August: Osage County

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Recently, my wife and I decided to take a couple of days respite out of town. The destination was Breckenridge, Colorado, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from our home. The snow-filled mountains were beautiful, as usual, and the skiers were out in plenty. After dinner the first evening we decided to see the movie: “August: Osage County.” The reviews intrigued us and we looked forward to being entertained. Little did we know how excruciating the entertainment would be. It is a difficult movie to watch.

Following the stage play by Tracy Letts, on which the screen version is based, the movie takes place over the course of several weeks in August inside the three-story home of Beverly and Violet Weston outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The following is a Wikipedia synopsis of the movie:

“The title designates place and location: an unusually hot August in a rural area outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a once-noted, alcoholic poet, interviews and hires a young Native American woman Johnna (Misty Upham) as a live-in cook and caregiver for his strong-willed and contentious wife Violet (Meryl Streep), who is suffering from mouth cancer and addiction to narcotics. Shortly after this, he disappears from the house, and Violet calls her sister and daughters for support. Her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) arrives with husband Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper). Violet’s youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is single and the only one living locally. Barbara (Julia Roberts), her oldest, who has inherited her mother’s strong will, arrives from Colorado with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Barbara and Bill are separated and having marriage difficulties, but they put up a united front for Violet. Finally, middle daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives with the latest in a string of boyfriends, Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney), a sleazy Florida businessman whom she introduces as her fiancé.

After five days, the sheriff shows up with the news that Beverly took his boat out on the lake and has drowned. Barbara identifies the body and makes the funeral arrangements. Mattie Fae’s and Charles’ shy, awkward son “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch), misses the funeral because he overslept, and is met at the bus station by his father. Charles loves Little Charles, though Mattie constantly belittles her son’s intelligence and calls him a loser. Ivy confides to Barbara that she is in love with Little Charles, and she cannot have children because she has had a hysterectomy.

The family sits down to an awkward dinner after the funeral (a considerable understatement; italics mine), fueled by Violet’s brutally honest “truth telling” which results in Barbara jumping on her mother. She decides she has had enough of the drug addiction, and confiscates all her pills. Later, after Violet has had a chance to sober up, she has a tender moment with her daughters, and reveals that her own mother had a cruel streak. Steve has been attempting to seduce Jean by plying her with marijuana; Johnna catches him and goes after him with a shovel, and Barbara smacks Jean. This impels Bill to take Jean back to Colorado, leaving Barbara. It is now clear that they are headed for divorce. Karen also leaves with Steve.

As Little Charles sings Ivy a song he has written for her, Mattie Fae walks in and berates him. This exhausts Charles’ patience with his wife’s lack of love and compassion for her son, and he angrily tells her he is taking Little Charles and leaving, with or without her. Mattie reveals to Barbara that she had an affair with Beverly, and Little Charles is in fact his son. Barbara promises to try to discourage Ivy from marrying Little Charles, while not revealing the secret.

Later, Ivy tries to tell her mother about her love for Little Charles. Violet, who has hidden pills Barbara wasn’t able to find, is high again and blurts out that she has known all along that he is Beverly’s son. This drives Ivy to leave, angrily promising never to return. In the last angry confrontation between Violet and Barbara, Violet admits she was contacted by Beverly, but did nothing to help him until after she removed money out of the couple’s joint safety deposit box, by which time it was too late. This is the last straw for Barbara, who leaves in a pickup truck left outside. Violet is left with only Johnna.”

There you have it. “August: Osage County” in a nutshell. I assure you this overview does little to communicate the emotional difficulty of actually watching the movie. The upside? A psychotherapist cannot help but have a field day with the relentless onslaught of dysfunction.

Because the movie offers so many themes (and the blog so little time), I’ve chosen to focus on three generations of women in the movie: Violet (Meryl Streep), her mother, and Barbara (Julia Roberts). Following the wrenching dinner scene after the funeral, Violet briefly offered insight into her abusive childhood. In a quasi-vulnerable moment with her three daughters, she shared a story involving her own mother. As a young teenage girl, Violet liked a boy who wore cowboy boots. Desiring a pair of boots for herself, her mother gave her every impression that Violet would receive those boots as a Christmas present. Violet tore into the gift on Christmas day only to find a pair of old, used work boots caked with mud. Violet recalled her mother’s gleeful and sinister laugh.

In the book The Family Crucible (1978), renowned family therapists Augustus Napier, PhD and Carl Whitaker, MD chart their family therapy experiences with the Brice family (a family of five consisting of father, mother, teen daughter, teen son, and six-year-old daughter). The presenting problem mostly involved the conflict between Mrs. Brice and her teenage daughter, Claudia. In a chapter called “Grandmother’s Ghost,” chronicling a particularly difficult therapy session, the teen daughter was exceptionally angry and verbally abusive to her mother – who seemed to be giving up hope for improvement. When queried about the sadness and resignation, the conversation turned to Mrs. Brice’s relationship with her mother. Dr. Napier wondered what Carolyn’s (Mrs. Brice’s) sadness was really about. He asked: “Is (any of this about) you and your mother? Was it like this in your own family?” The following dialogue ensues:

(Carolyn): “My mother was a very – well, how to say it – controversial woman in our home. Nobody dared cross her, especially not my father. She had a temper….Why are we talking about my mother? She’s not involved in this with (my daughter)!”….”Of course she is,” (Dr. Whitaker) said firmly. “She is the only model you have for being a mother, and we’re talking about your being a mother to your daughter.” Carolyn, still cross: “But I’m not like my mother at all. I don’t think my mother has anything to do with this….I have always been afraid of my mother, I suppose….She can be very critical of me, just devastating at times, and it always tears me up”….(Dr. Whitaker): “Does what happens between you and (your daughter) make any sense now, when you think about what has gone on with you and your mother?” Carolyn: “No. It seems very different. I would never talk to my mother the way Claudia talks to me.” (Dr. Whitaker): “That’s what I mean. It’s so different….(Y)ou’ve become your mother in this dance, and Claudia becomes like the part of you that wanted to stand up to Mother and didn’t dare to….It may be even more complicated than your having a vicarious rebellion through your daughter. It may be that when Claudia starts degrading you, in your head she becomes your mother – you know, running you down, criticizing you. And you feel the way you did when you were a kid – defeated.” (Dr. Whitaker turned to Claudia (the daughter): “You didn’t know you could be your own grandmother, did you? Your own mother’s mother.”

While we may or may not disagree with Drs. Napier and Whitaker’s analyses and interpretations, we know that the ghosts of our past can surface in the most subtle and hurtful ways; what one therapist calls “the old present.”  Murray Bowen of Georgetown Medical School, one of the founding fathers of family therapy, called it the “multigenerational transmission process” – where, using the old King James parlance:  “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Sad and sobering to think about, but true. It’s exactly what we see in “August: Osage County.”

Oh yes, I did mention “three” generations of women in the movie, didn’t I? In another wrenching–and family secret disclosing–scene at the end of the movie, oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) says to middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), “I didn’t tell you, Mom did!” To which Ivy tearfully shouts back: “There’s no difference between you and Mom!” And the beat goes on.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

P.S. The book Parenting from the Inside Out (2004) by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. wonderfully addresses the residual effects of our growing up – on the next generation.

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