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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Grizzly Man

Introduction

Released in 2005, Grizzly Man is a documentary film directed by German film maker Werner Herzog, which examines the life and death of a man named Timothy Treadwell. He lived among the grizzly bears of Alaska for 13 summers before being killed, along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, by one of the animals. Herzog, who is renowned for his interest in unusual individuals who suffer some degree of inner turmoil, was able to use more than one hundred hours of video filmed by Treadwell over several of the years that he lived among the grizzly bears. Treadwell used the camera to record his often intimate thoughts and feelings as well as his encounters with the bears in the beautiful wilds of Alaska.

Interspersed with interviews that Herzog had with friends, family and various professionals, Grizzly Man provides a personal case history of Treadwell, without any judgement, which allows viewers to reach their own conclusions about his life and, in particular, his mental health. The original soundtrack was created by a group of musicians, including British songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson, who improvised the musical accompaniment while watching the film.

Grizzly Man

The Film

The film opens with Treadwell talking to camera as two large grizzly bears roam in the background. He repeatedly states how he loves the bears, that he is a peaceful warrior whose role is to protect the bears, and how it is really only his special skills that keeps him from being decapitated and eaten by these wild animals. A spine tingling premonition as Herzog uses footage of the encounters between Treadwell and the bears to show an alternative view that the grizzlies are just being tolerant of a human who insists on getting close to them. It becomes apparent that Treadwell treats them almost like human characters in bear skin costumes, giving each names and representing them as his family in the wilderness. By way of background, the film informs us that when Treadwell left home to study in California, he changed his name and told people that he was an orphan from Australia. After dropping out of his studies, he wanted to become an actor, but his failure to do so led him to drink and drugs. Treadwell speaks of his early struggle with alcohol and drugs and how he nearly died after an overdose. He describes how he credits a friend, who suggested he might find purpose in studying the grizzly bears, for rescuing him from his self-destructive behaviour. In fact, it seems that he swapped his earlier addictions for another all consuming one. When he was not in Alaska, his aim was to educate people, especially children, about the bears and he did this by touring schools and giving presentations. He appeared on TV and became a celebrity of sorts, as he campaigned to protect the bears that he believed were being threatened by humans.

On one occasion, Treadwell discusses his failure in having any lasting relationships with women, genuinely struggling to understand why. Many clips show Treadwell with boyish exuberance playing in the wilderness with the bears he has grown to love. At one point in the film Herzog interviews Treadwell’s parents, who state that he had been ‘a normal young boy growing up’ as his mother is shown clutching Treadwell’s large childhood teddy bear, a toy he had apparently taken with him on every trip to Alaska. In fact the teddy bear appears in several sequences to camera filmed in his tent in the wilderness. However, a darker side of Treadwell is revealed later in the film, when he rages to camera about the US park rangers, whose rules he is constantly breaking, and whom he blames in a paranoid manner for failing to care for the bears. Another example of his paranoia is seen when he misinterprets a smiley face carved on a stone as a sinister threat towards him.

Throughout the film, Herzog explores the circumstances leading up to and including Treadwell’s final minutes. Herzog is seen listening to the audio recording which captured the moments of Treadwell and Amie’s deaths that now belongs to Treadwell’s ex girlfriend, Jewel. The film concludes with Treadwell’s three closest friends scattering his ashes in the Alaskan wilderness near to the site of one of his previous camps.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Presenting us with the candid records of Treadwell’s thought processes, emotions and his behaviour with wild animals, Grizzly Man offers the viewer an opportunity to consider the nature of his undoubted psychological dysfunction. As such, the film provides a very good platform for a discussion about the differential diagnoses that might be relevant in Treadwell’s case. With his obvious grandiosity, exaggerated sense of self-importance and ‘specialness’ to the fore, there is a strong argument for a personality disorder with narcissistic features (of the two diagnostic systems of classification [ICD and DSM], it is DSM-IV that identifies narcissism as a specific personality disorder). His energy and exuberance might also suggest adult ADHD and would be in keeping with the report of Treadwell having suffered from substance misuse and depression in the past. There is a history of him being prescribed a mood stabiliser drug, which Treadwell stopped taking because it ‘dampened him down’. It therefore seems reasonable to consider the diagnosis of a Bipolar spectrum disorder with or without a concomitant narcissistic personality disorder. A contribution from other personality disorders, such as borderline and histrionic types would need to be considered too.  

The topic of personality disorder has recently been considered in an excellent article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2012) 18: 162-172, entitled The nature of personality disorder by G Adshead and J Sarkar, where the authors argue that personality disorders are like other mental disorders, the social manifestations of a pathological process. An editorial in the The British Journal of Psychiatry (2007)190: 189-191 by J Angst MD entitled The bipolar spectrum considers the dimensional and categorical principles for classifying mood disorders and is now freely available to read in full. The topic of diagnosing bipolar disorders using categorical or dimensional approaches is discussed in another article in The British Journal of Psychiatry (2011)199: 3-4 called Detection of bipolar disorder by A Young and H MacPherson. For further reading on the long-term manifestation of bipolar disorders, the article published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2010) 16: 318-328 by K Saunders and G Goodwin called The course of bipolar disorder might be of interest. These articles, read alongside a viewing of Grizzly Man, could provide a very good introduction to the subject of personality disorders and their precise relationship to the bipolar disease spectrum. Grizzly Man is a film that I would highly recommended for anyone interested in debating these issues further or in teaching them to students of mental health. 

* More information about Grizzly Man is available at IMDB as is a short trailer.

* The film can be purchased at amazon.co.uk

* Minds on Film is written by consultant psychiatrist Dr Joyce Almeida.

 

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.