View From the Couch: Never Let Me Go

September 5, 2011 1 Comment

by Robert MacDonell MA

Never Let Me Go begins on an optimistic note with a reference to accomplishments in the field of medical science and a potential harbinger of better things to come:

The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.

Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.

By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.

 As the words fade from the opening frames, we encounter Kathy H as an adult, in her role as a ‘carer’.  She is watching a medical procedure of some sort through the window of operating suite. The significance of this scene is not yet evident to us.

Watching Kathy stare unemotionally through the window gives me a sense she’s done this before.  Her mind seems less focused on what she sees in front of her than on the reverie she is narrating. Kathy tells us that she is now 28 years old; that she is good at her job; that her patients always do better than expected; and that they are hardly ever classified as agitated, even when they’re about to make a donation. She goes on to tell us that, although she’s not trying to boast, she has a great sense of pride in what she does: “Carers and donors have achieved so much” she says. “That said, we are not machines. But in the end it wears you down.  I suppose that’s why I now spend most of my time not looking forward, but looking back, to the cottages, and Hailsham, and what happened to us there… me, Tommy and Ruth.”

With Kathy’s opening narrative the mood for me suddenly becomes foreboding.  Her words and her delivery send a chill up my spine.  I feel the room go cold, like the air of hope in the opening message is being drawn through a draft.  Suddenly my mind races to associations of bearing witness to something that is not quite right. The meaning of the opening message seems somehow more clear. It has taken on the precision of a clinical report, and is steely cold, like all the life has gone out of it.

We eventually learn that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are clones and that what happened to them at Hailsham was an acculturation and indoctrination to their role as donors in an organ harvesting program.  Like George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Never Let Me Go is a dystopian tale warning of the dangers inherent in the pursuit of science and technology absent firm moral underpinnings. If the aim of science is the search for truth for the betterment of mankind, the events we see unfold at Hailsham with Kathy, Tommy and Ruth is not the promise of science.  Rather, it is a methodical and malevolent conditioning of the hearts and minds of children to accept their fate in the industrial trafficking of human organs.  Clearly the society in this film has lost its moral compass.

In their society one caste benefits by literally extracting the life from another. The society has avoided addressing a moral issue that for them is an inconvenient question: whether the clones are human. As we later come to understand, Hailsham was in fact an experiment to try and answer the question of whether the clone children had souls and were therefore human.  Over time it becomes evident even to the staff at Hailsham that the society at large was no longer interested in the answer to the question, only the benefits derived from the clones.  Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are robbed of their human dignity.

Words like ‘carers’, ‘donors’, and ‘completion’ are reminiscent of ‘Newspeak’ and ‘doublespeak’ in 1984, as the subtle indoctrination techniques at Hailsham are of Brave New World. Those who encourage and support donors in the immoral program of organ harvesting become ‘carers’; the victims are ‘donors’; and murder is recast as ‘completion’.  For me the most gut wrenching scene in the film was watching the flame of life extinguished from Ruth’s eyes in her final ‘donation’: the removal of her liver.  I could feel the tears well up in my eyes.

In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud speaks about the conflict between individual rights and freedom, and societal rules established to prevent the aggressive instinct inherent in man’s nature from running amok.  We needn’t look far for examples of man’s inhumanity to man (war, terrorism, torture, genocide) to find perpetrators, others who are willing accomplices, and still others who feel no guilt or shame in looking the other way in the face of it all. At Hailsham, and in what we see of the society at large in Never Let Me Go, we see a superficially gentler and better hidden application of man’s inhumanity to man that derives from the very same aggressive instinct. Freud argues that the only way to keep the aggressive instinct in check is a properly functioning super-ego.  The external counterpart to that being civilization.  When the internal mechanism fails the result is the sociopath.  When the external mechanism fails the result is disregard for human rights and human dignity on a grand scale.

The failure of the external mechanism in the society at large is paralleled in the characters of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth in the disruption of important aspects of their super-ego development during their indoctrination at Hailsham.  There is little evidence in any of them of a super-ego strongly in conflict with their ego.  None of them are compelled to strike back at their oppressors. In the end, Kathy appears so resolved to her prescribed destiny she seems capable of little more than wonder if their plight is really any different from society at large.  “After all”, she says, “we all ‘complete’, just at different times.”

Is Kathy’s comfort with her role as a ‘carer’ rational?  In all appearances she would seem to be so.  Yet how can a rational person be so unfazed in the face of such a monsterous breach of respect for human dignity.  Is she a rational psychopath?  Is there even such a thing? Can someone truly be capable of reasoning absent essential elements of a moral compass (super-ego)?

For all his rage and emotional upheavals, I see Tommy as having a better functioning moral compass than Kathy.  He does have evidence of a mind in conflict in the moral arena. He is late in coming to the realization that there is no ‘deferral’ but is capable of expressing rage at the moral indignity of his circumstance.  That he never felt driven to fight against it is evidence of his damaged super-ego, though in the end it affords him some recognition of the evil perpetrated on them all.

Ruth, despite her deviousness and romantic foibles in her adolescence and early adulthood (and who of us can claim to be entirely free from those in a lifetime?) shows the greatest evidence of a functioning moral compass.  She is profoundly guilt ridden about stealing Tommy from Kathy in their early years.  She realizes that what motivated her actions was a fear of being alone.  But she is not comforted by merely recognizing the motivation behind her actions and using that as absolution.  Even as she endures the pain of her donations, she strives for an atonement with Kathy and Tommy and makes it her final goal. This is a stunning achievement on her part in both thought and action given her indoctrination at Hailsham and the cards that life has dealt her (them).  The physical toll of her donations has rendered her unable, by that time, to fight against the moral outrage of her circumstances, but she does the next best thing in trying to help Kathy & Tommy obtain a ‘deferral’.  In the end does the fact there is no ‘deferral’ negate her effort?  I think not.  She engages in the most noble of human of actions by trying for their sake.

Never Let Me Go is a sinister tale, and the significance of it creeps up on you slowly as the film unfolds. It is at once provocative and enraging, but profoundly instructive; and I found in Ruth a lesson in the triumph of the human spirit.

__________
Robert MacDonell is a performance improvement leader with the St. Joseph Mercy Health System and has 35 years of experience in healthcare, including clinical operations managing, consulting, process engineering and lean-six-sigman process improvement.  He received his master’s degree from the University of Michigan.  He has been a Reel Deal discussant in the 2010 season.

View from the Couch
One Comment to “View From the Couch: Never Let Me Go”
  1. Jolyn Welsh Wagner says:

    Bruce Russell asked me to add his comment to Bob’s column:

    There are several things you say with which I disagree. First, I do not think that Kathy has no moral compass, or lost any she may have had. Second, I think she has better moral character than Ruth.
    Ruth is mean to Tommy, teasing him with the other children, but Kathy never does. And Ruth is mean to Kathy, stealing him from her, having sex with Tommy in eye and earshot of Kathy at The Cottages, and telling Kathy that she and Tommy had a good laugh over Kathy’s looking through pornographic magazines (as it turns out, to try to find her Original). Kathy is kind to everyone, starting with Tommy whom she tried to comfort when the other boys did not choose him to play in their games. And she is compassionate with her donors and with Ruth at the end as she is going through completion. Kindness is a virtue and meanness a vice; Kathy had the one and Ruth the other. That Kathy does not scream and yell like Tommy, and does not put up a fight, is no sign of bad moral character, for quiet stoicism is often the best response to a situation that cannot be changed. It’s good that Ruth felt remorse for what she had done to Kathy and Tommy, asked for forgiveness, and tried to make amends, but Kathy had nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about, and so had no need to seek forgiveness or make amends.

    Can psychopaths be rational? I think so because being rational only requires being sensitive to some of the reasons we have for action, the ones having to do with self-interest and satisfying our desire for our own happiness and success. Rationality does not require being sensitive to moral or other-regarding reasons, though, of course, it also does not require that we be insensitive to those reasons.

    Are the people at Hailsham blameworthy for participating in a system where some are treated as mere means to help others? Yes, but paradoxically the carers and donors cannot complain that they did not have a life that was worth living for them, that it would have been better had they never been born. And there is a much discussed case in philosophy called Trolley in which you can either let a runaway trolley continue down its track where it will kill five innocent people or turn a switch that will send it down a spur where only one innocent person will be killed. Why is it permissible to kill the one in Trolley by turning down the spur but not permissible to kill the donors to save several others? Why does the good of others justify turning the trolley and killing an unwilling victim but does not justify killing the reluctant donors?

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