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If you have ever paid much attention to back story of superhero and super-villains. You will have noticed that the catalyst to who they eventually become is always trauma. Batman is probably the most well-known one. He watched his parents gunned down in an alley, became an orphan, and grew up in the isolated though immensely privileged circumstances of Wayne Manor with the doting, though emotionally inhibited, family butler – Alfred. It was, however, the unresolved trauma of his parents’ death that continued to haunt him and eventually shaped him to become the ice-cool unstoppable vigilante that we now know as Batman.

Spiderman has a similar story. Here a scientifically gifted young boy loses both his parents at an early age and is raised by his uncle and aunt. Living in the rough part of town Peter Parker struggles with poverty, physical illness, and bullying, until he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and develops his powers. His trauma however is the death of his beloved uncle by a petty thief that he chose not to apprehend. It is this death that is pivotal to the Spiderman story – he feels responsible for it and cannot forgive himself – an experience that hardens him both emotionally and psychologically eventually leading him to embrace his sense of responsibility for having superpowers and becoming the crime fighting superhero that we know as Spiderman.

Super-villains usually have similar backstories though obviously go in a different direction. Bane, for instance, the only villain to have broken Batman, was sentenced to imprisonment from his birth for the crimes committed by his father. Bane grew up in a hell where he had to fight on a regular basis to survive. Later, he was treated like a lab rat and was discarded when considered a failure. A man who was born without love and affection, Bane has only known rage since his birth.

The Joker – as portrayed in the Joaquin Phoenix movie – has a similar backstory. But we will get to that.

Why are these story narratives so compelling when discussing schema therapy. Well, these stories educate us about the fundamental nature of ‘modes’.

Why are these story narratives so compelling when discussing ST. Well, these stories educate us about the fundamental nature of ‘modes’.  

Because coping modes emerge in response to trauma and at a very fundamental level they are about protecting ourselves and getting needs met. And the thing about modes is that they kind of work the least in the moment. In the detached protector, we do not feel the pain in that specific moment, whilst the angry protector usually does keep others away, and being an over-controller often does feel good. In a sense, modes can be considered a type of brief superpower, and indeed, when you evaluate the so-called superpowers of many of the superheroes, you can see that these have more than a little favour of the schema modes. For instance, Bruce Banner only becomes the Hulk when he has access to his ‘enraged child’ mode. Batman’s ice-cold single-minded pursuit of Gotham villains to take down quite obviously reflects a well activated ‘predator mode’. 

And in the forensic world, it is all about the modes, particularly the forensic modes. Oh, and have you ever wondered about what the difference is between a supervillain and a superhero… that’s also a very schema like-explanation… it’s of course… love.  

All superhero’s received genuine love and care in their childhood.

So why the Joker?

Well, the Joker’s story as you will come to see tells not only the story of modes but the trajectory of modes. Specifically, how history and circumstances can inculcate, shape, and then harden modes in extreme ways.

The Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck a middle age, a physically frail man living with his chronically unwell mother. He works as a party clown and aspires to be a stand-up comic. Whilst he is well-meaning, he struggles interpersonally and has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably during moments of anxiety or stress. He suffers bullying in the workplace, is isolated, and lonely and yearns for relationships where he feels loved, understood, and valued. His early history suggests that he suffered terribly. During the movie, we learn for instance, that he was an orphan who experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his adopted mentally ill mother. He, himself, has suffered mental illness, took psychiatric medication, and attended regular counselling with a social worker to little apparent benefit.

In his life, Arthur struggles to assert himself, and many of the early scenes are of him experiencing humiliation and rejection in one way or another.  He has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollable in moments of stress, a characteristic, that appears to amplify his sense of defectiveness, isolation, and rejection by others.

His sense of powerlessness and impotency to alter the course of his life is almost palpable on the screen. At this time, he suffers several what could be described as transformational trauma.  He is sacked from his workplace in difficult circumstances. He is humiliated and rejected by the man he thinks is his father, and discovers that he was cruelly adopted, and from a young age suffered neglect and severe physical and emotional abuse by his adopted mother. All the anchors to his identity and world are stripped away…  and an incidental incident on a train causes him to panic to shoot four young men who unprovoked attacked him. This violent act leads to the emergence of the coping modes – the predator/bully and attack, and a type of nihilistic self-aggrandizer. Modes that he experiences as intoxicating, largely, it seems, from the obvious sense of power and invulnerability he experiences when ‘flipped’ into these modes…

For more on the Joker and Schema Therapy, please see the below presentation

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