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

My son, my son, what have ye done

My Son, My Son, what have ye done

My son, my son, what have ye done was directed by Werner Herzog and released in 2010. Conceived and written by Herzog and Herbert Golder in 1995, it was not made until the project found favour with executive producer David Lynch. Herzog’s fascination with unusual mental states was discussed in one of my previous blogs on his Grizzly Man film. My son, my son, what have ye done was inspired by the true story of a talented Californian drama student, Mark Yavorsky, who murdered his mother with an antique sword whilst involved in a production of the Greek matricidal tragedy The Oresteia. Yavorsky was suffering from a psychotic illness at the time of the murder. In the film, Michael Shannon plays the part of the main protagonist Brad in a brilliantly intense performance that expertly captures a descent into psychosis.

The Film

The film opens in San Diego with two detectives, played by William Defoe and Michael Peña, driving to the scene of a murder. As they attend the suburban crime scene and walk through a crowd gathered in the street, they brush past a man holding a coffee mug with ‘Razzle Dazzle’ printed on it. He says “Razzle them, dazzle them” to one of the detectives as he passes by. This man is Brad, the murder victim’s son, who then walks slowly across the street to his own home, stopping to feed his flamingos, whom he calls his ‘eagles in drag’, before barricading himself inside with a shotgun. The siege at Brad’s house forms the main storyline of the film. The homicide detectives piece together Brad’s back-story, which the film tells partly through flashbacks, as they interview the various people close to him, who have witnessed his gradual mental deterioration.

The first to be interviewed is Brad’s fiancée, played by Chloe Sevigny, who recounts how Brad told her “I’ve seen God, right here in the house” before he showed her an oatmeal packet with a picture of a 17th century Quaker on it, who he believed was God. She also describes an over-involved and unhealthily close relationship between Brad and his mother. The next friend to appear at the crime scene is Lee Meyers, theatre director and drama teacher, played by Udo Kier. He had been rehearsing Brad in the part of Orestes in a production of The Oresteia. Meyers is able to tell the detectives how the antique sword, used as the murder weapon, had been acquired from one of Brad’s relatives and how Brad’s preoccupation with it had been unnerving to the point that he had asked him to leave the theatre group. Finally, the neighbours, in whose house the murder took place, feel able to talk and inform the detectives that Brad had been acting strangely ever since he returned from a trip to Peru, where, we learn, he heard voices telling him not to go white water rafting in the river. The neighbours tell that Brad actually asked them to kill him before he did something terrible. The film ends as a SWAT team is called in to end the siege and Brad emerges from the house to be taken away.


Relevance to the field of Mental Health

My son, my son, what have ye done offers the viewer an experience very like that of being in the presence of someone suffering from a schizophrenic illness, with its disjointed atmosphere of strangeness and unreality. The bizarre and often intensely stated delusions held by Brad with absolute conviction are well presented in ways that allow the viewer to experience his disturbed mental state at close hand. His conviction that the picture of a Quaker on the Oatmeal packet IS God is a fine example of this. Brad’s aggressive assertion that his view of the world is the only possible view demonstrates how hard it can be to persuade someone with delusions, who lacks insight, to seek help. The fact that My son, my son, what have ye done is loosely based on a true story in which Mark Yavorsky quite literally acted out the crime that he was rehearsing in a theatre production, provides the foundation for a deeper understanding of the difficulty individuals with psychosis may have in separating truth from delusion.

As the film progresses and the flashbacks tell the story of Brad’s developing illness, the viewer shares in the anxieties and helplessness of those close to him. They struggle to reason with him and support him in his distress, whilst trying to rationalise his abnormal beliefs. The film can be used to demonstrate how difficult it may be to encourage someone to seek psychiatric help when they lack insight into their mental state.

My son, my son, what have ye done specifically offers an opportunity for learning about the subject of violence in schizophrenia and could be viewed in conjunction with a reading of several suitable articles. This might begin with a freely available article entitled Schizophrenia and violence: from correlations to preventive strategies by Paul E. Mullen, published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2006) 12: 239-248. In another open access review article called Schizophrenia and Violence: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis by S Fazel, G Gulati, L Linsell, J Geddes and M Grann, published in the August 2009 issue of PLOS Medicine, the authors undertook a systematic review of studies that reported on associations between violence and schizophrenia and other psychoses. They also systematically reviewed investigations that reported on the risk of homicide in individuals with schizophrenia and other psychoses.

The link between homicide and the length of untreated first episode of psychosis is discussed in another open access article entitled Evidence for a relationship between the duration of untreated psychosis and the proportion of psychotic homicides prior to treatment by Dr. Matthew Large BSc (Med), MBBS, FRANZCP & Dr. Olav Nielssen MBBS, MCrim, FRANZCP, published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (January 2008, Volume 43, Issue 1, pp 37-44.)

I would highly recommend this film to anyone interested in forensic psychiatry and for those training as psychiatrists, there is an short podcast at The Royal College of Psychiatry website, which can be downloaded, providing some information about working in this field within the UK.

• Minds on Film is written by consultant psychiatrist Dr Joyce Almeida

• Further information about My son, my son, what have ye done can be found at IMDB, as can a short trailer

• The film can be purchased at

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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.