31 Dec Truth
2017 was a very long year that went by at light speed. While 2016 challenged the basic idea of objective truth, 2017 took a hatchet to it in a way that highlighted how we all inhabit different worlds and different stories. For those who see Trump as a lying incompetent narcissist, it is almost unfathomable that others don’t see it the way they do – and vice versa. Many of the people who appreciate Trump believe that Obama was a dishonest charlatan; it all depends on one’s perspective. The levels of outrage that exist are blinding, and the noise is deafening. As a filmmaker and photographer, I think a lot about perspective: both from an individual and a societal level. While I believe that there are things that are demonstratively true and those that are not, I think that truth is much more subjective than we would like to believe. This becomes more clear when we allow ourselves to explore the full complexity of a given situation. In general, people and systems thrive by seeking out simplicity and efficiency. That’s why we lump people into groups and make snap judgements. It’s why systems develop organizational and hierarchical structures to grease the cogs of social interaction. However, sometimes these structures become too complex which diminish the efficiencies that they were first developed to facilitate. Even as these structures get out of balance, they are often hard to change and those who challenge the expectations of the systems – by highlighting the imbalances – can get pushed to the edges.
This year we released “All The Rage,” a documentary about a doctor who didn’t do what was expected of him and who challenged the system he was a part of. As you might expect, he was dismissed and diminished by his peers. At the same time, he didn’t challenge the system in an aggressive way – he quietly raised questions and began to explore new ways of dealing with problems. Like him, we made a film that didn’t do what was expected. It, too was largely dismissed by the gatekeepers who control the flow of information within the documentary world. It was clear from the reviews that critics expected clear and actionable information from the film. They wanted an “even-handed” approach to the ideas at the heart of the film. It was also clear that the film, and my being in it as a person on an emotional journey, made them uncomfortable. They communicated, that on some level, the film didn’t feel “truthful” because we didn’t include the voices of people who opposed Dr. Sarno’s supposition that the mind and the body interact in ways that have a large effect on our health. Perhaps they also saw the film as an assault on objective “truth” because they didn’t think that what Dr Sarno argued was true. From our perspective, their problems had more to do with what they “expected” from the film than with how well we did what we set out to do. Dr. Sarno wanted to help people to heal, and he did that very successfully through his practice and through his writing. We set out to both introduce people to Dr Sarno, and to connect them with their own feelings. For those open to Dr. Sarno’s approach, and ours, the work can help lead to healing.
While we knew what was expected, and that we’d creatively played with those expectations, we were still a bit surprised when the critics and festival programmers responded as negatively as they did. We’ve been doing this long enough to know what people expect to see. However, at the beginning of the film we also made it clear that if one does what’s expected, they aren’t going to make anything that’s all that interesting or challenging. There are two main things that critics didn’t like about the film. First, they saw it as propaganda for Dr Sarno and his mind body approach to treating pain syndromes. Secondly, they chafed at the personal aspect of the film. We didn’t want to make a personal film, but as we did screening after screening early on, we found that focusing on my personal story was the most effective way to create an emotional connection with the audience. Frankly, Dr. Sarno was not interested in being a character in the way that storytelling often demands. In some sense, we described our process as a bit like allowing Dr Sarno to remain a bit like the Wizard of Oz -before the curtain is pulled back. It did not seem necessary to overtly “humanize” him in order to tell the story. After 20 years of filmmaking, we have come to see that documentary storytelling can be a collaboration between the subject and the filmmakers. Oftentimes people expect filmmakers to act as “journalists” on a journey to find an objective truth, to dig past people’s resistance to “opening up on camera”. Sometimes though, it’s also important to respect the preferences of those that one works with, even when those preferences are directly stated.
We worked on the film for well over a decade. We began shooting in 2004, but only captured a few hours of footage in the first years as we tried to figure out what kind of film it was going to be. While only shooting a little footage, we spent a good deal more time in his office simply observing. When we picked the project back up in 2011, Dr. Sarno only had about a year left to practice and we filmed as he moved out of his office. As we struggled to finish the film, his health deteriorated, and he passed away the day before the film was released theatrically, on what would have been his 94th birthday. Despite the fact that he had sold upwards of a million books, we were told that he might not have had an obituary in the NY Times had the film not been opening that weekend. The Times had almost never mentioned him or his work, which meant they were less likely to include his obituary. That obit was very thoughtfully written by Adam Conner-Simons. He interviewed Dr Sarno for an article he was pitching to the Boston Globe and we filmed this interaction shortly after he retired. In this clip from that interview, Dr. Sarno and his wife discuss the resistance he faced.
This week the Times ran another piece about Dr. Sarno that leads off the “Lives They Lived” end of the year article. I found this piece to be very problematic, and the impetus for this post about both individual perspective and social perspective and how those two forces shape the stories we tell. The author of this piece focuses on Dr. Sarno’s rage at not being recognized for his work and how that rage led him to have a barrage of psychosomatic symptoms. The short article is entitled “At war with the medical establishment — and his own body.” While in some sense this is not untrue, it is very much a subjective truth rather than an objective one. However, when we use the term “war” I believe we think of it as an active process, even if it is a Cold War. However, Dr Sarno was largely characterized as having the presence of mind to simply set himself apart from a world that was unable to accept his ideas. He did not actively attack the system that rejected him. Clearly, he struggled with the dismissal he felt, especially knowing that he was right and that they were wrong (and in the past several years a steady flood of studies and stories connect the mind and the body in ways similar to what Dr Sarno described). However, that is hardly akin to being at war. The first seven paragraphs of the piece set up how Dr Sarno came to understand the mind body aspect of pain because he struggled with a litany of mind body health problems himself. His examination of his own problems gave him insight into how the issues manifest themselves- and how responding to them with awareness can have help to reverse the process. While the author talks about his frustration at being dismissed. he fails to illuminate the way in which he was “at war” with his colleagues. I’ll post the last 4 paragraphs here which also don’t shine any light on how he waged a war. Instead, they reveal that the author has seemingly buried the lede. Like almost everyone who writes about Dr Sarno, Sam Dolnick ended up in his office at the behest of a friend. And, like so many others who ended up his office, Sam was scheduled for surgery, but after Dr. Sarno helped him to change his way of thinking, he began to rapidly heal.
Because his colleagues wouldn’t listen, he bypassed the journals and instead wrote best-selling books, conversational in tone, that detailed the link he saw between emotional distress and physical pain; he sold more than a million copies. Those who believed Sarno had an almost religious devotion. Howard Stern dedicated his autobiography to him.
Testimonials have poured onto the site thankyoudrsarno.com. One expresses gratitude for “giving me a new life to go on with.” Another says: “Whenever I feel a slight twinge, I remind myself that nothing is really wrong with my neck. Thank you, Dr. Sarno, for changing my life.”
Most doctors still dismiss Sarno’s views, and his understanding of pain remains on medicine’s fringe. I, however, count myself among the believers. Some 15 years ago, when I was in my 20s, I had terrible back pain, and an eminent doctor recommended that I have spinal surgery. On a relative’s recommendation, I went to see Sarno for a second opinion. Limping into his office, I found a tiny, owlish man sitting behind a giant wooden desk. It looked as if his lab coat might swallow him, leaving behind just a pair of heavy, dark-rimmed glasses. He asked why I had come to see him, and I described my problems with my back and then with my life.
He was kind and inquisitive but firm. He had seen people like me before. There’s nothing wrong with you, he said. Don’t have surgery. Stop acting sick. Your back is fine, and so are you.
He gave me his book, and I watched his videos (they have the distinct feel of public-access TV), but mostly I tried to stop treating myself like an invalid. I threw away the back braces, started playing basketball again and watched, amazed, as the pain gradually went away.
I can’t say that I quite understand what happened with my back, but Sarno believed that I was suppressing a white-hot anger I could not articulate. Anger was always the most powerful emotion in Sarno’s cosmology, the root cause of the physical pain.
And Sarno, with his irritated skin and his solitary lunches, would be the first to acknowledge that he never conquered his own.
“I am furious!” he said. “It’s there all the time! I’m in a rage!”
Writing as a “journalist,” the author paints a seemingly “objective” portrait of the doctor that is not untrue, but is hardly dispassionate. By burying his own experience at the end of the piece with the caveat that he never came to understand just how Dr Sarno helped him, the author protects himself from being an “advocate” for Dr Sarno’s inscrutable method of practice in the magic arts. He further buries the lede by making Dr. Sarno’s experience singular rather than universal. “I am furious,” he said. “It’s there all the time. I’m in a rage.” My subjective reading of these lines, which I heard him talk about many times, is that they don’t deserve exclamation points. Instead, they might be read as, “Like everyone else, I am furious. It’s there all the time. I’m in a rage. We all are.” It’s buried feelings, largely from childhood. You don’t have to know exactly what it is that’s making you enraged, but you have to acknowledge it. So by stating it out loud, you can let your brain know that it’s ok to feel these feelings. If you don’t it will still think it needs to protect you from them.
In some sense, it is true that all press is good press, and like many fans of Dr Sarno and his work, I am thankful that this piece was written, as many more people will find out about him and his work. I will also reiterate that what is written is essentially “true”. However, it is very much a subjective look at Dr Sarno’s life and work, and in my view it is somewhat diminishing- and dismissive. Dr. Sarno was frustrated that his work was overlooked. However, he was overwhelmed with how much it helped people as well. We are in a bit of a similar position. Our film was largely dismissed by the film critics, which means it was largely dismissed by the film world. However, the response to it from audiences has been overwhelming. Its been available now for a few months on Vimeo and it’s already been seen in 45 countries (edit- the day after posting this it clicked up to 47). Like Dr. Sarno’s books, we know that it will continue to help people for years to come. At the same time there’s a sense of frustration that it will mostly reach those who already are open to the ideas. Those who are dismissive will reject the film and the basic ideas without fully entertaining them because they don’t comport with their idea of truth. Truth ends up acting like a wall as much as is does a doorway.