Trauma and the movie “Whiplash”

I was riveted when I first saw the movie “Whiplash”. The story line involves a young talented drummer who goes to one of the most prestigious music schools in the country, and goes to excruciating lengths to be “chosen” by a music teacher who can make or break a young musician.

Watching the movie the first time, I experienced a sense of emotional whiplash myself. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

People say this is a movie about artistic talent, or about the music industry, or about the “symbiotic relationship between student and mentor”.

I say it’s a movie about brutality and abuse. It’s a movie about gaslighting. It’s a movie about trauma, specifically about attachment trauma.

Attachment trauma: that’s the exploitation of the need human beings have for attachment, connection, respect, belonging

The main character in “Whiplash” is set up to be vulnerable to such horrendous trauma and to be enthralled to his abusive teacher through childhood experiences:

  • His mother leaving when he was a baby
  • A family that doesn’t appreciate his talent, focusing their affections on other members of the family
  • A family where each member is driven to gain acceptance through being “the best”

And probably other things as well.

If you grow up in a home where your basic needs for connection, recognition, and belonging aren’t met, you can become vulnerable to abusers, to cults, to dogmatic leaders.

The guy in the movie was talented. Enormously so. He got so devoted to his teacher’s affection partly because the teacher skillfully used manipulation tactics to put his students in a constant state of frenzy and euphoria and terror combined. And partly because he had a longstanding need for validation, to be the best.

His need to be “chosen” by this abusive teacher was a huge liability for him. It left him open to mistreatment, abuse, and it could have led him to his own death. His rage at his teacher alternated with a deep need for this teacher’s acknowledgement.

Although I don’t usually see people caught in this extreme of situation, I do see lots of clients who have some unmet needs. “Childhood needs become adult needs.” The need my clients feel, for love, for connection, for validation, have sometimes been shut out.

Or they’ve sometimes taken over my clients’ lives in ways that lead them into relationships that aren’t right for them.

Either way, these kinds of empty spaces inside can leave you vulnerable. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

The good news about attachment troubles like this is that they’re really just normal human needs — human needs that haven’t been met yet. The needs we have for connection and belonging are beautiful. What’s tragic is when these needs are taken advantage of. Cults take advantage of basic human desires and needs. But good therapy helps you to embrace your humanity, notice your needs, and to get to know the parts of you that have felt empty or alone. And when that happens, you’re much much less vulnerable to people like the teacher in “Whiplash.”

Author: Michaela Lonning

I'm a counselor in Corvallis, Oregon, and I work mostly with intelligent and sensitive people who are struggling with a sense of connection to themselves or in their relationships. Near Corvallis? Come see me. Not near Corvallis? I work with clients around the world via Skype: Come see me.

One thought on “Trauma and the movie “Whiplash””

  1. What you wrote connects with me, as a person with CPTSD due to childhood/adolescent sexual abuse I was looking up reviews of Whiplash (deciding if I want to watch it or not), and am always disappointed and triggered by people who don’t see the clear nature of abuse for what it is. A sort of ‘gaslighting’ in itself (it’s not really harmful to treat people like this – maybe they need it in order to become ‘good’ at their instrument etc. ) Those who don’t understand or recognize abuse for what it is, maybe it’s just something they don’t understand or think about??? Hard not to see societal denial as part of what supports abuse. You know many people still think it’s okay to ridicule their kids, humiliate them, or hit them etc. Hard to read invalidating responses, but you’re was spot on. Feel better after having read it. Wish that someday all of society would understand that abuse is never about performance, or doing something for a student ‘for their own good’ etc. It’s always about what is wrong with the abuser, and the vulnerability of the victim. That’s why big kids bully little ones, etc., right down to our new ‘bullier in chief.’ They take advantage of the vulnerable……

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