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first impressions

February 1, 2014

This excerpt is taken from the documentary A Boy’s Life which we’re using to construct a developmental history of the film’s subject, Robert Oliver in a unit on Child and Adolescent Psychopathology at UWA.

Here is my draft opening:

Robert Oliver came into the world as the result of an unwanted teen-pregnancy in Eupora, Mississippi. Reflecting on her sexual assault, Robert’s biological mother claims that she prayed he would die. The documentary case study depicts Robert’s progress from 7 to 8 years of age. He is first shown living with his grandmother, Anna Threadgill, who is more familiarly known as Mamaw.  Anna has taken Robert into custody and the relationship between his grandmother and biological mother, Robanna Fason, is strained. Anna alleges that Robert is violent and suicidal; expository scenes from the film showcase Robert’s hyper behaviour which tends to confirm an initial impression of abnormality. He is also being treated for “personality and behavior disorders” by a child therapist Dr Virgina Fee. Since Robert is medicated with BuSpar for depression and Ritalin for ADHD, he is clinically diagnosed with psychopathology. Despite this evidence coupled with Mamaw’s assertion that Robert has killed animals and jumped from trees while depressed, such extreme behaviour is not apparent in the school setting, and the comments of family members are brought into question. A number of factors interplay and contribute to Robert’s behaviour and development, including key genetic and environmental influences. In producing a developmental history to understand the influences affecting his current situation as depicted in the documentary A Boy’s Life, this paper will outline the complex etiology of Robert’s situation.

While video evidence suggests the dysfunctional family situation is to blame for Robert’s mental health issues, and his diagnosis seems to condemn him to a future trajectory blighted with conduct disorder, perhaps even criminal activity, or repeated self harm, we later learn that his behaviour fails to persist in other settings.

School, for instance.

Teachers, along with his school principal who is shown conducting a home visit, see a different child. At school, Robert is a high achiever with every appearance of striving to succeed. Perhaps the odd intensity we see in his zeal for learning – a facial mask different to the one he presents at home – is indicative of anxiety, or even obsession.

Success Starts Here Freeway Style Desert Landscape

CC Image Source

Interesting. The documentary affords an opportunity to be confounded by first impressions. Viewers are encouraged to beware instant judgements and labeling, even in the presence of formal diagnoses.

Worth a reminder as we here in Western Australia begin our 2014 school year with eyes open to the real purpose of education:

  • activate students’ love of learning, and
  • enable their engagement/ critical and creative thinking processes.

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