For our Mental Health Awareness series, we're kicking it off with Undone a show that by any other approach would be a superhero origin story. Gabe talks about how it effectively and appropriately handles the topic of mental illness and Kat talks about how to be an ally to someone with schizophrenia.
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Undone (2019 - ) Creators: Kate Purdy & Raphael Bob-Waksberg (Bojack Horseman)
Summary by IMDB: A woman discovers she has a new relationship with time after surviving a car accident that almost killed her.
Undone: Mental Health Superhero Origin Story
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
This show follows our protagonist, Alma, as she navigates the narrative of what would otherwise be a superhero origin story. We have a woman who, after experiencing a traumatic event (car accident) seems to unlock her true potential. She is visited by her deceased father who is adamant she is no longer constrained by the rules of our reality and can navigate throughout time and space in any way she feels. She is Neo taking the red pill and exiting the Matrix. She is Miles Morales, bit by a radioactive spider. And she is also someone with big brain ventricles and a family history of schizophrenia. And that is what transformed this show from being something that was simply interesting and incredibly creative to something profound and impactful.
There are SO many things I truly appreciate about the show, Undone. Thanks to friend and Ghoul Scout, Jeff for telling me about the show. He first told me about it because the protagonist is deaf and uses a hearing aid. He was impressed by the show's representation of this and how it’s never really made into a big deal, it's simply a part of her character. I really appreciated that as well and am always looking for good disability representation. But the show didn’t stop there.
This is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen regarding mental illness. Though not specifically horror, you know we often go off the beaten path, the ideas expressed throughout of losing your sense of reality, sense of self, and juggling with our role in the universe under the heavy-handed fist of capitalism can be rather terrifying.
And the protagonist is Mexican-American! Jeff and I also talked at length about colorism and certain expectations for POC in life. But I really enjoyed not only the presence of a mixed family but also the strength in using their culture as a major point in the story. Traditional and cultural ideologies, dances, and places serve as a point of comfort and empowerment in the show.
So, all of this is to say there are so many reasons to love and appreciate this show. I’ve watched it twice now and am eagerly awaiting season two. Also, before I dive into the core questions we look to explore during this series, I wanted to talk about how cool the animation is on this program! They actually used rotoscoping to create the animation - rotoscoping is an animation technique that animators use to trace over motion picture footage of real-life actors, frame by frame, to produce realistic action. One film most people are familiar with is A Scanner Darkly with Neo, Keanu Reeves. The animation really helps to make the blend between reality and hallucination or time travel, whatever, really smooth. I imagine it is quite the process but so worth it.
Now, let’s dive into some important questions.
Does it appropriately represent the horrors of a mental illness? And does it inspire empathy & compassion towards an individual with this mental illness?
First off, the show is inspired by creator, Kate Purdy’s own experiences with generational schizophrenia. According to an article on Bustle which features many quotes from Kate Purdy and co-creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, titled, How 'Undone' Creator Kate Purdy Re-contextualized Her Mental Illness With Gorgeous Animation by Samantha Rollins, Purdy explains how they discovered their own large brain ventricles and coped with the history of schizophrenia in their family.
“The first time Undone creator Kate Purdy got a glimpse of her own brain ventricles was in college, in a CAT scan for viral meningitis. They were enlarged, the doctor explained, but it wasn't a big deal: Some people have big noses, and others have big brain ventricles. It wasn't until she read an article about a study that linked large brain ventricles to schizophrenia that she began to worry. Schizophrenia was in her family; her grandmother Geraldine had it.”
My family actually has a history of mental illness, including schizophrenia. Purdy goes on to discuss the fear and caution they experienced approaching their 30th birthday. It’s a thought and experience I am familiar with. Eventually, Purdy experienced some mental trouble and had to find a way to navigate her new reality. How she coped with it and continues to live with it have inspired the show greatly. The article goes on to say,
“A few years later, she experienced a mental break and found out. "I didn't know what was happening to me, I didn't know how to move out of it or what to do," Purdy recalls to Bustle of being in the throes of serious depression and anxiety.”
“‘Yes, it’s a mental break and mental illness, but you can also call it incredible healing, or the potential for healing,’ she says. Purdy eventually found healing for herself through a combination of psychiatry and Ayurveda, a traditional healing practice from India, and she notes as Odenkirk's Jacob does in the series that plenty of shamanistic and indigenous traditions view mental health differently than we do traditionally in the West. In some cultures, for example, hallucinations are considered powerful and valuable visions, not signs of life-threatening madness.”