Jean Arthur – the actress who never grew up

I am not an adult, that’s my explanation of myself. Except when I am working on a set, I have all the inhibitions and shyness of the bashful, backward child . . . unless I have something very much in common with a person, I am lost. I am swallowed up in my own silence.

Als Filmgeek bin ich schon vor längerer Zeit im Zuge meiner Hollywood-Klassiker-der-30er-und 40er-Phase über Jean Arthur gestolpert. Zuerst erlangte sie meine Aufmerksamkeit in dem Spielfilm “Eine auswärtige Affäre (A Foreign Affair)” den es in keiner deutsch-synchronisierten Version gibt sondern nur mit Untertiteln. Insbesondere ihre Rolle im Kontrast mit Marlene Dietrich weckte meine Sympathie mit dem Charakter. Vor allem das Zitat von Autor-Regisseur Billy Wilder blieb mir im Gedächtnis:

I have one dame who’s afraid to look at herself in a mirror and another who won’t stop looking!
Ich habe eine Frau, die Angst hat sich im Spiegel zu betrachten und eine andere die gar nicht mehr damit aufhört.

Der Rest ist Geschichte: Jean Arthur, obwohl schon 1991 gestorben, hat mich seitdem nicht mehr losgelassen. Dieses Jahr habe ich mir dann ihre Biographie von John Oller
“Jean Arthur – The Actress Nobody Knew” bestellt und regelrecht verschlungen, auch wenn ich auf jeder Seite mindestens zwei Begriffe nachschlagen musste um alles zu verstehen.
Das was ich schon lange aus dem was mir über sie bekannt war, ahnte, bestätigte sich. Jean Arthur war mit hoher Wahrscheinlichkeit auch frühkindlich traumatisiert. Das wird im Buch zwar nicht explizit gesagt, aber mit dem Hintergrundwissen dieses Blogs braucht man nur 1 und 1 zusammenzählen. Ich teilte meine Erkenntnis auch dem Autor John Oller mit. Nachfolgend mein kurzer Mailwechsel mit ihm:

“Nothing in biology makes sense
except in the light of evolution”
—Theodosius Dobzhansky

Dear Mr. Oller,

I’m German and English is not my native tongue, so please excuse any

Recently I managed to get a copy of
“Jean Arthur – the actress nobody knew”.
I read it within three days, more than 24h read time.
Yes, I’m a slow reader and I was permanently looking up words in the
online dictionary.

To make long things short:
I think I know why Jean Arthur was the way she was.
She was probably the victim of a (hidden) early childhood
traumatisation, resulting in an inability to autoregulate her
(negative) emotions.
It is also described as complex PTSD and her way she did compensate
probably as SPD (schiozid personality disorder).
The main cause: her mother.

Your book confirms the presumption I already had before.
Reading it was like a big puzzle of which I knew the resulting big
picture before. The most fascinating question to me: how close would
you come to my solution?

Some longer, but still short background information:
It’s all rooted in the phylo- and ontogenetic development of the human
brain and the highly social, learning nature of humans as mammals.
We don’t have the ability to autoregulate our emotions from birth.
We have to learn it in a time window of our brain development from our
primary caregiver, our natural survival insurance – normally the
(breastfeeding) mother and between the age of 1½ and 3 years, the time
when 1st the amydala gets online and then the hippocampus.
During that time we are “sitting ducks” (I guess you know the picture
from Michael Bedard), who have to learn from our mother to
unconsciously regulate our emotions.
If the child – from his(!) perspective as emotionally aware, but not yet
familiar with time and place – is left by the mother – physically or
emotionally – the child will suffer emotional fear of death (and in
nature mostly physical death as well), resulting in a lifelong
inability to control his emotions and struggle to get his emotions
somehow under control consciously. The Japanese have a saying:
“Mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made.”
“The soul of a three year old stays with him a hundred years.”
Ontogenetic brain devolopement does not stop. You can’t go back and
catch up on learning emotional autoregulation.

You may see the problem how to find out:
no one has distinctive memories what happen when we were two.
And adults falsely believe that children that age don’t realize what
happens. Consciously unaware, but mothers are emotionally aware, if they
listen to their heart.

So given the above knbowledge you can only trace back things by indirect
observations of emotional & compensation beaviour and later problems in
the relationship to the mother (then they were there probably before,
With Jean Arther the case is (almost) clear:
* a distanced mother as the cause
resulting in:
* better connection to her father (his leaving “just” a retrauma)
* lifelong inability to autoregulate fear and stress
and to reduce stress manually:
* permanent retreat from potential triggers (flight-strategy)
* hypersensitivity to injustice, suffering of innocent animals, etc.
* preferring animals as companions (“no chips on their shoulders”)
* drug abuse (alcohol)
* getting along alone
* childish behaviour, childlike role models
* permanently seeking for self-efficiency
* perfectionism, keeping things under control
* high intelligence
* humor
* longing for freedom and independence
* welcoming true understanding, support and empathy (selecting friends)

Just two things do not seem to fit:
* the “warm” mother
* her high age, in spite of smoking and drinking
I explain that, that her relationship to her mother was ambiguous, which
is as problematic a total neglect, as a young child that age cannot
handle that.
The fact that Arthur reached an age of 90 despite heavy smoking and
(modest) drinking can be explained that she did not suppress her
(negative) emotions and physical pain and illness, listened to them and
reacted accordingly with compensation, reducing her stress level in
total. If she had suppressed her emotions in the expected “the show
must go on” way, she might have died much earlier like many thespian
collegues. Cancer is a common hollywood disease.
This is what makes Arthur exceptional. She was not the only one
traumatized by her mother in showbiz, but seemed to compensate the best
and not kicking the bucket before her time, although this meant not to
be everybody’s darling.

In your book you came very close to this solution, especially quoting
Karen Horney (p. 175). “uncaring or inadequante parenting”.
But not her father, who was more a help for little Gladys to survive,
somekind of warm oven, but her mother at the crucial age, who was a
failure from the emotional survial perspective of little Gladys.
And this is the brief explanation what happened to Jean Arthur.

But why nobody knew?
You need detective skills to find out.
And you need the knowledge mentioned above, which is hardly known even
among professional pychatrists etc.. Many things were discovered by
recent brain research. I myself found out by chance just a few years
ago. I’m no psycho-professional, but a natural scientist and I didn’t
knew myself for about 40 years. And I think Arthur did not knew either.
If she knew and given her intelligence she would have acted much
differently once she found out.
But the major reason: the emotional world of someone with a complex
PTSD is so much different from “neurotypic” people, hardly anyone
could empathize with her about this. The few who could only knew it by
heart, not by mind.

In case you are interested in more, deeper information, feel free to
ask. There is much more.

best regards

Cassiel Randomson

Die kurze Antwort von Oller:

Hi, thanks for your insightful analysis. I do think you are getting to the
bottom of it. I wish there was a way to nail down all the uncertainties,
but her life will always have to remain a bit unknown and mysterious.


John Oller

Meine Antwort darauf:

Hi, thank you for your positive answer.

Of course my analysis is not the answer to all questions about Jean
Arthur, but it can explain a lot e.g. being unable to autoregulate your
emotions means that you have a permanent higher level of stress
hormones like colesterol. And being permanently stressed out means that
fertility is reduced, because when you are struggeling for your life
procreation is not 1st priority. Possible explanation why she had no
children. But maybe she felt that she might not be a good mother with
her emotional handicap or her profession – just like Katharine Hepburn
once explained.

And we will never know what happened exactly to little Gladys and why
she chose the flight strategy to cope with her trauma. Even her mother
or she herself would not have been able to tell us. Nobody remembers
the emotional experience of that crucial age. Only in very rare cases
you can fix that trauma to a particular emotional accident. In most
cases all we have is indirect evidence.

Jean Arthur was like a windswept tree: you can explain the invisible
force that shaped her character, but you will never know why any
particular branch grew in that direction and not otherwise, although
they are all shaped by the same force.

Best regards


Darauf erhielt ich keine Antwort mehr.

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