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The Gypsy in All of Us

I will not be
another flower,
picked for my beauty and left
to die. I will
be wild, difficult to find,
and impossible to forget.
~ Erin Van Vuren

The Netflix series, “Gypsy,” which debuted in June of this year stars Naomi Watts as Jean Holloway, a middle-aged Manhattan psychotherapist whose life is slowly unraveling.

She is married to her successful attorney husband, Michael (Billy Crudup), and she has her own flourishing therapy practice with established patients. Jean and Michael have a young daughter, Dolly, who is starting to show signs of sexual identity issues. She likes to dress like a boy and is thrilled when her mother cuts off her beautiful blonde hair in order to play Peter Pan in the school play.

Outwardly all seems placidly fine with this little family, though some of Jean’s friends are critical of Dolly’s burgeoning identity choices, and, are clearly insensitive and catty about it. Jean struggles to fit into the crowd of country club women who underneath their extensive salon care are shallow, judgmental and harshly opinionated.

Things go wrong when Jean wrestles with her own identity issues and begins getting too involved with her patients. Sam (Karl Glusman) is a troubled young man trying to let go of his girlfriend Sidney (Sophie Cookson) who has broken off their relationship. His descriptions of her arouse so much curiosity in Jean that she actually goes to the coffee shop where Sidney is a barista. Jean says her name is Diane and this begins a journey into deceit and compromise that sends her spiraling into an illicit affair with Sidney.

She also interferes in the life of an older controlling patient whose grown daughter has left to join a commune and get out from under her mother’s confining and obsessive attention. Jean lies to the daughter as well and presents herself as a casual stranger in order to insert herself into this woman’s and her mother’s deep conflicts.

This all sounds quite deranged and yet Jean is seen by most as a professional woman, poised, attractive, a caring mother and devoted wife. But murky, objectionable emotions stir within her and she dares to explore them. And yet, underneath her aberrant behavior is a need to help and feel fulfilled.

The series is about our human vulnerabilities and the challenge to be ourselves. We see in Jean the strains of married life, the difficulty of aging in our culture, the pressure of a demanding career, and our emotional entanglements with spouses, children, co-workers, and friends. Normally, this is the arena men are portrayed in, but here we see that women too have sexual frustrations, fantasies, emotional exhaustion, and the need to get more out of life and relationships.

Jean’s behavior, though clearly inappropriate and violates a landscape of professional boundaries, is indicative of someone in personal crisis. She is not a monster. She’s not even sociopathic, though she’s dangerously close. Yes, she is selfish, reckless, and irresponsible. But she is also lonely, bored, and conflicted about who she is and what she wants out of life. 

Her most troubling behavior to me is the betrayal to her patients and using their personal private information in sessions to go behind their backs and live out her own desperate urges. 

Her experiences are a warning to be honest with ourselves and with others. They are a lesson in making meaningful choices that enrich our lives, not careless ones that complicate them. 

“The line between good and evil,” writes psychologist Philip Zimbardo, “is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” 

The power of this kind of television series is that it challenges us to face our own emotional weaknesses and the inner struggles we, too, wrestle with in life. Lost dreams. Failed relationships. Moments of shame and regret. Dishonorable acts. Betrayals. Hurting people we love. Most of us have walked through these experiences on one side or the other of them, or perhaps on both sides of them. 

The gift of television dramas, movies, plays, even music, is that they can give us a richer, more profound grasp of human needs and the often messiness of our own inner world.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written that the ethical life is “based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”

There is a gypsy in all of us; the wild and roaming need to explore our deeper selves and find meaning to the longings that are a vital part of our humanity.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

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