Inside all of us: Where the wild things are in literature, film, and psychoanalysis

The film version of the beloved children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, provides an apt vehicle for reflecting on the process of psychotherapy

By Gregory J. Stevens, MS

Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak, 1963) is a beloved picture book for children. It tells the story of a boy named Max, who made mischief, was called "wild thing" by his mother, and was sent to bed without supper, where he imagined sailing to where the wild things are. There, Max tamed the wild things, was made their king, and sent them to bed without supper until he became lonely and sailed back to his room, where he found his supper waiting for him still hot. This story was viewed by Spufford (2002) as "one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate, and beautiful, use of the psychoanalytic story of anger" (p. 60). Thus, it has been used to demonstrate psychoanalytic theories on childhood mastery of feelings (Bodmer, 1986), the need for regressive fantasy in adaptive, integrative function (Spitz, 1988), potential space with depressive and paranoid-schizoid positions (Stronach-Buschel, 1991), self-regulation (Cooper, 2007), resiliency (Gottlieb, 2008), and alpha-function (Altman, 2008).

Alpha-function was defined by Bion (1962/1984) as the way in which emotional experience is transformed for use in dream thoughts, unconscious waking thinking, dreams, and memory. Specifically, Bion viewed emotional experience in sleep as no different from that during waking life. Because Freud theorized that dreaming preserves sleep, "failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep, and cannot wake up" (Bion, 1962/1984, p.7). Hence, Bion attributed failure of alpha-function to "the serious disturbances ordinarily associated with excessive obtrusion of the psychotic elements of the personality" (p. 54). Alpha-function first occurs through reverie, a maternal state of mind that is open to receiving any projective identifications from an infant, and can contain the infant's intolerable frustrations so that they become tolerable. This is demonstrated in Where the Wild Things Are when "Max tames his monsters while his mother outside the door calms herself down and sets dinner out for him" (Altman, 2008, p.214). Because his mother can contain his threat to eat her up by calming herself down and setting dinner out for him, Max's monsters become tamed, intolerable frustrations tolerable, and emotional experience available for thought.

Bion's theory of alpha-function was expanded by Ogden (2010) to include magical thinking, dream thinking, and transformative thinking. Ogden viewed these three forms of thinking "as coexisting, mutually creating, preserving, and negating aspects of every experience of thinking" (p. 318), and never encountered in pure form. Magical thinking refers "to thinking that relies on omnipotent fantasy to create a psychic reality that the individual experiences as 'more real' than external reality, [and] subverts the opportunity to learn from one's lived experience with real external objects" (p.319). Dream thinking refers to "our most profound form of thinking, which continues both while we are asleep and in waking life, [and] generates genuine psychological growth, but a point is inevitably reached beyond which one needs another person with whom to think/dream one's most deeply troubling emotional experience." (p.319). Transformative thinking "is a form of dream thinking that involves, new ways of ordering experience in which not only new meanings, but new types of feeling, forms of object relatedness, and qualities of emotional and bodily aliveness are generated" (pp.319, 320).

Much like Ogden expanded upon alpha-function, Where the Wild Things Are was expanded into a live-action feature film about the emotions of childhood (Hanks et al., 2009). To date, the only known literature in psychology on this film is a critique that echoes its demonstration of potential space (Cardena & Reijman, 2010). Therefore, this review will discuss the film as demonstrating Ogden's (2010) three forms of thinking and integrate these with both clinical psychoanalysis and trauma, especially in regards to when dream thinking inevitably needs another person with whom to think one's most troubling emotional experience. Much like the book, the film is easily divided into three parts. These include the lived experience of Max with real objects in external reality, his dreamed experience in a psychic reality where the wild things are, and his return to the real objects in external reality. Over the course of this sequence, Max uses magical thinking until it begins failing him, and he begins using dream thinking that lets him experience transformative thinking. The film introduces his lived experience, with Max chasing his dog like a ferocious beast in rough play that is at the threshold of aggression. Although this shows his potential for intense emotion and absorption in fantasy, it is followed by experiences showing a child troubled by an emotionally complex world.

The first experience showing the emotional troubles of Max involves him inviting his older sister to see a snow fort that he built and her telling him to go play with his friends. He responds by barking orders at a fence, kicking it, and telling it to go play with its own fence-friends in an omnipotent fantasy attempting to displace his rejection by his sister. Although this is his first use of magical thinking in the film, it is quickly established as his default response to emotional troubles. When the friends of his sister are leaving, Max ambushes them with snowballs that prompt a playful snowball fight. This rough play, however, quickly exceeds the threshold of aggression and gives way to terror when one of his sister's friends jumps on the snow fort and collapses it while Max is inside. To this, he responds by barging into the empty bedroom of his sister where he throws things, jumps on them, and breaks them with magical thinking, attempting to displace the traumatic collapse of his fort through destroying hers. After shamefully confessing this to his stressed mother, Max uses magical thinking in an attempt to comfort her with a story that begins giving verbal shape to his emotional troubles. Specifically, he tells of a vampire whose grown-up teeth fall out and who cries because he cannot be a vampire anymore and is left by all the other vampires. This reflects his mourning the irreversible replacement of his childhood with an increasingly complex emotional world, like a child whose baby teeth fall out and cannot be a child anymore, and is thus left by all the other children. These troubles compound as he learns at school that the sun will eventually die, as will all life.

The emotional troubles in his lived experience climax when Max invites his mother to play with him and she ignores him for her seemingly current boyfriend. In his default response of magical thinking, Max dons his wolf suit and engages his mother in a power struggle that quickly escalates to the point where he threatens to eat her up and bites her arm, she yells at him, and he runs away from home in a rage of shame, terror, and anger. In the nearby woods, his lived experience gives way to the psychic reality in which Max dreams of sailing to where the wild things are.

Upon revealing himself to the wild things, Max is threatened with being eaten and responds with his default of magical thinking by telling them that he has powers and was made king by Vikings who attacked him in his ice fortress, tried to cave in the roof, and whom he conquered. Although this omnipotent fantasy attempts to reverse the traumatic collapse of his fort in external reality, it convinces the wild things that Max will keep out all the sadness and to make him their own king. Within the safety of their tame acceptance, however, Max does not keep out his own sadness, and begins letting his emotional troubles in where the wild things are. Specifically, Max describes his family to a female wild thing named K. W. as acting like he is a bad person and, when asked, says that he does not know if he is. To a male wild thing named Carol, Max asks if he knows that the sun is going to die. In response, Carol begins echoing his emotional troubles by telling Max about losing friends like teeth that fall out really slowly, much like Max told his mother of the vampire whose grown-up teeth fell out and who was left by all the other vampires. Furthermore, Carol gives further verbal shape to his troubles by saying, "There's gotta be a place where only the things you wanted to have happen would happen" (Hanks et al., 2009). Max responds with magical thinking by convincing the wild things that they can build such a place. Despite their collaboration in building the perfect fort, his troubles persist and continue being given verbal shape by another female wild thing named Judith, who says, "If we're upset, your job is not to get upset back at us" (Hanks et al., 2009).

Since his omnipotent fantasy of building the perfect fort did not keep out his emotional troubles, Max forgoes magical thinking for the first time. Instead, he follows K. W. for advice on how to make everyone okay, especially two of K. W.'s friends who he does not understand and who Carol dislikes, much like Max did not understand the friends of his older sister. By hearing K. W. say that she can like Carol and still be friends with those two, Max begins growing through using dream thinking with the wild things in response to his emotional troubles. However, dream thinking only makes such troubles more tolerable, in contrast to magical thinking, which tries to avoid them. This becomes evident as time goes on. Max regresses to magical thinking by arranging a playful dirt-clod fight in an omnipotent fantasy attempting to reverse his snowball fight that quickly exceeded the threshold of aggression. Aptly, many of the wild things get hurt in this rough play and lose faith that Max will keep out all the sadness. In response to their demand that he show them his powers, Max uses magical thinking one last time through a weak attempt to dance like a robot, and is left by all the wild things.

With magical thinking failing to help Max avoid his emotional troubles, Max uses dream thinking with the wild things to make his troubles more tolerable. He starts by shamefully confessing to another male wild thing named Alexander that he "really messed this place up" (Hanks et al., 2009), much like his confession to his mother. As Alexander asks Max if he is "not really a king, [and] just regular" (Hanks et al., 2009) and doubts that "there is such a thing as a king who can do all the things" (Hanks et al., 2009) Max said, the doubt troubling Max becomes more tolerable and available for thought. Yet, this doubt climaxes when Carol wakes Max and the wild things and gives the problem full verbal shape.

Specifically, he tells Max:

It wasn't supposed to be like this, I can't trust what you say. Everything keeps changing, It was supposed to be a place where only the things you wanted to have happen would happen, You were supposed to keep us safe. You were supposed to take care of us. You didn't, You're a terrible king!" (Hanks et al., 2009)

Rather than trying to avoid this doubt through magical thinking, Max tries to make it more tolerable through dream thinking with another male wild thing named Douglas, who tells Carol that Max is not their king. "There's no such thing as a king. He's just a boy pretending to be a wolf, pretending to be a king" (Hanks et al., 2009). Max is just like them. In a rage of denial, Carol rips off one of Douglas's arms and threatens to eat Max up, much like Max threatened to eat his mother up and bit her arm.

Although Max runs from Carol, their relationship survives Carol's rage and Max relates to Carol how he thinks that his loving mother will relate to him. This new way of ordering experience shows that his dream thinking with the wild things lets him experience transformative thinking, in which new meanings, types of feelings, forms of object relatedness, and qualities of emotional and bodily aliveness are generated. It also frees him to return to his real objects. Hence, Max tells Carol that he is "not a Viking or a king or, or anything" (Hanks et al., 2009). He is Max. He sails to the woods where his lived experience gave way to the psychic reality of where the wild things are, and runs home where his mother embraces him. Although no words are said, his transformation through learning from his emotional troubles is evident in the implicit relational knowing between them, as his mother falls asleep in the security of their relationship and he eats his supper, still hot.

Much like Max at the start of the film, many of our newer clients try to avoid emotional troubles through magical thinking, which subverts the opportunity to learn from lived experience. For them, this "underlies a great many psychological defenses, feeling states, and forms of object relatedness" (Ogden, 2010, p.321) such as mania and hypomania, projective identification, envy, and others. When Max failed to avoid his emotional troubles through magical thinking, he used dream thinking with the wild things to make them more tolerable. Although Max did this in the psychic reality of where the wild things are, many of our clients have reached the point beyond which they need another person with whom to think their most troubling emotional experience. This is what brings them to us, especially clients with more traumatic experiences.

For Max, the wild things gave verbal shape to his emotional troubles in ways that let him view them from multiple perspectives simultaneously. Specifically, they articulated the intolerable emotional experiences that he excluded from consciousness. This helped Max experience and reexperience as safe his emotional troubles so that they became more tolerable and available for thought, growth, and transformation. Much like the wild things with Max, this is our role with our clients. Inside all of us is a wild thing.

If emotional experience is excluded from consciousness for being intolerable, it can be viewed as relatively traumatic on any continuum of severity. Through this view, all of our clients have traumatic experiences of varying degree and type. The more traumatic intolerable emotional experience is, the more sensitive our clients are to helping them experience and reexperience as safe their emotional troubles. Max learned from his lived experience alone in the psychic reality of where the wild things are, even as Carol threatened to eat him up, because his emotional experience was not deeply troubling. Clients with more traumatic experiences have reached the point beyond which they need another person with whom to think their most deeply troubling emotional experience (Ogden, 2010, p.319). With sensitivity to the traumatic experiences of clients, we can help them articulate the intolerable emotional experiences that they exclude from consciousness, view their emotional troubles from multiple perspectives simultaneously, and dream together new ways of ordering experience that have previously been unimaginable.


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About the Author

Gregory J. Stevens, MS, is a Doctoral Candidate in the Counseling Psychology Program at Auburn University. He is currently applying for his predoctoral internship at university counseling centers. Alongside deepening relationships, he feels most alive when spending time outdoors and making music.