In the late 1970s, I taught a class on the Holocaust to teenagers at Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. A high point of the course was an interview with a survivor of the camps. There were many living in Atlanta, but it was not easy to find people willing to talk about their terrible experiences in the concentration camps. For them it was too painful to resurrect those memories.
Emotional anguish is at the heart of Shutter Island, a disturbing psychological study that has little to do with the Holocaust, but a lot to do with gruesome memories and the extent to which they influence our current lives.
The film opens as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are on a ferryboat traveling towards Shutter Island, the location of a federal mental hospital for the criminally insane. A mood of dread and unease pervades every frame of the movie. Teddy and Chuck have been called in because a violent criminal has escaped and they are tasked with finding her.
They meet Dr. Cawley, the head of the facility, who is debating the best way to treat mental illness. Is it to use surgery to change the way patients think or is it by using drugs to help a person find a way out of his mental turmoil? He tells Teddy and Chuck that perhaps the best way is to be a good listener and help a patient recognize and come to terms with his psychiatric problem.
As Teddy and Chuck pursue their investigation, they meet impediments. The staff is not always cooperative, and certain people whom they want to question are no longer on the island. Furthermore, the information they receive about Rachel, the violent missing patient, is often contradictory. Rachel has been incarcerated because she has killed her three children, but she denies her crime.
During this stressful ordeal, Teddy has migraine headaches, causing him to dream about his time during World War II when he was a soldier who participated in the liberation of the camps. The loathsome scenes that he witnessed still haunt him.
Teddy is also haunted by the image of Andrew Laeddis, a maintenance worker at the apartment where his family lived. Laeddis set his apartment on fire, a fire that resulted in the untimely death of Teddy’s wife.
Things come to a head when Teddy learns that the ferry that brought him to the island is not returning to pick him up. When he finally confronts Dr. Cawley with all his suspicions about the real purpose of the Shutter Island facility, reality and fantasy collide in the life of Teddy Daniels, making Shutter Island one of the brainiest and unsettling thrillers I have ever seen.
What is the Jewish perspective on dealing with past trauma and tragedy? Judaism encourages living in the present but remembering the past as well, even when it is unpleasant. Jews are bidden to remember Amalek, the nation that attacked the Hebrews in the wilderness as they made their way to the Promised Land. Moreover, there is a period of three weeks of mourning during the summer when Jews recall the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, culminating on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, a national day of fasting. The day is spent recalling the many tragedies that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages and is noted for the sorrowful lamentations that form part of the liturgy of the day.
Horrific events are recalled in great detail, but the final tone of the day is one of optimism. It is a day of sadness, but our Sages intimate that on this day the Messiah will be born, ushering in a time of peace and reconciliation.
Shutter Island depicts the frightful consequences of failing to accept the reality of personal tragedy and being stuck in past trauma. Jewish tradition encourages us to remember tragedy, but then to move on with our lives, recognizing that the only true path to healing is acceptance of the past and a resolve not to repeat the same mistakes again.