(Warner Brothers/DC)

Overcoming Childhood Trauma and Other Heroic Lessons from ‘The Dark Knight’

As by a carnival mirror, the greatest villains reflect our most enduring and compelling heroes. Our heroes often are brought face-to-face with that which they so easily could have been. If the rope of recovery had had one less thread, they themselves could have snapped and become a rogue in someone else’s gallery. This potential alternative existence can prove unnerving at first, but as our heroes save the day—or the city, or the world or the galaxy, depending on the special effects budget—they also save themselves by rejecting the what-could-have-beens.

The thing about heroes is that they stand as we wish we stood on our best days. (Who has not pinned a cape to a shirt collar or picked up a stick to wield as a lightsaber or taken on post-apocalyptic zombies in the backyard before dinner?) “To the Greeks, Odysseus was a hero,” notes Patrick J. Kiger, “a word that is derived from the Ancient Greek term for ‘protector.’” Yet, this fails to fully encapsulate. “The brave captain embodied the virtues and attributes that Greek society cherished and he provided a model for Greek people to emulate.”

Following Carl Jung’s archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Scott T. Allison writes, “Good heroes use the power of transformation not only to change themselves for the better, but also to transform the world. In the classic hero journey, the newly transformed hero eventually transforms society in significant and positive ways.”

Yet, if our villains reflect our heroes and our heroes provide models for us to emulate, who then are we facing when we look into the mirror of our social fiction?

Here enters “The World’s Greatest Detective” and “The Clown Prince of Crime.” In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, Batman and the Joker rage in a battle over the “soul of Gotham City.” The lives at stake number only into the hundreds—for a city of millions. But the journey turns not on body count. It hinges on the view of civilization itself, on what narrative we wish to tell ourselves, on how far we accept being transformed.

The Joker wages an assault on Batman’s code of ethics, and in doing so, transforms our hero’s worldview.  He also puts our own world—namely, our neuropsychology—under the microscope. Throughout the genre-defying film, the Joker describes the origins of his facial scars. Each time spinning disparate accounts. Yet, with each tale, we, as an audience, glimpse our own society a bit clearer. Within this funhouse of chaos, this fiction within a fiction, we find a more accurate portrait of our society—with scars and all.

[Read “Existentialism in Children’s Film“]

‘Why So Serious?’

With a knife in hand, the purple-clad, face-painted Joker springs from the pool table, commencing somewhat meekly in his own self-indulgent query, “You wanna know how I got these scars?”

The Joker then details a narrative of a father who “was a drinker and a fiend.” One night his father goes “off crazier than usual” and his mother “gets the kitchen knife to defend herself.” He explains how his father disapproving of this “takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it.” As a matter of consequence, the young child witnesses this gruesome scene. When the father notices the son, he asks jovially, “Why so serious?” Then inserting the knife blade into the son’s mouth, he blares, “Let’s put a smile on that face!”

Now, the Joker refocuses and nonchalantly echoes to his present victim, “Why so serious?”

How Early Childhood Trauma Affects the Adult Brain

Seldom does a father so intentionally, so literally, so physically scar his own child. The actions, nonetheless, of our parents and the mentors of our youth bear heavily on our psychological, social, and neurological development. We are the products of our upbringing, forged in the furnace of youth, notched in the wilderness of experience.

Violent trauma in childhood proves especially enduring and complex. “The intersection of childhood and violence raises several problematic issues that demand a synthesis and reformulation,” explains Jill E. Korbin. “Although it is perhaps simplistic to say that both childhood and violence are culturally constructed categories, it is nevertheless the case that violence is not a unitary phenomenon nor is childhood experienced similarly everywhere.”

For without these fundamental assumptions being explicitly stated, “it is impossible to understand the variability of experience involving children and violence.”

Martin H. Teicher notes that “in the early 1990s mental health professionals believed that emotional and social difficulties occurred mainly through psychological means.” And interestingly, “[c]hildhood maltreatment was understood either to foster the development of intrapsychic defense mechanisms that proved to be self-defeating in adulthood or to arrest psychosocial development….”

Basically, researchers paralleled the mind to software, in which any problem could be amended, reprogrammed, or just altogether erased. Just rewrite the code, and the patient will become a well-adjusted, societal member.

The research of Teicher and his colleagues suggests alternatively that childhood maltreatment leads to a failure in the hardware of the mind, owing to biological and chemical alterations early in mental development. Significant brain-wave abnormalities were clinically found in 54 percent of patients with a history of early trauma, whereas in only 27 percent of non-abused patients. These electroencephalogram (EEG) anomalies reached 72 percent in those with documented histories of serious physical and sexual abuse.

When abuse of children occurs, it happens during a critically formative time when experiences are physically sculpting the brain—the structural self. The severe stress of these experiences, as Teicher adds, “can leave an indelible imprint on [the brain’s] structure and function. Such abuse, it seems, induces a cascade of molecular and neurobiological effects” that are irreversible.

These accreted brain-wave abnormalities appear to manifest in criminal activity later in life. When controlling for earlier involvement in violent behavior and a vector of sociodemographic characteristics, Ross Macmillan shows that “adolescent victimization almost tripled the odds of both violent and property offending in adulthood, doubled the odds of domestic violence, and increased the odds of problem drug use by almost 90%.”

Thus, each generation lives out the violence, habits, and scars of the preceding generation. Even though teasing out the causation of childhood violence and later-life outcomes is a challenge, much can still be reasonably drawn.

For example, the “life trajectory,” which Macmillan discusses more in his research, can map even the Joker. The Joker may be best described as a stray bullet or a dog chasing cars—without agency, without a plan. However, his origins root in parental abuse, and his chaotic, adult self launches from this muzzle of victimized youth.

In short, the Joker embodies the now-embrowned sins of his father, as we embody those of our parents, and as our children will embody ours. If only the child’s mind developed in a vacuum, one would not be burdened by the scars of his or her elders. Yet, we live not as such, but as breathing sculptures chiseled early on by many.

[Read “Peter Pan, Existentialist Fairy Tale?“]

‘Always Smiling’

While at Bruce Wayne’s party for new District Attorney Harvey Dent, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) tells the green-haired Joker, “We are not intimidated by thugs.” After examining the Senator’s facial mien, the Joker says, “You remind me of my father. I hated my father.”

With the Joker’s blade brandished, Rachel Dawes interjects. Commenting on Dawes’s beauty and noted nervousness, the Joker asks drawing close, “Is it the Scars? Wanna know how I got them?”

The Joker then tenderly weaves, “I had a wife—beautiful like you.” His wife gambled and got “in deep with the sharks,” yet thought “I worry too much” and “I oughta smile more.” After the “sharks” collected from her facial assets, the young couple had “no money for surgeries.”

Moreover, he “just want[ed] to see her smile again,” and for her to know “I didn’t care about the scars.” So, with a razor, he scars himself, but “she can’t stand the sight of me. She leaves.” In this, the Joker finds understanding: “Now, I see the funny side. Now, I am always smiling.”

How Empathy Leaves Us All Traumatized

With the understanding that through caring—physically or emotionally or both—for the traumatized, one inadvertently becomes traumatized, we learn the infectious and destructive nature of trauma.

“Mirror neurons,” says Giacomo Rizzolatti, “allow us to grasp the minds of others, not through conceptual reasoning, but through direct simulation.” Not by thinking, but by feeling. That is, mirror neurons induce in us the sense that the observed experiences undergone by others were directly born by us ourselves.

These simulations are what allow one individual to share in another’s joy or grief. It is these mirror neurons that usher us into our emotional comprehension of others, particularly, through the mechanism of “empathy.”

“And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate,” Marco Iacoboni exemplifies, “you automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.”  

Moreso, we do not merely decipher the linguistic and physical cues in the speech, writings, or actions of others. We experience emotionally their selfsame state of being—when they deliver their Academy Award-winning dialog, turn a now-classic phrase, or pitch that rare sporting event, the perfect game.

Empathy starts with an involuntarily shared emotion. And Jean Decety explains, “This is something that is hard-wired into our brains—the capacity to automatically perceive and share others’ feelings.” He cites, when a baby hears another child crying, he or she begins to cry.

“People of all ages,” Decety continues, “will unconsciously mimic the facial expressions of those they see.” Difficult it is to refrain from laughing, let alone smiling, when amongst a crowd of jovial character. We take on the emotional dynamics of the group we are in, but this runs deeper than something like groupthink, for thought is too developed, too cerebral, too articulated. We must distill even farther, until reaching what Adam Smith calls, “sentiment,” that is, “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatsoever.”

When an individual loses his or herself in another’s pain, the self experiences personal distress. And the other-oriented nature of empathy is put to the side and this personal distress turns inwards. So, basically, one now forfeits his or her ability to aid in the recovery or treatment of another, becoming another amongst the quarantined.

The scars and trauma the Joker’s wife suffered, in consequence for her own actions, eventually and equally scars the Joker—traumatizes him. It is through her trauma, in direct relation to his empathy and compassion, that he now faces the world, at large.

Interestingly, the traumatized despises the traumatized: the Joker’s wife leaves once he becomes the same as she. Nevertheless, trauma passes, via empathy, from one to another, as a joke or just a smile. If only, it faded as quickly.

[Read “Mary Poppins as the Bodhisattva Ideal“]

‘These Scars’

“What were you trying to prove? That deep down that everyone’s exactly as you? You’re alone,” says the Dark Knight, pinned beneath a steel rail stories above the pavement.

The jolly, tongue-wagging Joker starts, “You can’t rely on anyone these days. You gotta do everything yourself… Don’t we?” Adding, “It’s a funny world we live in,” and then stops abruptly and looks at his incapacitated foe.

“Speaking of which,” the Joker recommences, “know how I got these scars?” Aided with a recently-improved batsuit from Lucius Fox, the Caped Crusader responds, “No, but I know how you get these…” Batman’s spiked vambraces then propel the spikes towards the Joker, granting Batman the time needed to free himself.

How Personal Responsibility Still Exists

As we have learned from the Joker’s two differing tales, scars originate and manifest in equally different manners. But nevertheless, they leave the same result in their wake—a disfigured human being.

And as we have come to understand, the Joker highlights much about the human condition within his own maimed allegories and postmodernist view of neuropsychology.

First, we discover that abuse or high stress experienced in the early developing years of childhood can essentially alter the structural hardware of the brain, having a direct effect on what software the mind can later operate. Moreover, one cannot simply delete or erase these neurochemical scars.

As John Milton pens in Paradise Regained, “The childhood shews the man / As morning shews the day.” Seldom does it seem that a bad morning unfurls into a good afternoon.

Second, we find that empathy—one of the key elements to our very humanity—can be not only what facilitates, but what initiates the trauma that separates us from our fellow man, leaving each to mirror the scars of the other and each despising the other for the selfsame scars.

As Adam Smith observes, to merely draw into one’s mind the plight of “our brother upon the rack” was enough for one to “enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him.” As keen as this notion of “fellow-feeling” is, Smith ends before mentioning how the “brother upon the rack” sees his fellow man, and from this exchange incubates the “personal distress” and the intra-special separation.

Yet, how far can society go in addressing these types of issues and the actors that propagate from such?

“No man is hurt but by himself,” states Diogenes of Sinope. If seeking a more modern translation of this concept, one need look no further than a recent country song: “[W]e all live with the scars we choose.”

We see that trauma and its scars can be navigated in time and with fortitude. The mind can never be wiped clean, yet the brain can learn to augment itself with new software, or even fashion appendant hardware, to assist those who are traumatized to better traverse social roles needed to be functioning members of a just society.

Regarding the involuntary influence of mirror neurons, Decety adds, “One way to regulate emotion is to get more information.” From this, “if you are able to separate yourself, then the non-overlap in the neural response frees up processing capacity in the brain for formulating an appropriate action.”

We have the final choice in how we approach our trauma.

Given that trauma will affect us—that is, no one is immune to trauma—do we let it control us, or do we elect to govern it, to funnel it into something productive and progressive? Ultimately, the answers to these questions must lie with each person, must be each person’s personal responsibility.

In the “adventure romance,” Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood writes, “‘I am not my childhood,’ Snowman says out loud. He hates these replays. He can’t turn them off, he can’t change the subject, he can’t leave the room. What he needs is more inner discipline…”  As much as we cannot change our neurological annals, we can seek, practice, and improve our inner discipline. We can recruit others to aid in buttressing our inner restructuring. Fostering and building inner discipline often demands both community and solitude, yet it always begins with the individual.

Take Bruce Wayne: a child left in a damp alleyway alone holding the hand of his dying father, after witnessing both his parents being shot to death. As much as he was defenseless to the trauma of that night outside the theater, he could offensively control his recovery. He chose to learn how to understand his trauma. Through his inner discipline, gathering more information, and clinical methods, such as, exposure and depth therapy, he focused his mental and physical being around his trauma, so to combat his own scars.

Batman comprehends that each individual—no matter the chaotic childhood, no matter the emotional trauma, no matter the past or present circumstances—must be responsible solely for his or her actions and must bear the consequences thereof. He sees it less as blame and more as cause-and-effect. Moreover, he knows overcoming one’s scars is not easy; much toil is required. But what he also acknowledges is that one can overcome them and that everyone else in society is better for it.

When observing someone as traumatized as the Joker, we can see, as magnified as it is, how trauma leaves much collateral damage in its wake. Because of Batman’s own experience with trauma, he does not judge the Joker’s emotional state of existence, but rather the Joker’s destructive impact on society. Holding to his “one rule”—that is, he will not play executioner in his pursuit of justice—shows that Batman believes in hope for even the Joker’s recovery.

To comprehend why and how one does as one does is to prevent future traumatic experiences, and therefore, similar situations from occurring for future generations. This newfound understanding negates naught of the socially vile actions that have already befallen our communities. It only calls for a remodeling, a reframing of justice, our views of mental illness, and how we, as a society, invest in mental health and treatment of others. The emotional and neurological upbringing of future generations rests with how we choose to combat our scars today.

In short, we learn from the Joker that trauma often materializes early and it can happen to us all, while Batman teaches us that trauma can be overcome. The road to recovery is itself a hero’s journey. So, when it comes to the cascading nature of trauma on human neuropsychology, we must be the heroes we need right now. We should not stare so long into the mirror that we, as a society, see ourselves become the villain to a future generation.

Joshua R. H. Parsons

Joshua is a peregrine thinker. He has worked in technology and innovation policy at a D.C.-based think tank. Beyond studying economics, urban planning, and violence, he spends time exploring avant-garde and postmodern film and literature, as well as country, jazz, and funk guitar. Currently, he resides in West Virginia—with his fantastic pup, Wanda.

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