Transcending Trauma: From Batman to the Red Hood
FYJasonTodd was lucky enough to secure a Q&A interview with Drs. Praveen Kambam, Vasilis K. Pozios, and H. Eric Bender, of Broadcast Thought. In July, they presented a panel at the San Deigo Comic Con called Transcending Trauma: From the birth of Batman to the rise of the Red Hood.
At the SDCC panel, they argued: “Due to a relative lack of resiliency and other factors such as the absence of supportive parental figures and the presence of behavioral traits consistent with juvenile delinquency, we argued that even absent the traumatic event, Jason Todd would have more likely than not gone down the path to villainy.”
FYJT: The panel you presented last year was on Batman’s villains, correct?
Yes. We presented a panel at Comic-Con International 2009 in San Diego. That panel was entitled “Unlocking Arkham: Forensic Psychiatry & Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery.” We presented an updated version of that talk at WonderCon 2010 in San Francisco called “Unhinged: The Forensic Psychiatry of Arkham’s Insane.”
FYJT: What compelled you to conduct that panel and this Transcending Trauma one this year?
The three of us - Praveen Kambam, M.D., Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D., and H. Eric Bender, M.D. - are physicians specializing in psychiatry. Broadly, we are interested in the overlap between media, entertainment, and psychiatry. As comic book and science fiction fans, we appreciate the psychological complexity present in comic book story arcs as well as in film and television adaptations of comic book source material. The Batman characters provide rich examples of that complexity. As forensic psychiatrists - psychiatrists who specialize in mental health and legal issues - we have special interest in how our profession is portrayed in the context of Arkham Asylum. For example, forensic psychiatrists are often asked to evaluate criminal defendants for legal insanity. This is a relevant issue in Arkham Asylum, which is filled with characters found in Gotham City to be legally insane.
At Comic-Con last year, we used our insight as both forensic psychiatrists and Batman fans in order to teach the audience about real-world forensic psychiatric issues. We contrasted our real-world experience and knowledge with what is depicted in the Batman comics and films. In doing so, we drew some interesting conclusions that we shared with the audience. For example, while some characters, like Maxie Zeus, would meet real-world criteria to be housed at a forensic hospital like Arkham Asylum, others, like the Joker, would not meet the criteria for legal insanity, and would instead be sentenced to a prison like Blackgate Penitentiary - not committed to a forensic psychiatric hospital like Arkham Asylum. The audience was blown away by this revelation and told us they were very interested in learning more about these beloved characters from a psychiatric perspective.
FYJT: Can you explain in detail what you mean by this? What does a “relative lack of resiliency” mean? Why would these factors contribute to Jason going down the path to villainy?
In our presentation at Comic-Con in July of 2010 (“Transcending Trauma: From the Birth of Batman to the Rise of the Red Hood”), we discussed how people respond to traumatic experiences in various ways. There are specific factors and personal attributes that are associated with more “resilient“ responses to trauma. For example, having positive, supportive relationships, good peer and support networks, as well as individual attributes like high IQ and using humor and altruism to cope with trauma can all be buffers from unhealthy responses to traumatic experiences. In addition to a lack of these key protective factors, Jason Todd had the presence of some additional risk factors for a non-resilient response to trauma, such as childhood neglect and possible abuse. Jason also demonstrated the presence of several maladaptive personality traits such as impulsivity, anger, and delinquent behaviors, which can also contribute to a non-resilient response to trauma.
FYJT: Can you tell us a little about your thoughts on the argument that Jason would take the path he did regardless of his traumatic event?
When you take into account Jason Todd’s upbringing and the factors that we previously mentioned, this could account for Jason’s progression from a hero to an anti-hero/villain. In the comics, Batman has even remarked that his tutelage of Jason and passing the mantle of Robin on to him was Batman’s effort to save Jason from a life of crime. We agree with Batman’s assessment, given our analysis of the factors we mentioned. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude, even if you put aside the incident with the Joker, that Jason would have more likely than not gone down the path to villainy.
FYJT: And on the other hand… Do you think his path is related to this event, or if it’s rooted deeper in his need for affection from a father like figure. Do you think he would’ve received that had he not died?
In our description of Jason Todd’s path to villainy, we constructed a hypothetical scenario within which we framed our argument. By excluding the death of Jason and his subsequent resurrection, we argued that Jason’s path to villainy was overwhelmingly decided by the lack of resiliency factors and presence of negative personality and other factors as described above. In other words, if Jason had not died at the hands of the Joker, he more likely than not would have gone on to become a villain anyway.
When you consider the possible ramifications Jason’s death and resurrection may have played in his transition from a hero to an anti-hero/villain, his relationship with Bruce Wayne becomes more relevant. For example, Jason rationalizes his behavior as the Red Hood by stating his ambition to become a better Batman, seeking to correct Batman’s short-comings (i.e., failing to “take-out” threats by killing criminals). This is in response to Jason’s perceived betrayal by Batman, both by not saving him and by not avenging his death by killing the Joker.
FYJT: How do you think the traumatic event of his death and his “daddy issues” with Batman influenced Jason Todd’s relationships with the other members of his past life as Robin? In particular with people once very close to him such as Barbara Gordon or Dick Grayson?
Jason Todd and Dick Grayson can be viewed as brothers, sharing Bruce Wayne as a father. Unlike most “sibling rivalries,” Jason’s competition with Dick took a bizarre turn when he impersonated Dick’s former crime-fighting persona, Nightwing. Jason’s motivation in attempting to usurp Dick’s role as Nightwing could be viewed as driven by an unconscious desire to assume the identity of Bruce’s favorite son.
FYJT: Do you think that his questioning the ethics of Batman and other superheroes comes from a truly changed moral value or is it some kind of denial?
Jason’s questioning of Batman’s ethical code preexisted his death and resurrection, and it can be considered to be an extension of his life-long personality structure. In other words, Jason always felt Batman’s restraint let criminals “off the hook,” and he was disciplined by Batman for using excessive violence as Robin. As the Red Hood, Jason rationalized this violent behavior by framing it within his self-proclaimed quest to become a “better Batman.”
FYJT: Do you think that Jason, following Batman’s betrayal, “inherited” Batman’s typical fear of intimacy? Is it really possible for him now to build relationships in terms of trust and caring?
We have suggested that the personality traits and attributes that Jason has displayed throughout his life, along with his life experiences even before his death, enabled him to more easily walk down the path to villainy. These character traits in Jason would also likely impede him from developing relationships based on trust and caring. His inability to build this type of “solid” relationship was likely cemented even further after his perceived betrayal by Batman.
FYJT: Does Jason fit into Freud’s Oedipal Complex theory well? How so or how not so?
The Oedipal Complex is a psychoanalytic theory that is based on the concept of the unconscious, the part of the mind that we are not consciously aware of. Freud described how a young male child unconsciously wishes to possess his mother while destroying his father (reminiscent of the Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex”). In Jason’s case, perhaps he wanted to destroy Batman in the events following his own (Jason’s) death and subsequent resurrection, but there never existed a true Oedipal Complex as Freud would have described..
FYJT: It seems as though Jason rejected the path of villainy when he took on the role of Robin, as other characters like Stephanie Brown, Cassandra Cain, and Mia Dearden — a person Jason actually sought out to warn about the fallacies of sidekickdom — have also rejected by becoming heroes. Would this rejection of the villain path then be negated by his perceived betrayal by Batman?
In our talk, we emphasized that traumatic experiences alone do not fully explain a character’s path to villainy or heroism. Similarly, as we discussed above, Jason had many other experiences, risk factors, and personal traits/attributes that may have influenced his path. Furthermore, we are not sure that Jason fully “rejected the path of villainy” when he took on the role of Robin. Keep in mind that Batman took Jason under his wing (no pun intended) because he recognized Jason’s vulnerabilities and potential path to further delinquency. Batman intervened primarily to prevent Jason from becoming a villain, with a secondary motivation to mold him into a hero. His path to villainy was not negated because Jason had personal qualities that drew him to later make a choice to become a villain.
FYJT: Batman’s entire life is driven by loss. What successes he does have never seem to out run the shadow of his grief and continually reinforced loss, the “death” of Jason Todd being perhaps the most recent and certainly most traumatizing since the murder of his parents. This is perhaps not dissimilar to the experience from soldiers who lost comrades on the battle field. At the same time, Batman often seems unable to process normal emotions in anything resembling an ordinary way. He either calms up totally and when he does unleash his feelings, they tend to be of the beat-criminals-to-a-pulp-with-his-bare-hands variety. When you look at Batman’s behavior, are we looking at someone who is coping with something akin to post traumatic stress? And is the way he is coping with it - if indeed he is - actually necessary to do that kind of things that he does?
There are four main symptom categories that psychiatrists look at when evaluating an individual for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): experiencing, witnessing, or being confronted by an event that involves actual or threatened or serious injury to oneself or others which results in the individual experiencing intense fear, helplessness, or horror; a re-experiencing of the event, such as through nightmares or flashbacks; persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness; and persistent symptoms of hyperarousal, such as impaired concentration and hypervigilance. Under each category of symptoms, a person must have a certain number of criteria to have the diagnosis of “full-blown” PTSD.
Although Batman has experienced some posttraumatic stress symptoms throughout his life, he does not actually meet the full criteria for PTSD. For example, although he has been depicted as experiencing nightmares and flashbacks of his parents’ murder, he does not avoid Crime Alley, the site of his parents’ death. His decreased involvement in life activities other than crime fighting is not due to numbing and avoidance (as would be seen in an individual suffering from PTSD), but is instead more likely associated with his obsessive personality traits. Batman also is quite risk-taking and puts himself in positions in which he may be harmed, instead of being hyper-vigilant about his safety.
When you bring up the experience of soldiers who survived the battle field but lost comrades there, you are talking about the concept of survivor guilt. This is a phenomenon sometimes seen in individuals who have experienced traumatic experiences. Here, the person can literally feel guilty for having survived (“Why did I live, when others died? It should have been me!”).
Batman may be motivated by a type of survivor guilt and may be reflecting posttraumatic growth. This concept is the subject of more recent areas of research and suggests that there are some people who, after experiencing trauma, find new meaning in their lives as a result of the trauma. For example, a parent traumatized by watching his/her child die of cancer may start a charitable organization to raise funds for cancer research. This would be an example of posttraumatic growth; the parent makes new meaning from the horrible trauma suffered and dedicates his/her life to find a cure for cancer. One can look at Batman and argue that he makes meaning out of witnessing the murder of his parents by dedicating his life to eradicating crime in their honor.
FYJT: Jason’s drive as Red Hood is to be a “better Batman,” that is to eclipse the accomplishments of his father - which is a very old theme in western literature (and Greek tragedy). However, unlike a real life situation, Jason’s father will never step out of the picture - that is die, leaving the son to be his own man, as it were. Which means this father/son tension seems like it would go on forever. If you were Jason’s therapist with full knowledge of his life, what would you try to do to get Jason to move past this road block in his life?
In the real world, one approach would be to attempt to help Jason “reframe” his relationship with Batman. For example, Jason could examine the relationship he has with Batman and work with a therapist to help him discover any irrational or unreasonable perspectives he has about the relationship. With the help of a therapist, Jason might learn to see the relationship differently, or he might come to accept the limitations he felt he had under Batman, and accept the relationship dynamics between Batman and him. A therapist could thereby help guide Jason in the examination and restructuring of the relationship he has with Batman.
With much thanks to Dr. Praveen Kambam, Dr. Vasilis K. Pozos, and Dr. H. Eric Bender of Broadcast Thought. Additional thanks to Grant Lafleche for helping formulate questions.
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