Note: This post contains no spoilers, nor do you have to have seen either movie to “get it.” 🙂
As I sat in the dark theater last Tuesday night, enraptured by “The King’s Speech” and emotionally engrossed in the stuttering troubles of King George VI – or “Bertie” – one line of dialogue jumped out at me. Speech therapist Lionel Logue (embodied superbly by Geoffrey Rush) said of Bertie, “It’s like he’s afraid of his own shadow!”
I’d encountered that expression zillions of times before, but that was the first time I really heard it.
See, shadows have been very much on my mind these past few weeks. They’ve been following me around (and not because we’ve had any sunshine in the Seattle area!) ever since I saw the deeply haunting “Black Swan.” The entire movie is an exploration of the tug-of-war that exists between our controlled exterior and our unbridled shadow side. The story is a dramatic example of what can happen when we try to suppress our shadow, or when we disregard it completely. Because dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) had always tried to be disciplined, perfect and a people-pleaser, she struggled to get in touch with her shadow when a challenge arose. And what happened? The shadow took her over, tragically and completely.
I’ve just started really learning about the “shadow,” which is what Carl Jung called the archetype that contains our most primal nature, our animal spirits. While we often think of the shadow as being dark and scary, it’s actually more accurate to say that it contains things we have repressed. Consider this from the forward of “A Little Book on the Human Shadow” (Robert Bly):
“…we might call the shadow ‘the dark, unlit and repressed side of the ego complex,’ the Jungian analyst Marie Louise Von Franz says in Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. ‘But this is only partly true,’ she adds, lest we get caught in the negative connotation of the image. She tells of an occasion when Jung, impatient as always with Jungians, dismissed a nit-picking discussion of the concept by protesting. ‘This is all nonsense! The shadow is simply the whole unconscious.’ The definition Von Franz settles on is neutral and lucid: ‘…the shadow is simply a mythological name for all that within me of which I cannot directly know.'”
Additional perspective comes from “A Primer of Jungian Psychology” (Hall & Nordby):
“The person who suppresses the animal side of his nature may become civilized, but he does so at the expense of decreasing the motive power for spontaneity, creativity, strong emotions and deep insights. … A shadowless life tends to become shallow and spiritless.”
The Nina we meet in the beginning of “Black Swan” is beautiful to watch because of her precision and grace. She also lacks the spark and charisma that her rival seems to have in abundance. It’s only after numerous intense encounters with her shadow that she is able to rouse passion in herself and others.
So what does a twisted ballerina have in common with a stuttering king?
Recall the phrase that Logue uttered: “It’s like he’s afraid of his own shadow!” Bertie was introduced to us as a proper royal, occupying his role with some discomfort yet doing his best to please others. The shadow Logue referred to (whether he knew it or not) was the shoving away, the piling on of years of emotional neglect and low expectations from others. Bertie’s father, brother, nanny and other people who were supposed to care for him, failed him. Bertie is not allowed to openly grapple with that, and his frustration and pain come through in his speech.
Before seeing the movie, I wasn’t familiar with the causes of stuttering. One might watch the movie and, knowing nothing else, conclude that the cause was purely psychological. And indeed, it was after Logue started shining the light on Bertie’s shadow, one memory and profanity at a time, that he started to find his voice (literally and metaphorically).
Instead, the reasons children begin stuttering are developmental and neurological; there are still some idiosyncrasies (like why does the stuttering go away while whispering, or singing, or speaking in unison?), but it’s generally believed that it’s not psychological.
Bertie’s struggle with and detachment from his shadow wasn’t the cause of his speech impediment, but it certainly exacerbated it. Once he started standing up for himself, and finding his innate power (not just the power from his birth right), he was able to be more spontaneous and emotional. His shadow started working with him, rather than against him.
Both Nina and Bertie were confronted with their shadow side. To step into the fullness of who they were meant to be, they were required to look at what they had stuffed away, and to come to grips with “all that within me of which I cannot directly know.” Each experienced their shadow emerging in socially inappropriate ways (hers with violence, his with scathing put-downs); the results could not have been more different for each person.
I did a search for “black swan effect,” curious if it was a phrase in use, and if so, what it meant. Besides being a rock band, I found a reference to “black swan events.” According to Wikipedia, “Black Swan Events were characterized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book (revised and completed in 2010), The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as “black swans” — undirected and unpredicted… [demonstrating] rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability”
Huh! Sounds like what happened to Bertie, the future King George VI!!
His brother’s abdication of the throne during wartime was rare, had an extreme impact and in hindsight, might have been predicted. And since Bertie was known as the reluctant king, never expecting to assume the crown, it’s no wonder this “black swan event” led to a close encounter with his shadow.
We don’t have to wait for a “black swan”-level crisis to begin the dance with our own shadow. It’s always going to be there, following us around, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. Think of it as a reservoir of personal power. We can either see it as a source of inspiration and creativity, or we can deny it, and by extension, deny an integral piece of what it means to be human. It’s by acknowledging the shadow and understanding it that we can use it for good and not evil.
If you’re interested in learning more about the shadow, there are some excellent books devoted to the subject. Spend a few minutes browsing my virtual bookshelf here: http://theintrovertentrepreneur.com/shop/bookstore/
And if you haven’t already seen them, I highly recommend both movies. The stories of Bertie and Nina will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.