Rocks in My Pockets
A scene from the film, Rocks in My Pockets, by Signe Baumane
by Addison Cooper, LCSW
Rocks in My Pockets is an animated retelling of the story of depression, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia over several generations of the family of Latvian artist Signe Baumane. Baumane herself acknowledges her own struggle with depression, hearing voices, and fantasizing about death.
The film is darkly and somewhat quirkily animated – the puppets, papier-mâché, and other animation reminded me at different times of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Davey and Goliath, and the recent French film, Ernest and Celestine. Baumane attempts to use humor at times, inflecting her voice differently as she narrates the film. The instrumental background music fits well – it is pleasant and beautiful while still being dark. Baumane has expressed that animation isn’t only for children, and that animation can provide a window into thought and emotion that live action can’t provide.
She’s right on both points. Rocks in My Pockets isn’t a movie for children. Characters plot their suicides aloud, a rabbit’s throat is slit, and a character leaves his wife for his young secretary, once she attracts his attention by wearing a low-cut dress to work. However, the film is successful in conveying to the viewer the characters’ dark, confused feelings that made suicide seem like an escape.
The story reaches back to Baumane’s grandmother, Anna, in 1920s Latvia. Anna was highly educated, but - because of her gender - was unable to find work commensurate with her education, and instead worked as a secretary for a 50-something revolutionary entrepreneur. Anna developed feelings for her employer and was able to entice him to leave his wife and marry her. The employer explained to his menopausal wife that he left because he wanted to have more children, because he owed it to Latvia to put his good genes into more children.
Anna did give birth to eight of his children. Their life was hard. He was jealous and insecure. Latvia – and the family’s resources – were invaded, first by Russians and then by Nazis. Anna was depressed, but felt tethered into her circumstances because of her children. When one of her breeding rabbits ate its young, Anna thought for a moment that she could be free if she only would let her children die. She never did let them die, but struggled with depression and made some attempts at suicide. When she died at the age of 50, her children largely dismissed the death as being due to exhaustion or natural causes. These explanations rang hollow to Baumane because of her grandmother’s fitness, young age, and history of suicide attempts, as well as because of the fact that it seemed that her grandmother overdosed on medication the night of her death.
Baumane notices a trend in her family – other family members have seemed depressed or suicidal. However, the family seems to view mental illness as moral deficiency, and so the family instead spins the story, citing exhaustion, postpartum depression, and momentary lapses in judgment as the causes of family suicides. This does not satisfy Baumane, who powerfully expresses a desire to “know the origins of the intensity of feelings in my brain.”
When Baumane does eventually get a direct answer – a person explains that she has schizophrenia, that it runs in her family, and that she is “destined to be crazy,” – she seems to develop a better understanding of her life experience, and she finds a way to cope. Being with other people and “acknowledging [her] humanity” allows Buaumane to stay alive; it saves her “from slittling [her] wrists,” and she has hope that she can fight to stay alive and sane.
Rocks in My Pockets is worthwhile viewing for social workers because it gives a window into the inner world of someone struggling with depression, schizophrenia, and suicidality. For social workers in mental health fields, this can be a tool for empathy, helping us to understand how it might feel to have depression or schizophrenia, rather than only seeing how it is manifested – it shows the pain and hope a person feels, not only the symptoms that would be used for diagnosis. The film also shows all of these things in multigenerational context.
Rocks in My Pockets is a sad but very insightful film that can help social workers develop understanding and empathy for some of their clients. It opened earlier this month in New York and Los Angeles. Screening locations and dates are listed at: http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/Screenings.html
Addison Cooper, LCSW, (@AddisonCooper) is a foster care-adoption supervisor and the founder of the website Adoption at the Movies (www.AdoptionLCSW.com). He lives near Los Angeles.