Trauma and Projection in Top of the Lake

29 May 2013 at 00:43 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

A still of the first frame from the title sequence of Top of the Lake. Image from Wikipedia.

The title sequence of the TV series Top of the Lake begins with a placid New Zealand lake, surrounded by jagged mountains and a gray sky. This peaceful image shifts as the animation depicts the lake overflowing into darkness. An elk bust tumbles into the depths of the lake, with the shadow of a fetus and a girl’s picture also appearing. This opening sequence clearly functions as a metaphor for the show, which depicts the investigation of the rape of a young girl in a small New Zealand town. Moreover, the title sequence also alludes to the show’s interest in unearthing past trauma, diving deep into the dark past of the primary character, Robin, to explore the impacts of past sexual violence and untold family secrets on the events of the present.

The seven part mini-series, co-written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee and co-directed by Campion and Garth Davis, begins with the attempted suicide of Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe). Following the incident, in which Tui submerges herself in the ice-cold water of the lake, a school nurse realizes that 12 year-old Tui shows signs of pregnancy. With the pregnancy likely the result of statutory rape, Robin (Elisabeth Moss) joins the police investigation as a specialist in sex crimes. After failed attempts to get more information from Tui, the young girl disappears into the wilderness around the lake. Robin persists in searching for Tui, but also finds herself revisiting her own history of sexual trauma. Through her relationship with Tui’s half-brother, Johnno, we learn that Robin survived a vicious gang-rape when she was fourteen, which resulted in a pregnancy that Robin’s mother forced her to carry to term. Robin’s experiences of rape, then, become as central to the show’s plot as Tui’s present circumstances.

Crime narratives often align the investigation of violent crime with the exploration of past trauma, especially when the protagonist is a woman. The most obvious example in film and literature would be Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs. In the scene below, we see Hannibal Lector’s astute analysis of Clarice’s psychological motivations for her search for a serial killer:

In the case of Clarice, her trauma is a motivation to help others in danger and, in the process, she works through her own trauma. Robin’s occupation similarly enables her to confront the same kinds of sexual violence that she herself endured.

Such narratives illustrate the ways in which some psychologists theorize that trauma victims use projection as a coping mechanism. Simply put, projection is a psychoanlytic term for the tendency to see in others what we most despise within ourselves; however, the concept was broadened by Carl Jung to mean “carry[ing] something over from one place to another” or “one form into another.” According to Bernard McKenna, “Applying Jung’s theories to the traumatized focuses attention to the way victims of violence project masks of protection (against dealing with trauma or against possible further trauma) onto their identities.” He continues that, “Trauma victims create what they consider to be an authentic identity from the chaos that was and is their trauma. In reality, that identity is simply a reproduction assembled from cues from their society’s history and culture.” McKenna describes how this masking process results in further frustration through “intrusions of trauma memories [and] compulsive reexposure to trauma.” In other words, the attempts of the trauma survivor to combat the trauma become a futile reaction formation.

Top of the Lake‘s Robin exemplifies these concepts, with her efforts to confront the traumas of others causing her to revisit own trauma. Specifically, Robin’s choice to become an investigator could be seen as a way to deny the trauma by assuming a different role within similar traumatic situation. In her cases, she is the authority and expert who can help the survivor. However, Tui’s case reminds her of her own trauma, and she interprets Tui’s situation through the lens of her own experience, believing that maybe Tui also had been gang raped. As a result of this projection, Robin misses clues that point another direction, failing in her assessment of the facts.

It is only after Robin is dismissed from the case and makes a major discovery about her own personal history that her her view on her identity becomes altered (I’m going to stay vague here to avoid too many spoilers). At her low point, Robin asks for help from GJ (Holly Hunter), a guru who attracts a group of women to an encampment on the lakeside. Below is a clip of GJ challenging Robin and the rest of the women to rethink their instincts:

This speech echoes GJ’s suggestion that “there is wisdom in the body,” since she encourages Robin to take care of her physical needs first before attempting to help others. Put another way, Robin must face her trauma, rather than rely upon her coping mechanisms.

Not long after this speech, Robin saves Tui and discovers the mystery behind her pregnancy. The series, it seems, suggests that Robin gains greater insight into Tui’s trauma once she’s able to confront her own experiences. Bernard McKenna states, “in order to recover from trauma, an individual must construct new personal and interpersonal structures of identification that incorporate the violent past into non-traumatic functions of everyday life.” In other words, recovery from trauma comes not from its disavowal but from accepting trauma as a part of ones identity in an authentic way.

Personally, I worry that such discourses place an even heavier burden on the survivor in addition to the trauma itself. The effort to heal proves hard enough without film, television, and self-help gurus criticizing the ways in which women (and men) process sexual trauma. At the same time, I appreciate a series like Top of the Lake for acknowledging the complex ways in which sexual assault shapes identity long after the initial trauma.

Image taken from


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