Image courtesy of IFC films.

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian
directed by Arnaud Desplechin
IFC Films

Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film, is based on the anthropologist/psychoanalyst George Devereux’s 1951 book, Reality and Dream. The book, about an American Indian World War II veteran, made a stir when it was first published; Margaret Mead even wrote an introduction. It has since been almost forgotten, but not by Desplechin, the brilliant French auteur who tells us he has been reading and ruminating about the book for more than a decade.

Desplechin has reportedly spent much of his adult life in analysis, but, unlike Woody Allen, he has not become disenchanted. His best films—Kings and Queen (2004) and A Christmas Tale (2008), both set in Franceare autobiographical and psychoanalytically inflected. They feature the superb actor Mathieu Amalric, a man of Chaplinesque talent—at once tragic and comic, manic and depressive. An electric presence on the screen, he is Desplechin’s alter ego in the autobiographical films, and his performances make them memorable. Amalric has become an international star, appearing in Quantum of Solace (2008) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). In a departure from their work in France, Desplechin convinced Amalric to take the role of George Devereux in Jimmy P, a film they would make in America.

The real-life Devereux was born György Dobó, an Austro-Hungarian Jew who immigrated to Paris to study physics and chemistry with Madame Curie. He later abandoned his religion, changed his name, and became interested in anthropology. A Rockefeller Foundation grant paid for his fieldwork in French Vietnam and for two years in the Mojave Desert with the Mojave Indians. The Mojave were interested in dreams, and Devereux’s experience there led him to Freud and psychoanalysis. Devereux became a true believer, applying psychoanalytic theory to his ethnography. He also developed a profound sympathy for American Indians and their plight as victims of the white man. He then struggled to find work in New York City. In spite of his Berkeley PhD, he had neither a secure academic position nor a license to practice as a psychoanalyst or therapist. But when a Blackfoot Indian, Jimmy Picard, arrived at the Winter V.A. Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, Devereux was invited to consult on the case.

The hospital was part of Karl Menninger’s psychiatric empire. The charismatic Menninger was the great man of twentieth-century American psychiatry, and Topeka after World War II was the center of psychiatric training. Menninger’s best-selling books translated Freud’s ideas into homiletics acceptable to ordinary Americans and made him and his foundation famous. In building his empire, he had none of the reservations about foreigners and psychoanalysis that Will Menninger—his brother and cofounder of the foundation—apparently had. When the Holocaust brought Europe’s psychoanalysts to the United States, Karl welcomed them to Kansas. Like Devereux he was concerned about the fate of American Indians.

• • •

As Desplechin imagined it, the film version of this story would be an encounter between two outcasts—a Jew and an Indian. Amalric’s mother is of Polish Jewish extraction; Desplechin thought this would help him find his way into the character of Devereux. The greater problem was who to cast as Jimmy. Desplechin wanted “a victim with whom he could identify”—a man he imagined as noble, aloof, and troubled. He found him in Benicio Del Toro, an Academy Award–winning actor of Hispanic origin who had played the role of a victimized Indian in Sean Penn’s The Pledge (2001). Del Toro is a large man, and he looms over Amalric in their scenes together. Some critics think Del Toro’s Jimmy is a great success, but to me he seems stilted and wooden, a caricature rather than a character. Amalric too is less than memorable in this film.

After Desplechin cast his leads, he continued to struggle with the screenplay, which was faithful to the book, and eventually enlisted two collaborators, the French screenwriter Julie Peyr and the American Kent Jones. A comparison of the analysis transcripts in the book and what happens on the screen reveals obstacles Desplechin and his collaborators had to overcome to make this movie. Reality and Dream was remarkable in its time, and Devereux was a man of empathy and compassion who understood the human predicament through a Freudian lens that, in his case, did not restrict his vision. He believed Freud’s maxims that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious and that making the unconscious conscious was the cure. That is how Devereux pursued Jimmy P’s psychotherapy: asking about dreams, getting Jimmy to associate to them, and finding their unconscious meaning. But the book, especially the second part—Devereux’s transcript of his thirty interviews with Jimmy P—offers no dramatic breakthrough, no magic cure, and nothing that translates easily into a cinematic epiphany.

In the film Jimmy arrives at the Winter V.A. Hospital having travelled by train from Montana with his eldest sister. Although the film’s promotional material describes him as a shell shock victim, he never saw combat. The Germans had left France before he arrived. But during his service, he falls out of a truck and fractures his skull. His subsequent symptoms include episodes of blindness, headaches, and periods when he couldn’t tell whether he was dreaming or awake. After doctors rule out serious neurological problems, they wonder if he may have a psychiatric disorder. Dreaming while awake was Karl Jung’s classic description of psychosis. But since he is an Indian, the doctors are unsure about his diagnosis; they think the dreaming might be of cultural rather than clinical origin. Larry Pine, who plays Karl Menninger as an amiable Midwestern gentleman rather than the extraordinary and imperious character he was, phones up Devereux in New York and offers him a train ticket to Topeka and a paid opportunity to consult.

Lurking behind Jimmy’s psychological conflicts is another problem. Desplechin films a scene set in France where we see Jimmy in the back of an Army truck. A bottle is being passed around, and after drinking from it Jimmy falls out; that is when he fractures his skull. Desplechin never hides the alcoholism in Jimmy’s life, but Devereux faces it head on. His book begins by confronting the white man’s stereotypes of the drunken, indolent Indian: “Were we to stress that the patient may, occasionally, have been arrested for being drunk and disorderly, we would be guilty of the fallacy of misplaced emphasis . . . this behavior pattern [is] in many ways a direct product of discrimination.” And, “The shiftlessness . . . is not of his own making, but is determined by his White environment.” Jimmy’s drinking problems may have been a product of discrimination, but alcohol addiction is psychologically crippling. This issue is not confronted or resolved in the therapy reported in the book or portrayed on the screen.

Devereux, in his version of psychoanalysis, was far from the traditional blank screen on which the analysand would project the story of his important life relationships. Rather, he jumped in with both feet at the start to prove to Jimmy that he was not a neutral clinician: that he respected Indian traditions and customs, that he was more than supportive, that he was Jimmy’s friend. In the film we see their friendship grow as both men come to care about each other. In reality Devereux had much more invested in this therapy than Jimmy. Indeed publishing the transcripts of a patient’s psychotherapy would have been considered unethical. But Devereux secured approval from the hospital, and the book became the cornerstone of his career.

The psychological problems emphasized on screen are Jimmy’s passive acceptance of the white man’s discriminatory practices, his failure to take responsibility for himself and the daughter he has abandoned, and conflicts with his domineering older sister and other “manly hearted women,” an Indian locution introduced by Devereux. Jimmy seems to come to understand his conflicts with women and begins to overcome them. We see him get in touch with his repressed anger, and, at Devereux’s urging, articulate his resentment of the white man’s prejudicial stereotypes. We see him resist the belittlements. We see a growing sense of self-respect. We believe it is possible that he will not let the white man control his life and define his identity. His independence and assertiveness, and his decision to take responsibility for a daughter he had abandoned, demonstrate the therapeutic cure and the happy ending.

But the film has left out much of the reality. Devereux believed Jimmy achieved remission, but he also reports in the book that, after leaving the hospital, Jimmy sent a drunken telegram to Karl Menninger, who had offered him a job at the hospital. Later Jimmy sent a letter to Devereux asking for money. Whatever the cause of alcoholism, it has been the scourge of American Indians, and psychoanalytic psychotherapy has never been an effective treatment. Nonetheless Devereux recognized, contrary to the belief of many white Americans at the time, that the problems of Indians such as Jimmy P. were not the result of shiftlessness, primitive tribal customs, child-rearing practices, or family relations. He saw that Indians were suffering from oppression.

• • •

Jimmy P may not be a memorable film, but it is Desplechin’s tribute to Devereux and to the enterprise of psychoanalysis. And perhaps that was his goal. The film preserves an important lost chapter in the history of psychiatry. When Desplechin sent an assistant to Topeka, contemplating shooting the film there, they discovered a “desert”—nothing was left of the Menninger empire. What remained of its great school of psychiatry had moved on to Texas, struggling, like psychoanalysis, to survive in the twenty-first century.

We do not know what eventually happened to Jimmy P. Karl Menninger was later deposed by his board, which could no longer tolerate his domineering manner. But Devereux fared better. The book made his reputation. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the giant of cultural anthropology, called Devereux back to a professorship in Paris, where he became a legendary teacher. Late in life he went back to the classics for inspiration and interpreted the dreams in Greek tragedies. There are still psychoanalytic ethnographers in Europe who follow his approach. And there are still French intellectuals such as Desplechin who admire his work.