Psychological Assessment of Film Character: Will Hunting

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Good Will Hunting

The portrayal of Will Hunting in the film Good Will Hunting is of a unique individual with exceptional gifts who cannot be easily reduced to a generalize type of individual (Bender & Van Sant, 1997). However, the theme of the film, a fear of entering into life fully, in both in relationships and vocation, out of fear of being hurt, is universal. The causes of this fear for Will Hunting, of disordered attachment and trauma, are also broadly relatable. This paper will simulate treatment of Will Hunting after his arrest for assault and resisting arrest in the beginning of the film, with reference to later events in his life, particularly therapy with Sean Maguire and relationship with Skylar, to give a more complete picture.

In the initial phase of treatment, I would attempt to establish rapport, make a clinical assessment, and conduct a mental status exam. Initial sessions in the film with a pretentious psychiatrist and then a hypnotherapist did not go well; Will outsmarted both and made a joke of the process, which neither could handle. To establish rapport with Will it would be essential not to come across as a self-important expert, but as an authentic person in a safe place. It is notable that while once working with Sean, Will was initially resistant, and then silent for several sessions. Perhaps because of Will’s disorganized attachment from childhood abuse, it would take several sessions to establish enough trust and rapport to even begin doing significant work.

The presenting concern is a court-ordered psychological assessment for assault and resisting arrest, which is due to the appeal of Gerald Lambeau, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Will works as a janitor. As with his response to the hypnotherapist Will himself would insist he does not need therapy but would likely give informed consent since this is his only option to avoid jail time. Relevant aspects of Will as a patient are that he is 20 years old; his parents died when he was young, and he was placed in a series of foster homes, in which he suffered severe physical abuse, including being burned with cigarettes, beaten with a wrench, and stabbed with a knife. There were records of previous medical or mental health treatment provided by the court that had photographs of the physical abuse he suffered; if these had not been provided, it would be important to work through the foster care system to uncover all relevant medical records. While he did not finish high school, he displays remarkable intellectual gifts in the areas of science, philosophy, and literature, but most of all in advanced mathematics. He has worked a variety of blue collar jobs. He has multiple arrests for assault stealing a car, though the latter charge was dropped by his appeal to an obscure law dating back to 1798, acting as his own counsel. Will is white and working class, but in particular he was raised in South Boston, and identifies closely with the Southie subculture.

As a preliminary diagnosis Will meets the criteria for antisocial personality disorder (301.7). He is over 18 and has shown evidence of conduct order with onset before 15, with a pattern of disregard for the rights of others, including a failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, impulsivity and failure to plan ahead, and aggressiveness as indicated by repeated assaults (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 659). During the assault, he had to be pulled away from punching his victim while pinning him to the ground, even as the police arrived on the scene. It is likely Will has a disorganized attachment, as evidenced by his difficulty trusting Skylar. He may also suffer from posttraumatic stress syndrome (309.81) from severe physical abuse as a child that amounted to experiencing threatened death However, in the film though he does not appear to exhibit signs of “intrusion symptoms associated with the traumatic event” or “negative alterations in cognitions and mood associated with the traumatic event” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 271). He faked a reexperiencing of abuse to ridicule a hypnotist and discussed his abuse with Sean Maguire in a casual fashion (Bender & Van Sant, 1997). However, it is questionable whether this is a realistic portrayal of such severe physical abuse. He uses alcohol, and though nothing in the film points directly to excessive use, alcohol use disorder would be something to consider. Assessment is always an ongoing process, so additional details or symptoms could emerge during the course of treatment (Villegas, 2018, lecture).

Working with Will, I would rely heavily on a Rogerian person-centered therapy as a modality because I believe it would be vital to build a sense of trust. Because of a disorganized attachment style Will pushes people away in order to avoid any risk of abandonment or hurt. A constant safe and open presence could provide a corrective emotional experience that would allow him to gradually open up. It is likely Will would not collaborate in setting goals initially, though it is possible once he cooperates with therapy, he could become willing. Psychologist Christiane Brems (2018) breaks goals down into three types: those that have to do with “resolving the child’s presenting problems,” those that deal with “strengthening the child’s psychological and emotional adjustment overall,” and goals intended to help the patient “reenter a healthy point on the developmental trajectory with regard to all developmental function” (Brems, 2018, p. 202). The first goal could be to address the antisocial personality disorder that led to the assault and arrest, to learn a healthy sense of respect for the rights of others. Given his intellectual nature, motivational interviewing might be an effective intervention to work through the ethical and philosophical rightness of this goal, as well as the personal benefits of living more within societal expectations. The second goal could focus more on addressing the trauma and adjustment disorder that likely underlies some of Will’s issues, to eliminate or reduce the negative impact of trauma on social functioning. An intervention could be to explore Will’s cognitive and emotional experience of the abuse and now, and perhaps refer to an EMDR or other trauma-informed practitioner. Finally, it seems likely that Will’s development has been delated by a lack of secure attachment and a need for guidance in how to develop is extraordinary intellectual gifts. A third goal could be to increase awareness and appreciation of the self, and create a person-centered therapeutic alliance that would allow us to explore what is holding him back from accepting and exploring his unique gifts.

Because of Will’s intelligence and strong personality, countertransference could be an issue. With his first psychologist and with Sean, he turned the tables and began analyzing them, with a particular eye to finding their points of weakness. Sean was deeply affected by countertransference with Will in ways that were sometimes beneficial to Will, but not always. The portrayal of psychotherapy by Sean Maguire has been reasonably described by psychiatrists Glen Gabbard and Krin Gabbard (1999) as “pure Hollywood fiction” (p. 144). They described the modality used as reminiscent of an experimental modality by psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi’s mutual analysis, in which after analyzing the patient for an hour, the psychoanalyst and patient would switch places and the patient would then analyze the therapist. Ferenczi, however quickly abandoned the experiment. While Will seems to have been cured, it is notable that Sean leaves his position to travel, seemingly also cured by the encounter of his bereavement for the loss of his wife. However, “Will’s ‘cure’ seems to be based in part on an identification with his therapist. Rather than face the difficult and painful task of figuring out who he is, he simply decides to follow in his therapist’s footsteps” (Gabbard & Gabbard, 1999, p. 144). While experienced by many as heartwarming and offering a positive portrayal of psychotherapy, the resolution is unrealistic and dependent more on Robin Williams’s characteristic role of an institutional outcast whose outsider status and unconventional methods make him effective where everyone else has failed, much like his previous role in Dead Poets Society (1989)and Awakenings (1990) and later in Patch Adams (1998). Though there was no evidence that Will suffered from feelings of a misplaced sense of responsibility for the physical abuse he suffered as a child, the repetition of “It’s not your fault” served as a magical cure.

The court ordered treatment may have had a specified number of sessions to complete before termination. Treatment proceeds with unrealistic speed in the film, but by the final sessions Will has addressed his trauma, come to a deeper awareness of his identity and appreciation of his gifts, and has at least managed not to reoffend. He was very open to remaining in contact with Sean, and while Sean made the right move to make himself available for future contact, the termination of treatment was rather abrupt, and could have benefitted from additional review. I would encourage Will to self-monitor, preferably by keeping a journal, and be aware of any life issues that could be related to trauma, or conflicts with his girlfriend relating to a lack of trust of fear of closeness. Any of these could be an indication that additional therapy could be beneficial.

There are several community-based resources that could be used as referrals to help Will. He has worked a series of jobs in janitorial work and construction but seems to have difficulty staying in a job. The Inland Empire Jobs Corps Center (https://inlandempire.jobcorps.gov/) could provide basic training and placement for the kinds of physical blue collar jobs he prefers at this time. While his extraordinarily high level of mathematical aptitude opens up opportunities at elite academic institutions and government agencies, at the time of his entry into treatment he scoffs at this kind of work and has a strong sense of loyalty to his neighborhood and idealization of the “honor” found in physical labor (Bender & Van Sant, 1997). He does have housing, though conditions are poor, so if he finds more job stability a referral to the Housing Opportunities Collaborative (https://inlandempire.housingcollaborative.org/housing-resources/) might be helpful as a way of meeting his first-level physiological needs. With his record of assault, a course in anger management (http://www.angermanagement909.com/) might also be helpful. However, physical violence is also a part of Southie culture, so his motivation may be more cultural than a loss of control.

The end of the film closes off much chance of additional work, as Will heads off to California to “see about a girl” (Bender & Van Sant, 1997). While the viewer wants to be hopeful about the possibilities of his relationship with Skylar because of the courage of Will’s move, he would undoubtedly benefit from further counseling. While less than realistic, the positive presentation of both a psychologist and the power of psychotherapy in Good Will Hunting is gratifying look at the transformative power of psychological work.

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC : American Psychiatric Association.
  • Bender, L. (Producer) & Van Sant, G. (Director). (1997). Good Will Hunting (Motion Picture). United States of America: Miramax.
  • Brems, C. (2018). Comprehensive guide to child psychotherapy and counseling (4th ed.) Long Grove, IL.: Waveland Press Inc.
  • Gabbard, G. O., & Gabbard, K. (1999). Psychiatry and the cinema. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Press.
  • Villegas, M. (2018, Fall). Unpublished lecture presented in the course, Child Psychotherapy, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.

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