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



Tarnation is an autobiographical documentary film about the very personal experience of growing up with a mother who was suffering from a schizoaffective disorder, an episodic illness in which both affective and schizophrenic symptoms are prominent within the same episode (ICD-10 classification of mental disorders, code F25). It tells the story of three generations of a Texas family. The film was made in 2003 by Jonathan Caouette.

Tarnation DVD cover

He created a collage of still photos, Super-8 video tape, answering machine messages, video diaries and early short films, from the previous nineteen years of his life and put the film together on his Apple Mac home computer, using the free iMovie software. It cost just over $200 to make the initial film. Some well-known producers, including Gus Van Sant, spent more money enhancing its technical qualities to bring it to a wider audience. It was later shown at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, where it received positive acclaim.

Caouette began shooting home movies at the age of eleven and in an interview with him, which accompanies the DVD, he said, "I've wanted to be a filmmaker since I can remember, and filmmaking definitely saved my life. It was always a defence mechanism and a way to have a sense of control over my life." It is interesting that he also recounted his mother's reaction to his film, saying, "Renee loves Tarnation. She loves that her story is getting out there." Summing up the whole project, Caouette stated, "It has been the most cathartic, therapeutic, frightening and bloodcurdling experience of my life. Putting yourself out there like this is scary and exciting, but it has definitely healed me and seems to heal others as well, so all the pain I went through to get there is worth it." His was not an easy story to tell. Anyone interested in learning more about the making of this film can read Jonathan Caouette's interview with the Guardian in April 2005 and with the BBC in 2005, in which he explained that he chose the title, Tarnation, from a Southern American word used to mean 'Hell' or 'Damn', but also because it was the name of one of his favourite bands.


The Film

The opening credit sequence introduces us to the members of Caouette’s family whilst the prose poem The Desiderata is recited, and then goes on to show Jonathan as an adult at home in his New York apartment in 2002. He is on the phone anxiously trying to get news of his mother Renee, who is in hospital after taking a Lithium overdose and he seems to suffer a panic attack associated with the stress of the situation.


Tarnation is essentially a film of two parts. The first recounts the author's childhood and teenage years as affected not only by his mother's psychosis but also by her lengthy absences from his life when she was sometimes hospitalised for several years at a time. It tells of his first teenage experience with marijuana, obtained from a drug dealing friend of his mother, which was actually spiked with PCP, resulting in his first admission to hospital and the diagnosis of depersonalization disorder (ICD-10 classification of mental disorders, code F48.1). A core symptom of this syndrome is a subjective experience of unreality, as if dreaming, in which the individual feels that his own feelings and/or experiences are detached, distant and not his own, a quality that the film definitely manages to convey at times.


This part of the film also tells the story of his mother Renee's life from her early days as a beautiful child model to a teenager who embarks on a lengthy course of twice weekly Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). She recovers enough to marry a salesman, who leaves her before she realises that she is pregnant with Jonathan. In a psychotic state she takes herself and her baby to Chicago, where she is raped and, on the way home to Texas, is ejected from a bus because of her disturbed behaviour. She spends six weeks in jail and baby Jonathan is taken in to foster care, as Renee moves in to hospital for several years. Jonathan experiences physical and emotional abuse as a toddler in foster care, and is finally adopted by his grandparents who became significant parental figures from that time onward. From the age of eleven Jonathan began to film the important elements in his own life including his developing homosexuality. His mother's relapsing psychosis led to a total of one hundred psychiatric hospital admissions and many courses of ECT. The film uses intertitles to tell the facts of the story, speeded up sequences, slow motion frames, multiple images and other special effects to express his inner turmoil. At times, the filming can feel almost too intrusive, uncomfortable and intimate giving rise to feelings in the viewer that may be interesting to examine.


The second part of the film deals with the period after Jonathan has left the family home in Texas and moved to New York, where he meets his partner David and begins to work as an actor. His mother comes to visit him there a few years later and he begins to build an adult relationship with her more closely than ever before. He tracks down his father and arranges a meeting with him and his mother together in the same room for the first time in thirty years. His mother, who is now living with her own father, is shown becoming unwell again and more demanding of contact before taking the serious Lithium overdose that opens the film. After release from hospital, now with brain damage from the lithium overdose, her disturbed mental state is shown more candidly. Near the end of the film Jonathan describes to camera the blurred boundaries that he experiences with his mother and how he feels 'as if she is inside me'. He also states his fears about becoming more like her. The film ends, as it begins with a recitation of the Desiderata.


Relevance to the field of Mental Health

As well as giving us an experience of Renee's mental illness, Tarnation also vividly depicts Caouette's own mental health struggles from drug induced hallucinatory experiences, depersonalization disorder and deliberate self-harm to anxiety and panic. Tarnation is a documentary film about the whole experience of mental illness from a very personal point of view that gives the viewer a real sense, affectively, of being in close proximity to significant mental disturbance. It could certainly help anyone considering a career in psychiatry to decide if this is truly the world of work that they are seeking. Tarnation doesn't hold back on portraying the pain and chaos that can be part of life where psychosis is present.


Of particular interest, too, is the process of Caouette's filmmaking, both the actual filming and, later, the editing, which seems to serve as a means of making sense of and managing his disturbing life experiences for him. The act of making Tarnation could be described as 'creative play' involving the imaginative creation of the film as a transitional phenomenon that helps him to process the highly charged, difficult emotions that exist between him and his mother. The concept of transitional objects and phenomena, introduced by the psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott, in his essay “Transitional objects and transitional phenomena”, (1953, Int. J. Psychoanal., 34:89-97), had a major impact on psychoanalysis and, in particular, object relations theory. According to Winnicott, transitional objects are the means that the infant has for negotiating separation from its mother, and with age they form the basis of our use of symbols. Winnicott regarded transitional phenomena as the foundation of culture, religion and science.


Being behind the lens of a camera distances the individual from the events that they are viewing or in which they are involved. This can help to create a fictional reality that protects the person from being overwhelmed by painful feelings or life experiences. It seems that the ability to control and manipulate the images from his life whilst at the same time 'telling his story' were essential factors in producing a positive outcome for Caouette. As quoted above, he describes being healed by this project. As we the viewers watch this film, painful or uncomfortable feelings may be generated within ourselves. But, as it is a piece of fictional reality for us too, we are distanced from the action in the film and protected from the extremes of the experience, enabling us to process those uncomfortable emotions as and when we choose. We often need to get help with doing that by seeking out an opportunity to 'compare notes' with friends or colleagues and in so doing discuss how the film has affected us.


I recommend this film for viewing because it gives such a good insight in to a world that we often only hear about second hand from relatives and carers. It can, I think, bring greater understanding to us all about the nature of the stresses felt by relatives caring for a loved one with a psychotic illness and also of the mental illness that can result in them from that stress. This is particularly important to understand when the relative is a child of the patient. Along with the recent article in the Royal College of Psychiatry journal, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, entitled 'Living upside down': being a young carer of a parent with mental illness' by Alan Cooklin (Vol. 16, Issue 2, p141), which looked at the issue of children who have parents with a mental illness, this film can only reinforce the need for a wider awareness of this extremely important topic.


Jonathan Caouette continues to work as a film director and an actor and has been with his partner David, who features in Tarnation, for the past 11 years.


  • Film reviews are available at IMDB, as is a short trailer. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated 15 in the UK (contains strong language and nudity).
  • The DVD may be purchased at

24 June 2010


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Re: Tarnation
A genuinely insightful article - the first of many, I hope, that will lead to a very worthwhile on-line publishing project.
Re: Tarnation
Great review. Thank you for introducing me to this film - I am unlikely to have come across it otherwise
Excellent News
My father recommended your page. I've bookmarked your blog.
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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.