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Psychology : Applied

The Psychology of Baby Reindeer: Was Netflix Richard Gadd's Therapist?

Updated: May 1

Cover Image for Baby Reindeer by Netflix
Image: Netflix

Sometimes the only way to make sense of our lives is to do so through storytelling – the stories we tell ourselves, our friends, our therapists, and in Richard Gadd’s case with Baby Reindeer, the whole world via Netflix. It is through the act of storytelling that we come a little bit closer to comprehending the essentially incomprehensible – that very human mystery that is ourselves.


Portrait of Carl Jung

“My life is a story of the self-realisation of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole . . . I have now undertaken … to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only ‘tell stories’. Whether or not the stories are ‘true’ is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.” - C. G. Jung


When I first read this opening to Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections I thought – “what a cop out!” I wanted to hear the real story, the objective story of Jung’s life – not a “myth” in which he’d be able to produce some kind of preferred narrative. Yet, over the years I have come to understand that there is a different kind of truth that can be conveyed in the personal myth – a truth that, at least in some ways, supersedes the objective facts. While the deeply researched biographies will bring you somewhat closer, but never entirely, to the things that happened – it is the personal myth that brings you closest to the psychological and emotional reality of selfhood. You might see Baby Reindeer as the same sort of thing. The following contains spoilers and content about sexual abuse and trauma.


Is Donny Dunn the Emotional Truth of Richard Gadd?


Because Baby Reindeer is based on true events, details have been changed to protect the identities of those involved. Despite these efforts there has been much speculation attempting to identify elements of the true story. To get caught up in "finding out what actually happened", however, misses the whole point. The interesting details aren't the ones that have been changed to protect anonymity, but the ones that have been altered to preserve another form of truth, those that have been intentionally “tweaked slightly to create dramatic climaxes,” as Zoe Williams learned in her interview with creator and lead actor Richard Gadd. Shaping the truth for dramatic effect is nothing new, it is an essential element of every dramatisation of a true story that was ever made. What is interesting to us is how despite or even because of embellishments it is, as Gadd states in the same interview, “emotionally true.”


Emotional truth isn’t something that is best conveyed in objective facts or linear timelines – this is why, as Jung argues, myth may offer a more direct route. Producing a personal myth with the intention of revealing a deeper truth doesn't give one carte blanche to create a total fiction. To be done right any fictionalisation must be used to convey the true emotional charge of the lived reality of the storyteller. This is something Gadd does with aplomb, and is a likely the reason why Baby Reindeer has attracted so much attention.


It takes a great deal of courage to tell one’s story truthfully, even to one’s self. Psychoanalysts long ago discovered that we not only lie to others, but we lie to ourselves too – usually in order to preserve some kind of story about ourselves that we don’t want challenged. The process of telling the truth to one’s self is painful – which is why it often takes the assistance of a psychotherapist to help us get there. But that's not the only way - art goes back a lot further than psychoanalysis - and has the advantage of not only enabling the artist to process their experiences, but to share it with others too.


Stories Can Either Liberate Us or Trap Us


A personal story is a double-edged sword. The stories that we tell ourselves to maintain a preferred narrative can prevent us from moving on from past difficulties and traumas. In order for us to grow, our stories need to flex to new information we gain about ourselves in order accept who we are as whole beings – both dark and light - not just the beings we'd like ourselves to be.

Telling our truths – first to ourselves and then to others – is a necessary step towards psychological and emotional freedom.  

Stories that have clear heroes and villains tend to be the ones that are less likely to convey an emotional truth as they tend to split complex and nuanced feelings into good/bad and us/them. These kinds of stories may temporarily make us feel better, but ultimately they shallow us out, creating rigidity and defensiveness as a strategy to maintain a preferred story that we know, deep down, isn’t entirely true.

All I ever wanted to do was capture something complicated about the human condition. That we all make mistakes. That no person is ever good or bad. That we are all lost souls looking for love in our own weird way." - Richard Gadd, Netflix

One of the great strengths of Baby Reindeer is the nuanced way in which neither Donny Dunn nor Martha (Jessica Gunning) are cardboard cut-outs of hero or victim. While there’s no doubt that Martha is clearly disturbed and dangerous – we also see in her a capacity for deep empathy and the capacity to see Donny in ways he’s felt unseen by others. And while there’s not doubt that Donny is victimised by Martha, we also see how his self-loathing and unmet need for recognition motivate him down a path of self-destruction. In the desolate landscape of their interiors, Dunn and Martha may not actually be so different from each other.

Donny and Martha at the bar
Donny (Gadd) and Martha (Gunning) Image: Netflix

We currently live in a cultural discourse where there always appears to be a clear delineation between aggressors and victims and very little nuance between them. Yet it is almost never true that a victimiser has never been a victim nor vice versa. While it goes without saying that power differentials are very real and people are unfairly victimised all the time with little power to stop it – complex interpersonal stories like that of Donny and Martha’s can blur those lines. Gadd dares to ask the question about Donny's own complicity in perpetuating the relationship with Martha (and later Darrien) when it is clearly not in his interest.

Admitting one's participation in a destructive dynamic does not need to connote blame, after all we do things for all sorts of complex and unconscious reasons. Yet to ignore our potential complicity prevents us from understanding ourselves more deeply: an understanding which may prevent us from replicating harmful situations in the future. This is true even when complicity is assumed or imagined as it often is by abused children who themselves are faultless, yet may blame themselves for what happened.

While Martha is without ambiguity a clear and present danger, we gather that she has been a victim in the past via neglect, abuse, or both. The conditions that have been leading Donny down a path of self-destruction are less clear – though we do get a hint about it when we hear that his father was sexually abused as a child – causing us to wonder whether his father's trauma was somehow passed along to his son unconsciously.


If there are any characters that clearly represent a more straightforward villain, it would be Darrien (Tom Goodman-Hill) as we get no backstory for him. It's interesting that despite the fact that he is an unambiguous sexual predator who arguably caused Donny more actual harm, his character seems to linger in the shadows far behind Martha. Even so, his role provides an important function as the provocateur of Donny’s self-destructive instinct. On one level Donny knows that he is being groomed and yet he continues to return even when he becomes aware he's being sexually assaulted. Sadly this is not an uncommon experience for victims of grooming and sexual assault, and it is often the “going back” that causes so much distress for them after the fact. Why Donny keeps going back during the nadir of his crisis seems somewhat clear – the question of why he returns after he is ostensibly recovered is more vexing. Gadd could have given us a cleaned-up version of this return - an accusation or perhaps even a charge. His not doing so is a stroke of brilliance that sadly and more accurately illustrates what probably happens more often. Life doesn't usually get tied up neatly like in the movies - and not in Baby Reindeer either.


Good Myths (and good therapy) Must Go Beyond Victim Narratives


Baby Reindeer shines brightest by thrusting deeply human unanswered questions right in our faces: questions that frustratingly remain unanswered in Baby Reindeer as they so often do in real life. Baby Reindeer leaves us off feeling uncomfortable that the resolution we were hoping for doesn’t really happen. Even psychotherapy, at least in the popular imagination, appears to offer the closure or resolution we're looking for, but this itself is a myth that requires some busting. Therapy may go on for many years as unanswered questions are returned to and grappled with over and over again. Oftentimes the resolutions comes not in resolving or answering the questions, but in becoming better at holding the paradoxes in looser ways that don't define our lives.


Good myths like Baby Reindeer give us access to our own messy emotional truths that fixed stories (or “bad myths” if we want to call them that) protect us from. What makes Baby Reindeer so exceptional is its refusal to collude with a victim narrative even while recognising the reality of being victimised. The essential issue isn't really about victimisation itself - the problem is when a story about it becomes fixed and limiting.

In our current cultural narrative of doer verses done-to, victim verses victimiser, there is little room for nuance. You could call this a collective fixed story that reinforces itself by condemning those who attempt to inquire into the nuance as victimisers themselves. The perfect example of this is when an individual seeks to bring nuance to a given situation and is accused of “victim blaming.” Though victim blaming is a real thing that ought to be avoided, it can also be used as a defence against addressing the nuance of a given situation interpersonally or internationally (for more see my piece on The Failure to Understand)

In an article on Netflix's Tudum Gadd explained that he explicitly did not set out to write a victim narrative:

“I think art is quite interesting when you don’t know who you are on the side of. I wanted it to be layered, and I wanted it to capture the human experience. The human experience is that people are good, but they have bits of bad and they make mistakes.”

Were Donny Dunn to rock up in therapy, we'd hope that his therapist would have a great deal of sympathy for what he experienced and not deny the ways in which he was victimised. However, the therapy wouldn’t be complete without ensuring that Donny had the space to explore his thoughts about his own motivations too, to compassionately wonder with him what it was about Martha that drew him in, and what he why he may have returned to his abuser Darrien again and again. The object of this exercise would be to offer Donny the opportunity to say the unthinkable out loud - even if it's not true. For example, Donny may have felt that he deserved what happened with Darrien on some level. And though it's true that nobody "deserves" such a thing - the emotional truth of that feeling still needs to be accepted and explored without judgement.

Ideally this is a process that would be conducted carefully and in Donny’s own time - not due to a therapist's agenda. Such a thing needs to be handled very gently becuase it can enhance self-blame where the aim is actually contrary to that, to open up compassionate self-understanding. The aim is to hold a space large enough for Donny to explore everything related to his experiences rather than uphold a fixed narrative of his victimisation.


Insight into this complexity could enable Donny to move on and resist succumbing to the compulsion to repeat his old behaviours. Viewers got a glimpse of what this could look like. After all his relationship with Keely (played by Shalom Brune-Franklin) and later Teri (played by Nava Mau) were healthy ones – but they were unfortunately undermined by Donny’s low self-image which drove him to sabotage the good things in his life. If he could address his draw towards self-destruction – without reverting to further self-blame or a fixed victim narrative – there’s good reason to hope a better life for him

Donny and Teri in a brief happy moment.
Donny and Teri in a brief happy moment. Image: Netflix

The Psychology of Baby Reindeer: Was Netflix Richard Gadd's Therapist?


What Richard Gadd accomplished in Baby Reindeer (and presumably his earlier work which I have not seen) is akin to what is accomplished in good therapy – but by many degrees more difficult. He has opened up space to explore the complex emotional reality of his experience through art. It's harder than therapy because it not only tries and make sense of his experiences for himself, but doing so in the public arena where others can also richly participate. He’s done this at great risk to himself (and as it happens, to others) – and whether or not he’s found this therapeutic or re-traumatising would be up to him to decide.


"You are revisiting a period in your life, which was the worst period of your life. So it’s running back towards an awful fire you’ve been in."   Gadd in Harper's Bazaar


What we do know is that he’s done a remarkable job transmuting his experience into something substantial, nuanced, and provocative. As Erik Kain puts it in his Forbes review,  “Baby Reindeer does such a phenomenal, gut-wrenching job at examining how trauma and abuse can make people act in ways that—to the outside observer—make no sense.” Jeffrey Ingold, Baby Reindeer’s LGBTQ+ consultant echoes this when he notes that rather than seeking safe or politically correct narratives, “audiences .. are crying out for TV that that challenges and confronts us.”


Let the Myth be a Myth:


It bears saying that there are indeed ethical considerations when producing a piece of work that will be consumed by the public. While I will leave the bulk of that important discussion to others, I do wish to emphasise the importance of letting the work stand on its own for it’s own powerful mythical purposes. Since Reindeer’s release there’s been wild speculation about the events that spurred its creation, including a harmful online hunt for the real protagonists it portrayed.


It would have been naïve to think that this kind of speculation wouldn’t happen, and has been a concern for Gadd and the production team all along. And while Gadd himself has pleaded, “Please don’t speculate on who any. Of the real-life people could be. That’s not the point of the show”, Stuart Heritage has pointed out “the knowledge that the writer and star is retelling traumas that he endured also means that the series cannot be viewed solely as a work of art.


This issue presents a real problem for any form of art that wishes to express itself honestly when the subject of that art involves more people than just the artist. This has been a moral dilemma for writers for generations, and similarly for the case histories, however anonymised, that psychotherapists use to speak about their work. These have to be truthful enough to real, opaque enough to protect others, and embellished enough to produce it's mythical quality; it’s a tough balance. Heritage notes that such a troubling combination of factors are now part of the ongoing story:

While the instinct might have initially been to see Gadd as brave for so fearlessly retelling the story of what must have been an impossibly harrowing time, it’s now difficult to see it free of the consequences it has brought on itself.


Such is the complexity of life that imbues the mythic reality of great art. We can no longer look at a Picasso painting, watch a Woody Allen film, or listen to a Michael Jackson track without incorporating what we know about the artists themselves. For some this problem is easily solved by simply by boycotting the productions of those whom they disapprove. I prefer to hold the paradox rather than never again seeing a Caravaggio.


I believe that Gadd has demonstrated enormous courage in what he has created. One might even ask whether or not he had the "choice" to do so. I would imagine that, as we saw reproduced in the stand-up act within the drama itself, there was a compulsion, not a choice, to create. Everything is linked to everything else, and there’s simply no way Baby Reindeer could have been produced without inviting the very kinds of complexities that are rolling out in the public space today.


For simple viewers like us, however, it’s often best to let the myth be a myth, and let that myth do its work.



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