Antwone Fisher is a 2002 film based on an autobiographical novel Finding Fish by Antwone Fisher. It tells a story of an Afro-American boy, Antwone, abandoned by his mother and raised in an abusive foster family. The protagonist has numerous psychological problems rooted in his childhood and youth which interfere with his grown up life. The movie dwells on these issues and may serve as a perfect testing ground for Sigmund Freud’s and Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s personality theories. This essay attempts at giving an insight into Antwone Fisher’s behavior and motives employing the aforementioned theories.
The story begins with a dream about a family dinner. A strong but kind father, a loving mother, many smiling relatives, and his personal symbol of happiness, a plate of steaming pancakes, constitute the gist of it; later on, the happy scene is roughly interrupted with a fragment of a murder, causing Antwone to wake up. This sort of a dream is a typical example of wish-fulfilment dream, which “is often undisguised and easy to recognize” (Freud, n.d.). Hence, it is quite obvious that the main hero sorely lacks some family warmth. Although he does not allow himself to ponder this problem when he is awake, the longing for a proper family invades his mind while asleep.
At this point, it is essential to highlight the image of pancakes which reoccurs quite frequently throughout the story and may be interpreted in two different ways. The first interpretation is due to the Freudian idea of personality development stages as a part of infantile sexuality theory. The protagonist spends his infancy in an orphanage where he most likely lacks nourishing and delicious food. Therefore, Antwone is devoid of a way to release his mental energy and excitement during the oral stage of development (from birth to 18 months), which is renowned for the act of suckling, being a main source of bodily pleasure, and mouth, being the locus of pleasure (Sigmund Freud, 2010).
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The second possible interpretation is rooted in Skinner’s theory of radical behaviorism (Boeree, 2006). When finally adopted, Antwone Fisher found himself in a highly unfriendly surrounding. His foster mother, Mrs. Tate, used to bake pancakes on her ‘good mornings’. Thus, the smell of them alone became closely associated with an abuse-free day for the boy. Hence, any dream that includes a happy family surrounding was bound to be accompanied by the image of this particular dish.
Having woken up after his dream, Antwone, a navy petty officer, goes to take his morning shower along with other sailors. One of the crew members insinuates that Fisher’s face is dirty which brings on an aggressive physical response from the protagonist. The bully is white, so his comment is interpreted as a racist one by the hero.
Antwone’s violent response may once again be explained by means of B. F. Skinner and S. Freud’s theories. In one of the numerous flashbacks to Antwone’s childhood, we find out about a physical pain Mrs. Tate inflicted upon young Fisher and his foster brother as a punishment. She addressed them as “niggers”, accused of putting “your dirty hands on my walls” and whipped them with a wet towel. Thus, it is quite obvious that an accusation of being dirty and sullying things, as well as a racist address which were both once followed by “an aversive stimulus” (Skinner, 1938), namely physical abuse, lead to rebellion as an attempt to avoid the repetition of a highly unpleasant experience.
Using Freudian methodology, it is also possible to explain this occasion as a repetition of a traumatic experience. S. Freud and his mentor J. Breuer have introduced a notion of ‘trauma’involving an experience that completely overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience.“Fright, anxiety, shame, physical pain – may operate as a trauma” (Breuer & Freud, 1895, p. 44),they state. Hence, the film presents a perfect example of a traumatic experience being repeated. “It not infrequently happens that, instead of single, major trauma, we find a number of partial traumas forming a group of provoking causes” (Breuer & Freud, 1895, p. 44). In our case, the provoking causes are Mrs. Tate’s accusations, reflected in the bully’s words, a tint of racial offence, and even the wet towel. This tool of punishment is once again held in a hand of the offender. It is the combination of these elements that causes protagonist’s outburst.
After the fight with a fellow officer, the hero is punished and assigned three sessions with a psychiatrist. Interestingly, the first thing Fisher says on entering Dr. Jerome Davenport’s office and having noticed a photo on his desk is a question, “Is this your wife?” Once again, the issue of a family as a main source of all Antwone’s problems is raised. A simple inquiry form the doctor about his new patient’s origin dumbfounds him and leads to a strange answer stating that he is “from under a rock”. Hero’s childhood, with his father murdered before he was even born and his mother giving birth in prison and abandoning him, reminds Antwone of a “rainy day”. This gloomy metaphor makes us wonder, whether there will ever be any sunshine for him.
At the same time, the film introduces the subject of Fisher’s non-existent love life. Cheril, a young girl he obviously likes, returns his sympathy, but Antwone constantly pushes her away with no explicit reasons. The organism’s major physiological needs and instinctscall for a discharge when repressed, and “sexual instinct is the most powerful source of persisting increases of excitation (and consequently of neuroses)” (Breuer & Freud, 1895, p. 25). Hence, repressed sexual energy adds to protagonist’s aggressiveness.
Moreover, throughout the movie, Fisher is constantly engaged in some sort of creative activity. He draws and writes poetry which may be interpreted as a case of sublimation of repressed sexual energy and transformation of his libido into art (Sigmund Freud, 2010).
The reason for Antwone’s celibacy lies in his childhood as well. While living with the Tates, Fisher is sexually abused by a member of the Tate household, Nadine. This traumatic experience takes place when the boy is six years old, the age of phallic stage according to Freud. This period is crucial for the development of healthy sexuality, while the child “develops an interest in its sexual organs as a site of pleasure” (Sigmund Freud, 2010). The rough interference with this process could not remain without consequences. Employing Skinner’s behaviorism theory, it is also possible to assume that, having once received “an aversive stimulus” (Skinner, 1938), Antwone tries to avoid the unpleasant consequences avoiding intimate relations altogether.
All in all, the two basic instincts introduced by Freud play a huge role in protagonist’s life. “Eros (the life instinct), which covers all the self-preserving and erotic instincts, and Thanatos (the death instinct), which covers all the instincts towards aggression, and cruelty” (Sigmund Freud, 2010) are constantly fighting within him, tearing the man apart. Fisher longs to have a normal family and wishes to pursue healthy relationships with Cheril, but the strong pull of Thanatos interferes with his desires leading Antwone to self-destruction.
At first, Fisher refuses to cooperate with the psychiatrist. Interestingly, Dr. Davenport employs elements of Skinner’s technique of ‘shaping’ to make the patient respond to his questions. Doctor avoids talking to Antwone and acknowledging his presence, until Fisher starts telling his story. This way, the doctor withholds reinforcement until the subject’s behavior gets closer to the target response (Skeener, 1938).
At some point, Dr. Davenport manages to make a notable progress with Antwone. His personal life gets on the right track, and his aggression is toned down. When this point is reached, “the earlier neurosis is now replaced by a fresh one, viz. the transference-neurosis” (Freud, 2012). That is to say, that the problematic experiences of the past are now transferred to the relationship to the physician.
This case may be vividly illustrated by an occasion when the doctor tries to make Fisher find his real family to resolve his problems once and for all and states that their sessions are over. Antwone perceives it as an attempt to abandon him. He reveals that, in his point of view, all the people who were close to him left him in one way or another. His parents were never there for him, and his best friend Jesse got himself killed. Moreover, there is an attempt to substitute a mother figure in his life with Mrs. Davenport. It may also be regarded as the off-shoots of the Oedipus complex. Fisher obviously finds her attractive and motherly. He even goes as far as inviting her to his graduation from a Japanese course.
Eventually, Antwone follows Dr. Davenport’s advice and goes to look for his family accompanied by Cheril, his new girlfriend. This trip is highly climatic, because Fisher not only finds a loving family of his late father that greets him with open arms, gets a chance to talk to his real mother and finally let it go, but also loses his virginity giving vent to the sexual energy and feeding his ‘Id’, primitive biological side of the personality (Sigmund Freud, 2010).
Antwone’s monologue addressed to his mother is quite interesting as well. The hero tells about all his achievements and virtues. “I’m a good person. I’m a good man”, he says. It seems, this way he tries to prove that he was worth picking up from the orphanage; he was worth being raised in a family and could have made her proud. Fisher’s superego, the moralistic and idealistic area which punishes behaviors that violate society's rules with guilt, and rewards behavior meeting idealistic expectations, aiming for what is correct and ideal (Sigmund Freud, 2010), shows itself in all its glory in this episode.
The scene when Antwone meets his mother also reminds me of Skinner’s words quoted by Boeree (2006): What do we mean when we say we want to be free? Usually we mean we don’t want to be in a society that punishes us for doing what we want to do… Instead, we’ll only use reinforcers to “control” society. And if we pick the right reinforcers, we will feel free, because we will be doing what we feel we want!
This pronouncement leads me to believe that what Fisher longed for was a mere ‘reinforcer’ for doing what is right after a lifetime of ‘punishments’.
To sum it all up, the story of Antwone Fisher is a story of traumatic infancy and childhood, addled sexuality, restrained libido, and a massive overload of aversive stimuli. Final episode of the hero’s trip in search of his family is an actualization of the dream, which opened the film. He finally finds his family with smiling faces, greeting him, undoubtedly happy to see him, serving steaming pancakes, and giving the answer to the question repeated throughout the whole movie, “Are you going home for Thanksgiving?” From now on, he probably will have a place to go to every Thanksgiving.
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