The academy award winning Million Dollar Baby movie is based on an original short story, Born To Fight, one of the stories in Rope Burns by F. X. Toole. He had earlier worked both as a professional boxer and 'cut-man.' Clint Eastwood, as star and director, continues his tradition of being associated with movie themes from the dark side of life. Many of Eastwood's movies have themes of violence and death with unexpected endings. Many capture our imagination and trigger our repressed feelings.
As an operator of a boxing gym in L.A. which had long ago enjoyed better days, Clint Eastwood plays the character, Frankie Dunn, who himself was past his prime. Early in the film, narrated by Morgan Freeman, (Eddie) we are told about the weekly letters which Frankie writes to his estranged daughter which are always returned to him unopened. A devout Catholic, Frankie goes to church every day. He seems to be carrying an unbearable burden of guilt, but sticks to unimportant discussions about church dogma which he often volleys with his exasperated parish priest. Does his obvious guilt have something to do with his daughter's estrangement? We never receive an answer to that question although it does help to set the tone for the plot.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) appears at a boxing gym hoping to be trained and managed by Frankie. She wants to become a boxer even though at age 31 she is over the hill and besides that, she is emphatically and repeatedly told by Frankie, "I don't train girls." Why is Frankie so reluctant to teach her to box? Is he re-enacting his relationship with his daughter and does not want to hurt or get hurt again? While viewing the film, I wondered if Maggie had found a guy who reminds her of her long lost father who deserted his family when she was a young girl.
At first hesitant, Frankie is soon training Maggie on a regular basis. She begins winning boxing matches and often knocks out her competitor in the first round. The movie's plot is really not as simple as that since it contains a number of interesting subplots. I'll continue the review about a subplot which I recognized, or perhaps only imagined I recognized. Since this review is for the Primal Psychotherapy Page, I chose the deepest sub-plot imaginable, even though this material is only my fantasy interpretation.
Maggie proves to be a born fighter. Not just figuratively, but actually so, because to me she was a person who had to "fight to be born." So the "real story" is about Maggie's "fighting for life" in the birth canal. Neither the movie nor the story in the book had anything to say about this subplot. I just had a few hints, but that is all I needed. Like I said, this is a fantasy review.
Maggie was a "Million Dollar Baby" (the movie) and she was "Born To Fight" (the original short story upon which it was based). Her nickname bestowed by Frankie was "baby" which is another reference to her birth. But I'd like to believe that her being "born to fight" comes from her anger in the birth canal because she had a traumatic birth - being unable to be born. Her life had never been easy, not even at the beginning, as she says that she "...had to fight her way out..." of the birth canal.
At birth she weighed just a matter of ounces. I kept replaying the DVD but I could not find that
section where Eddie (Morgan Freeman) mentions Maggie's birth weight. It was very low. In any event, I believe that the movie had a consistent background plot for a fictitious character whose behavior is being directed by birth trauma. Maggie had had the obsession of becoming a winning fighter for 19 years - ever since she was 13 years old. The roots of this obsession began much earlier than her early teenage years. I believe it was planted deep in her as a result of the trauma of her intrauterine and birth trauma.
I would like to believe that the repressed force of her determination to get born and the accompanying need to re-enact her birth trauma directed Maggie's boxing ambitions. Her interest in the sport and in becoming a boxer were symbolic attempts to provide a better outcome of her own birth and thereby escape the pain, anger, and hopelessness of her original birthing experience. The assaults which she felt during her birth remain as unprocessed repressed feelings. Boxing, like all aggressive athletics, are ways of re-directing repressed anger, especially passive-aggressive anger. In her case I surmise it was the galvanized anger due to her frustrating birth efforts which perhaps ultimately helped her get born. Her father's desertion during childhood added to her trauma.
A relatively large percentage of people in the regression therapies felt that they had to fight their way out of the birth canal, but obviously they don't all want to become boxers or necessarily engage in a high degree of aggressive physicality. There would have been something very specific in Maggie's early childhood that shaped and shunted her earlier birth pain into boxing, something to which we are not privy.
Maggie complained that, in her family, troubles always came by the pound. Perhaps Maggie's fighting to get born was to escape the torture of the intrauterine fight she had with her grossly overweight mother. This fantasy analysis might also apply to the author of Born To Win and even to Clint Eastwood himself, as there is a reason why he chooses to star in and direct movies which are so heart breaking and somber.
Perhaps, O'Toole's (a pseudonym) original story contains additional references to birth trauma. Perhaps, it does not. But I'll just take this opportunity to write about the relationship between anger and pre- and peri-natal trauma, as anger during the birthing experience is an almost universally common experience often uncovered during the regressive psychotherapies.
Movie reviewer Roger Ebert wrote a great review of Million Dollar Baby and ended it with these words:
"Movies are so often made of effects and sensation these days. This one is made of three people and how their actions grow out of who they are and why. Nothing else. But isn't that everything?"
Yes, it is everything. But the origins of the motivations - the "why's" of one's actions often flow from much deeper and unconscious sources. The rest of this article is about that deeper level.
* * *
"If there's magic in boxing, its the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs,
ruptured kidneys and detached retinas."
-- Eddie - from the script of Million Dollar Baby
If there's excessive pain in birth trauma, its often the suffering beyond endurance in fighting the battle to get born, beyond cracked collar bones,
ruptured blood vessels and detached retinas.
-- John A. Speyrer
One reaction to the sufferings of the fetus during birth is anger. This rage at the sufferings of birth can mobilize one's determination to complete the birth process or it can convince the fetus to give in to death to stop the suffering. In its fight for a new life the fetus can forever be stamped with the observation that life is about cruelty and pain, if its first impressions was that life is about suffering. Pessimism and negativity become seared into its memory if its journey to birth was painful and traumatic. The agonies of birth, and of before birth, can produce feelings of hostile rage which can permanently form the child's developing personality. Anger, because of the suffering undergone at birth, can become a prototypic origin for feelings of rage and resentment which can last a lifetime. Any event in life which reminds the person of his peri-natal frustration and anger can trigger his feelings of impatience and anger. The need to discharge the feelings endured during birth is continuous, as one's persona becomes that of a hurting fetus, protecting and defending its inward self.
Anger and Birth
One of Dr. Arthur Janov's clients explained:
"Anger has been my lifelong defense. It started in the womb as a means to stay alive. In fact, that aggression was the only thing that kept me alive. I fought and struggled to try to make myself understood at birth - to make it understood that I was dying. After almost being killed at birth trying to get out of my mother, I then didn't want her to touch me. I was afraid of her; I didn't trust her. Well, since then I have never trusted women nearly as much as I trust men. [Janov, Imprints., pps. 20-21]
Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D. recounts the re-experiencing of a birth feeling in one of his patients, one which was like the kind I fantasize that Maggie, the boxer in Million Dollar Baby might have felt:
"I'm small, so small and weak. . . Nobody wants to help me and I'm all alone. It's so frightening in here . . . I must fight to get out of here. It's so crowded . . . (crying becomes louder and with more sobbing) . . . There's this body all around me, like all the world's around me. . . Ohhh!. . . I'm not coming out so easily!. . . I'm so frightened !!. . . I'm going to die!!! . . . I can't move . . . She's holding me in tightly! . . . I contract and try to propel myself a little more . . . Nothing! . . . I can't budge her! . . . She won't give! I push harder but still nothing . . . I am starting to get frantic, then angry! . . . I turn by entire body around and start to clench my jaw . . . tight . . . tighter. I try to reach out and grab but nothing happens. . . I am getting very frustrated and angry . . ." [Feeling People, p. 167-8.]
Dr. Janov, in his book, The New Primal Scream, quotes his client, Philip: "My birth was a long, eighteen-hour struggle. I felt that there was no way out, but I could not stop struggling because to stop was to never get out. I was frustrated and scared by this long wait. . . . I was born angry . . . "
My own birth story is similar to others in that I felt I came close to dying right before birth and experienced feeling of anger and rage. I had reached a point in my own birth process where I stopped struggling and pushing to be born. I was at the point of surrendering; Indeed, I had gone past anger and had given up all hope. Instead, I had reached a point where I frantically wished to die. I wanted anything for relief of the pain I was enduring. I felt the pain of not being able to die. If I could have died I would have been able to shut off the torture. It was best described by what Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard, wrote in, The Sickness Unto Death [p. 150-1]:
". . .(W)hen the danger is so great that death has becomes one's hope, despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die."*
When I finally was born, the anger I had had showed itself primarily by not my wanting to be handled when I was in physical distress. As a toddler, I remember lashing out as rescuers whom, when I'd fall down, would try to help me to my feet.
But even before I had come close to death, I wanted out. The following primal feelings are from a journal comprising many years of feeling death in the birth canal. I pleaded: "I can't get out;" "I gotta get out;" "Help me mom;" "Please help me, I'm dying;" "Please help me to die, mom;" "I'm scared;" "I wanna die;" "I hate you;" "I'll kill you;" "You God dam bitch;" "I hate you so much Mama;" You God dam whore;"
The physical and emotional violence of birth coupled with physical abuse as a child may all be repressed and therefore completely unknown to the victim. The anger and distress experienced by an individual during his birth, can set up in him in later life to acting out patterns which both re-enact and defend against his individual birth traumas. Despite the memory being completely buried, the contents of one's frozen past is what makes a person a mugger, a serial killer a wife batterer or a rapist. Rape and violence owe their sources to such unconscious traumas. Such a person who almost died during delivery, and who was later physically abused and unloved as a child, - this person, may have a lifelong wish to hit and hurt people - such a person might be completely disconnected from his anger yet want to become a prize winning boxer or even an altruistic rescuer of hurricane victims for reasons completely unknown to him.
*Frank Lake, Clinical Theology (1966) p. 595-6, quoted in Stephen M. Maret's dissertation. Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome: An Analysis
At the Birth Psychology website see Birth and the Origins of Violence