Image Credits: Universal Pictures

Gaslighting, Motherhood, and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling

By Eva Phillips - July 31, 2017, 7:00 AM

A child goes missing—silently, unnoticed, innocuously, even—and the irrevocable devastation and confusion that ensues is momentous. Imagine it happening to you: you come home from work, trusting that your child has been waiting safely as he’s done on countless other occasions, only to find the house desolate, with no trace of him whatsoever. Unshakable terror settles in and becomes part of your very essence the longer the child is missing, heightened by the police’s refusal to search for him because, as they say, he’s most likely “just playing around.” Every moment after the disappearance is agonizingly consumed by cycling through every unspeakable, dire possibility that could have befallen the child you gave birth to, raised, loved and watched grow. Feverishly, you wonder how it happened or how it could have been avoided. In short, it consumes you.

The woefully overlooked 2008 period drama Changeling, directed by the always compelling if not always even-handed Clint Eastwood, explores and dramatizes this awful scenario—the disappearance and supposed abduction of a young boy—drawing from a real life incident. Changeling chronicles the vanishing of Walter Collins, who disappeared in March of 1928 from Los Angeles; the consequent travails of his mother, Christine Collins; and the uncovering of the systemic corruption of the LAPD. What Changeling is most remarkable for is delicately depicting not only the raw anguish of this sort of loss, but also the vile treatment of women, the vile disregard for women’s voices, and the imperious manipulation of grief that women experience far too frequently in our society.

The bereavement experienced by Christine Collins, who is played with haunting spiritedness by Angelina Jolie, is unique. During the weeks following her child’s inexplicable disappearance, Christine, a successful supervisor at a phone operation center, tirelessly calls every police station and seeks out every source possible in an attempt to find her missing son. She is overwhelmed with joy, then, when she is visited at work by the far-too-dismissive Captain J.J. Jones (relentlessly smug Jeffrey Donovan) to be informed that her son has been found, abandoned by a vagrant who left him at a café. When Christine ventures to the train station, enshrouded by the police (who eerily try to convince her that their protocol of not initially filling a missing persons report for her son was completely reasonable), her ecstatic expectation of reunion with her only son is horrifyingly dashed. Her hope dissipates the moment the boy steps from the train. “That’s not my son,” Christine gasps, horror-struck. In this moment, Jolie’s physical and facial control, coupled with her very tempered devastation, is transcendent. Every inch of her face comes alive—her vivid eyes electric with disorientation, dumbfounded that this boy is not her son and that he could have the audacity to claim that he is. Christine insists that the boy is a stranger, but she is assured by police and by Captain Jones that what she is experiencing is simply trauma, shock, discombobulated or misdirected elation. It is then Christine is forcefully instructed to “try him out for a few weeks.”

This confounding, repulsive insistence of Christine’s confusion, of her inability to recognize her own child, continues and intensifies throughout the film. And though it is certainly flabbergasting and appalling that a child might possibly deceive a bereft stranger, or that the police would be complicit in such a confounding unfolding of events, the truly horrifying indecency that the film exposes is the treatment of women and the degradation of a woman’s control over her psychology and own body. As Christine unremittingly avers that the child is not her son (which he, of course, is not), the police, at the behest of Captain Jones and his superiors, vehemently and disparagingly resist her claims. This is not a simple—albeit deplorable—disregard of an opinion or stripping of rights: it is a systematic ruination of a woman based on the belief that women are lesser and innately fallible.

The men of the police department, in addition to ruthlessly supporting their own egos and safeguarding their insidious corruption, attack and defame Christine because she is a woman who dares question their authority and has the audacity to trust her judgment rather than their own. It is all too common an attack—a woman could not possibly make decisions about her reproductive rights; a woman could not possibly assess if a certain treatment is beneficial for her; a woman certainly cannot stand in opposition to a man’s decision. Women who stand in defiance, women who speak for themselves and attest to a truth wholly their own, are shut down and, often, destroyed.

This is even more excruciatingly egregious in Changeling because not only is Christine repeatedly told she is incorrect about the identity of her own flesh and blood, but also in order to maintain their refusal of her story, the police squander time and ignore leads that could have uncovered the whereabouts of her actual son. The police go so far as to commit Christine, violently and against her will, to a mental institution, where she finds herself surrounded by women who have tales similar to her own—women who spoke out against the abuse by their police-officer spouses and sex workers who suffered at the hands of police officers who didn’t want them speaking out. Angelina Jolie, who knows how to capture the depraved wretchedness and disorientation of being forced into a psychological ward (think Girl Interrupted), conveys the simultaneous decay and fortitude of a woman who is denied and maligned at every turn, yet still clings to the hope of her child’s safety.

What’s striking is that Christine’s persistence and pained resilience never evoke pity or helplessness, despite all the tortuous gaslighting, denigration, and manipulation from which she suffers. Extraordinarily, the film captures the surreal nature of a story that would seem to be pure morbid fantasy. The systematic denigration that Christine is subjected to—which emerges from the intense fragility of male superiority, and from the ingrained sheer terror that characterizes male-dominated systems when a loss of power and control is evident—is familiar because this kind of silencing is still rampant today. Women of color who suffer egregious violence due to police brutality, whose stories are never told and whose suffering is augmented by the awful extent to which they are silenced, overwritten; women who are told how to manage their mental and physical health without their voices ever being regarded; women who survive domestic turmoil only to be disregarded and manipulated into the same immurement—these women, and countless others, are subjected to dehumanization on a routine basis. Though it is often as banal as women being told they are being hysterical or overly emotional, the sublimation of women’s voices, of their insight into their own selves and beings, persists in a way that should give a conscious viewer of Changeling disquieted pause.

When not considering the possible, perhaps insidious ways the characters from Quentin Tarantino's films and the characters from American Horror Story may be interconnected, Eva Phillips spends most of her time considering whether getting her second post-graduate degree is really her best bet. Eva spends an unnecessary amount of time writing about the interplay of femininity and violence as well sexuality and psychosis in film, while settling in more intimately in the surprisingly not derelict city of Pittsburgh.