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    So Much Water, so Close to Home: The 2017 PPAA Conference Panel Presentation

    A Psychoanalytic Exploration of Raymond Carver’s Short-story and its Creative Adaptation and Transformation by Australian Artists into Film and Song.

    Ann Cebon

    What an interesting task Paul, Carol and I have been given!

    Even though I’m not an ABC film reviewer like David Stratten or Margaret Pomerantz, nor a Jennifer Burns from the ABC Book Club, I am going to try to review this fascinating short story, “So much Water, so Close to Home”, which inspired the film Jindabyne, as well as the Paul Kelly song, “Everything’s Turning to White”.

    I’m going to approach this through two psychoanalytic concepts, in the hope of stimulating some discussion around the topic of our Conference: “Things Fall Apart, The Centre Cannot Hold”.

    Raymond Carver’s story focuses on one of the four men who are all friends. Carver describes the four as “decent and responsible”. They each have a partner and a family and jobs. They plan their regular fishing trip. In spite of there being “so much water so close to home”, they drive into the mountains, then hike for miles carrying all their supplies, including ample supplies of whisky. They set up camp and it is the main character, Stuart, fishing alone, who finds the naked body of a girl floating in the river. The short story says, and I quote, “He called the other men and they came to look at her. They talked about what to do. One of the men … thought that they should start back to the car at once. The others stirred the sand with their shoes, and said that they felt inclined to stay. They pleaded fatigue, the late hour, the fact that the girl ‘wasn’t going anywhere’. In the end they all decided to stay”. (Carver, 1993, p. 71).

    Interestingly, in the film Jindabyne, which is based on the short story, this scene is developed in a particular way. Stuart, wading in the water, sees something from afar. He wades over. When he realises that it is the body of a young girl, naked, face down in the water, he curses and screams. He screams for the others to come, like a terrified child. The three others hear him and come running.

    In the film it is Billy whom they call “The Boy”, who thinks they should leave immediately in order to raise the alarm, but the others pressure him to stay and he acquiesces. He gives in.

    I think that for me this is a pivotal moment in the story. Based on this moment, I’d like to look at the group phenomenon through the lens of Wilfred Bion’s concept of group process. I imagine that most of you are familiar with his book entitled “Experiences In Groups”, first published in 1968 nearly fifty years ago. In the introduction Bion writes, and I quote, “As a practising psychoanalyst, I am impressed by the fact that the Psychoanalytic approach, through the individual and through the group, are dealing with different facets of the same phenomenon.” (Bion, 1968, p. 8).

    His focus is located on the central importance of the Kleinian theories of projective identification and the interplay between the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions.

    The four men are indeed a group. They had a “task” in the widest sense of the word, when they went on their fishing trip together. That “task” changed in a terrible way with the discovery of the body of the girl. But then something so powerful happened to them, leaving them horrified and terrified. The least powerful of the four, “The boy” Billy, acquiesces to the group’s wish to stay and the four of them continue to fish, around the girl’s body. There is a scene in the film where Billy, having caught his first fish, poses for a photo, smiling happily and proudly. Yet we are left to assume that alone, he might have acted differently. The group process subsumes him.

    Bion’s conceptualisation of group process is that, as I have said, a group has a task, but that pathological group processes can undermine the task, so that the group cannot function. This transforms, or, in this case, catapults, a group into what he calls a “Basic Assumption Group,” governed by paranoid-schizoid processes.

    Do you think that the group of four men in the short story lose their collective mind?

    Certainly, they can’t think things through, and they pressure Billy and undermine his wish to do the right thing. Once he agrees to stay, inertia sets in. The writer here conveys his emotional insight, for the inertia that now possesses the group is the symptom of things falling apart and a sign that the centre (of the group) cannot hold.

    The men fish and they drink. In the story, Raymond Carver focusses on the drinking. They drink whisky at the evening meal we are told. As they drink they talk about the girl’s body. Quoting from the short story: “Someone thought they should do something to prevent the body from floating away. Somehow, they thought that this might create a problem for them, if it floated away during the night.” (Carver, p. 71). They drink a lot more whisky before, in the dark, they go down to the river. They secure the dead girl’s body with a nylon cord around her wrist and tie it to tree roots. Raymond Carver writes, “All the while, the flashlights of the other men played over the girl’s body.” (Carver, p. 72).

    Afterwards, they have coffee and whisky and play cards. They drink until they can’t see the cards any more. The next morning they keep drinking whisky.

    What are they group of four men drowning with their whisky?

    In the film, it is in the morning that Billy ventures a criticism. He says, “We shouldn’t have moved her. We interfered with a crime scene.” But without a response from his three older companions, he too goes fishing.

    I turn now to Bion because I think that his theory of group functioning might have something to add to our discussion to follow, not in the form of answers, but in the form of questions. In the film, when it’s time to go the four men break camp, hike back to the car, and drive until they gain phone reception and call the local policeman. At this point these four men, who Raymond Carver describes as “decent and responsible” are genuinely taken aback when the policeman tells them that they can’t just let him know about the body of the girl in the water and drive on home. The policeman tells them to wait there until he comes. In the short story, Carver writes “they had nothing to hide, and they weren’t ashamed of anything.” (p. 73). Yet, there is a revealing interchange in the film while the men wait for the policeman to come, in which Stuart says to the others “We got to get this story straight.” This is a very significant moment. Perhaps they experience some guilt, or even just some doubt, about what they did do, or what they failed to do.

    What happens to their individual minds, or to the mind of the group, when Stuart finds the body and screams with terror?

    What pathological defences does the group employ when their collective centre will not hold? Is it that they cannot bear having feelings of helplessness and vulnerability and the guilt and the pain that it might engender in them?

    In the movie there are sub-plots referring to past trauma. Vern and his wife had a grown daughter who has died, and they are rearing their seven year-old troubled grand-daughter. She is struggling with pre-occupations with death and co-opts Stuart’s son to kill the school’s guinea pig. There is a scene where she has a dead bird, and there is a suggestion that she believes that magic can bring it back to life. Is this a wish to bring her mother back to life?

    But her grandparents can’t help her. Her grandmother tells her teacher and Claire that the little girl doesn’t need any counselling. “They aren’t going there”, as the saying goes. Mourning is evaded. We might say that if they could allow themselves to experience those feelings, they might, eventually, feel better. Here is another fork in the road: one road leads to emotional breakdown, violence and repetition; the other road offers the possibility of grief, reparation, growth, transformation and recovery.

    This takes us back to the title of the short story: “So Much Water, So Close to Home.” The title is enigmatic. What does it mean? What is it referring to? One thought I have takes me to the central couple in the short story and the film, Claire and Stuart.

    Stuart returns late at night after their weekend fishing trip. Next morning he and his wife Claire are woken by police knocking at the door. It is only then that Stuart tells Claire that he and his friends found the body of the murdered girl. Claire is stunned. How could he not have told her the night before?

    They go for a ride together. They stop at a park near home where, we read in the story there are a dozen or so men and boys fishing. Claire asks herself, “Why did they have to go miles away to fish?” I ask myself, what did they have to get away from? What did each of them have to escape from? What feelings or knowledge did they have to go far away from home to keep on denying, to keep on trying to avoid being affected by?

    These questions lead me to the second psychoanalytic concept that I want to focus on, again in order to raise questions, and that is the work of the British psychoanalyst John Steiner and specifically his 1985 paper, entitled, “Turning a Blind Eye: The Cover-up for Oedipus.”

    In the first paragraph of the paper he writes:

    In recent years, it has become evident that our contact with reality is not an all or none affair and psychoanalysts have become particularly interested in situations where reality is not simply evaded but is in addition distorted and misrepresented. In this paper, I want to consider one such situation, namely that in which we seem to have access to reality but choose to ignore it because it proves convenient to do so. I refer to this mechanism as turning a blind eye, because I think this conveys the right degree of ambiguity as to how conscious or unconscious the knowledge is. At one extreme we are dealing with simple fraud where all the facts are not only accessible but have led to a conclusion which is then knowingly evaded. More often, however, we are vaguely aware that we choose not to look at the facts, without being conscious of what it is we are evading. These evasions may lead to a sense of dishonesty, and to various manoeuvres which deny or conceal what has happened by creating a cover-up. (Steiner, 1985, p. 161).

    Steiner continues:

    We are familiar with the idea of graduations in our sense of awareness, because we recognise that different mechanisms of defence affect our contact with reality in different ways. In repression, for example, a symbolic connection with reality is retained even if the actual material, which led to the conflict, is unconscious. With projective identification, contact may be completely lost, or may be vicariously retained through the reality sense of another person. (p. 161).

    These ideas raise questions in relation to the two central characters, Claire and Stuart. Stuart presents himself as an innocent victim, dominated by forces which he can neither understand nor control. He feels humiliated, frustrated, and angry. The short story opens as Stuart angrily asks his wife, Claire, “Tell me what I did wrong and I’ll listen! It’s not fair. She was dead, wasn’t she …?” He continues, “There were other men there, besides me. We talked it over and we all decided … What the hell, I don’t see anything wrong. No, I don’t”. (p. 69). Claire says simply, “You know”. He says “She was dead, Claire. Now let’s leave it alone.” Claire responds, “That’s the point. She was dead. But don’t you see? She needed help.” (p. 70).

    Here again, I find the concept of turning a blind eye very enlightening. One cannot say that Stuart was completely ignorant of the reality he was evading. You may recall that in the film, while waiting for the police, it was Stuart who said “We need to get our story straight.”

    It was not that mechanisms such as splitting or repression were at work. Stuart turned a blind eye and then tried to maintain a cover-up, both to Claire and others, but also to himself. This fuels his feelings of moral righteousness and superiority.

    He knows. And at the same time, he doesn’t know. Perhaps, in the discussion, we can touch on the end of the film. Billy and his young family have left. The three men sit drinking beer, and one of them asks the others “What happened out there?” Here there is hope of change.

    Returning to Stuart and Claire, Claire, vulnerable as she is, (or is not), feels things that Stuart can’t bear to feel. She feels compassion for the murdered girl, which Stuart cannot bear to feel. She wants to know. Her desire is to know and her compassion, both in the short story and in the film, drives her to take the perilous journey to the dead girl’s funeral.

    Incidentally, Claire and Stuart’s young son, Dean, who is perhaps six or eight years old, also wants to know. The murder of the girl is in the newspapers. In the story, it is at school that the children tell Dean that his father found a dead body in the river. Dean wants to know about it. He asks his parents. They try to silence him, but he persists. Dean wants to know, unlike his father, Stuart, who wishes not to know.

    In the story, Stuart tells his son “It was just a body and that’s all there is to it.” Claire’s reaction, hearing this, is to start, and she almost drops a plate that she is holding. When Stuart asks her “What’s the matter with you?”, she says, “You scared me.” (p. 81). Claire knows about the violence, both overt and covert. She knows about the violence of the murder, of the action and inaction of the group, and also the violence of the silence.

    In conclusion, might we say that she is the recipient of his knowledge, through projective identification? This pathological dynamic both tears them asunder and binds them together. Stuart’s incapacity to see what he actually knew, but refused to let into his mind was known by Claire, and became her “illness”.


    Bion, W.R. (1961). Experiences in Groups and Other Papers. London, England: Tavistock Publications Limited.

    Carver, R. (1993). Short Cuts. New York, New York: Vintage Books.

    Steiner, J. (1985). Turning a Blind Eye: The Cover Up for Oedipus. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 12, 161.

    Ann Cebon

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