Psyche and The Truman Show

Truman Burbank, played by nineties’ film darling Jim Carrey, was the first-ever child “legally adopted by a corporation.” His birth, his first words, his first steps, the time he lost his first tooth, all happened in front of a viewing audience of millions. His life has been captured by thousands of hidden cameras, distributed throughout the town of Seahaven, where Truman grew up.

Truman doesn’t know about the cameras, nor does he know that Seahaven is actually a large television production set, nor does he know that all the people around him are co-stars and extras in “The Truman Show,” of which Truman Burbank himself is the unwitting star.

The Truman Show film (1998), directed by Peter Weir, follows Truman’s journey from ignorance to knowledge. This journey requires Truman’s realization that the world he has known has been oddly confining and limiting, as if tightly staged around him. At thirty years old, he must realize that he is literally a prisoner on a massive television set.

In this surreal scenario, we actually have an allegory for a very real and familiar experience: the journey towards self-knowledge. Truman’s story follows the archetypal pattern of one’s movement from limited ego-consciousness to a greater understanding of the whole Self. Truman must break out of the world collectively constructed around him, including preconceived notions for how he should and should not be living, in order to realize his own unique human potential. His journey is that of individuation. The same journey that our psyches ask of us all.

The Longing for Wholeness

Regularity and security are the hallmarks of Truman’s life. White picket fence, routine run-ins with neighbors and co-workers, a nine-to-five selling life insurance. Truman makes a career out of feeding people’s anxieties over the unexpected, and his life has absolutely none of it.

But two things beckon him out of his bubble of security: a girl and an island. During his student days, Truman meets a fellow co-ed (Natascha McElhone). Her cast name is Lauren, but we learn her real name is Sylvia. She’s quick to divulge it to Truman, and she also tries to inform him that the rest of his world, despite appearances, isn’t real either. But, before she can explain, she’s whisked away, and a man claiming to be her father tells Truman they’re moving to Fiji.

Truman settles back into his life, marries the girl cast to be his love-interest (Laura Linney), gets a job, buys a home, and never leaves the town of Seahaven. Yet, the draw of the girl and the island remain.

Hidden in his basement, Truman keeps a map of the world with Fiji especially marked. He also secretly works to reconstruct his memory of Sylvia’s face using cutouts from fashion magazines. One woman’s nose, another’s chin, a different match for the eyes.

Truman’s basement activities are, symbolically, a matter of unconscious desires. The basement itself signifies that — a subterranean space beneath the surface of everyday business — but so too do Fiji and Sylvia. He is being enticed out of the neatly circumscribed world of the ego and into the hidden recesses of himself and the parts yet unexplored. Robert A. Johnson, renowned author and Jungian analyst, describes the common motif of exotic fascination, like Truman’s for Fiji, as an extraversion of a more truly inner yearning:

For all humankind and through all ages, the sea has been the great symbol of the unconscious. The islands across the sea, the exotic kingdoms and distant lands, have always represented the Great Unknown. Our longing for these places of mystery, magic, flying carpets, and genies has a deep inner meaning. It is our nostalgia for the mysterious, unexplored depths of our own psyches, for the hidden potentialities within our own souls: for what we have never known, never lived, never dared.

(25 We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love)

Fiji is the external locus signifying Truman’s desire to expand beyond the world he has known, inwardly as well as outwardly.

Sylvia too.

Truman is struck by a case of “love at first sight” when he lays eyes on Sylvia. He is drawn to her, and when they finally meet she beckons him to a still greater truth, about his world and about himself.

Sylvia represents Truman’s anima, an aspect of his unconscious personified as feminine, which lures him towards greater knowledge of Self. The anima is the agent behind a love-at-first-sight encounter. When activated, the anima is that strange feeling of profound familiarity and knowingness, experienced simultaneous with an intuitive sense of expansiveness and adventure. It is an external projection emanating from deep inside of something known yet unknown, at-home yet unexplored.

Jungian psychology poses that we relate to a fundamental aspect of our unconscious as contra-gendered to our dominant persona. Each person has both masculine and feminine aspects of the Self, and wholeness requires the integration of that aspect typically neglected. For men or those who tend toward a masculine persona, the feminine aspect of the unconscious is referred to as the anima (the Latin feminine form for “soul”); for women or those who tend toward a feminine persona, their masculine aspect is the animus (the masculine form for “spirit”).

In our search for connection to this part of the Self, we often project it outwards and identify glimpses of it in our romantic relationships. We are looking for our complement, for the consummation of wholeness within. What we gravitate towards outwardly is an indication of what we seek inwardly — the entirety of the Self in its fullest potential, both masculine and feminine.

Achieving this fullness is an exacting affair for the ego to undergo. It necessitates the rupturing of limitation. In Truman’s case, the process requires overcoming literal impediments in his environment. Seahaven acts as the “haven” of the ego. The sea and beyond are the unknown depths of Truman’s unconscious, where expansion is possible. However, “The Truman Show” relies on Truman’s continued ignorance, on the acceptance of a limited world and a limited worldview, with reliable, predictable Truman Burbank securely at its center.

Obstacles and the Call

Traffic jams, roadblocks, fake forest fires, and feigned nuclear meltdowns all block Truman’s way out of town. The most effective deterrent, however, is Truman’s own trauma. Suspecting Truman will be bit by the travel-bug once he grows up, the producers of the show orchestrate some childhood trauma to keep him firmly in place. On a rough day out at sea with his father — or, more precisely, with the actor playing his father — a storm overtakes their small boat, and Truman’s father falls overboard and drowns. Thereafter, Truman suffers from a debilitating fear of the waters surrounding Seahaven.

That is until the content of his trauma resurfaces, challenging him to reexamine it. Inexplicably, nearly twenty years later, Truman’s father appears one day on the street, looking in all ways a homeless person. Truman recognizes him, and, like Sylvia, Truman’s father is promptly snatched away by operatives of the television show.

His father’s sudden reappearance functions as Truman’s “call to adventure.” It is a trigger that puts him into tension with his environment. Something isn’t right. Something requires further investigation. Assumptions about himself and his world need to be questioned. The order of things is no longer self-evident and unshakeable.

Despite the show’s best efforts to confine him, under the cover of night, Truman escapes out to sea, confronting his trauma there and heroically sailing through the turbulence he encounters.

At sea, Truman comes face-to-face with the limits of his known world. This episode of Truman’s life has the character of the crucifixion story. Truman must die to his former life in order to be born again in a new one. Like Jesus who cries out from the cross, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Truman reels from the deathblow delivered by his own god, the creator of “The Truman Show,” Christof (Ed Harris), who tries to overturn Truman’s boat with a violent storm.

In defiance of the deadly waves, Truman ties himself to the mast, ready to go under rather than turn back to Seahaven. Christof topples the boat, but Truman survives, and the storm relents. Truman sails onward and soon reaches the bounds of his world — an enclosed horizon with walls painted sky-blue and a small door leading out.

Often we imagine higher consciousness or enlightenment figured as a great blinding light, but behind the door out of Truman’s world is utter darkness. It is the unknown — the place where his ego-consciousness has yet to cast its light of perception. Through the door is the shadow area of the unconscious. It’s not all light and happiness there, but it’s bigger and truer than the world he has known, and to be a true-man, an individuated person with self-knowledge, he must know himself in that world too.

Like Truman, we are all summoned to this door. We are drawn towards expansion. Our dreams may ask us to waken from the slumber of our waking lives; people may enter our lives to act as guides through new experiences; events may occur that dispel our beliefs or our patterns and our routines. In whichever form it may come, whether we answer the “call” is up to each and every one one of us. We must choose whether to sail the seas and step through the door, into the darkness, into a greater knowledge of Self, or, instead, choose to remain at the center of a much smaller stage.

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