Looking Closer – 1962’s David and Lisa


Another praised work, the 1962 independent film David and Lisa, tells of two teenagers’ experiences in a mental health facility. David, ostensibly intelligent and precise in his mannerisms, is brought to by his overprotective mother. Lisa, a girl lacking comparable support, seems to show symptoms of disorganized schizophrenia. However, a closer look at patterns in her behavior suggests a different diagnosis. Though lacking insight into psychiatric treatments of the time, as well as providing an unrealistic, romanticized solution to the disorders concerned (i.e. “Love cures all”), the film, at best, adequately portrays symptoms most resembling obsessive compulsive personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder. For the purposes of this entry, DSM-IV criteria will strictly concern these conditions.

David, the son of unhappy, demanding parents, comes to the facility fraught with paranoia and anxiety. When approached and touched by another young man, David’s hands begin to shake. He screams repeatedly, “You touched me, you want to kill me!” This extreme reaction reveals the lack of social openness and rigid rules of social interaction typical of obsessive compulsive personality disorder. When others approach his room, David grows very worried that they will barge into his personal space. David’s painstakingly inflexible grip on personalized, irrational codes of conduct also manifests upon his refusal to engage in physical activity, claiming, “Exercise is for idiots.” These behaviors fall in line with criterion 4 of the DSM-IV-TR, summarized as holding rigid views of what actions are considered moral and ethical.

We see more of David’s dysfunctional personality in his interactions with Dr. John, the facility psychiatrist. Seeing an upset Lisa, David tells the doctor that he is authoritarian in his practice, and that dealing with Lisa in a permissive fashion would be more suitable for her recovery. He dedicates his time to studying, primarily focusing on clocks. This behavior meets DSM criterion 3 as David’s preoccupation keeps him from engaging in other activities. He is obsessed with the image of a ticking clock, a focal point in dreams. In slumber, David repeatedly pulls the hour hand of the clock to behead certain individuals 12 times.

Through dreaming and visualizing this punitive clock, David takes control as he pretends to rid himself of those who touch or distress him emotionally. We see this when Lisa, who touches David, becomes a victim of the clock. David’s preoccupation with details and order, as seen in his obsession with a clock that systematically kills those who upset him, meets DSM criterion 1 for obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Criterion 8, which concerns stubbornness, manifests itself in David’s objections to Dr. John’s questioning methods, refusing to comply and telling the doctor to “Don’t play Dr. Freud.” As David meets 4 of the 8 DSM criteria for obsessive compulsive personality disorder, this may be a suitable diagnosis. It is also important to note that David does not exhibit the ritualistic behaviors endemic to obsessive compulsive disorder.

Lisa, whose behavior primarily consists of clanging, is labeled by facility staff as an “adolescent schizophrenic.” Hints to her actual condition emerge when David confronts Lisa about her peculiar speech, claiming she speaks in rhymes to be “Lisa.” There are instances when Lisa does not speak at all, instead communicating with others through writing. We see this when she writes “PLAY WIT ME” on a piece of paper in order to catch David’s attention. Towards the end of the film, Lisa draws a circle with the words “MURIEL X LISA.” Outside of the circle are the words “ME.” When she adopts the persona of “Lisa,” she speaks in rhyme. However, as “Muriel,” she is unable to speak and can only convey her thoughts and requests through writing. Lisa is unable to be “ME,” her true self whose behavior is free of peculiarities. She expresses confusion regarding her true identity, repeatedly questioning David as to what kind of girl she is.

Earlier in the film, she shows difficulty in even identifying as female and exhibits two personalities, her identity as “LISA” the predominant persona. She experiences enough altered or dissociated states to receive a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (formerly identified as multiple personality disorder). The two personalities repeatedly dictate her actions, remembering her identity and current locale are difficult to impossible feats, and neither external medical illnesses nor mind-altering substances adequately explain her mannerisms. That being said, Lisa fits the necessary criteria for a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, rather than any type of schizophrenia the staff believes her to have.

David and Lisa, though overly sentimental and idealistic regarding the prognosis of serious psychological disorders, provides solid examples behaviors definitive of obsessive compulsive personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder. While David’s diagnosis is more easily determined, his behavior and mannerisms distinct and indicative of fixations on order and control, Lisa’s symptoms are frustratingly misleading. It is only when acknowledging her lack of hallucinations, her repeated questions of what kind of girl she is, and the diagram she draws that a more accurate assessment may be made. Viewers’ merely assuming that Lisa has schizophrenia would indicate a failure to look beneath the surface of her behavior, taking comments and stereotypes engrained in the film for granted. Mental illness in cinema, old or new, deserves close observation, and even a brief referral to outside sources for sound evaluation and hopefully, understanding that overrides stigma.

Dispelling Conventional Perceptions of Intelligence

I remember a boy in the second grade by the name of Joel. Friendless, a burden to our impatient teacher, and a playground pariah, Joel was often ridiculed for three things: flapping his hands in frenzy when excited or distressed, banging his head against his desk when things did not go his way, and when his turn came to read out loud, he would turn a story into an awkward song, singing the lyrics in some rigid, broken melody. Other than participating in class readings, and screaming at the top of his lungs when a classmate picked on him, Joel never really talked. Unfortunately, news of his strange behavior reached several parents, who demanded that their children be taken out of an “unsafe and disruptive learning environment.” I recall my mother pulling me from him when she volunteered at a school event, scolding me for befriending “that strange, abnormal kid.” Years later, reading about Joel’s distinctive behaviors, I learned about autism.

For a long time, I didn’t really have a solid understanding of autism, nor the thought processes of individuals with it. In past psychology courses, the condition was simply glossed over, either in text or during class lectures. However, I was taught that the majority of people diagnosed with autism also display a degree of mental retardation, capable of little to no speech. Wretches and Jabberers depicts the story of two men, Tracy and Larry, who dismantle a large misconception that people with autism are incapable of intelligible communication. Through the use of a keyboard, they learn to communicate their thoughts with others, and indeed, I was surprised and impressed with the eloquent messages conveyed to observers, whether such messages were simple questions regarding where to eat in Japan, or references to Buddhist philosophy when discussing personal experiences. Observing these men use technology to pose inquiries, express needs, and convey opinions that were silenced for so many years in the absence of advanced technology was not only heartwarming, but eye-opening. This is a documentary that allows viewers to take a closer glimpse into the lives of individuals who, at the outset, appear so alien in their appearance and behaviors, but really possess a comparable depth in emotion and capacity for communication as those without autism.

Recalling the opening facts presented at the beginning of the documentary, that in previous years, many children in the United States diagnosed with autism were institutionalized and cast away as mentally retarded, I thought of how liberating it must be for Tracy and Larry to finally convey to the world that they are more than just “disabled.” Provided with an avenue to convey their thoughts articulately and cogently, they clearly develop a greater sense of confidence, dispelling stereotypes the public may have about individuals with autism and similar conditions. One may opine that these men possess an intelligence that is not only markedly different, but perhaps more dynamic than that of verbal communicators. To maneuver around autism’s problematic symptoms—the tics, peculiar speech patterns, and impaired interaction—and be able to relay their thoughts in such depth, is an impressive feat, a daily challenge which I myself cannot imagine having to tackle. It saddens me that Tracy, Larry, and Joel from second grade have to deal with constant discrimination and meager confidence in their abilities. However, Wretches and Jabberers provides hope that such individuals can defy negative expectations, delivering the message that one’s intelligence manifests in alternative ways, not simply defined within the confines of disabilities often so heavily stigmatized.