One of the most anticipated shows of the Fall season is Fox’s Gotham, which gives us the story of how the dreary city and its corrupt, prodromal villains created the vigilante known as The Batman. The series has the fascinating opportunity to depict realistic issues in developmental psychopathology—the complex explanations of how youngsters grow up to develop “normal” and “abnormal” behavior. In other words, if we really want to know how little Bruce Wayne became the Dark Knight—and whether that path is adaptive or maladaptive—this should be the show to follow.
Trauma is Supposed to Knock Us Down
Throughout his 75-year history, Batman’s origin has been relatively consistent. It’s late in the night, and a mugger holds Thomas and Martha, the affluent parents of little Bruce Wayne, at gunpoint in a dark alley in Gotham City. The terrified and helpless Bruce witnesses the horrific shooting of his mother and father and is left alone in the darkness with their lifeless bodies. Without argument, this is the most devastating traumatic event one can experience during childhood years.
It seems that the concept of trauma has been diluted due to our need to dramatize our everyday lives. (e.g., “The line today at the grilled cheese food truck was traumatizing.” No, actually it wasn’t.) We have to remember that real traumas involve loss, tragedy, violence and horror. The word “trauma” as used by psychologists refers to a stressful event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. In fact, children are exposed to a substantial amount of trauma during development, including maltreatment, neglect, community violence, domestic violence, parental loss, injury, and natural disasters. So yes, in fact, by adolescence, nearly two-thirds of us have been exposed to at least one traumatic incident. The real kind. But most of us aren’t battling with debilitating forms of mental illness, which is perhaps the most important lesson coming out of Bruce Wayne’s story: We—the human race—are surprisingly resilient. We’re all superheroes, damnit.
Still, many of us wonder how such a devastating event could impact little Bruce, and whether it will change him for the rest of his life. The depiction of Bruce’s psychological reactions is often very realistic. He’s confused, shocked, and utterly terrified. We also see some hints of clinical sadness, isolation, and some seemingly strange behavior. After experiencing a tragedy, it is natural for us to feel sad, disconnected, and maybe even a little off. In fact, it is normal to feel a bit crazy after experiencing trauma. Our bodies and brains are trying to make sense of the event that just occurred. Our sense of safety was jarred. Our concept of trust was shattered. It’s also very common to re-experience the event for a while (like having bad dreams, feeling jumpy, and thinking about the event a lot). Think of these as normal reactions to abnormal events. This is perhaps the best time that caretakers, therapists, and perhaps even young GCPD detectives can step in and guide the survivor toward a path to recovery.
Resiliency: Getting Up After We Fall
Psychological scientists have established that a small portion (about 5%) of adolescents do go on to develop PTSD following trauma. In spite of serious threats, then, most youths exhibit adaptive responses and healthy outcomes.
Psychological resilience is our ability to cope with stress and adversity, to persist in the face of challenges. This may be due to “protective” factors — the characteristics that, if present, will protect a youngster from developing a dysfunctional response following trauma, such as PTSD, anxiety or mood disorders. Surprisingly, wealth is not a protective factor. Neither is social class. Despite what people believe about the lifestyles of billionaires, being raised for 11 years in Wayne Manor won’t make Bruce immune from psychological difficulties.
More important protective characteristics include Bruce’s exposure to empathy and compassion, his opportunity to build trusting, supportive relationships with people close to him like family friend/doctor Leslie Thompkins and butler/caretaker Alfred Pennyworth. Internal traits like agreeableness, cohesiveness, respect and tolerance for others—those are also predictive of healthier outcomes. It’s quite powerful to think about: Social support, compassion, and acceptance—these are like superpowers that shield us from neuropathological disease. Mental toughness. Bam.
Will Bruce Wayne Ever Fully Recover From the Loss of His Parents?
In order to determine the longstanding impact of Bruce’s trauma, a mental health professional would be interested in exploring some of the emotional, behavioral and cognitive processes he’s experiencing. The “normal” response to trauma that I mentioned above would become a problem if Bruce becomes “stuck” on those bad thoughts, feelings and reactions for longer periods of time. People who do not recover from negative events often ruminate or repeat their troubles in their mind, a process that reinforces the anxiety, sadness and disconnectedness they have felt since the initial tragedy. Sometimes the emotional impact of a childhood trauma doesn’t surface until years later, in adulthood, after serious stressors or important life events.
Some important questions would help us understand how the incident in “Crime Alley” affected Bruce. What does he think about the world around him? Does he believe Gotham is inherently dangerous? Can he trust adults? Does he expect to be attacked? Victimized? Betrayed? Does he distance himself from others for fear they would be taken away from him? Typically, these beliefs are unhelpful, maladaptive ways of coping with loss. Similarly, one may react with intense anger, resentment, and sadness. One could also create a way to fight back, to gain control and correct the tragedy on his own. An alter ego that strikes fear into the hearts of the superstitious, cowardly lot, perhaps?
The Rationale of Psychotherapy for Children
Psychological treatments for youngsters with traumatic histories can be very effective in reducing distress related to their trauma. Trauma-focused therapy, for instance, can help a child learn how to safely cope with anxious responses related to the memory of the trauma (e.g., nightmares, panic attacks), to identify and reduce thoughts that contribute to those anxious responses (e.g., “I could have done something to save my parents”; “It’s my fault they aren’t here.”), and to create new meaning about the traumatic event that is more adaptive. A mission, if you will…
Not unlike Batman’s own utility belt, therapists often implement a “helping tool-belt” as a metaphor for having skills and resources on hand. The symbolic utility belt can include several therapeutic strategies like breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, and problem-solving rubrics. Batarang. Line-launcher. Cryptographic sequencer. Whatever the case, it gets us out of trouble and back in control.
The tragic but beloved story of how Bruce Wayne became The Dark Knight can help us move beyond simplistic notions of trauma recovery (e.g., “a child that loses his parents will inevitably be messed up”) and toward considerations of our complex human resilience. As such, a young Bruce Wayne will fare better in life if he learns some essential truths about trauma: One, sometimes, bad things happen to good people. That means if bad things happen to us, it doesn’t mean we are bad. Or that we deserved it. Second, we cannot change the past, but we can change what we do with that past, and how it shapes our future. Finally, the lesson that adult Bruce may have yet to fully grasp: Through meaningful, supportive relationships, we can truly overcome interpersonal tragedy. Perhaps it’s not too late to teach an old bat new tricks.
Dr. Andrea Letamendi has a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology, works as a psychologist in Los Angeles and hosts a weekly podcast during which she puts Batman on the couch. Repeatedly. She tweets her thoughts at @ArkhamAsylumDoc.