AN EXERCISE IN LISTENING is a nonfiction feature film that reveals how seemingly invisible behavior such as gaslighting and invalidation can have visible, violent effects.
The project not only uses the medium of film to make gaslighting and invalidation visible, it also shows how easily it can go unnoticed. How? By using word-for-word transcripts of interviews with families – recreated by actors. Specifically, families of young women diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The film centers around a study conducted in the 1950’s in London: A newly graduated psychiatrist, started working in a mental institution and was instructed to “never speak to madness.”
But as soon as he started talking to his patients, he began to develop a suspicion that there was meaning in their “mad” behavior. He set out to find out whether the irrational things they said and did were metaphors for emotional distress that they couldn’t express, rather than actual illness.
With their permission, he began to audio record interviews with his patients’ families so that he could listen over and over to the seemingly benign things they said. He recorded what everyone said about a topic, even if it seemed unimportant, a method he was inspired to implement by his study of the Talmud.
What he heard repeatedly – with 200 families – was that his patients were “selfish” , “lazy” , “too independent” , “nonconforming to the family.”
He heard patients express what they wanted, what they thought and how they felt, only to be told by their families that is not what they wanted, thought or felt.
The alarming conclusion he came to was that none of them were actually ill, but that they had all been gaslit and invalidated to such intense degrees, that they all had begun to doubt their realities. The other conclusion he came to was that none of the parents had any idea that their behavior was causing their child’s distress.
When the hospital found out that he was trying to help his patients gain their independence, he was fired.
30 years later, a colleague followed up with the patients to see what became of them, to see if they – and the doctor – had been talking nonsense after all.
An Exercise in Listening reveals what happened to them.