SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS FOR GOOD WILL HUNTING
Attachment Theory Applied to "Good Will Hunting"
Will Hunting has a classic attachment disorder. Abused as a child, he has trouble developing meaningful and appropriate relationships with adults and women. His only friends are among a group of young men his own age who cannot begin to compete with his intelligence. He has no empathy for people outside his close group of friends. He cannot manage his basic emotions, such as anger. If he has a disagreement with someone or if he dislikes them, he will assault them either verbally or physically. Will's anger is one of many defenses that mask his inner feelings and guard his inner self. Will's subconscious is determined that no one will be able penetrate these defenses and hurt him again.
Will does not integrate his intelligence and his interest in reading with relationships, either socially or in the work place. The reading gives him a sense of mastery and a way to distance himself from people. He uses intellectual tasks to self-soothe. (Had Will been emotionally secure he would have shared his intellectual interests with people who could have appreciated them. When Sean asks Will to name the people with whom he has strong relationships other than Chuckie, Will names Shakespeare, Nietzsche and several other dead intellectual giants. These "friends" could not rise from the grave and hurt him.)
Will does have strengths. His intelligence is a strength, and his choice of Chuckie Sullivan as his best friend is a strength. Chuckie is nurturing, loving, and respectful of Will's promise. Will has the good instinct to be attracted to Skylar, portrayed as a loving and genuine person. But she is smart and requires an empathic and loving relationship. This makes Will very anxious. She represents a risk that he cannot tolerate until after his treatment.
Attachment theory is accepted by most psychologists and psychiatrists as the best explanation for how we develop the capacity to form relationships with others and relate to our environment. It asserts that the methods we use to relate to others, manage our needs, express our demands, and shape our expectations for the world are rooted in our relationships with our early caregivers. Through these interactions we learn to balance our feelings and need states with others and to establish our varying degrees of independence, dependence, power, and control. Attachment also impacts self-esteem through the experience of conflict with caregivers.
Early attachment is established in infancy and is primarily based on the acknowledgment and gratification of basic biological needs: the need to eat, the need to drink, the need to be comfortable (not cold, hot, or wet), the need to sleep, and the need to be free from fear. This is exemplified by the infant emitting a cry reflecting a "need state", a signal for help. The caretaker learns to recognize the infant's different cries to determine the specific need requiring gratification. If needs are consistently satisfied, the infant learns to depend on and trust its caretakers. As the infant becomes assured that its needs will be gratified, it acquires the ability to delay gratification when hearing its caretaker's voice or seeing the caretakers' face. The infant understands that help is on the way. This dependency enables an infant to begin to self-regulate, to build inner strength and resiliency. The natural consequence of having one's needs met leads to an increased ability to tolerate the discomfort aroused by the "need state". As solutions are repeatedly found, anxiety shifts to a sense of mastery. Without a consistent history of episodes when needs are successfully satisfied, anxiety persists and dependency does not become securely established. This anxiety is reflected in future difficulties in forming trusting relationships with others and managing needs. Attachments thus may be categorized as secure or insecure and anxious or overanxious in response to early childhood experiences as an infant in getting basic biological needs met.
Once attachment is securely established, the role of the primary caregiver changes to helping the infant learn to identify and become comfortable with its various feelings. The primitive emotions felt by infants are often raw and powerful. They can frighten and overwhelm a baby. Caregivers mirror (i.e. reflect back) the feelings the infant projects and label those feelings with words. This enables the child to make connections between its internal and external worlds. When the infant learns that the caregivers can understand the infant's emotions, the infant's fears and anxieties will be alleviated and the caregiver can teach the infant techniques for managing its emotions. (This process continues through adolescence.) Physical closeness, eye contact, voice modulation, facial expression, posture and gesture are all methods by which caregivers and children demonstrate that they are attuned to each other's emotions. Psychologists call this process "affective attunement". The child learns, through affective attunement, that internal feeling states are shared forms of human experience. The need for nonverbal attunement persists throughout life and is manifest through nonverbal communication and empathy.
Attachment becomes disorganized and dysfunctional in the presence of neglect or abuse. As needs are not consistently met or acknowledged, a damaged concept of self develops. Nonverbal communication is also negatively impacted. The ensuing fragmented self has difficulty regulating affect and behavior, and managing interpersonal relations. These individuals often experience overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and shame. The infant learns to expect negative responses from caretakers and therefore begins to turn inward as a means to self-protect and avoid further disappointment. Shame reflects the infant's self-blame for the negativity and leads to further psychic injury.
In the movie, Sean seeks to provide Will with a positive attachment relationship. This connection enables Will to create a more cohesive self-image and engage more positively with others. The beginning phase of treatment is characterized by creating a rapport based on commonality. This process was exemplified by the shared experiences of being raised in "Southie" (South Boston), a common interest in books and in lifting weights, their love for the Boston Red Sox, and their common experience of having been physically abused as children. (Even the painting served to tie Will to Sean. It was an accurate portrayal of how both of them felt.) This commonality creates hope for a future connection between therapist and client. The shared experiences force Will to see Sean as a human being, not just another adult trying to reach into his core being and hurt him. With very guarded and defensive patients like Will, this process is crucial.
By showing the client that someone with whom he has so much in common is offering a way out of his problems, it gives the client a hope for change.
Once Will sees commonality with Sean, he can accept the nurturing relationship that Sean offers. The therapist substitutes for the caregiver that Will never had, filling in the gaps of Will's development. Sean's stories substitute for the memories, experiences and learning that Will would have had if he had grown up in an intact family. As Sean points out, Will has never seen or experienced true intimacy between a man and a woman. To give Will some sense of this, Sean describes the intimacy of his own marriage and how he loved his wife even when she farted in her sleep. This detail reflects the closeness of the marriage and the beauty found in trusting and loving others with all their imperfections.
In treating attachment disorder, the therapist uses the phenomenon of "transference" to fill the gaps in the patient's attachment. Transference occurs when patients subconsciously transfer to their therapist the feelings and attitudes that they originally linked with significant figures in their early life. Sean, in effect, re-parents Will and becomes the loving caregiver that Will never had. It's not just coincidence that Sean chooses to begin the treatment in the Boston Public Garden, a place where parents take young children for rides on a small lake in boats with swan decorations.
Empathy is crucial as treatment progresses, requiring the therapist to be responsive to the patient's emotions. Sean's ability to understand Will's shame and terror contains Will's anxiety and reduces dissociation (a psychological state or condition in which certain thoughts, emotions, sensations, or memories are separated from the rest of the psyche). To resolve painful experiences, therapy must bring that pain to the surface and deal with it. Empathy allows the therapist to make the revelations of therapy less threatening and overwhelming. (In the treatment of attachment disorder, this is the substitute for the process by which the primary caregiver helps the infant learn to manage its feelings.)
One of the most evocative scenes in the movie shows this process. As Sean and Will cut through the layers of injury caused by the neglect and abuse Will suffered as a child, Will comes to the guilt which abused children so often feel. Abused children wonder why they are not loved like other children. They usually think that it must be something that they have done or due to some deficiency from which they suffer. To help Will overcome this misplaced but deeply felt sense of guilt, Sean confronts the illogic. He holds Will and reassures him, repeating, "It's not your fault. ... It's not your fault", helping Will to understands on an emotional level that he was not to blame for the abuse. With this realization, Will can move forward, leaving behind the vestiges of shame, worthlessness, and rage from the past.
The success of the treatment occurs when Will has enough self-confidence to accept the love offered by Skylar and to take a chance on the relationship by venturing out of the Boston area to live with her in California.
The treatment process outlined in the movie stretches the limits of traditional therapy in which the therapist strictly recognizes a boundary between the therapist's life and that of the patient. The untraditional nature of the work is justified by Will's stony resistance and clever defensiveness. Sean bent the rules to reach Will and without these modifications the treatment would not have been successful. Examples of these unusual interactions include Sean's confrontational approach and his physical touching/bullying of Will, the meeting at the lake, ending sessions early and Sean's sharing of his own past experience. In working with adolescents and resistant clients, these variations from standard practices are often necessary.
Why Trust in Dependence is Necessary for a Mature Interdependence
Knowledge of attachment theory and the mechanism of attachment disorder enhance our understanding of dependence, independence, and interdependence in people who are psychologically healthy. No person living in society is completely independent. We are all dependent on many people: family, friends, employers, co-workers, employees, police officers, doctors, nurses, garbage men, fire fighters, etc. In higher order animal groups, long before mankind ever walked the earth, most adults provided support or care for others and at the same time benefited from the support or care they received from others in the group.
Security in dependence ---> maturity in interdependence
Human society is the most interdependent of all animal cultures. To thrive, individuals need to be comfortable with dependence and to trust that others will meet their needs. In addition, it is only when infants and children learn to trust their caregivers and are confident that their own needs will be satisfied by others that they can extend themselves and nurture others. Individuals obsessed with meeting their own needs without depending on others have no interest in satisfying the needs of others. People who are like Will Hunting before treatment, who fear that others will hurt them, push those others away and erect barriers to intimacy. Individuals who are strongly self-absorbed cannot develop empathy and thus have trouble developing a conscience.
Why Victims of Child Abuse Blame Themselves
In a key scene Sean, reassures Will that the abuse and the rejection were not his fault. Abuse of a child by an adult is never the child's fault. No matter what the abuser may claim, no child has ever done anything to deserve being hit or molested.
Victims of Physical Abuse: A major psychological injury suffered by victims of child abuse arises from the message that the child is not worthy of having his or her boundaries respected. This message is a devastating blow to self-esteem. Physical abuse often follows some real or imagined transgression by the child. The abuser's position, often yelled repeatedly, is that the child has "caused" the adult to act aggressively through the child's misbehavior. While older kids may know the logical absurdity of this claim, younger children do not. A child of three, four or five, or even older, is totally dependent upon his or her caretaker's for food, clothing, shelter and a host of other necessities. The adults are much larger than the child. They are more powerful, physically, mentally and socially. They are much more experienced than the child. To the child, especially if the child is very young, they are like gods. It is hard for a child to discount the statements of these powerful figures.
Even if the abuser is silent or the child is older and understands the illogic of the abuser's excuses, the child will wonder what about him or her is so unworthy or so disgusting that it causes such abusive actions by an adult. As the movie shows, even when the child is older and knows intellectually that the abuse was not his or her fault, the underlying feelings of inadequacy remain. As Sean McGuire repeats to Will that it wasn't his fault, Sean pierces deeper and deeper into Will's psyche until he gets to the heart of the boy's hurt. This process, which usually takes months, was expertly condensed by the movie makers into one dramatic scene. (The mechanism by which children blame themselves for physical abuse is similar to that which occurs in adult victims of spousal abuse who believe that they bear some of the blame when their husbands or boyfriends beat them.)
Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Most children who have been subjected to sexual abuse by an adult also believe that they are fully or partially responsible for the abuse. First, 90% of children sexually abused by an adult do not disclose the abuse while it is ongoing out of either shame or fear or for some other reason. By hiding what is occurring, the children become complicit in what they know or sense to be an invasion of their boundaries. Second, sexual abuse entails an intimate and special relationship with the adult abuser. This gives the child-victim a sense of importance and specialness, which any child would enjoy. But children also know that the relationship is degrading to them and feel guilty for enjoying the feeling of being special. Third, in many cases the act of abuse is physically pleasurable for the child. The adult will convince the child that he or she desires to continue these feelings. The child will feel guilty about this and want to keep the act secret. Fourth, the adult abuser will use every psychological trick he (or she) knows to keep the abuse going and to keep it secret. This often includes convincing the child that it was the child who seduced the perpetrator or who continues the relationship because the child enjoys it. Most children will not be able to withstand the persuasiveness of a motivated, larger, stronger and more experienced adult. (Not all of these factors operate in all cases.) Through these mechanisms, the children come to "own" the acts of their own abuse and take on the blame for them.
The effects of childhood abuse, both physical and sexual, are often devastating. The good news is that modern psychotherapy can treat and cure the effects of abuse restoring children who have suffered from abuse to full and complete lives, emotionally and sexually.
Class Critique in "Good Will Hunting"
In many communities that host universities, there is a class division between the locals, the "town", and the university people, "the gown" (for the gowns worn at graduation). This is another way of saying working class vs. educated elite. "Southie" (South Boston) is an Irish working class neighborhood. Millions of Irish fled to the United States in the late 1800s seeking relief from the infamous potato famines. Many of them settled in Boston and formed a large minority in the town. For decades they suffered discrimination by New England's dominant Yankee culture.
One of the centers of academic life in the Boston area is the adjoining city of Cambridge, in which Harvard, MIT and several other universities are located. The town and gown difference is shown in many aspects of the movie, setting up conflict in Will's relationship with Lambeau, with Skylar, with the young graduate student in the bar, and with the NSA, as well as with his own abilities and interests.
The movie criticizes aspects of both the young male culture in "Southie" and the academic/intellectual life. The young male culture in Southie is portrayed as cruel, emotionally impoverished (especially in relations with women) and sometimes violent. (It does have strengths, particularly the friendship between the boys and the love of the Boston Red Sox.) However, as impoverished as the male culture of Southie is, it is home for Will ... and for Sean.
The academic/intellectual culture is criticized for its overemphasis on results, i.e., academic achievement and breaking codes (for the NSA). However, it is academic learning that developed the psychological understanding that Sean uses to help Will.
The character of Sean is a key to the movie's class critique. Sean is clearly a product of the academic/intellectual society: he is a graduate of Harvard; he loves books; he paints in his spare time; and he is a teacher. However, Sean has not abandoned his Southie roots. (He has a long running tab at a neighborhood bar.) His acquaintance with the academic world has allowed him to grow beyond the violence, cruelty and emotional impoverishment of his Southie roots. So, too, he has not bought into the achievement-beyond-all-else rule of the academic/intellectual world. With his understanding that there are aspects of human existence that transcend both academic achievement and the Red Sox, e.g., going to see about a girl, and his knowledge of how to help Will heal from the abuse he received as a child, Sean combines the best of both cultures.
Thus, the class critique of the movie tells us that we are at our best when we can take the good from our home environment and combine it with academic/intellectual achievement within a framework of emotional maturity.
Symbolism, Plot and Literary Devices in "Good Will Hunting"
The name of the movie refers to the fact that the main character is hunting for the good Will, for the behaviors that will allow him to be good.
The fact that Will has not been out of Boston, nor on a plane, nor to any of the places that he has read about shows that his outlook is very limited. It is a metaphor for the limiting nature of psychological conditions.
The group of boys is like a gang and also a substitute family. Will is lucky that his friend Chuckie is such a good and nurturing person. Chuckie can see Will's potential. He doesn't try to hold Will back but instead encourages him to be himself and to grow beyond the group of friends.
The therapy really gets started in the visit to the Boston Public Garden, a place where parents take their young children for rides on a small lake in boats decorated to look like swans. This is a symbol for the beginning of Sean's re-parenting of Will.
As characters, Will and Sean both move out of small and confined worlds to the larger outside world. Sean, who obviously could do more than teach psychology to disinterested kids at a junior college, has confined himself there following the death of his wife. The parallel movement by the characters gives the movie added depth.
The painting on Sean's wall is a reflection of both of their characters. However, the storm waves tossing Will around are different than the storm waves tossing Sean. Will can read the meaning of the picture so well not only because of his great intellect, but because like Sean, Will feels alone in a small boat in stormy seas.
Scenes involving sexual allusions: (1) The first bar scene just before Will leaves early to work on the equation. It occurs 5 minutes 13 seconds into the DVD and ends at 5:40. Turn the sound down when Will and Chuckie enter the bar and turn the sound up when Chuckie sits down and begins to mutter about the Irish curse. This scene includes derrogatory secual references to women and shows that Will's friends do not have empathetic loving relations with girls. (2) The bar scene when Skylar meets Will's friends includes gross stories and references. They occur at 1:07:20 - 25 and 1:11:16 to 1:12:28, the latter is when Skylar tries to gain points by showing the boys that she can be as gross as they. (3) When Chuckie, Will and Morgan are at Chuckie's house and Morgan comes downstairs with the baseball glove in his hand and they talk about masterbation. The purpose of this scene is to show the culture of cruelty among the boys. (4) Another scene of sexually related dialog occurs when Skylar and Will discuss the fact that men will do anything in the service of a certain portion of their anatomy, 1:07:25 - 35.
Attachment to others is the basis of emotional health and social relationships. Without attachment, human beings cannot develop empathy or a conscience.
Many people with extreme talent (it could be visual arts, a sport, writing, or like Will Hunting, mathematics) find that they are driven to express it. It is one of the mysteries of genius that fulfillment of the potential is its own reward.
If children are not able to trust their primary caregivers or if adults are abusive, then the children may never be able to trust others. They will depend upon themselves for succor and care. Such children will fail to develop a conscience because they rely only on themselves to meet their needs. Not needing others, they have no regard for the needs or feelings of others.
In psychology the word "affective" means "a subjectively experienced feeling state (emotion) and the observable behavior that represents it". "Affective attunement" occurs when the caregiver lets an infant know that the caregiver understands the emotion being experienced by the child.
Attachment disorder occurs when, due to inadequate attention to an infant's needs or because of abuse or other trauma during childhood, a child learns that he or she cannot rely on others. Not being able to trust others, the child develops protective shells. These become the child's means of coping and surviving. In essence the child becomes the provider for his or her own protection. Children with attachment disorder are particularly resistant to therapy because they see anyone wanting to pierce or remove their protective barriers as a threat.
Sean asserts that despite all the bravado, Will is essentially a frightened child who has been repeatedly hurt by adults. Will has learned not to trust them or anyone else who is not male, the same age, and from the same neighborhood.
Attachment disorder can arise when children have been injured or neglected by their birth parents or by foster parents. Multiple moves within the foster care system can prevent a child from attaching to any one caregiver. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse can also cause attachment disorder. All of these events teach these children that the world is unsafe.
Attachment disorder resulting from abuse is often combined with post traumatic stress syndrome.
Usually, for transference to successfully occur, certain boundaries are adhered to within the treatment relationship. The therapist typically represents a neutral "blank slate" persona upon which a client projects their internal and subjective feelings and issues. It is important that the therapist not disclose events and situations of his or her own life so that the client experiences the therapist as focused only on the client and the client's issues. This relationship parallels the client's early childhood relationship with his or her primary caregiver. The egocentrism of the infant is replicated in treatment. It is said that clients fill the room with themselves. However, with children and adolescents who are resistant to treatment, this sometimes does not occur.
When children or adolescents are resistant to treatment, therapists can sometimes jump start the transference process by disclosing information about their own life experiences. In "Good Will Hunting", Sean's disclosures meant that Will could not dismiss Sean as irrelevant to Will's life, in the same manner that he had dismissed the other therapists.
This movie shows the male adolescent culture of cruelty. Among the four close friends shown in this film, Morgan is usually on the receiving end.
Resources For Helping Boys to Become Responsible, Caring and Emotionally Available
Boys are often taught that they must be strong, tough, and invulnerable to emotion. "Good Will Hunting" shows that even a tough kid from a working class neighborhood has emotions and that he can fulfill his destiny only if he gets in touch with those emotions. The best male role model in the film is Sean McGuire, the therapist who fills the gaps in Will's parenting by telling Will of his own experiences. This film can be a springboard for class discussions about what is really important in masculinity: being responsible, caring and emotionally available.
Further reading for adults interested in this subject includes the following books: Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon, Michael Thompson; Real Boys -- Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack, Ph.D.; Speaking of Boys -- Answers to the Most-Asked Questions About Raising Sons by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.; and The Minds of Boys -- Saving our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens.
The goal of the therapist is to crawl inside the patient's mind and see how the patient perceives the world. Before a therapist can help a patient, the therapist needs to see the world the way the patient does.
Most parents, at times of utter desperation, have wanted to throw a child against the wall. But actually doing it is an entirely different matter. At times, parenting calls for the utmost in self-restraint.
This movie was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were in their mid-20s.
Additional Discussion Questions:
Continued from the Learning Guide...
1. What do you think Will Hunting's life would have been like if the therapy had not been successful? Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. Here are a few good ones: (1) He would have continued his life with his attachment disorder, being able to make friendships only with males his own age. He would not have been able to have a loving relationship with a woman. He would have continued to have anger management issues and at some point, most likely, he would have killed or severely injured someone and gone to jail for decades or for life. He would have continued to believe, deep down, that the abuse was his fault, even though he might intellectually have known that it wasn't. He would have continued to use reading and his intelligence to give him a sense of mastery and control to insulate himself from people and put them off. (2) He is such a strong person and is surrounded by so many loving people, his male friends, his girlfriend, that if he could have maintained these relationships, he would have found the inner strength to heal himself.
2. The actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the script for this movie. Are they trying to say that the highest and best achievement of a man is to "go see about a girl", to have an empathetic loving relationship with a woman? Suggested Response: No. They are trying to say that an empathetic loving relationship with a woman is one of the highest and best achievements of a man. There are others, like being a good psychologist, a good mathematician, a good auto mechanic, or, like Chuckie, a good friend. Another way to put the answer is that they are saying that at that time in Will's life, an empathetic and loving relationship with a woman was something he needed to explore.
QUESTIONS RELATING TO ATTACHMENT DISORDER
3. Describe attachment disorder and how it starts. Suggested Response: The basic concept is that if a child's needs are not consistently satisfied by the adults on whom he or she depends, or if the child is abused by his or her caregivers, the child will not learn to trust others. See generally, Attachment Theory Applied to "Good Will Hunting".
4. If the adults that a child must rely upon don't take care of the child or if they beat the child and violate the child's boundaries, what message does that send to the child? Suggested Response: It tells the child that he or she is not worth caring for and that others cannot be trusted. It teaches the child that only the child him or herself can be relied upon to satisfy the child's needs. It does not permit the child to develop a sense of self-worth. The child, focused on meeting his or her own needs, cannot acquire the ability to feel empathy for others on a very basic level.
5. What is "affective attunement" and how does it relate to a child learning to manage primitive emotions? Suggested Response: Affective attunement occurs when a caregiver lets an infant know that the caregiver understands the emotion being experienced by the child. Once attachment is securely established, the role of the primary caregiver focuses on helping the infant learn to identify and become comfortable with its own various feelings. The primitive emotions felt by infants are often raw and powerful. They can frighten and overwhelm a baby. Caregivers mirror (i.e. reflect back) the feelings the infant projects and label them with words. This enables the child to make connections between its internal and external worlds. When the infant learns that the caregivers can understand the infant's emotions, the infant's fears and anxieties will be alleviated and the caregiver can teach the infant techniques for managing its emotions. (This process continues through adolescence.)
6. What were some of the symptoms of attachment disorder from which Will Hunting suffered at the beginning of the film? Suggested Response: Will has trouble developing meaningful and appropriate relationships with adults and women. His only friends are among a group of young men his own age who cannot begin to compete with his intelligence. He cannot master his primitive emotions. For example, if he has a disagreement with someone or if he dislikes them, he will assault them either verbally or physically. He has no empathy for people outside his close group of friends. Will does not integrate his intelligence and his interest in reading with relationships, either personal relationships or work relationships. The reading gives him a sense of mastery and a way to distance himself from people. He uses intellectual tasks to self-soothe.
7. How was Will different at the end of the movie from the way he was at the beginning? Suggested Response: Sean had provided Will with a secure attachment relationship. Will could attempt to form relationships and felt sure enough of himself to leave Boston to follow Skylar to Stanford.
8. What does Sean McGuire, the therapist, try to do in the treatment? Suggested Response: He re-parents Will. Sean tries to fill in the gaps of Will's development caused by the abuse and the lack of caring. He provides Will with a secure attachment and with an oral history of relationships that worked by recounting his own. Sean told Will about life's imperfections and that imperfect people could be loved. (Will thought of himself as profoundly imperfect and unlovable. Why else would his caregivers hit him?) Sean talked to Will about what sacrifice means, like a father to a son. Sean hugged Will, giving him the tactile sense of belonging that a child would get from a parent.
9. What is the difference between the usual situation in which an individual seeks psychotherapy and the situation faced by Sean McGuire when Will Hunting was brought to him? Suggested Response: Will Hunting didn't want to change -- usually someone coming to therapy wants to change.
10. Sean asks Will to list the people he feels that he has real relationships with. What does Will answer, and how does this relate to attachment disorder? Suggested Response: Will lists several dead giants of Western culture like Shakespeare and Nietzsche. They are dead and cannot betray Will or make him aware of his own feelings of inadequacy.
11. There are parallel things happening in Will's relationship with the therapist and in his relationship with Skylar. What are they?Suggested Response: Will is learning to trust both of them, alternatively moving closer and pushing them away; two steps forward and one step back.
12. What did reading and mastering subjects mean for Will psychologically? Why didn't he use his gifts to find friends or in a competitive academic setting? Suggested Response: Will undoubtedly loved to read and learn. But by limiting his friendships to boys who could not compete with him in intelligence and whose interests didn't run to books, he used his intelligence and reading as a way of isolating himself and pushing people away. Had Will been a secure human being, he would have gravitated toward people with whom he could share his learning and his interests. Will certainly could have gotten a full scholarship to some of the best schools in the country, but moving into the world in which others could understand what he understood and had read the books that he had read would be too threatening for him.
13. A psychologist with whom we discussed this movie stated that Sean McGuire, in his treatment of Will Hunting, worked a lot in the transference. What did she mean by this? Suggested Response: Sean used transference to fill in the gaps in Will's attachment. Transference is a phenomenon in which patients subconsciously transfer to their therapist the feelings and attitudes that they originally linked with significant figures in their early lives. Sean, in effect, re-parented Will and became the loving caregiver that Will never had.
14. Why do people with attachment disorder have difficulty developing a conscience? Suggested Response: They rely only on themselves to meet their needs. Not needing others, they have no regard for the needs or feelings of others. It is not just selfishness, it is the way they see the world. They see others as being like themselves, only out for number one. They think that this is the way the world is set up.
15. What part of the therapy process is left out of this movie? Suggested Response: The many months and years of hard work in the therapy sessions; the advances, the regressions, the regrouping and, hopefully, further advances.
16. What was going on when Sean got angry at Will, held him up against the wall, and told Will that if he disrespected Sean's wife again Sean would beat him up? Suggested Response: Sean lost his sense of boundary with Will. It was a mistake. Sean put it to good use but he shouldn't have done it.
17. Why couldn't Will, before his breakthrough, tell Skylar that he loved her? Suggested Response: People with attachment disorder are afraid of intimacy because their caregivers, their first intimates, hurt them. Actually, the fact that Will felt he couldn't lie to her was a step forward.
18. Why did Will feel no sense of gratitude to Professor Lambeau and take such delight in hurting Lambeau's feelings? There are two independent reasons. There are two independent reasons. Suggested Response: First, there is the class angle. Will had grown up a world apart from and jealous of the intellectuals of the universities. Lambeau was one of these people. The second reason relates to Will's attachment disorder. Lambeau was trying to be a mentor to Will. Most people who had been in a fatherly or parental role for Will had hurt him badly. Until his therapy took hold, Will would push these people away as a matter of self-protection. Will felt no sense of gratitude to Lambeau because he didn't credit Lambeau with good motives for helping him. Unable to give and unable, on a deep emotional level, to conceive of a relationship based on delight in giving, Will could not accept the fact that Lambeau had good motives.
19. How did the scene of the fight relate to Will's attachment disorder? Why does Will have to be pulled off the man who used to beat him up in kindergarten? Suggested Response: Will was consumed with anger. This is a primitive feeling that he couldn't control. Not having been properly parented, he didn't learn how to manage his emotions.
QUESTIONS RELATING TO OTHER ASPECTS OF THE MOVIE
20. What did you think of Professor Lambeau? Discuss his positive and negative characteristics. Suggested Response: [This question can lead to a spirited discussion.] The movie's view of Lambeau is that he was somewhat selfish and didn't take into account that Will might be happy doing something other than advanced math. It is clear that Lambeau had his own agenda, which was to make Will into another Ramanujan. [See Links to the Internet for more on Ramanujan.] This would have been a great contribution to mathematics and certainly Lambeau would have gained immense satisfaction and professional accolades for having found Will and mentored him. And, in fact, advances in theoretical mathematics are a good thing. Eventually those discoveries will help society. Sean's problem with Lambeau was that Lambeau was not sensitive to the other aspects of Will's life and personality. Some students will blindly accept the movie's view of Lambeau as a near villain based primarily on a narrow reading of the class critique of the film. Challenging this view can lead to spirited discussions.
21. The disadvantages and bad luck that Will has in life are obvious. What are some of the advantages that he possesses or fortunate events which occur to him in the movie? Suggested Response: They include: his intelligence; his friend Chuckie; the interest of Professor Lambeau; a legal system that was flexible enough to allow him one more chance on the condition of therapy; having Sean as a therapist; and meeting Skylar.
22. Was Professor Lambeau trying to manipulate Will or to help him? Suggested Response: Lambeau was trying to help Will to become what Lambeau had always wanted to be, a great mathematician. Lambeau was willing to manipulate Will in order to do that. (Sometimes you have to manipulate people in a nurturing way in order to help them.) However, Lambeau wasn't considering what would be best for Will, the whole person. It is very hard for people to get beyond their own perspectives. That is one of the reasons that Chuckie was such an extraordinary character.
The following three questions should be asked together.
23. What role does social class play in the movie? Which social classes are we talking about? Suggested Response: The class conflict was working class vs. educated elite which is also sometimes described as town vs. gown. This conflict was essential to the plot and set up several conflicts that had to be resolved: Will vs. his therapists, Will and his friends vs. students, Will vs. Skylar, Will vs. Lambeau, Sean vs. Lambeau. See Class Critique section of the Learning Guide to this film.
24. One person is a bridge between the two socio-economic classes shown in the film. Who is he? Suggested Response: Sean. After his treatment, Will Hunting will also be able to move in both worlds.
25. Is discrimination against a person because of the socio-economic class they belong to any less destructive than racial discrimination? Suggested Response: There is no one answer to the question. The point is that they are both very destructive to self-esteem and pervert the cultures of both the oppressor and the oppressed.
26. Evaluate the character of Lambeau's assistant, Tom. Suggested Response: He seems to be a caring, mature, adult who accepts his demotion from being Lambeau's favored student to being the coffee boy with good grace and without losing his affection for Lambeau. He even tries to intervene with Will to get Will to treat Lambeau better. Will, the child with attachment disorder, is not willing to go out of his way for anyone except his peer family of friends.
27. Why is the character of Will Hunting portrayed as being brilliant? Even people who aren't particularly smart have attachment disorder. Suggested Response: One reason is that it drives the plot. Will's mathematical genius attracts Professor Lambeau, who gets him out of jail and to the therapist. However, Will could have been a great violinist or artist or even Lambeau's nephew with no particular talents. A plot could have been constructed without intelligence being Will's gift. The better answer is that it shows that intelligence, even great intelligence such as Will Hunting's, cannot break through psychological illness based on childhood trauma.
28. Will Hunting was able to look at Sean's picture and describe Sean's character with enough accuracy to really upset Sean. Will was able to do this because of two reasons. One was because Will was so smart. What was the second one? Suggested Response: The picture was not only a window into Sean's emotional state, but it showed what Will was experiencing as well.
Continued from the Learning Guide...
See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
- Write an extension of the story describing what happened to Will and Skylar in their first year in California.
- Write a new ending for the story assuming that Will had not gotten treatment; what would have happened to him?
- Write an extension of the story describing a reunion between Chuckie and Will, 20 years later.
- Write a scene (not necessarily derived from this movie) which highlights class conflict.
Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions
1. Is a child ever responsible for the abuse perpetrated upon him or her by an adult? Suggested Response: No. It is the adult who has the responsibility not to abuse a child. Adults are more powerful, older and more experienced than children.
2. Describe the effects of the beatings and parental neglect suffered by Will. Suggested Response: They made him distrustful of people other than males his own age. They made it so that he could not form genuine attachments to adults, especially women. They made it difficult for him to control his anger.
3. What percentage of children who are sexually abused report the abuse? Suggested Response: About 10%.
4. Approximately how many girls will be subject to unconsented sexual contact by an adult? Approximately how many boys will suffer this fate? Suggested Response: The rule of thumb is one in three girls and one in six boys.
5. Describe the mechanism by which child victims of physical abuse come to blame themselves for the abuse. Suggested Response: See Why Abused Children Blame Themselves section of the Learning Guide.
6. Describe the mechanism by which child victims of sexual abuse come to blame themselves for the abuse. Suggested Response: See Why Abused Children Blame Themselves section of the Learning Guide.
7. Explain the importance of promptly giving an infant consistent attention and gratification of the basic needs for food, sleep, warmth, etc. Suggested Response: See Helpful Background Section, paragraph 5.
8. Why was it important for Sean to describe his relationship with his wife to Will? Suggested Response: An important part of parenting is to provide children with role models and a fund of stories to guide them in decisions they make in their own lives. Will had never seen a strong, empathic and loving relationship between a man and a woman and didn't know what it was like. Sean provided him with that knowledge vicariously. Will used that emotional knowledge to gather enough trust to follow Skylar to the West Coast.
9. When a child is physically abused by a parent, what are some of the internal scars that are left? Suggested Response: They are lack of self-esteem and self-blame for the abuse. In extreme cases, the child will develop attachment disorder.
10. Do you know anyone who has a marriage like the marriage that Sean described? Is it possible? Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer to the first question. The answer to the second question is "yes", there are many marriages like that.
11. Can marriages and romantic relationships between people of different classes, such as Skylar and Will, work out? What is special about these marriages? Suggested Response: This question is great for developing class discussions. Some kids will say that it's impossible and others will say that it can be done and has been done millions of times. Whether one thinks that it is possible or impossible, the differences can make a marriage or a relationship more difficult. There is less in common and there are more compromises to make. All couples bring different "scripts" to their relationships based on their families of origin. Some of the scripts reflect emotional dynamics (loud, demonstrative, argumentative vs. restrained, cool, polite). Some scripts may be class-based and others may simply be differences in approach. In addition, the relatives may have problems with class-based differences.
12. What did this movie teach you about romantic relationships? Suggested Response: You have to be willing to risk and you have to be willing to love. Your partner needs to be able to take risks as well.
13. Compare the relationship between Will and Skylar to the relationships with women of Will's three friends. Suggested Response: What we are shown of the relationships that the friends have with women is that they are very shallow. Will's relationship with Skylar has the possibility of becoming a strong empathic loving relationship.
14. Why is fighting dangerous? Suggested Response: Your opponent might be like Will Hunting and unable to manage his anger. If he wins, he might not be able to stop until you are dead or seriously injured. In the fight on the basketball court it was a good thing Will didn't have a weapon and it was a good thing that his friends pulled him off when they did. Otherwise, the guy who beat Will up in kindergarten would have been dead.
15. Both Will and his friend Chuckie were extraordinary in some ways. We know that Will was incredibly intelligent. How was Chuckie extraordinary? Suggested Response: Chuckie was mature and nurturing beyond his years. He could see that what was good for Will was beyond his own horizons. He did not react defensively to this but instead he encouraged Will to reach his potential. Chuckie proved himself to be a true friend to Will because he encouraged Will to do something that would inevitably take Will away from their friendship.
16. Were Professor Lambeau and Sean McGuire friends? What does this story show about their relationship? Suggested Response: They were friends because of the tie of personal history. Their friendship was complicated by competition. It was not a strong active friendship like that between Will and Chuckie but there was a bond of shared experiences and affection. At the end of the movie, they appeared to reconcile.
17. Sean described Chuckie's relationship with Will as that of family, implying that he was absolutely loyal to Sean. Is absolute loyalty a good thing in a friendship or even in family relationships? Suggested Response: There are limits to loyalty: ethics and morality. What is to be given without question is love and affection. One should not do something unethical to support a close friend or family member. (For example, Chuckie should not have supported Will in starting the fight against the man who beat Will up in kindergarten.) However, unless the friend or family member has done something heinous, love and caring for them as a human being should not be withdrawn. Even if they do something terrible, like participating in genocide, a strong argument could be made that they still deserve affection as human beings if they repent and seek to make amends.
Male Role Model
18. It has been said that male maturity involves being responsible, caring and emotionally available. Which of the characters in this film most completely approached that goal at the beginning of the film? What about at the end? Suggested Response: At the beginning of the film it was Sean McGuire. He was a man who understood that maturity meant being in touch with his feelings. He was responsible and caring. The second character to approach this goal was Will's friend Chuckie. While he participated in the male culture of cruelty with girls and with Morgan, he was a caring friend to Will. He acted in a responsible and caring manner when he encouraged Will to break out of the Southie lifestyle and engage his possibilities. At the end of the movie, after the psychological treatment, Will had a shot at also becoming responsible, caring and emotionally available.
19. No one in this film is perfect. But who is the best male role model in this film? Why? Suggested Response: The best male role model is Sean McGuire. See response to preceding question.
20. Did Will Hunting have a responsibility to himself or to society to develop his talent to solve math problems? Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer to this question.
21. [For students who have seen or read Amadeus.] Compare Professor Lambeau to Salieri in Amadeus. Suggested Response: Both Lambeau and Salieri saw genius in another person that easily surpassed anything that they could hope to accomplish. However, whereas Salieri tried to undercut Mozart, Lambeau only tried to mentor and help Will become a great mathematician.
22. Often, characters who break away from their home cultures and explore new ways of relating to the world find resistance from their friends and family. How are the events of this movie different than that situation? Suggested Response: Will's family was Chuckie, who saw that Will's future lay outside of Southie and who encouraged him to make the break.
23. During most of the movie, what was keeping Will from entering the new (for him) intellectual/academic culture? Suggested Response: His attachment disorder made him fear developing meaningful relationships with adults and women. Will had created a situation with his life of low skilled jobs, a group of three male friends, and reading alone. This world felt safe to him. (There were also dissatisfactions which is why he solved the math problems on the chalk board at MIT (a cry for recognition), why he pursued a relationship with Skylar, and why he continued in therapy with Sean.) However, if Will really committed to this new culture he could not be sure to control the situation. He would have to interact with people of intelligence (though almost all would not be as intelligent as he), who were trained and who demanded relationships that were different from than the relationships of his status quo.
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See Questions under the "Male Role Mode", "Friendship" and "Romantic Relationships" categories above.
Links to the Internet:
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Selected Awards: 1997 Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Supporting Role
(Robin Williams); Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Matt Damon & Ben Affleck);
Golden Globe Awards: Best Screenplay - Motion Picture (Matt Damon & Ben Affleck); 1998 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Matt Damon); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Minnie Driver); Best Director: (Gus Van Sant); Best Film Editing (Pietro Scalia); Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (Danny Elfman); Best Music, Original Song (Elliott Smith, For the song "Miss Misery"); Best Picture (Lawrence Bender); Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Motion Picture - Drama; Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama (Matt Damon); Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Robin Williams)
Robin Williams as Sean Maguire; Matt Damon as Will Hunting; Ben Affleck as Chuckie Sullivan; Stellan Skarsgárd as Prof. Gerald Lambeau;
Minnie Driver as Skylar; Casey Affleck as Morgan O'Mally; Cole Hauser as Billy McBride; John Mighton as Tom.
Director: Gus Van Sant
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