The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

Seeing History From the Margins

In Feminism, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Politics on February 27, 2013 at 12:04 am
The first in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

peck mirage


by Bonnie Morris

“What’s wrong with you, Mr. Stillwell? Don’t you want to remember? No; you don’t. That’s why you’ve blacked it out. You’ve stubbed your conscious mind, and you’ve put a bandage of forgetfulness on it until it recovers. Have the courage to face that terrible thing that made you forget.”

Mirage, Universal Pictures, 1965

Screen techniques, the subconscious mind, and the political messages imbedded in Hollywood film are all important tools for me as a professor of history. What the camera’s eye “uncovers” is a means for discussing how we hide historical truths, only to reveal them later in the screenplay of American culture.

At George Washington University, it’s my job to acquaint first-year college students with everything their high schools couldn’t or wouldn’t teach: scholarship on gender and sexuality. The history of slavery and segregation. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exclusion of women from schools and jobs and athletic fields. The utter suppression of lesbian and gay lives. Usually, such unflattering pictures of discrimination in not-too-distant America were skipped over in my students’ K-12 curriculum. Too often, the history of the Other is buried–marginalized. So, how do we begin to uncover it and restore it to collective consciousness? On the very first day of class, we start talking about seeing history from the margins; from the authentic perspective of the marginalized.

It’s exciting work. Unfortunately, the rich disciplines of women’s studies/black studies/gay and lesbian studies are still reserved for college courses and advanced degrees, and kept separate from “regular” American history. The subject of American women, who today make up over 51% of the population and almost 60% of college enrollment, is still a “special topic.” That’s as problematic a marker in the academic world as “special interests” are in government. It means my classes only reach self-selecting students; no one has to take women’s history. It also means that even these committed, interested students, who may have attended progressive private high schools, are stunningly unfamiliar with the ugly side of American history. My challenge, each fall, is simply convincing these sheltered and privileged students that racial segregation and No Women Allowed actually happened, and happened right here in the nation’s capital.

“No way—that’s crazy! That couldn’t possibly be true!” is a familiar outburst in my Western Civ class.  Some want to know: am I exaggerating? Inventing? Indoctrinating? No. But encountering the unfamiliar in a humanities class lesson bewilders some students, who, moreover, are anxious to do well and to earn an A.  Teaching “from margin to center”, to use the great book title by critic bell hooks, means teaching students to see what was never made visible in their schooling before now.

What does it mean to focus our “eyes” on the previously unseen and unspoken history too often consigned to the footnotes of a page? When I ask my American students what they know about World War II, for instance, most reach for an emblematic American memory, one that sticks out from a lifetime of rote memorization. Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima. D-Day. We won. Part of what I’m asking is for them to shift the way history is retold, in the same way they might reassess their own “life moments” as individuals. When we sift through our personal memories, we may find they are stacked top-heavy with proud achievements and celebrations, the first kiss, the winning game, graduation.  These happiest images are the ones kept in the slide-show carousel (or, updating technology a little, the personal power-point overview.) But when are we old enough to find the extra slides, the buried images that tell other stories?  This is where the film screen helps my students with recovering, and thus completing, our marginalized national memories, both good and bad.

I tell my students that what helped me was a movie called Mirage.  Directed by Edward Dmytryk and released by Universal Pictures in 1965, it tells the story of a man [Gregory Peck] suffering from amnesia. As he wanders through New York he becomes aware that men are out to kill him. He’s being followed, shot at, and threatened by a mysterious bad guy called “the Major,” while desperately trying to understand the meaning of it all: the past two years and his own career identity are a blur. A nervous psychologist, a brooding detective, and a cynical ex-girlfriend each give Peck small clues to his circumstances. Then, at last, one shard of memory floats up to the surface: Peck begins to see an image of himself in a Southwestern setting, clearly not Manhattan, meeting with the leader of a prominent peace foundation–a man who recently suffered a fatal fall from a top-story window. What does this memory reveal—or conceal? Did Peck play a role in this other man’s death?

Peck turns to his psychologist for help, and the doctor says “Close your eyes, please. I want you to look at that tree in your mind. Now: look around it. What do you see?” By establishing that the remembered image is like a picture with a border, and that the mind’s eye can rove to that border and look beyond it for more information, the psychologist helps Gregory Peck go to the margins of his memory and discover frightening truths there. That’s when we see Peck’s mental camera pan left, revealing a very modern, high-security nuclear laboratory just beyond the tree in his memory. Now we, the audience, understand that he is a nuclear physicist, somehow involved in the arms race. He’s an anti-war scientist, he’s discovered a secret formula to neutralize atomic fallout, and warmakers will kill him for it. This is a film about the Cold War—and the risk of choosing sides.

Shivers ran up my spine when I first watched this scene on a fuzzy black and white TV set in June of 1982. I watched it in Israel: I was spending my junior year of college at Tel Aviv University, and after an otherwise peaceful year, Israeli forces had entered Lebanon. That very week, my roommate brought home a third-hand television so we might follow the war news, but Israeli national TV tried to divert everyone’s attention with old Cold War movies—much as Americans, during our last two years in the Vietnam conflict, were “distracted” from present realities by watching a TV show called M*A*S*H.

Mirage – and the circumstances under which I first saw it—showed me two invaluable tools for a career in history research. One: never mind the memory you think you know; what else was going on just to the side? Two: who’s invested in having you forget where you are, and what you believe in?

I came back from Israel committed to studying women’s history, only to find that throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, I’d be part of the so-called culture wars over the “canon” of whose history mattered. Women’s history, like Jewish history, supposedly only mattered to its own, unless certain key incidents (suffrage, the Holocaust) intersected with mainstream studies. But learning with faculty rabbis and Jewish historians at Tel Aviv University taught me that to understand a page of Talmud, one must also be immersed in the commentaries which form the margins of each page. The commentators, like Maimonides—the Rambam—contributed viewpoints and alternative interpretations that soon became as significant as the centerpiece of each page.

When my doctorate in women’s history relegated me to the margins of academia, I knew from Mirage that what went on at that border often decided the real course of human survival and ethical integrity. What happens at the margins isn’t always marginal; not to the people who live there. For instance, here’s a pleasant image of Washington, D.C. It’s the annual Easter Egg roll for local children, on the White House lawn. Let’s look at that image as it might have been filmed in, say, the 1950s. Move the camera a little to the side—over—a bit more over—say, what’s at the margin? It’s the sad faces of thousands of African-American children, the city’s majority, none of whom were invited; they were banned.

What “minority” historians (and this somehow includes women, who constitute half the world’s population) seek is no less than what the haunted, hunted Gregory Peck character strove to find out: who are we and where did we come from? Why does someone hate us? Will our struggle to survive be believed?

I’ve learned that what’s threatening about women’s history is its placement of women as the focus. We are intent upon understanding the entire picture, the wider screen, not just the conversation of the two men under the tree. Rarely has Hollywood let women behind the camera, in the director’s seat—when that happens we’re usually told to consider the final product a women’s picture, a chick flick. What happens to men is everyone’s history, suitable for a global/general audience; anyone can relate. Mirage, after all, came from a studio called Universal. But I want to teach both men and women to seek out the deleted scenes, for a richer, truer movie script, the past of the excluded and their struggle to be seen.

About the Author:


I am a professor of women’s history at George Washington University and the author of ten books, three of which were Lambda Literary Award finalists; I’m also a scholarly adviser to the National Women’s History Museum being built in D.C., and right now I’m a finalist for Professor of the Year at GWU (actually won it last year, too.) Most of my scholarship addresses women’s history and lesbian culture–and the cultural amnesia of forgetting contributions by marginalized communities. I’ve also written LGBT history features for the American Psychological Association’s high school curriculum on the psychology of sexual orientation. My most recent book was the text Women’s History For Beginners; I just won the  Finishing Line Press literary prize for another manuscript due out in spring; and last weekend I presented my history of D.C.’s lesbian bars at the 20th Annual Lavender Languages and Linguistics conference at American University.

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