From womb to Room to tomb


Last week we saw  the Oscar nominated film,  Room, whose star Brie Larson won best female actor. On its surface, it is obviously a story of trauma, rescue, and recovery. A teen-ager in high school, Brie (Ma) is kidnapped and held prisoner in a backyard shed. After two years, she gives birth to a child (Jack) fathered by her captor/rapist.  

She raises him for five years, keeping him safe from her kidnapper, and creates for  Jack a belief in a world no bigger than the small area contained within the shed’s four walls, lit by a small skylight above. Seven years after her capture, Brie and Jack get free and the second half of the movie is their difficult integration into a new/old world of family and society.

       I read the book a couple of years ago when it appeared on the Booker Prize list, but the movie clarified for me central images and themes I missed earlier. Room is, in fact, a contemporary retelling of  Plato’s “allegory of the cave” and illustrates, as well, the process of spiritual awakening from life to death to rebirth.

Plato’s uses the allegory to describe the depths of illusion and fear that keep individuals clinging to their ignorance of reality. A group of people are chained in the cave facing inward toward its wall. Behind them is a fire. In front of them, but behind a curtain, other people go back and forth carrying sticks with objects upon them that cast shadows upon the wall.

The prisoners mistake those moving images as reality, as Ma tells Jack the characters on television are actually as flat and unreal as they appear on the screen. To protect him, the only world she reveals to him is the one they jointly create within the shed.

Even when a prisoner is forced into the world outside the cave, he resists opening his eyes. When he finally does he cannot accept the objects in the sunlit world as real. Similarly, Jack does not believe his mother when she first reveals to him the existence of a real world he has never seen. Essentially, to make their escape, he must have faith not only in her, but in an unseen reality outside Room.

Jack’s awakening or better yet his illumination is preceded by symbolic death. Acting as if he is dead, he is wrapped in a carpet/shroud and placed in a truck bed to cross into the next world. Peering through the end of the red carpet, we can imagine Jack sees the strange sky and light as an infant perceives what lies outside the birth canal.

As in Plato’s allegory, Jack has difficulty trusting the new people and objects in his environment and expresses a wish to return to Room. Wearing a face mask against possible infection and sunglasses, Jack has difficulty  negotiating the stairs that take him from one to another level of his new reality.

Jack’s mother, however, did an extraordinary job within Room maintaining his capacity for attachment, love, and curiosity. He shows interest and empathy, for example, toward Mouse when he appears in Room.

Jack eventually  begins a process toward individuation. His mother finally rejects his wish to nurse and he accepts this. And when Ma begins to experience the expected obstacles toward recovery following the initial euphoria of rescue, he gives her a portion of his newly cut 5 year old hair to as a restorative sacrifice and symbolic offering of help.

Gradually with the help of the love and wisdom of his grandmother and the patient tutelage of her companion, Leo, and Leo’s dog, Jack is led further from Room and the unconsciousness of his prior relation to Ma. Jack is now, as Joseph Campbell would have it, a hero.

I write this piece not simply for the intellectual pleasure it provides me, but for its parallel to what is possible for us. From the loss of the first taken for granted world of Ma when she was a teen, and for Jack the loss of Room, the only world he has known, we can see ourselves having to adjust multiple times to the changes wrought by the progression of chronic illness . And if Jack and Ma can adapt and even flourish in each strange and ever new world, so perhaps can we. And, of course, we miss our former world, as Jack does Room, but then, as with Plato’s freed prisoner, we turn toward the light.

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