In the weeks following the release of my recent memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, three readers asked me (in different places, unaware of each other) exactly the same question: “Have you seen Joker?” These readers wondered if I identified with Arther Fleck, The Joker.
The short answer is yes, I did identify with that character. Obviously, it’s complicated, and I have a lot to say about this question. I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free.
Todd Phillips’s Joker provokes the audience to sympathize with a remorseless killer. Along the way, it considers a number of interconnected issues: income inequality, urban decay, the disintegration of personal and collective morality, the abandonment of the unfortunate, and the experience of mental illness. Socio-economically, Gotham doesn’t seem to have a middle class, just an über-class of politicians and financial sector cretins, then a massive working class of single moms, shopkeepers, random commuters and clowns. With few exceptions, most everyone is deplorable.
Arthur Fleck, the Joker, is a victim of child abuse. He suffers from a cocktail of mental illnesses. His tic is a joyless laugh that seems to hurt his body. He can barely function, even in a job—he’s a “professional” clown— that does not require him to do much besides wear a disguise. Most people abuse, berate, isolate or laugh at him.
Gotham’s citizens are exhausted from struggle but quick to sneer at others. Fleck ends up on television when a recording of his flop at an open mic is sent to a talk show. The host publicly ridicules Fleck. No one shows him any real affection. The person nicest to him, another clown, is merely civil.
The film tries to provoke a brand of sympathy that’s part of a primitive, pathological and cult-like ethos: it asks for whole acceptance of Fleck. Another filmmaker could leave us empathizing with a man who descends to madness following an abusive childhood. But Phillips either dares or invites us to feel good about Fleck’s murders.
After all, his targets are the people we love to blame: grifters, influencers, privileged douchebags, abusers and liars. His first killing of a “financial sector cretin” can pass as an act of self-defense, but subsequent murders are acts of fury against “the awful.”
Fleck asks, without any irony, why the masses care about the people he has killed. One of Fleck’s victims tries to reason with him: not everyone is awful. In the context of the film, the words ring hollow: the few characters who fit that description—a single mom and a dwarfish clown—are merely innocuous.
When Fleck tells this victim, “You’re awful,” the man says, “You don’t know the first thing about me, pal.” It’s true. The film doesn’t explore that victim to any nuance. The audience joins Fleck in ignorance.
As part of the film’s cult-like ethos, its moral system is binary: there’s a massive group of awful people fighting among themselves. Their divisions are not based on any ethic or value system; they’re merely haves and have-nots who look down on the opposite side as society’s true filth. Then there’s a microscopic group that’s withdrawn and mostly powerless. Fleck is a socially mobile character in the film, and his means is violence. When he starts killing, he moves from the latter group to the former.
He desires love and attention but feels noticed only in destruction. His “awful” targets are not just the elite: they include family members and former co-wokers. The risk the film takes is to leave things arbitrary: is Fleck a symbol representing Todd Phillips’s amoral world view, or is he a cog in an aesthetic that’s critiquing society?
I’m not here to settle that question but to admit that, to my own discomfort, I identified with Arthur Fleck, at least to a point. While I wished he might stumble into someone who could love him, I knew only a masochist could do it. His traumas are beyond repair, certainly in this version of Gotham City.
My memoir, Relief by Execution, reveals my struggle with PTSD. While I say quite a bit there, I don’t get into a lengthy description of that moment, experienced by many who’ve suffered childhood traumas, when defense-mechanism amnesia or disassociation breaks. It’s the moment when you remember, “Oh no, that happened!” You had forgotten whatever that is; your brain pushed it away for your own good. Returning to those memories can be like stepping into a room you always knew was in the house but never bothered entering. You find the thing that should never have been found, so it paralyzes you.
That’s the mild version of this experience, of course, because it can also be like turning a corner on a familiar neighborhood street to get assaulted by a flame thrower.
At the moment Fleck realizes the abuse he suffered in childhood, the force of this memory levels his identity as a riot would burn a city. The result is madness.
Some people kill themselves at such moments. In a harrowing scene, Fleck chooses to kill someone else. The eruption of near-limitless rage and hatred overwhelms the compassion and introspection necessary to heal. His new identity, the Joker, is less a disguise than a madman’s reality show, whose definition of humor is a lack of remorse.
Fleck’s transformation into (or adoption of) the Joker persona brings up important questions about the nature of human agency, and what capacity people have to choose actions when confronted by harrowing circumstances.
Few of Fleck’s feelings were foreign to me. While I explore chronic self-pity and blame in Relief by Execution, I don’t reveal any particular revenge fantasy, though I’ve learned they are normal (and dangerous) symptoms of conditions like PTSD, best handled with care. Mine were so frightening that I feared even writing them down on a sheet of paper that I might shred or burn.
Of course, unlike Fleck, I had therapists and friends (and a city) who did not abandon me for falling apart. Despite the people and support, I often felt alone, powerless and inconsequential; my anxiety was an ironic system, wherein my desire for love and affection transformed into self-important paranoia: the perception that most everyone loathed me when in reality I hardly crossed anyone’s mind.
So, it’s terrifying to imagine how someone truly alone and abandoned could collapse completely, lose all remorse, and find a sense of agency in violence. However, I don’t feel one needs to have suffered from PTSD to get to that point. People say our prisons are full of such people.
Curiously, I was thinking about these social issues as I left the cinema to walk home. And I recalled something Fleck says right before committing his climactic murder.
When he describes killing men on a subway train simply because they were awful, a group of people boo him, and he wonders, “Why is everybody so upset about these guys [I killed]? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me.”
I found Fleck’s observation to be meta. If he were dying on the sidewalk, we’d walk right over him. In the same way, Would we have this discussion about mental health and societal decline if the film weren’t about the Joker?
Imagine it were about some random guy in New York who suffers abuse, loses his mind, descends to self-absorption, dances on stairs in The Bronx, and takes to crime. We’d probably pass by that film in the same way we’d pass by Fleck dying on the sidewalk. The studios know this. The only way to pull us in to a conversation about these issues—and to leave us introspecting over questions of who is responsible for an individual’s behavior—is to offer up the comfort of the stories we think we know, the comic books we find worth our time.
Some people are suffering because society isn’t interested in the experiences they’re having. From their point of view, society seems much more interested in who is having the experience. If Fleck is right about anything in the film, perhaps it’s this. If not about a Batman character, Phillips’ film would be obscure art house cinema, discussed by cinephiles and college professors.
This might help explain why so many people feel Todd betrays their morals—their sensibilities and expectations—even as they de-emphasize the suffering his film represents, focusing instead on its nihilistic outcome: a horde of clowns worshiping a remorseless madman, one who arose out of the gutters of a city that seems incapable of supporting its citizens.
That outcome won’t do. It leaves us uncomfortable.
Photo from Wikipedia.