Liberation Theology” is the term applied to the exploration of the encounter between Christian faith in practkr and all that stands in the way of human beings achieving wholeness. A politicized phrase, Liberation Theology is, however, rooted in tile wider concept of salvation which J. B. Taylor describes as being concerned with “rescuing all human life from darkness and despair” (English 1994: 26 At its heart is a belief in a God who is the prime mover in this respect and identified explicitly as such. The story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is the foundational Old Testament text. In the New Testament it is through the person of Jesus Christ that the God of life, who is concerned with confronting and overcoming all that stands in the way of human freedom and wholeness, is supremely revealed.

From this understanding of a God who is on the side of the poor, the marginalized and the downtrodden, numerous “theologies of liberation” have evolved and they continue to develop out of the quest to discover just what it means to be human in situations of oppression.

Liberation theology, in sum, both continues and radically departs from modern theology. As a continuation, Liberation Theology represents a radical engagement of Christianity with the world, with the intent to represent human freedom and God’s gratuitous activity in the questions and issues of the day. As a radically new paradigm and departure from modern theology, Liberation Theology reflects and guides a Christianity that is identified with those who suffer, that represents a freedom of transformation, and that proclaims a God whose love frees us for justice and faith.

Chopp thus draws attention to the step beyond modern theology — and certainly beyond classical Western theology — which Liberation Theology takes. Its proponents have been highly critical of any theology which takes a detached stance and has been scathing towards any purely academic approach.

Of course, not all modern theology can be written off by liberation theologians as irrelevant at best, and a positive hindrance to issues of social justice at worst. Liberation Theology would endorse — and indeed participates in, any theological endeavor which seeks to engage with issues such as poverty, hunger and marginalization. Where it differs, and offers its greatest contribu­tion, is in emphasizing the suffering of the poor and marginalized not as a passive compliance with suffering but as a participation in the struggle of God against oppression. Such a struggle involves a confrontation with all that lies at the root of suffering.

In contrast to the reflection followed by the action approach of much modern theology, Liberation Theology inverts the order: action comes first and then reflection, out of which comes further action. “Theology has to stop explaining the world, and start transforming it”. True knowledge of God thus comes through commitment to the cause of those cast out to the margins and rejected by society.

In Awakenings, whilst Dr Sayer does not convey any overt theological stance it is arguable that an implicit theology of liberation is at work in him. This becomes apparent as the story progresses through his empathy with his patients and his willingness to take on the oppressive structures of the institution on their behalf, with little or no regard for his own personal cost (e.g. reputation, career prospects, etc.).

In an early sequence, where Dr Sayer is interviewed at Bainbridge, he tries to beat a retreat on discovering that the vacancy is for a clinical appointment rather than a research position at the chronic mental hospital. His self-perception, picked up later in the film, is one of social inadequacy. Sayer sees himself as “not very good with people.” Offered the post he becomes the reluctant physician, pried away from his research laboratory and confronted for the first time since his internship with living, breathing patients. In many ways his circumstances become the trigger for the commencement of a process of liberation that has far-reaching consequences.

Yet still, for a while, he remains held captive by all the shaping influences that have created his wholly inadequate sense of who he is. Confronted, for instance, with an invitation to coffee with Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner), Sayer declines by using the false excuse of another engagement and retreats into his world of solitary TV dinners and the study of plants. A significant point here is that Costello notices something in Sayer to which he. himself, is blind. His response to patients who have been institutionalized for many years reveals not a dispassionate researcher more at home in a laboratory. but rather a warm and caring man. Sayer’s empathy with his patients in fact proves to be a vital key to unlocking the chains of resignation by which his patients had been held since arriving at Bainbridge.

As he explores the wards and the patient records, Sayer struggles to come to terms with the implicit acceptance by the hospital of the unchangeable nature of the quality of life for so many of its patients. Seeming to be hopelessly out of his depth, Sayer first registers that all may not be what seems when confronted by a new arrival at the hospital. Lucy Fishman (Alice Drummond) — an immobile, apparently wheelchair-bound woman — is brouist to Bainbridge following the death of her sister in whose care she had been for many years.

Sayer discovers what his fellow physicians dismiss as a reflex Lucy’s ability to catch an object falling in front of her or thrown towards her. Undaunted by their cynicism, Sayer presses on to discover that various patients respond different stimuli: for some it is a specific type of music, for others something in their visual field, for vet others the touch of another human Realization dawns that people who to all intents and purposes are living status can be reached. There is a glimmer that the cruel bars by which these people are incarcerated are not immovable. The oppression of their illness is not inevitable.

Driven by a deep conviction that something is being missed, Sayer eventually identifies a common factor in a number of the Bainbridge patients. Many of those regarded by his colleagues as Sayer’s “statues” had suffered from the sleeping sickness epidemic of the 1920s. With the excitement of discovering a link between the patients, comes recognition of a dreadful possibility. What if the patients were mentally “intact” but imprisoned by the ravaging effects of a virus by which they had been afflicted, in some cases, over 30 years ago?

The realization of this possibility of almost unimaginable suffering is intensified for Sayer by his conversation with Dr Peter Ingram (Max Von Sydow). Having tracked down this aged man who had been an eminent physician at the time of the epidemic, Ingram describes how the long-term damage began to manifest itself. The victims became “insubstantial as ghosts.” Ingram believed that their higher mental faculties had not been spared.

His belief was not the product of any empirical scientific evidence, however, but simply because for him the alternative was unimaginable. To think otherwise was to acknowledge the immeasurable depths of suffering endured for years and decades by the victims: the suffering of healthy minds held captive in the prisons of their bodies over which they had no control, unable to communicate in any way with the outside world; a solitary confinement of the soul. Spurred on by this, Sayer intensifies his quest to break through the confinement of his post-encephalitic patients, despite the negative and some­what patronizing attitudes of his medical colleagues at Bainbridge. Their attitudes and assumptions about Sayer’s “statues” were not the result of a callous approach, but rather arose from resignation. They had convinced themselves, as a consequence of both their clinical skill and years of experience in the hospital, that the people in question were beyond help. Their walls of indifference might even have been a means of protection from facing the implications of an unthinkable alternative and the feelings of helplessness that would ensue.

Maintaining the status quo of a situation that is misjudged, uncertain, or completely wrong — whether knowingly or unconsciously — is a barrier to the liberation of all the parties concerned. All are prevented from progressing towards achieving their full potential as human beings. And while it is more obvious for some than for others, the reality is that all are victims of an oppression which takes on a subtle life of its own, which is all the more insidious because of its hidden nature.

Sometimes it takes an imaginative leap, an intuitive risk, or a fresh vision to crack the shell of a rigid, hardened position. In Awakenings this comes through Sayer challenging the conventional wisdom that has effectively closed the cases of the post-encephalitic patients by identifying them as beyond any hope of improvement. The scene where Sayer and Costello are coloring in squares on the floor of the patient lounge is a graphic illustration of the creative spark so often needed to ignite the liberating process. His hunch that his patient Lucy’s inability to walk beyond a certain point is linked to the pattern in the tiles pays off. In the same way, Sayer just “knows” that the post-encephalitic patients are mentally alive, even though medical science has said otherwise. Tests had been run, data gathered, and conclusions drawn. The patients’ condition had not changed for years. Nothing had happened to suggest that the long-standing conclusion that they were beyond reach was flawed. Sayer just “knew.”

The power of Sayer’s conviction is reminiscent of the account in Mark’s gospel of the woman who had suffered from haemorrhaging for many years. The physicians had all given up on her but she just “knew” that if she could somehow touch the hem of Jesus’ garment she would be healed. Her intuition somehow slipped the shackles of resignation, imposed upon her by the ineffectiveness of attempts to restore her to health. She reached out and touched a mystery. Various explanations might be offered of both a natural and a supernatural kind. But whether what happened was an indication of a psychosomatic illness or a divine intervention are secondary to the result. The woman was indeed liberated from her suffering (Mk 5:25-34). Sayer’s “knowing” likewise goes beyond the empirical evidence. It is a leap of faith, in this case driven by the desperate need to reach his patients, who are “elsewhere.”

One of the most powerful expressions of what it means to experience this sense of being “elsewhere”, trapped by circumstances misunderstood and misinterpreted by others, comes in a sequence involving Sayer and Leonard Lowe. Using an Ouija board as a convenient means of providing letters to point at, Sayer holds Leonard’s arm and encourages him to spell out whatever he wants to say. Very slowly, a sequence of letters emerges that initiabr appears to have no meaning to Sayer. But later he realizes that Leonard has provided a reference to a poem entitled The Panther, by the German Rainer Maria Rilke. The translation from Rilke’s original used in the film is as follows:

His gaze from staring through the bars has grown so weary,

that it can take nothing more.

For him it is as though there were a thousand bars, and behind the thousand bars no world.

As he paces in cramped circles over and over,

his powerful strides are like a ritual dance around a centre where a great wheel stands para At times the curtain of the eye And a shape enters,

where a great wheel stands paralyzed.

At times the curtain of the eye lifts without a sound.

And a shape enters, slips through the tightened silence of the


reaches the heart and dies.

In a poignant scene Sayer sits on a bench in a zoo facing the panther’s cage as Rilke’s words play around in his head. The animal’s pacing restlessness, contained behind the bars of its cage, mirrors the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual pain of Leonard. The bars for him are not made of steel but are forged by an alloy comprising the effects of a random virus, institutional life, and the misunderstanding of his carers. In real life Leonard, again using a letter board, stressed his identification with the poet’s “panther” in the words: “This is a human zoo”.

Leonard, whilst not the only post-encephalitic patient portrayed in the film, is the symbolic character through whom the consequences of a life diminished by circumstances, events and attitudes beyond his control are explored. In Leonard, the viewer glimpses both the tragedy of freedom lost and the inner yearning for liberation. Rilke’s panther is a metaphor for the struggle of the human spirit to be free of all that separates it from wholeness.

From within the Christian tradition this longing for wholeness is understood as part of the human condition. It is a longing concerned not only with the removal of the physical, structural, social and emotional chains which devalue human existence, but also with a spiritual dimension. There is a deep-rooted desire for an encounter with the Divine, without which life remains unfulfilled, regardless of external circumstances. Poets, mystics, theologians have all tried to encapsulate this desire in words.

St Augustine of Hippo (354-450 CE) expresses it this way: “You awake us to delight in Your praises; for You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”. In other words, without the connection with God, there remains an unmet longing within the human spirit. For the Christian, the key to this encounter, the source of the “connection,” is to be found in and through the person of Jesus Christ, described by St Paul as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; see also Phil. 2:5-11). The view of what it means to be human is intricately bound up with reflecting the image of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It is an image of a caring, compassionate and suffering God.

A Christian theological perspective upon humanity as we experience it, suggests that each person has bars that prevent attainment to wholeness. Consisting of a myriad of factors, relating to culture and class, race and religion, self-absorption and spirituality, they incarcerate humanity to such an extent that it is as if the world beyond the bars did not exist. And only when they are seen as bars can the yearning for liberation take shape and form. Until then, lives are only partly lived. Sayer takes awhile to do so but gradually realizes that he, too, has his bars. It is in fact Leonard who confronts Sayer with the message of “physician heal thyself” and of his need to break out of his own emotional prison. Before the act of liberation must come the vision of liberation, something brought to Bainbridge by Sayer; something given to Sayer by Leonard.

This need for fresh vision is alluded to on numerous occasions where attention is drawn to pairs of spectacles. Sayer polishes Lucy’s spectacles just prior to discovering her ability to catch them as they fall; in another scene he races through a corridor fumbling for his own spectacles only to be told by Costello that “they’re on your face”; and later in the film he is sat on his bed polishing his spare sets of spectacles following an incident where a pair are broken by Leonard. At this point, faced with Leonard’s rapid deterioration, it is as though Sayer is searching for a new way of seeing. He knows the cost of an institution’s flawed vision to its patients and is desperate not to repeat the mistake.

Driven on by the developing empathy with Leonard and energized through the insights of Rilke’s poem, Sayer eventually secures permission for the trial use of L-dopa on Leonard. The result is that Leonard eventually “wakes up,- returning to a life that he involuntarily left decades earlier. For Leonard and all those around him, the effects are profound and his awakening becomes the catalyst for a whole series of awakenings. De Niro’s portrayal of the sense of release experienced by Leonard as the bars of his captivity melts away is remarkable and a tribute to the actor’s art of becoming his subject. So immersed in his role was De Niro, that during filming concern arose about the psychological impact upon the actor of assuming the symptoms of Leonard’s condition.

With the wonderment of a child, Leonard recognizes and expresses his appreciation of all that is taken so much for granted by such a high proportion of people in comfortable Western society. Through his actions and his word& he brings home very forcefully to Sayer the realization that the bars of captivity are not made, for most people, from the consequences of physical illness but rather from their attitudes and outlook upon life. The follow* exchange illustrates something of the power of the awakening triggered is Sayer through his encounter with Leonard and the other post-encephalitic patients.

From Bainbridge, a rather agitated Leonard has telephoned Sayer at is home in the middle of the night desperately wanting to talk. Sayer calis Leonard to wait in his office from where the call has been made until It arrives.

SAYER: Leonard, Leonard.

(An enthusiastic Leonard greets Sayer.)

LEONARD: Dr Sayer, sit down, sit down.

SAYER: Why, what’s wrong?

LEONARD: We’ve got to tell everybody, we’ve got to remind them, we’ve got to remind them how good it is.

SAYER: How good what is, Leonard?

(Leonard picks up a newspaper and shows it to Sayer.)

LEONARD: What does it say? It’s all bad, all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about, they have forgotten what it is like to be alive, they need to be reminded. They need to be reminded of what they have, what they could lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life. (The scene changes to the pharmacy the following morning where Sayer is talking to one of the staff.)

SAYER: He kept saying people don’t appreciate the simple things — work, play, friendship, family. He was so excited he talked till five o’clock in the morning. I don’t know whether this is liberation, mania .. .


SAYER: Yes. What he’s saying is absolutely right, though. We don’t know how to live.

This awakening in Sayer is demonstrated further when, towards the end of the film, he addresses the benefactors of Bainbridge whose generosity has enabled the L-dopa programme to take place. By this stage in the film Leonard’s remarkable physical liberation had regressed and he had returned to his immobile and completely dependent state as, presumably, had the rest of those whom he had treated:

The summer was extraordinary. It was a season of rebirth and innocence, a miracle. For the patients and for us, the care-takers. But now we have to adjust to the realities of miracles. We can hide behind the veil of science and say it was the drug that failed, or that the illness itself had returned, or that the patients were unable to cope with losing decades of their lives. The reality is that we don’t know what went wrong any more than we know what went right. What we do know is as the chemical window closed another awakening took place. That the human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished. With work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we have forgotten. The simplest things.

No-one involved with what took place at Bainbridge remained unaffected. The events triggered a liberating process that operated at a variety of different levels. Significant change took place which over­turned the relational dynamics of the hospital.

For Leonard, and the rest of the patients there was the short-lived experience of freedom from the imprisonment of their physical con­dition. They were able to make choices: about the food they ate; the hairstyles they wore; to read a book or smoke a cigarette. These simple things had been denied, in some cases for decades, both by the illness and the institution in which they lived.

It is hard to imagine what this release meant in psychological and emotional terms to the patients. Leonard’s almost contagious joy at being able to wade into the sea fully clothed while Sayer frantically looks on, provides a glimpse. The scene dramatically portrays what Oliver Sacks seeks to convey in his description of what happened on the awakening of the real “Leonard”:

Everything filled him with delight: he was like a man who had awoken from a nightmare or a serious illness, or a man released from entomb­ment or prison, who is suddenly intoxicated with the sense the sense and beauty of everything round him . . . He loved going out in the hospital garden: he would touch the flowers and leaves with astonished delight, and sometimes kiss them or press them to his lips.

Understandably, the film only hints at the psychological implications and ensuing trauma for the patients in coming to terms with their “loss” of se many years. Sacks’ book addresses these issues in considerable depth for those seeking a more rounded picture of the events behind the film.

For the purpose of good cinema the awakening of the patients apart from Leonard is condensed into one night when they emerge from their entombment. Released from their catatonia-like cocoons, bodies stretch. Arms reach out to feel the breeze from a fan and people who have been ward-mates many years say hello to each other for the first time. The scene is char! with emotion as a form of resurrection occurs and as the patients begin rediscover life once again through able bodies. There is a resonance here the narrative at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew: “The broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised life.” (Mt. 27:52).

The staff at Bainbridge also undergo change as a consequence of the Doctors, nursing staff, ancillary workers all have to reevaluate their ccrisiss and attitudes towards the post-encephalitic patients. For years they had treated them with professional care according to established routines. But due to the long duration of their time at the hospital, the patients had become

regarded as merely passive recipients of care. Their very personhood had, in some way, disappeared in the eyes of those entrusted with their care. The staff had lost sight of the humanness inherent in each one of the patients despite the awfulness of their affliction, a blindness which in itself contributed to the oppressiveness of the “caring” regime of the institution.

Consequences for all concerned with the awakening patients were immedi­ate. The patients had become “people” again. Leonard’s mother receives back her son as an articulate, walking being; nurses relate to their charges as autonomous men and women for the first time and are confronted with their individuality and specific requests; doctors who had been cynical of Sayer’s work are forced to reconsider and break out of the narrowness of the conventions with which they were bound. And, of course, for Sayer a huge transformation is underway as he begins to awaken to the essential nature of relationships needed for a person to be truly human.

Despite the eventual relapse of the patients to a similar physical state as before their L-dopa medication, a transformation had taken place in the life of the carers. They would never again in the same way see “statues” but rather people trapped inside physical prisons. People who could be reached and who deserved their every effort.

What becomes clearly apparent in the film, is that liberation is not without cost. This is a truth arising from the fact that the essence of liberation is concerned with the casting off of that which is oppressive. The process is seldom easy, as the fuel of oppression is power which is rigidly held and exercised. Even when achieved, the maintenance of liberation also exacts a price. Liberation is a fragile flower, easily trampled by the march of self which is so often the convenient option and the very point at which it can be lost for ever. In this respect, a materialistic philosophy is in many ways as destructive to liberation as the guns and torture chambers of an oppressive regime. It is a silent, suffocating oppression that is all the more insidious due to its hidden nature. A world divided into a hugely affluent minority and a vast multitude who live in poverty is the macrocosm of what is a present reality even within the privileged minority. The drive to achieve and maintain wealth, status and power so easily becomes an insulating barrier between the sometimes unwit­ting oppressor and the oppressed. But it is a two-way prison wall: those on both sides need to be set free. Liberation must be experienced by both the oppressor and the oppressed if it is to be a true and lasting liberation. At that point where oppression ceases, in Christian terms the kingdom of God is made a present reality. It is a foretaste of that for which the human spirit yearns. Such longing for liberation is deep seated in the human heart. It constantly emerges to challenge the creed of the powerful which argues that might is right; it values people for who they are, not what they do; it refuses to subject morality to the evolutionary principle of the survival of the fittest.

It is therefore no coincidence that, from the perspective of Christian theology and the Christian church, the liberator par excellence was not the leader of a group of armed revolutionaries, but a figure marginalized by “respectable” society and then judged by it before being subjected to execution on a cross. The power of love, exemplified for Christians in the person of Christ, is the root of any act of true liberation. It is that which enables one human being to make sacrifices for the sake of another; to reach out and love the unlovable; to lay down his/her life so that someone else might live (Jn 15:13).

The hard edge of liberation is the cost to all affected by it. In Awakenings, this is seen in the lives of patients and carers alike. Many of the post-encephalitic patients experience first the jubilation of their new found freedom, but then the frightening realization of what their awakening means: the recognition of the “loss” of ten, 20, even 25 years of life. Partners, children, friends have died or long since left them in the care of Bainbridge hospital. They have been frozen in time only to awaken to a world that has changed almost beyond recognition from the one they knew before falling asleep.

Leonard’s mother, at first overjoyed at her son’s “return” grows disil­lusioned by his developing friendship with a young woman named Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), who visits her stroke-victim father at Bainbridge. Mrs Lowe feels pushed out and rejected despite it being the only time in Leonard’s adult life that he has been able to even begin a friendship with a woman. The effects of his sleeping sickness have kept Leonard in chains, but the viewer is faced with the possibility that there were also other chains that needed to be released.

For Mrs Lowe herself, an awakening is required to recognize Leonard’s need to be released from the exclusive bond of love in which he had been held and from which he had received her tireless care and attention. The sacrifice of a mother to love her son enough to let him go is not, however, one that Mrs Lowe is prepared or able to make — a point brought home powerfully in her appeal to the hospital authorities to end Leonard’s experimental treatment.

Leonard’s condition has by this stage tragically deteriorated despite Sayer’s frantic efforts to reverse the decline. Mrs Lowe’s appeal is quite understand­able in the circumstances. But just how much of his mother’s appeal is due to her own inability to cope with the pain of seeing Leonard’s suffering is unclear. Leonard himself does not appear to be asked what he wants regarding further medication. The easiest option for Mrs Lowe is arguably an undermin­ing of Leonard’s struggle to hold on to the fleeting experience of wholeness that the L-dopa treatment has allowed him to glimpse. Mrs Lowe’s love for her son arguably contributes to the loss of his liberty. Attention is clearly drawn here to the cost of liberation, though it should be noted that the real “Leonard” himself asked to be taken off the drug . For

Leonard and the rest of Sayer’s patients the liberation of their summer awakening brought with it consequences that those who have never suffered from such an illness can only just begin to imagine. To be free for a season from the prison of their sleeping sickness aftermath, only to slip back as the medication failed, must have been a devastating experience.

Towards the end of the film, Sayer demonstrates his own awareness of this by asking Nurse Costello how right it was to “give life” only for it to be taken away. No words can comfort Sayer who is left to ponder the enigma of human suffering. But having entered into the suffering of his patients through his empathy with them, a change has taken place. Concern, compassion, love for the broken lives of the Bainbridge patients has made a difference in a situation where previously there had been no hope. There is an echo here of the Christian understanding of a God who does not remain distant or aloof from his creation but who becomes part of it (e.g. Jn 1:1-14; Phil. 2:5-11): the incarnate God became human in order not simply to know about the existence of suffering but to experience it first hand. In that sense, Sayer is very much a Christlike figure and in particular when he feels overwhelmed by the weight of human suffering.

Whatever the consequences, the experience of liberation cannot be undone and the viewer is left to ponder on what it meant to each of the patients to return once again to their helpless state. Perhaps for some it increased their hopes that a time of liberation would come again. (There were, in fact, some further brief awakenings in the lives of the real post-encephalitic patients.)

Perhaps for some it provided fresh experiences to take back into their solitude as sustenance for their isolation. Perhaps for others, the flip side of the experience of being free was a more acute awareness of the oppression of their illness. There was also a cost in the lives of the rest of the residents at Bainbridge. In one scene where the post-encephalitic patients are being identified and separated from those institutionalized because of various mental conditions, the latter group is portrayed as disturbed and confused. From their perspective those being given special treatment are chosen simply on the basis of whether they can catch a ball, something which most can do themselves.

The medical reasons for this selection are far more complex and probably beyond the cognitive capabilities of many of the patients. Their experience is to be treated differently. As one group of patients begins to experience liberation — even at that early stage their carers’ attitudes are changing ­another group is feeling left out and more dehumanized than ever. Liberation for one group of patients serves to heighten another group’s awareness of its very absence.

In this respect, the presence of chronic mentally disturbed patients in Awakenings (a dramatic invention as there was no psychiatric ward for violent patients at Sacks’ Mount Carmel) helps to avoid an over-romanticizing of what took place. There is an amazing transformation in the lives of the post-encephalitic patients as well as in the lives of those around them. But it happens against the backdrop of all the rest of the work of a hospital for those with chronic mental illness.

Those affected by a range of psychoses, paranoid schizophrenia and a range of other conditions can sometimes manifest behavior that is loud, unpredict­able and even violent. Communication is difficult, sometimes almost imposs­ible. The care of such patients is extremely demanding and needs to be kept constantly under review as research moves forward. Institutionalization can seem like the easy option, and while some patients clearly require 24-hour supervision, others do not need to be kept under lock and key. Such people, sometimes for the very best intentions, are deprived of their liberty. Oppres­sion arises not only from physical restrictions, but also results from the psychological and emotional effects of such things as prejudice and discrimi­nation. Perhaps deliberately, whilst glossing over the unpleasant physical symptoms of real post-encephalitic patients, director Penny Marshall draws attention to the very different dynamic that arises in the presence of mentally ill patients who are not passive or pleasant. It is a necessary antidote to what could have become an unrealistic optimism in the film. Liberated attitudes come far more easily in relation to people who are easy to like. The irony, however, is that such conditional liberation is no different from qualified oppression. This point is brought home when Leonard is refused permission by the hospital authorities to go for a walk unsupervised, arguably an under­standable decision at that stage of his recovery. But when Leonard is unable to cope with this decision, which effectively thwarts his plans to try and see Paula again, the liberated regime quickly reverts to its old ways. In a vers heavy-handed way it confines Leonard to a ward behind bars where patients suffering from extreme mental conditions are incarcerated. It is little wonder that Leonard feels let down and betrayed by a system which opened the door ajar only to slam it tightly in his face the moment he failed to conform.

In this tragic section of the film there are echoes of the darker One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman 1975). In particular, through at experience of the character of McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), the instituting takes on a far more oppressive and even sinister dimension. McMurph.F. convicted criminal who is feigning mental illness, refuses to capitulate to ike regime in which he finds himself and almost single-handedly takes on the institution on behalf of his fellow residents, most of whom have had 3or spirits crushed. Almost despite himself, McMurphy takes up the cats those for whom the institution is a source of unreasonable oppression.

From the outset, Nicholson’s McMurphy is practically the antithesis of De Niro’s Leonard though, interestingly, he has been identified as a Christ-figure (Grimes in Martin and Ostwalt 1995). While linked to McMurphy’s own “crucifixion” (his lobotomy by the institution) this identification also relates to the way in which he gave life to the residents around him. For a short while their zest for life was rekindled by McMurphy who, having witnessed the oppressive cruelty to his fellow residents, took up their cause. McMurphy was no saint in the conventional sense of the word, but in the sense of being someone prepared to face evil head on when those around him were powerless to defend themselves, he clearly was.

McMurphy’s life ends, effectively, when the institution’s treatment – a euphemism for punishment – robs him of his will to resist. He could have complied and given in but instead refused to turn his back on those he had come to know. McMurphy’s actions and their consequences for him are echoes of the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” On 15:13). The struggle towards liberation, wherever and however it takes place, exacts a high price upon those involved. Sometimes it means death. But the lesson of human history is that there will always be people prepared to pay that price.

Generally speaking the characters portrayed by De Niro and Nicholson are opposites. Leonard is indebted to the institution, at least initially, whereas McMurphy recognizes its oppressive nature and challenges it; the former is compliant, the latter tries at every juncture to buck the system; one is easy for the institution’s staff to like, the other is a “problem.” McMurphy is seen essentially as a criminal out to deceive who needs to be controlled, whereas Leonard is seen as a tragic victim to be helped; that is, until Leonard, after living immobile in the hospital for decades, is refused his first request to experience a taste of what freedom means, in this case to simply go for a walk when he feels like it. His understandable fit of rage is met with totally inappropriate force and insensitivity and he is classified and incarcerated with the far more “disturbed” residents of Bainbridge in the problem wing.

It is not difficult to imagine why Leonard slides towards paranoia and feels betrayed by Sayer, or why he reaches the point of utter despair before reaching out for help. To feel the exhilaration of liberation only for it to be snatched away is a cruel act to endure, all the more so when inflicted by an institution set up for the care of those entrusted to it. Leonard, unlike McMurphy, is not lobotomized for his behavior. Instead, he is locked away with the threat hovering over him that the medication which tenuously keeps him from sliding back to his pre-awakening state will be removed. In both cases the men are powerless victims whose human dignity is abused and undermined.

The viewer is left with the unpleasant feeling that liberation is conditional upon conforming to the requirements of those who wield the power. During Leonard’s initial awakened period he is treated with the dignity and respect that befits any human being, for at that point he is “likeable.” Leonard is even something of a celebrity. But as soon as he crosses the line of the institution’s criteria of acceptable behaviour his freedom is curtailed. “Bad” patients are dealt with, “good” ones are cared for. Perhaps this is an over-simplification but it is one that carries at least a grain of truth in practice, and far more than a grain in emotional terms.

From this consideration of “Liberation in Awakenings,” a number of observations can be made. Liberation happens at a range of different levels in both an individual and corporate sense. For the individual it occurs internally whenever a new perspective or novel insight finds its way through the shell of convention. To see the world through a new set of eyes can be both a humbling and an exhilarating experience. Sayer’s patients certainly have an almost sacramental effect upon those who witness their awakening. Outward changes stir something deep within. Eyes are opened to realities which had not been appreciated. Leonard’s disquiet, for instance, at the abundance of bad news carried in the media carries with it a power demanding attention in the context in which it is expressed. Deprived for so long of the capacity to enjoy the simple things of life, Leonard glimpses something of the wonder of the world in which we live. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”.

Awakenings presents a challenge to consider how easy it is to take life for granted. The viewer is also confronted with the reality that humanness is not essentially related to a person’s physical or mental capacity, nor to the ability to be a “productive” member of society. The likeable and the unpleasant, the easy and the difficult — all are equally human and deserving of the same respect and treatment. In practice this is a difficult path to follow but one which is illuminated during moments of liberation. It is certainly a path suggested by those within the Christian tradition as a practical outworking of the command of Jesus to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12:31). Those responsible for the care of the post-encephalitic patients experience a personal liberation when they see people rather than patients for the first time in years. The mundaneness of routine and the numbing effect of their thankless but vital work is lifted. Their vocation is refreshed and their attitude transformed.

For an institution or structure, liberation is experienced when individuals are seen and valued as human beings rather than as problems or as a set of presenting symptoms. In Leonard’s case as the L-dopa becomes increasing* ineffective and his physical condition deteriorates, in anguish he describe himself as grotesque. He feels that he is somehow less than a person, no m than “a collection of ticks.” Sayer quite genuinely refutes the description. Bat it is not difficult to imagine how in an institution such as Bainbridge, the staff and up seeing only the symptoms which are so demanding of their attention. This arises not from indifference or hard-heartedness. Rather, it stems from the lack of adequate resources, both personal and material, to meet the scale of such need. With such limitations, coping mechanisms become necessary which sometimes involve detachment. Pragmatic considerations result in the needs of the many preventing high levels of individual attention being given to the few or the one.

Sometimes structures and institutions become oppressive simply because of overstretched resources which result in an impersonal approach. Sometimes it is because of a complete lack of an adequate ethical or moral foundation. But whatever the cause, liberation is possible and does take place wherever the value and worth of each individual within the institution is recognized and accorded the dignity that each human being deserves. Once achieved, liberation can be easily lost, but the hunger for liberation will not go away.

Finally, at whatever level at which liberation takes place there is cost involved to all concerned. For those struggling towards liberation there is the experience of being on the receiving end of oppressive power and authority which by its very nature will marshal its forces to resist. For the oppressor there is the need to relinquish power, prestige and, more importantly, the attitudes which deem it acceptable to maintain a status quo by which the lives of others are diminished. The cost of liberation is always large, sometimes vast, in both human and material terms: what it purchases is immeasurable because it goes to the very heart of what it means to be human.

Thankfully, awakening moments break through in life in all sorts of unexpected places. They might only be fleeting moments or there for a season within the life of an individual or at an institutional level. Such moments cause a rethink in attitudes to take place, which may or may not have a long-lasting practical effect. But sometimes they are signposts to a better way. Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning – ed. Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz pp. 97f

Mrs. Lowe: My son is in pain! Please, stop this!
Dr. Sayer: He’s fighting, Mrs. Lowe.
Mrs. Lowe: He’s losing.

Beth: Miriam! I have to take your blood pressure!
Miriam: I’ve been sitting still for 25 years. You missed your chance.

Mrs. Lowe: When my son was born healthy, I never asked why. Why was I so lucky? What did I do to deserve this perfect child, this perfect life? But when he got sick, you can bet I asked why! I demanded to know why! Why was this happening?

Margaret: Miriam, there’s no easy way to tell you this, so – your husband – he was granted a divorce from you in 1952.
Miriam: Oh, thank God!

“Another great thing about “Awakenings,” is that it truly teaches us to appreciate the simple things in life that we take for granted, from taking a walk by yourself or reading a book or even just brushing your teeth.”

“I don’t think it is a spoiler to tell you that this movie is really about two “awakenings”. The main one concerns patients who have been left in an apparently catatonic state due to a poorly understood post-encephalitic syndrome. Dr. Sayer recognizes this and manages to awaken these patients after decades of sleeping through life. This part of the story is handled excellently, creating a wonderful balance of suspense, entertainment, and just enough lightly handled melodrama to occasionally leave you justifiably teary-eyed. De Niro is the glue which holds this part together even though he barely appears in the first hour of the movie. As he always does in his best performances, he makes all the actors around him look outstanding while he does nothing more or less than become exactly the character he is supposed to be.

“The second awakening is that of Dr. Sayer himself, a timed, insecure, and socially withdrawn researcher who much like his patients has been mostly sleepwalking through life. From this experience comes the hope that he too will finally awaken. Unfortunately, this part of the story is presented with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow to the head. It’s entirely predictable and made that much worse by the terrible overacting of Robin Williams and the use of a painfully stereotypical evil administrative-type doctor. But it isn’t so bad as to seriously detract from the rest of this wonderful story, so it is well worth sitting through for the pleasure of experiencing the full package.”

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