“Daddy, do abused people have walls in their hearts that keep them from being happy, and will they have less bricks in their walls after reading your book?”
~ Daughter of Dr. Dan B. Allender from “The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse”
What follows is an interpretation of Roger Water’s film adaptation of “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. A great work of art is often that which when viewed by different people is declared a masterpiece but not for the same reasons. It becomes a mirror, door, or rabbit hole into our own psyche from which we learn various truths. My perspective while watching “The Wall” is that of a male child sex abuse survivor whose reflections reveal a journey from repression into recovery. For my purposes the chief protagonist Pink becomes a survivor as well.
Welcome to the wall
The film begins with the main character alone in his hotel room distracting himself with some television. This mechanism is used frequently to demonstrate Pink’s isolation from others upon reaching out and alienation from his own self when he considers reaching in. Often this device appears alongside his decision to shift survival strategies. It then cuts to another prevalent sequence of him as a boy running away from a sunlit goal post, which seems to represent his true potential, as if he going back to get something.
The thin ice
The television has failed in its purpose as it always has and will. His hotel door is unlocked by a cleaning lady while simultaneously chained door in his mind is broken through by a mob of children. Following this scene policemen are seen brutally suppressing a group of teenagers in the streets. Treading across the “thin ice” of his psychological veneer “a crack in the ice” appears and he panics as he “claws the thin ice.” A foreshadowing event then occurs as a fascistic Pink addresses a crowd of teenagers inquiring “…is this not what you expected to see? If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes you’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise!” He felt the uncomfortable consequences of self-examination and becomes resolute in his decision to find an alternative approach to his secret pain.
Well where’s your mother?
Pink’s trauma is exacerbated by the absence of a father figure and the presence of an overbearing mother. His father was one of a “few hundred ordinary lives” lost in WWII at the behest of the “high command.” Parallel images appear frequently comparing the dead soldiers to children who are conformed to society’s preferences by their parents, teachers, and even each other. Although widely understood as a simple condemnation of conformity as such I believe it goes much deeper. The children are taught to hide their thoughts and feelings both from themselves and others through the construction of a wall of guilt, shame, and fear. In fact it becomes the answer to Pink’s rhetorical question, “daddy what’d you leave behind for me?” He tries on his uniform and imagines himself just as his father in the mirror. Early resistance to his precarious position is rebuffed when he is on the playground and attempts to connect with someone. At first the man grudgingly attends to him, but soon his patience wanes and the boy is left alone on a swing set. Just as many survivors experience, people initially seem receptive to recovery as opposed to repression but all too often they change their minds.
The flames are all long gone but the pain lingers on
Goodbye Blue Sky is not merely about loss any more than We Don’t Need No Education is only about indoctrination. The lyrics “did you see the frightened ones? Did you hear the falling bombs? Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter?” tell the tale of a child’s trauma trying to make itself known to someone. One of the first “bricks in the wall” is laid when his poetry is dismissed by his teacher as “absolute rubbish.” He is physically punished and publicly humiliated for his supposed indiscretion. Included here is an illustration of what is happening metaphorically, which depicts children on a conveyor belt wearing similar masks being fed into a meat grinder/turned into hammers. We find out much later on the teacher was beaten by his mother and ended up marrying a woman much like her having embraced a wall of his own. The boy diverts his attention away from this painful experience by imagining himself as part of a student riot where they destroy the tools of their imprisonment while ousting the teacher from his high position. But this fantasy ends abruptly as the boy is forced to mask his pain from others while suffering silently on the inside.
Mother should I build the wall?
Moving forward into Pink’s adulthood we bear witness to how his relationships, especially romantic ones, are marred by his childhood trauma and the suffocating environment he grew up in. Repeatedly he asks “mother do you think…” in regards to his many life decisions and their effects. In this moment his mother is revealed as a maladaptive yet necessary survival mindset he adopted during his childhood and brought with him into manhood. He goes through the motions of marriage, love, intimacy, and sex but never feels a genuine connection in any of his relationships. At first we see his sexual disinterest in his wife and their broken marriage as he asks “mother do you think she’s good enough…mother do you think she’s dangerous…mother will she tear your little boy apart…mother will she break my heart?” he automatically refers back to his “mother,” that is, his fearful survival mindset. He sings, “Mother’s going to put all of her fears into you…mother’s going to keep baby cozy and warm…of course mother’s going to help build the wall.” His ability to trust is lost and his fear of betrayal greatly increased, which leads to his attitude about sexuality being depicted as a seductive flower enticing a rose until finally it relents and is consumed by the flower. Love, trust, and intimacy inevitably lead to pain and loss in the mind of Pink.
The absence of so many fundamental elements of human existence instills within Pink a profound sense of emptiness. In the song it even goes so far as to show the wall extending through a cathedral destroying it and severing any spiritual connections associated with it. His attempt to fill these voids with all forms of material possession and recreation only to find he remains unhappy with his “…back to the wall.” His carnal pursuits provide no satisfaction either as he exclaims “I am just a newborn. Stranger in this town. Where are all the good times? Who’s going to show this stranger around?” only to find they cannot return what has been lost nor remedy his preconceived notion that women only want to use him.
One of my Turns
Frustration over the failure of these two circular routes to recovery brings on an emotional outburst from Pink in his hotel room. It is directed both at himself and his environment although not the girl directly, which implies he is once again reaching out in the only way he feels able. However, his violent behavior only serves to frighten the girl. He reacts to her by explaining it is “just a passing phase one of my bad days” and yelling “would you like to see me try? Do you think it’s time I stopped? Why are you running away?” The crack in the ice, the small hole in his wall vents all of his strong emotions from the original trauma but with no clear context. Regardless, he is hurt and confused by her response and ties it back into all of his previously failed attempts at intimacy/disclosure including his presumably unfaithful wife. Pink painfully inquires “Babe how could you go when you know how I need you?” How can you treat me this way running away?” He retreats once more to his television this time located on a WWII battlefield where his inner child approaches him but finds he is unresponsive. Pink proudly states “I don’t need no arms around me…I have seen the writing on the wall…don’t think I need anything at all.”
Is there anybody out there?
Rejected and alone he finds himself watching television beside the wall. It then shows the little boy running away from the goal post and arriving at his destination where he picks up an injured field mouse. We then return to Pink’s disheveled hotel room as he tries to bring about order to the mess albeit in an imperfect manner. The original trauma thrust him into a vicious cycle of isolation, outreach, and outburst. The lack of resolution leaves the child forever wandering the battlefield, seeing the destruction, but being unable to fix it the boy decides to take a seat in front of the television. Pink describes this predicament saying “I got a strong urge to fly but I’ve got nowhere to fly to.” Later the boy finds his older self huddled into a corner of an asylum but is frightened away by the man’s reaction to his presence. He is not ready to recover.
Does anybody here remember?
Pink is still searching for another way out. At a train station amongst returning soldiers he wants to know “what has become of you, does anybody else in here feel the way I do?” but finding no one he decides once more to take a seat in front of the television. The people are singing “bring the boys back home” but the boy remains unready. An adult now his manager breaks into his room only to find him passed out in his chair. The unending process has left him in an exhausted state of dysfunction, however, this is unacceptable. In “Comfortably Numb” he sings/is told “there is no pain you are receding a distant ship smoke on the horizon you’re only coming through in waves your lips move but I can’t hear what you are saying. I’ve become comfortably numb.” During this exchange the little boy is shown going to his mother with the injured field mouse, his pain, but she sends him away and he ends up hiding it in an abandoned shed. As the doctor is reviving his adult body he recalls a similar instance with a doctor when he was younger and his mother explained away his “sickness.” In this case his body’s outreach, as opposed to his other verbal ones, is dismissed and he is given something to “keep him going for the show.”
In the flesh
Despite every outreach and outburst Pink finds himself having to deal with his trauma alone. The pain is too much to bear, which results in his final transformation. Putting on the face of a fascist dictator he becomes his critique of what society imposed upon him. Locating and condemning those unlike himself Pink is praised for his decision to acquiesce. Subdual of the self in favor of conformity is the chief idea expressed in this song. As if in the face of faltering repression suppression must be used to keep the trauma at bay. The emblem of the hammers symbolizes both the force behind and the objective of this movement. The people are the hammers and they eagerly embrace the tools of their own emotional imprisonment. This is taken even further in their violently aggressive campaign to counter the agenda of the “bleeding hearts and artists” or for our purposes supporters of healing through recovery such as psychologists and activists. Pink warns you to “make up your face in your favorite disguise” and “run like hell” if you are one of these people. To those who challenge his choice he replies “You cannot reach me now. No matter how you try. Goodbye crueld world it’s over walk on by.” His closing words are “all you need to do is follow,” which serves as a simple description of the maladaptive lifestyle itself but also of the ease with which it is adopted. The hammers march on in perfect unison not one out of step or any different than the other for some time.
Finally, the power of Pink’s repression is overwhelmed by his need to recover. He shouts for the hammers to “stop!” At this time we return to the asylum where a security guard finds him in a stall whispering to himself ““stop…I wanna go home…take off this uniform…because I have to know.” This discovery prompts a trial where the prosecutor opens with “the crown will plainly show the prisoner who now stands before you was caught red handed showing feelings…showing feelings of an almost human nature. This will not do.” Every agent of Pink’s repression, every brick in the wall from his childhood on is called to testify and each claims the defendant as the source of this problem rather than their own methodology. Pink is finally ready to face his trauma even though every fabric of his being fighting against it. The judge, the culmination of all his fear, sentences him to be “exposed before his peers” and gives the order to “tear down the wall!” The wall explodes and the final scene of the film shows small children picking up pieces of stone and debris. The final shot is of a child finding a Molotov cocktail, being disgusted by its scent, and then pouring it out. A survivor is born, repression put aside, and embarkation upon the path of recovery begun.
Outside the wall (End Credits)
“All alone, or in two’s - The ones who really love you - Walk up and down outside the wall - Some hand in hand And some gathered together in bands - The bleeding hearts and artists -Make their stand - And when they’ve given you their all - Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy - Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall - Isn’t this where…”
"Life is like this dark tunnel. You may not always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place." ~ General Iroh