How ‘The Truman Show’ Depicts the Spectrum of Abuse


In an early script of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, the film begins with white titles on a black screen, one of which, a quote from American actor Lily Tomlin, reads: “We’re all in this alone”. Although this didn’t make it to the final shooting draft, it’s clear that writer Andrew Niccol was alluding to Truman in this quote. Because he lives in a live television show where everything and everyone he knows is fake or “controlled,” Truman is completely alone — and utterly unaware of that fact.  Such an experience is not dissimilar to the other prominent reading of that same quote; it resonates with the experience of emotional abuse, an idea the film thoughtfully depicts and sharply condemns.

Chosen out of six unwanted pregnancies to become the first child legally adopted by a corporation, Truman Burbank is seemingly a very ordinary man. His days are spent working as an insurance salesman, his evenings tending the garden and eating dinner with his darling housewife, Meryl, before sharing a drink with his oldest friend, Marlon. Despite this ordinariness, however, his life is like no other. For the last 10,909 days, he has been the star of the first ‘real’ reality tv show: The Truman Show. The architect behind this mammoth operation is Ed Harris’ Christof. Christof is the head of the TV production company that took Truman in and the one who inflicts the most abuse on the show’s star. But he is by no means the only one. The Truman Show deftly depicts the nuances of emotional abuse and how it can vary so greatly in form; it just happens that all of the examples that are used against Truman can easily be traced back to Christof. You are never allowed to forget the presence of Christof, and in turn, the eyes of the world, who are all tuned in to watch. Peter Biziou’s cinematography is oppressive; point of view shots from hidden cameras and shadowy vignette effects constantly remind you that Truman is trapped in a fake world where he is tracked and manipulated for people’s enjoyment.

Christof has molded and manipulated Truman’s entire life. Before Truman was born, he was writing stories for his life; mapping out what he would do, who he would meet, where he would remain. Despite surrounding him with friends and loved ones, Christof isolates Truman completely, a major sign of emotional abuse. Everyone Truman knows is just an extension of Christof. They speak his words and follow his scenes. When one person, the actor and anti-Truman Show activist, Sylvia, breaks through and attempts to give Truman a new perspective, that person is seized and thrown out, called mentally unstable, and dismissed as a schizophrenic in the middle of an episode. And yet, even in spite of these attempts to discredit Slyvia, Truman cannot dislodge the doubt about his existence. “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” These words from Christof ring true, as Truman has never once doubted his existence in spite of the weird coincidences that have plagued his entire life. But it acts as a reminder that sometimes all it takes to spark a realization about your world, and the people in it is the smallest glimmer of a new reality. This is what Sylvia provides.

Noah Emmerich’s character is perhaps one of the most interesting in terms of The Truman Show’s exploration of abuse. As Louise Coltrane, the actor playing Truman’s best friend, Marlon, he gaslights Truman more intensely than any of the other actors. While Christof claims that he has “given Truman the chance to lead a normal life,” Marlon is the one who embodies that life. He’s as close to a friend that Truman can get. When Marlon asks him where else there is to go outside of Seahaven or gently jibes that everyone wants to believe the world revolves around them, Truman cannot but believe him. Over the years, Marlon has made Truman dependent on him, more so than his wife or his mother. Marlon is just his pal, somebody to grab a beer with and open up to. Put simply, he uses their friendship against him in an example of adult grooming.

Interestingly, however, a number of deleted scenes from the film show Marlon’s character actively struggling to continue this deception. In one scene, as he is provided a new script for the upcoming weeks of the storyline, Marlon fidgets and protests, accusing the director of stopping at nothing to get the show back to its normal routine, even if that means Truman’s death. It is no surprise that such scenes were cut to maintain consistency. Throughout the film Marlon is one of the worst to Truman; looking him dead in the eye and promising he’d never lie to him, swearing to him that “he’s not in on ‘it’.” But Marlon’s guilt is of note as he is the only actor who expresses any remorse at all. Similarly, Marlon is the only actor who’s been doing this since his own childhood. “I’ve been your best friend since we were 7 years old”, he says. As a child actor, would Marlon have known what he was getting into? Or was he too a victim of abuse, coerced and brought up to believe that The Truman Show was normal? Though this certainly brings Marlon into a moral grey area as both victim and abuser, it highlights an important element of abuse: it is a behavior that can be learned and, likewise, unlearned.

Although emotional abuse is most often depicted with female victims, studies show there is a prevalence of male victims, with 23% of men experiencing it in their lifetime. This is one of the reasons why Laura Linney’s character, Meryl, aids in depicting abuse as a spectrum that is not, and should not be, gendered. From the beginning, Meryl is a clear example of minimizing, a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser dismisses, downplays, or ignores the feelings and experiences of the victim. Used repeatedly, minimizing aims to break down personal boundaries and diminish self-worth, convincing the victim that their affairs or emotions hold no value. As Truman begins to notice trends that point to his world being fake, it is no surprise that he turns to his wife in hushed whispers, asking for help. But when showing her the loop of people walking across the block outside their home, she dismisses it, instead talking over him to inform him they’re having a barbecue at the weekend with friends. As he again asks her to look, she simply tells him that he’s being “silly.” Over the course of the film, we see that this is a key tactic of her abuse. It is her way of maintaining control over Truman, something that is required alongside her role as an actor. Even before Truman starts to suspect something’s up, she belittles his feelings and desires; when he expresses a wish to go traveling together to see the world, she patronizes him, saying “Honey, you want to be an explorer?”, and convinces him that isn’t what he really wants.

At the film’s midpoint, tensions rise between the couple as Truman pushes the boundaries of his existence, testing to find the inconsistencies. As Truman attempts to leave Seahaven, dragging his wife with him, Meryl throws a plethora of abuse tactics at Truman. She accuses him of being mentally unwell, and shifts blame to remind Truman of his ‘inadequacy’ due to his aquaphobia, and then attempts to reclaim control by convincing him of the danger he’s in, cooing at him: “Let’s go home, where you’ll feel safe.” Using a victim’s fear against them is a common tactic; it’s a subtle way for the abuser to simultaneously intimidate and comfort, frightening them, and then positioning themselves as their protector. When they do end up home, their argument comes to a head once more. Truman confronts Meryl as being a part of the strange happenings. “Let me get you help,” she says, once again trying to convince him that this is all in his head, that he’s “having a nervous breakdown.” When this doesn’t work, she turns to victimizing, screaming louder, and holding out a knife (or ‘Chef’s Pal’) in front of her. When Truman snaps and gets violent, she calls for help from the camera crew before immediately gaslighting him over the fact. Meryl knows that, if nothing else, she can attempt to make him question his reality by repeatedly telling him she didn’t say anything at all. This is the last time these two interact on screen, but Meryl’s effect on Truman can be seen throughout the rest of the film.

While The Truman show exposes the scope of emotional abuse in every character and every shot, Jim Carrey’s Truman is a dominating presence. Balancing humor and tragedy with characteristic levity, his performance captures our attention and reminds us that he is more than just a victim. Just as the earlier draft of the script began differently, it also had a different ending: though  The Truman Show is rolling its credits, Christof has found a new child to carry on the concept. Truman, too, has a child of his own, a daughter from his marriage to Sylvia. Switching off The Zoe Show, the three of them walk out of their beach house, onto the deserted sand, and down toward the sea. Though this is a happy sight, it feels wrong that his future is still written for him, albeit for a different audience. As Truman takes his final bow, it is all the more poignant that we don’t get to see what comes next. Away from his abusers and the toxicity of his life, the future is entirely his own. And only he can decide what his path to healing will look like.

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