(Mind Games) Self deception in Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) and The Machinist (Brad Anderson, 2004): how memory loss is shown as a product of guilt.
Throughout this essay I explore the ways in which the memory loss of Trevor Reznik and Leonard Shelby can be seen as a symptom of guilt. Whilst it may be drawn that Trevor’s mental health is impacted by his insomnia, and Leonard’s condition is explained by the accident, the complex narratives allow various readings, through which it can be speculated that the tormented mental states of both men results in a process of self deception, of which memory loss is a key element. Throughout the films there are various “clues” in the form of flashbacks, formative techniques, and the doubling of personality which suggests their guilty conscience plays a prominent role in their amnesia. Whilst the protagonists’ lives are controlled by their inability to remember, their memory loss can be seen as a coping mechanism to shield traumatic events of their personal history from their current selves. In all, I discuss how the abnormal mental states of the protagonists can be seen as a result of psychological trauma and a guilty conscience, through which their subsequent memory loss is used in a process of deception.
Due to the complexity of Memento’s narrative, and the theory I have chosen to assume, I feel it necessary to state from the outset the angle I’m exploring Leonard’s self deception from, in order to clearly present my argument. Throughout my essay I’m working on the assumption that Sammy is in fact Leonard, and that based on this it can be concluded that Leonard killed his wife in a similar way (accidental insulin overdose), the reasons for which I explain later on in depth. From this, the creation of Sammy can be seen as a process of self deception in which Leonard can transfer his most serious wrongdoing onto Sammy in order to mask his guilt. To complicate things further, if Leonard consciously created Sammy to achieve this, it must be assumed that he has some recollection of events after the incident which left him with amnesia, contrary to how his condition works. At this point the depth of Leonard’s self deception comes under scrutiny. I contemplate the reliability of Leonard’s condition, and discuss the ways in which the psychological effects of trauma play a role in his memory alterations, which combined with his condition, cause him to disremember.
Whilst Leonard’s guilt stems from his accidental killing of his wife, and perhaps subconsciously, the killing of various John G’s, Trevor’s psychological torment is rooted in his hit and run of a young boy. For both men, the process of dealing with psychological pain results in an attempt to disassociate from it, through which the creation of alter egos aids their memory loss and masks their guilt. As the men place distressing elements of their past onto an alter ego, they skew elements of their own memories, denying that they are a part of their own history by applying them to someone else’s. The creation of an alter identity is one of the most prominent shows of self deception throughout both films and is key to analysing how memory loss is presented as a product of guilt.
Both Ivan and Sammy can be seen as a process of projection, “the mental mechanism described by psychoanalysts whereby a person attempts to get rid of unacceptable impulses or parts of the self by externalising them” (Almeida [no date] n.pag) In this, Sammy and Ivan can be seen as a process of self correction for the protagonists’. Leonard uses Sammy’s story as a way of better understanding and dealing with his illness, conditioning himself to act appropriately in order to gain some element of control over his amnesia. He frequently comments on Sammy’s faulty system of writing endless amounts of notes, and ensures that his own system is not the same by claiming to be “disciplined”, noting only the most important facts. In this, Sammy is a way for Leonard to “master his own world”, using his story as a reminder on how to live successfully with his condition (Turbett: 2001: 8). Leonard has externalised this part of self, whereby he is overcome by his condition, by placing the drama onto Sammy, and thus separating himself from it. His guilty conscience is shown to break through when he worries, “what if I’ve done something like Sammy”, referring to the killing of his wife. This question furthers the link between them, suggesting a paralleling of identities, whilst implying that perhaps Leonard had done the same as Sammy. His anxiety around his possible actions is suggestive of the reason Sammy was created, in order to cover up the wrongdoing Leonard clearly feels most tormented by. In this, Leonard has rejected this “unacceptable” part of self by placing it onto an alter ego, whilst conditioning himself to act in a way that means he will no longer be overcome by his amnesia.
In Trevor’s case, Ivan’s hounding and tormenting of him results in a process of self punishment and correction. Ivan often appears when Trevor is upset with his own behaviour, such as when he arrives at Miller’s home and violently accuses him of breaking into his apartment. As Trevor leaves the house he spots Ivan’s vehicle and proceeds in a car chase of him, which leads Trevor to allow himself to be run over in order to get his license plate checked. Trevor’s mental distress and physical harm can be seen as a form of self punishment for his misconduct, through which Ivan’s troublesome existence is a catalyst. In turn, Ivan is used as a method of conditioning, forcing Trevor to contemplate his own behaviour. It’s also Trevor’s investigation into Ivan, whereby he realises that Ivan’s car license plate is actually his own, which forces him to face up to the knowledge that he killed a young boy and turn himself into the police. After admitting guilt Trevor is finally able to sleep, symbolically suggesting a peace of mind. By creating Ivan, Trevor is forced to confront his guilty conscience and pay for his crime, correcting his own behaviour through a projection of his guilt. For both Leonard and Trevor, the creation of an alter ego is a form of deception whereby the protagonists’ place parts of the self onto another being, masking elements of their true identity in an attempt to control and moderate their own behaviour.
The process of projection can also be seen as an externalisation of the protagonists’ most serious wrongdoings, Leonard’s killing of his wife, and Trevor’s running over of a child. The initial introduction of Ivan takes place just after a close up of the cigarette lighter in Trevor’s car, and is symbolic of the reason for his creation. The cigarette lighter itself can be seen as representative of Trevor’s guilt. Towards the end of the film, as the reason for Trevor’s psychological trauma is revealed, Trevor is shown driving his car whilst distractedly using the cigarette lighter, his lack of concentration on the road causing his subsequent hit and run. From this, the cigarette lighter can be seen as a reminder of his guilt, whilst Ivan’s appearance directly after the camera’s focus on it, suggests a link between his creation and the accident itself. Ivan also wears the same sunglasses and boots that Trevor is shown to wear at the time of the accident, and drives the same car. Through costume and his ownership of Trevor’s former car, Ivan is literally a projection of Trevor at the time of the accident- Ivan is Trevor’s former self. As a result, Ivan can be seen as a coping mechanism for Trevor’s guilty conscience, through which he avoids blame by assigning that part of his identity to someone else. By rejecting this part of his existence and projecting it onto an alter ego, Trevor is able to deceive himself, masking his wrongdoings through a total separation from them. This is in keeping with the psychoanalytical definition of projection, whereby an unacceptable part of self is transferred onto another. Trevor disowns the most traumatic part of his personal history and is able to mentally block the memory by assigning it to an alternative identity.
Ivan’s use as a coping mechanism which allows Trevor to hide from his guilt is highlighted towards the end, as Trevor admits the truth to himself. As Trevor realises that Ivan is a product of his own mind, and is actually a projection of himself, his process of self deception is shattered, and the memories which he had blocked come flooding back. In this sequence there are various formative techniques which confirm to the viewer, and to Trevor himself, that he and Ivan are the same person. The techniques also suggest that Trevor had, one some level, always known this fact, further suggesting that his amnesia is a process of self deception. As Trevor’s realisation sets in, he assesses himself in the mirror. As he does so Ivan can be seen out of focus in the reflection, standing behind him. This visually and symbolically confirms that Ivan is Trevor, through which the mirror is used to suggest a reflection of self. The use of focus which shows Ivan’s image blurred, visually presents that Ivan is a product of Trevor’s mind- we cannot see him properly because he’s not real. Once Trevor realises this fact, Ivan becomes visually unidentifiable, (his chuckle used as a tell), suggesting a non existence as Trevor’s self deception falls apart. Seconds after, Trevor sees a note on the wall which asks “who are you?”. Again, this is suggestive of Trevor’s scrambled sense of identity. The note appears to be directed at Trevor himself, and not a determination on who had been “harassing” him, as he views it through the mirror- the question is posed as Trevor assesses his own reflection. The note also suggests that Trevor (the version of himself that he cannot remember, the version which writes and leaves the notes) had already made contemplations on his own identity. This suggests that on some level Trevor was aware of his self deception, as he poses the question to himself, probing himself to see the truth. This version of Trevor appears to be aware that he’s masking elements of his own identity, and is suggestive of the process through which Trevor’s memory loss is a product of guilt. “A traumatic event has occurred that causes Trevor to dissociate from his reality to avoid his psychological pain and guilt” (Potter: 2012: 262). This process of disassociation, in which parts of his identity are transferred onto Ivan, allows Trevor to almost entirely block the traumatic memories from himself, which only fully return once he realises this fact for himself.
For Leonard, Sammy appears to serve the same purpose. Leonard is able to deal with his guilt through a separation from it, through externalising the memory of killing his wife by applying the memory to Sammy’s history, as opposed to his own. His own version of his wife’s death also provides him with purpose, a daily motivation to find her murderer and seek revenge- a coping mechanism for the psychological stress he feels. Similarly to The Machinist, it becomes apparent that Sammy and Leonard are the same person through narrative and formative techniques. The most prominent obliteration of Leonard’s story comes when Teddy claims that it was Leonard’s wife that was diabetic and not Sammy’s, accompanied by a flashback of Leonard injecting his wife. When applying insulin a soft, fatty area of the body should be chosen to inject, such as the thigh or stomach. When Leonard is shown injecting the insulin it’s in his wife’s thigh- the correct way, however, the first time Sammy is shown to do so, he applies the shot in the front of his wife’s arm- incorrectly. The incorrect application of insulin on Sammy’s part suggests a fabrication, whilst Leonard’s correct method implies a sense of truth, altogether suggesting that it was in fact Leonard’s wife that was diabetic and not Sammy’s. If Leonard and the audience take this as fact then our perception of him, and his own perception of himself, is entirely shook. Up until that point it was (mostly) assumed that we could trust Leonard’s memories up until the attack. However, if Leonard is unable to remember, or denies this fact, then the whole story he has told us, and himself, so far is unreliable. If it was his wife, and not Sammy’s, that was diabetic, then it can be assumed that Sammy is merely a projection of Leonard himself, a fabrication of his own mind. This suggestion is furthered in a single shot in which Sammy is shown sitting in a wheelchair in a home, after his wife’s passing. The camera zooms slowly towards Sammy from the right. A figure then walks across the camera, momentarily wiping the screen. For a split second we see Leonard sitting in the exact same spot Sammy was moments prior. The shot cuts, leaving an almost subliminal message “indicating a metonymical swap and transformation not only for Shelby (Leonard) and his ongoing construction of self, but more importantly of our perception of the film’s overall events to this point” (Lyons: 2006: 133). Both our perception of Leonard, and the one he tells himself, appears at this point to have been one of deception. The formative techniques at work suggest a mirroring between he and Sammy, as Leonard’s physical placement mimics his, and as one shot transitions into the next, one identity morphs into another, concluding that Sammy is Leonard. If the accidental overdosing of insulin was the reason for Leonard’s wife’s death (as can be assumed if Leonard and Sammy are one), then the creation of Sammy can be seen as a projection of Leonard’s guilt. Leonard has transferred the part of his history which has caused the most trauma onto an alter ego, in order to form a separation from the memory and thus from guilt.
The most prominent show of self deception, which relies upon the lack of memory for it’s success, is when Leonard decides to eliminate Teddy. Leonard’s decision to kill Teddy, because his version of events contradicts Leonard’s own, suggests a monumental guilt on Leonard’s part. Teddy’s claim that Leonard’s memories proceeding the accident are false, forces Leonard to accept that the story of his past he has told himself is one of self deception, which “leads to a spiral of unacknowledged possibilities, too disruptive to Leonard’s sense of self purpose and history to accept” (Turbett: 2001: 8). If Leonard accepts that his recollection of his wife and her death are false, then he must accept an alternative cause of her death, something too painful for him to do. Thus Leonard uses his memory loss as an aid, allowing himself to forget Teddy’s claim and subsequently his own lies, in order to mask his guilty conscience. His self deception takes on a deeper level as he consciously feeds himself misinformation, noting Teddy’s license plate number as John G’s, in the knowledge that he will follow it blindly after forgetting this encounter. This glaring example of self deception encourages the audience to contemplate the reliability of everything we know about Leonard up to this point. If Leonard has lied to himself about this, what else has he allowed himself to forget? Leonard acknowledges his own self deception in voice over as he states “do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy, yes I do”. From this, Leonard’s subsequent memory loss can be seen as a result of his psychological guilt as well as his condition. He manipulates his amnesia in order to forget his own lies and the guilt he’s covering, in order to lead a happier life.
When looking at the sequence in which Teddy threatens Leonard’s perception of his past and present, it can be read that some of Leonard’s memory loss may not be due to his condition, through which some aspects of his creation of Sammy are contrary to the way his condition should work. When Teddy claims that Leonard’s wife was diabetic, we see a sequence of flashbacks which suggest that Leonard has purposefully disremembered and skewed elements of his past. We see an image of his wife’s eye opening under the tarp which covers her face at the time of the attack. The closeness to her eye, and the angle of from which we spectate suggests that this memory was “recorded” whist Leonard was laying on the floor next to her, after he had been hit. The flashback suggests that not only did his wife survive the attack, but that Leonard is aware of this fact, despite claiming that that was how she was murdered. Furthering the notion that Leonard has consciously deceived himself, is the flashback which follows, showing Leonard giving his wife an insulin shot. Straight after the flashback is shown Leonard states “my wife wasn’t diabetic”, immediately denying the fact despite being shown to remember it. Leonard’s denial of this fact is suggestive of the way his wife was killed, the reason for Sammy’s creation, and that certain parts of his memory loss are not to do with his condition. The memory of Leonard giving his wife an insulin shot could have been a memory from before the attack, and the fact that she was diabetic would bare little relevance had Leonard not denied it, and assigned this part of his history to Sammy’s. From this it can be assumed that there’s a reason Leonard doesn’t want to admit this part of his history. If we combine this with the assumption that Leonard is Sammy, and the knowledge that Sammy killed his wife with an insulin overdose, it can be assumed that Leonard did the same. However, according to the way Leonard’s condition works (he cannot create new memories since the attack, but remembers everything up until that point) he shouldn’t remember killing his wife, as it would’ve taken place after the attack. However, Leonard’s creation of Sammy to externalise this element of his past would suggest that, on some level, he is aware of his fatal mistake- had he merely forgotten the incident he wouldn’t have known he needed to shield anything from himself, and Sammy wouldn’t have been created. At this point the reliability of Leonard’s condition comes under scrutiny, and is furthered by the connection between Sammy’s story and his own. Leonard “recalls” that Sammy’s wife didn’t believe that his condition was real. If Leonard created Sammy based on himself, then this could suggest an element of falsity to his own condition, hence he must in some ways remember killing his wife in order to hide it. Now, at this point I think its fair to assume that Leonard isn’t entirely fabricating his condition, but that the effects of psychological stress mean that certain traumatic memories are able to remain in some form. When researching the psychological effects of trauma it became apparent that Leonard could be seen to suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). The causes and effects of the disorder include; “a traumatic event involving death with intense fear as a response, recurrent distressing perceptions and images, efforts to avoid thoughts, inability to recall important aspects”, whilst efforts to disassociate from psychological pain “emerges in certain hallucinatory, paranoia and other delusional activities” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 2000: n.pag., Potter: 2012: 262:). The above description may explain why Leonard has some knowledge of killing his wife. Whilst it may not be that he consciously remembers, on some level his guilty conscience remains, causing him to create Sammy in order to externalise the traumatic parts of his history. His process of projection can be described as the “delusional activities” noted above, whilst his psychological pain causes him to disremember elements of his existence to avoid guilt.