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What the heck happened to Nina in Black Swan? A Bowen family systems perspectives on Nina's des

Unless you have been out of the country, under a rock, or in a coma for the last month, you cannot escape the hype of the film, Black Swan. Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen the film, but plan on seeing it, thanks for visiting, and come back to read this post afterwards! If you have seen the film, you may feel some combination of confused, disturbed, or annoyed. What happens to the main character, Nina, that she so completely loses touch with reality? Why does preparing for the starring role in Swan Lake have such an impact on her? After thinking about it quite a bit, I remembered some aspects of Bowen family systems theory that might give another perspective on the downward spiral of Nina.

Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist in the 1950′s who began his career studying schizophrenia (a mental illness characterized by psychotic symptoms such as hearing and seeing things that other people do not hear and see) but instead of focusing on the individual patient, he was interested in understanding the family relationships of patient’s with schizophrenia. From 1954 – 1959, Bowen studied the mother-daughter relationships of women with schizophrenia by inviting them both to live together on an inpatient hospital unit, and the observations he made during these years became the basis for his theory of family systems and how family dynamics can help us understand how well, or how poorly an individual person is functioning.

In Black Swan, one of the most interesting relationship dynamics portrayed is the one between Nina and her mother, Erica. No father is present or accounted for at all in the film, so Nina and Erica live together and it becomes clear from the beginning that they are extremely focused on each other. One of the concepts Bowen developed is called “differentiation” which basically means the level of freedom family members have to distinguish themselves both intellectually and emotionally from each other. (For example, to know the difference between what you believe and why you believe it vs. what your parents believe).

Erica was a ballerina and now Nina is a ballerina. It’s likely impossible to know if Nina chose this career, or if it was simply the path her mother put her on and expected her to continue. Erica spends her free time painting portraits of Nina, and refers to her as her “sweet girl”. Erica relates to Nina as a child – she is still in the role of authority while Nina does her best to please her and make her proud. Bowen would have called their relationship a “symbiotic” of “fused” relationship which means neither has enough psychological space from each other to be their own person.

On its own without the addition of anything new or stressful, Nina & Erica might have sailed along in their fused relationship with little to no problem. However, when Nina feels the drive towards landing the starring role in Swan Lake and goes for it, suddenly the two are confronted with Nina’s need to pursue something she has chosen for herself and to add even more stress to their relationship, what she has chosen also requires that she explore more adult areas of her life, most notably, her sexuality; areas of her life that cannot include or involve her mother.

In the film, now Nina is torn between pleasing herself, her mother, and even her ballet instructor, Thomas, who all want different things from her. Bowen’s family systems theory states that when a family system is under stress, that one or more family members may begin to have physical or emotional symptoms of illness. As the story unfolds, we see Nina injuring herself, hallucinating, and quite literally developing another identity (the black swan persona) so she can have a place to escape from being her mother’s “sweet girl”.

I think from a Bowenian perspective, Nina beginning to lose touch with reality is part of a process of separating from her mother in the only way she can manage given the history of their relationship up to that point, and the time limited context of getting ready for her role in the ballet performance. Nina has to create a space in her mind for all of the fantasies and fears she has because there is no one in her life that she can trust who isn’t projecting their own fantasies or fears onto her. (Her mother wants her sweet girl and fears “losing” her to adulthood while her ballet instructor wants a seductress and fears she is too “prim” for the dual role). What we then see unfold on film is a confusing set of scenes that we are unclear about. Are they “really” happening, or are they Nina’s delusion?

My thought is everything that happens to Nina in the film is a very real process of differentiation gone awry. I’m not sure what the director intended, but I think Black Swan succeeds in portraying the heart wrenching and delayed individuation-separation of an adult daughter from her mother. A process we all go through, usually in our teenage years, and usually not as dramatic a process as portrayed in Black Swan, but this process is never easy and almost always involves some kind of paranoia from parent to child! If you left the theater scratching your head, I hope these thoughts help in some way to make sense of the story.

Thanks for reading!

If you are interested in learning more about Murray Bowen and family systems theory, you can check out The Bowen Center here:

If you are interested in reading a film review that suggests additional imagery and literary allusions, you can check out a good one here:

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