Pleasantville was a film written, directed and produced by Gary Ross in the late 90’s. A dystopian fairy tale of sorts, it didn’t do so well in the box office despite the talented, well known cast, stunning cinematography and nostalgic soundtrack.
The film has always resonated with me because of its strong undertones of civil rights, the mostly peaceful dismantling of a patriarchal society, ignorance and fear being the root of all violence, individual and collective awakening through art, compassion and human connection; the kind of transformation I’m noticing a particular hunger for these days.
It’s the story of David and Jennifer, twin teenaged siblings, one hot, one not, dealing with their parent’s recent divorce. David copes with reality by romanticizing his favorite t.v show. A twist on Leave it to Beaver, Pleasantville is a fictional place where happy, white families live in uniform houses with matching green lawns. It never rains, is always 72 degrees and sunny and the greatest challenge the townspeople ever face is having to rescue a cat from a tree. David’s sister, Jennifer, is a budding codependent who copes with reality by ‘dating’.
Their mom is going away with her newest boyfriend for a long weekend escape. During a fight over the remote control, brother and sister are magically transported into the black and white t.v show where they become part of the pretend world of micro-aggression masked as perfection.
I live in a similar kind of town. All the nice people wear puffy coats, enjoy outdoor activities, advocate for plant-based diets, furrow their waxed brows at social ills and seem to love their dogs more than some people love human children. Strangely, more than a few of their cars have a bumper sticker that says: This place sucks. Don’t move here. While pondering a politically angsty sign at a Starbucks last weekend, the messages from this film crossed wires with a 3 hour chat I’d had recently with my baby sister who just finished her 12th step of codependent recovery. I’m so proud of her. A nurse and a shrink; we solved all the problems. She euphorically declared “Everyone should do recovery dude! Think about it!” I have been and, I completely agree. American culture is playing out one big Karpman Drama Triangle, bully, victim, rescuer, simply because we’re not taught any other way. Continuing to find personal peace in recovery work, I wondered how lessons from this film, combined with the steps, might be helpful to more than just identified addicts, alcoholics and their people-pleasing adult-kids.
David is initially invested in his notion that Pleasantville really is as great and wonderful as he imagines. He wants to believe mothers thrive on being perpetually, emotionally available, decked in pearls, waiting to unobtrusively serve the family warmth and buttermilk pancakes. He wants to believe fathers are equipped with wealth, words of wisdom and appropriate, cheery wit all wrapped up in a tidy Windsor knot. David drowns in the intoxication of playing out his fantasy, likely because it appears to offer the nurturing and security he’s not finding in his real life.
The honeymoon doesn’t last long as free will starts to take over and the grip of order begins slipping. His sister immediately calls bullshit on the mildly fascist facade and quickly finds someone to sleep with. She believes the people aren’t really as happy as they appear, mostly due to the confinements of their underwear and lack of emotional authenticity. She decides to scratch the surface, filling in the cracks with bubble gum and books.
Between the extremes of compliance and rebellion, truth is slowly revealed. The townspeople learn to read, begin thinking and feeling which turns their predictable black and white world, colors! Women abandon servitude and discover orgasms. The accessibility of art, music and travel challenge the value of conformity. All the white men in power run to hide in a bowling alley, shed tears of rage and plot revenge. Their efforts to reclaim preexisting order fail when they too are confronted with the fact that they’re human, fallible and involuntarily vulnerable to changes of heart.
David returns wiser from his trip to messy, complex reality where he comforts his real-life mom who’s found crying at the kitchen table. Jennifer decides to give up sleeping around to pursue a higher education. The remaining characters are left dumbstruck, sitting on a park bench passively questioning their newly deconstructed reality.
Long story short, this is why we fight wars, stigmatize differentness, exploit ‘otherness’ and protest; because of writer’s block. I’m kidding. The end of the film is perfect and beautifully illustrates the problem with paradigm shifts. Social change creates disruptive chaos as everyone suddenly questions who they’ve been, what they’ve done, what’s right or wrong, how to make amends, how to devise the architecture of tomorrow and answer the most terrifying question of all: What’s for dinner?
The 12 steps might be a great model for non-violent social revolution.
Maybe we could say we’ve become addicted to power, control, denial, oppression, fear, division or even complacent dependence. Living in the illusion of Social Norm and attempting to enforce his ways on everyone when it seems no one is truly capable of living up to them, including him by the way, appears to be taking a collective toll. I offer the following with love and invite your sense of humor. The steps are old and dear friends of mine. They’ve helped many find the peace, safety and contentment we were struggling to find in whatever vices we’d adopted as replacements for the real thing. Maybe there’s a degree of true possibility in this silly notion.
Step 1. Admit We’re Powerless. Our lives have become unmanageable. Indeed. We’ve elected a tyrant and we’re running backwards 100 years into a brick wall, over which we’re attempting to throw our neighbors. Is this the equivalent to a social DUI? Either way we’ve clearly lost our minds.
Step 2. We shall now entertain the notion that a power greater than ourselves might just be able to restore our lives to sanity. This will require us to destroy the remaining fragments of our ego and surrender to something very safe, but intangible. If unconditional love from an unseen force feels too daunting, we could buy one of those laughing Buddha statues or maybe a t-shirt that says we need Jesus and Coffee. Either way, it’s probably not nuts to assume an omnipotent being could do a better job caring for and guiding us than we’re doing at the moment.
Step 3. Now that we’ve settled on our personal definition of G-d, we’ll turn our will and care over to Her. This step is like getting on Sheikra and trusting you won’t die while free falling face first into the pretend lagoon below. Except in recovery, we’re free falling into peace, love, truth and understanding which is only terrifying at first. Probably best if we hold hands, maybe pray and do it together.
Step 4. This is the step where most of us will decide that since we’ve now been saved by our higher power, we’re good to go and will quit the program. Bon voyage but just know the door is always open. For those of you still here, this is the part where we fearlessly search our collective histories and start listing all the mistakes we’ve made without judging ourselves or blaming it on anyone or anything. Yikes! Take a gander over the past several hundred, thousand? years of racial, ethnic, gender, environmental, animal and socio-economic exploitation and oppression. Let’s grab our journals, meet our sponsors for coffee and compassionately chronicle the pain caused by our legacies of toxic, inter-generational schemas. Or …maybe just congratulate ourselves for finding God by getting a celebratory tattoo and avoiding that whole painful process of actually looking in a mirror.
Step 5. Ok, now we own everything that belongs to us from that big list, including the hurts done to us by others and, to the best of our ability, share our hurts out loud to our higher powers and each other, again leaving judgments, shame and blame behind. At my church we called this a witness or testimony. Crying, hugs and song singing are encouraged, …sad sugar take it slow it’ll come together fine, all we need is just a little patience.
Step 6. After our sharing and caring time we each return to our journals to acknowledge our personal contributions to the dark ages of humanity and ask our higher power to remove these defects from our soul. Dear God, I’m sorry the disconnect between my absent father and controlling mother caused me to become obsessed with kale and cross-fit which resulted in my merciless perfectionism which I often used to help me feel superior to other people to hide the fact that I felt and still sometimes feel really worthless. Can you please, please, please give me a hug, an entire calorie-free cheese pizza and tell me you love, forgive and accept me as messy, whole self until I believe you? Also I’m guessing this will take most of my life. Thanks for being patient with me. Amen.
Step 7. Now that we’ve spilled our guts, sighed big collective sighs of relief, feel loved, forgiven, accepted and have tons more free time because we’re no longer using our schemas and sad stories to oppress ourselves or other people we humbly ask God to teach us humility. See, we’ve done all this work and are feeling pretty great without our vices, maybe for the first time in our lives. This new good feeling is a moment in our growth where we might be prone to getting a really big head. Our overconfidence, if we don’t stop here and check it might cause us to go right back to using and losing. Think of this step as the 7th inning stretch of recovery; reach way up, give our higher power a high five, take a big deep breath in annnnnnd down dog.
Step 8. From our humbled positions on the yoga mat of life we now head back into our journals to make a list of the hurts we’re personally responsible for. This step makes me think of that one home show where the owners would take everything from inside the house and place it in labeled piles on their lawn; toss, keep, donate. I’m guessing our house is pretty full of hurts so this step might seem daunting at first. The good news is the only pile we need to carry with us into the next step is our personal keep pile. Here’s a hint, our higher power is helpful when it comes to sorting yours, mine, ours. Repeat after me: We love boundaries.
Step 9. Coming soon to a Ted x near us: I’m Sorry; The peaceful and collective expression of apologies to and from one another for all the wrongs we’ve committed since the beginning of time. In case it wasn’t clear, this is the step where we apologize for our piles. Looking around it’s comforting to see we’re not alone…hopefully? I should mention I have a greater than mild aversion to Ted talks but for the sake of making a good amends I’ll yield.
Step 10. I like to call this the healthy re-parenting step. Together with our high powers we apply what we’ve started learning and practice adulting with our inner children. Now that we’ve abandoned all forms of violence against ourselves and others we get to discover and try out all new ways of dealing with rainy days, Mondays, break-ups and tough breaks. Sponsors, books, art, music, movies, dreams and probably signs might be really helpful during this growing up isn’t easy step. Accept that failure is going to be a permanent part of this lifelong process. Try. Fail. Forgive. Smile. Repeat.
Step 11. The force is becoming strong with us. We’re finding the means to the end which is the beginning of the end to the means. We know that you know that we know, it is what it is and it’s ALL good. This is our prayer and meditation step where we enter the cave within the shadow within the cave. Every breath now holds a blissful lesson, a deep, sweet inner peace and wisdom. Ooooommmmm.
Step 12. And finally, through hardships untold and dangers unnumbered we arrive at the beginning of our end. Awakening from our metaphoric slumber we rise from the ashes of all that has been to share the gift; a lesson of hope which could only be found through the brave journey we’ve now completed and will repeat every time we trip over our past which will likely be the result of low blood sugar, loneliness, tiredness or stubbing our toe.
I love you and leave you with this quote now attributed to everyone from Mother Theresa to Wolfgang Puck: If everyone worked their own 12 steps the whole world would be healed.