This year on Mother’s Day, the retro movie channel showed Rosemary’s Baby. The timing speaks to a cultural view of mothers and motherhood which could provide a myriad of thesis topics for doctoral dissertations in psychology and sociology. Strangely, the issues portrayed in this film, released 50 years ago, also provide a roadmap for dealing with Donald Trump’s presidency.
The film’s plot is bizarre. A young couple, surrounded by Creepy (creepy neighbors, creepy doctor), celebrates their pregnancy. As the story progresses, the mother (Mia Farrow) slowly pieces together a puzzle unfolding around her and realizes she’s carrying the devil’s baby.
Mia Farrow gives a brilliant performance. Her character knows that a Satan-driven conspiracy, resulting in her womb’s housing the devil’s offspring, is entirely absurd. Reluctantly, she gradually accepts that this crazy idea is actually her reality. She desperately doesn’t want to see what she sees, believe what she believes. She is repeatedly told that her perceptions are off, reassured that all is well. Even as her unease grows into fear, she holds her eyes wide open. As awful as it is (and really, can you imagine anything more awful?), she will not allow herself the luxury of closing her eyes to the truth.
Now, with twenty-twenty hindsight, the Creepy factor is even more disturbing. Early in the plot line, Rosemary is drugged by a cult neighbor (whoa…drugged?) and raped (wait a moment…raped?) by the devil. Her husband reassures (reassures?) her that while she was unconscious (unconscious?), he had sex with her so as not to miss their monthly window to conceive (sexual assault much?). To double down on Creepy, this film was directed by Roman Polanski who, decades later, would be expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures for conduct violations of sexual assault and misconduct with minors. And to triple down, Mia Farrow’s real-life family would eventually fracture over sexual allegations against Woody Allen and his leaving Farrow (his partner of several years) for her daughter. No way around it, this film has Twisted and Damaged leaking out of every pore.
As I watched the movie, I felt an insidious fog encroaching. Worse, I found no comfort in the usual it’s-just-a-movie or it’s-retro-days-gone-by. The truth is that these issues are chillingly relevant right here, right now, in our country. People don’t want to see what they see, to hear what they hear, to believe what’s in front of them. An eyes-wide-shut approach put Donald Trump in the Oval Office. In the onslaught of our president’s transgressions, our natural, human inclination is to desensitize ourselves to the Twisted and Damaged.
However, we’ve now reached a point where Eyes-Wide-Shut will be more difficult to sustain. Donald Trump’s statements in his meeting with President Putin drew fire even from his own political party. On a different front, a tape has been released, a recording of Donald Trump and his then-lawyer Michael Cohen discussing pay-offs to hide an affair. This contradicts earlier statements that Donald Trump knew nothing about pay-offs linked to campaign funds — which (maybe? probably?) means our president knowingly conspired to violate federal campaign finance laws and then lied to the public about it.
Facing that the leader of the free world is capable of assault, of hate-speech, of committing federal crimes — that’s disturbing on the level of realizing that you’re carrying the devil’s baby. It’s especially scary if your vote helped put him in office. Still, we all make mistakes (I mean, c’mon, even Rosemary, a strong woman with a rock solid sound mind, chose one hell of a husband). Yeah, voting for Donald Trump was a mistake, and any mistake is painful to admit — but this mistake is a zinger, which means that owning it is proportionally tough. As difficult as I may find it to forgive people who supported President Trump, I have to try, because the problem in my country is much bigger than I’ll ever be.
I want to broker a deal. Regarding everybody who chooses to rethink their vote, I’m reaching out and offering support. Even though you can’t take back your vote in the 2016 presidential election, I welcome your thoughts and I respect your courage. We can still work together to rewrite our future, but there’s a price to pay. The eyes-wide-shut mentality has to go.
The path forward is complex and even though I’m a liberal democrat, horrified by the Trump Regime, I’m quite aware that this issue can’t be reduced a simplistic equation such as Trump Supporter = Bad. Think about Rosemary’s Baby. In the last scene, the conspirators gather in the neighbors’ living room, and Rosemary finally has confirmation that her worst fears are true. So what does she do? Call 911? Run to the nearest church for an exorcism? Nope. Instead, she rocks her baby.
You might react in many ways (starting with What The Hell???). You might say that this is ultimately a reactionary film, because it illustrates that motherhood is so strong an urge that a woman will suckle the devil’s spawn rather than be childless. Or you might say that this is ultimately a subversive and progressive film because it’s about Rosemary (originally entitled and coddled in the way that men try to and often do infantilize beautiful women) resolutely overcoming every contrary force to discover some ugly realities, and then achieving independence and agency by choosing to embrace them. Or you might say that it’s alarmingly anti-parenthood because the ending claims that choosing a traditional role–being a wife and mother–is literally a pact with the Devil. Whatever you choose, it’s debatable and complicated.
As I’m watching how people reconcile their approval of Donald Trump with the ugly enormities of who he is and what he does, I’m looking to Rosemary to help me understand. I see in the thoughtful interviews that a lot of Trump supporters say they don’t particularly like him (the lying, the sexism, the racism, the cruelty) — but they do like the direction the country is going (a strong economy, taxes, deregulation). Listening to the average Trump supporter (not the white supremacist or the extreme nationalist), the message seems to be he may not be a good president, but he’s my president. And I can imagine Rosemary saying he may not be a good baby, but he’s my baby.
So what do we do now?
Whatever my interpretation of the underlying messages in Rosemary’s Baby, I can follow certain guidelines as I try to navigate this terrible chapter in my homeland. Like Rosemary, no matter how disturbed I feel at what I see, I’ll hold my eyes wide open. I’ll work with what I’ve got. In practical terms — in November of 2018 and in the next presidential election of 2020, I’ll get behind the strongest candidate, even if I don’t believe that person is the best candidate, and I’ll check the box next to their name. I won’t allow anyone to tell me that I don’t see what I do see. When my president acts crazy, while I’ll do my best to deal with the fallout, I won’t accept his crazy as my normal.
In Rosemary’s words, “This is not a dream! This is really happening!”
Actually, it wasn’t really happening. It was a movie with a fictional plot line. Donald Trump, however, is extremely real.
*Credit to my husband, Bernie Burk — lawyer, law professor, writer — who watched Rosemary’s Baby and described, in thoughtful and clear language, the misguided views of women both then and now. He suggested I use the movie as a catalyst for this post.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, as she leaves her college prep academy for the local public school. At Hollywood High, she finds over 40 native languages, gangs, extreme violence targeting the gay students, and friendships that open her world. Tightwire, Amy’s second novel, continues to follow Caroline, this time as a rookie psych intern treating her first patient — a stormy, brilliant, troubled young man who ran away from the circus to find himself. Amy’s blog includes posts about the resistance, gender equality, LGBTQ+ ally support, racial equality, March For Our Lives, parenting and a Rolling Stones concert. Amy collaborates with educators who include her books and essays in their classrooms.
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