Jean Harris’ Obsessive Film Song Recall

by Cora L. Díaz de Chumaceiro

October 16, 2004


The murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower, a wealthy cardiologist and author of the popular Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, obtained international news coverage in early spring of 1980. Jean Struven Harris, headmistress of Madeira School and his lover of 14 years, was tried, convicted, and sentenced for 15 years-to-life without parole. Her sentence was commuted in December 1992. This article calls attention to overlooked public data on Jean Harris’ attraction to the 1946 film Gilda, and to her repetitive and continuous mental recall of the hit film song interpreted by Rita Hayworth for over 33 years. The film and song material are viewed from a psychodynamic perspective, underscoring parallels with this case.


The murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower, a wealthy cardiologist and author of the popular Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, obtained international news coverage in early spring of 1980. Jean Struven Harris, headmistress of Madeira School and his lover of 14 years, was tried, convicted, and sentenced for 15 years-to-life without parole. Her sentence was commuted in December 1992. This article calls attention to overlooked public data on Jean Harris’ attraction to the 1946 film Gilda, and to her repetitive and continuous mental recall of the hit film song interpreted by Rita Hayworth for over 33 years. The film and song material are viewed from a psychodynamic perspective, underscoring parallels with this case.  

Keywords: Tarnower; induced song recall; applied psychoanalysis; criminal case; psychopathology.

Jean Harris’ Obsessive Film Song Recall


In early spring of 1980, the tragic news of the murder of Herman Tarnover, M.D. (1910-1980), cardiologist and creator of the best-seller The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet (1979), impacted the international education and medical world. Jean Struven Harris, headmistress of the prestigious Madeira School, in Greenway, Virginia, and his lover of 14 years, was tried, found guilty of second degree murder, and sentenced with 15 years-to-life without parole. Five weeks after the trial, Schaefer (1981) produced the television film, The People vs. Jean Harris (The True Story). Tarnower had become attracted to Lynne Brundage Tryforos, his young and attractive secretary/medical assistant over the last four or five years, an event that pushed Jean from depression to despair. What was her objective in visiting Tarnower that fatal evening at his home? For a confrontation or to shoot herself? Or did she have another agenda? The medical and pathological evidence at the trial was inconclusive. She was sentenced but the question remained in mind: Was it murder or a tragic accident? (Schaefer, 1981). Books rapidly appeared in the market (David, 1980; Spencer, 1981; Trilling, 1981; for a critique of Trilling, see Olster, 1998; in Court TV’s Crime Library, see Noe, 2004). In 1982, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and Harris was to remain in prison until 1996. Journalist Shana Alexander interviewed Harris at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and published Very much a lady: The untold story of Jean Harris and Herman Tarnower (1983). Harris deliberately refrained from reading it.  

During almost a dozen years in prison, Harris dedicated her attention to incarcerated women and their children. She penned three books, including her autobiography (Harris, 1986, 1988, 1993). After two heart attacks, Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York, commuted her sentence in December of 1992 (Reid and Reuter, 1991; Sack, 1992; Verhovek, 1991). Released on parole at age 70, she found a job as contributing editor for a magazine. In 2000, Arts & Entertainment television presented American Justice: The Scarsdale Diet Doctor Murder, and in 2001, on “Great Crimes & Trials,” the History Channel revived her story--a case used for teaching in law school. In the same year, Alexander donated to the University of Illinois Library, her transcripts, notes, research of the trial, paper clippings, and interviews with people associated with Harris and Tarnower, among other documents (Lynn, 2001). Recently, HBO announced the production of “Mrs. Harris” which began filming in February 2004, with script by Phyllis Nagy, based on Alexander’s (1983) book (Andreeva, 2003; Faile, 2003).  

Many enjoy going to the movies. Viewers may have read reviews and heard about a particular film in advance, yet until they actually see it, its psychological impact is unpredictable. As Gabbard (1997) noted, audiences not only go to the movies to get entertainment. They also want to meet “long forgotten but still powerful anxieties that stem from universal developmental experiences” (p. 433). Revisiting them from afar in a dark theatre offers a vicarious chance for mastery of such anxieties, departing with wisdom and relief. In Movies on your mind, however, Greenberg (1975) stressed the usefulness of considering recalled films in treatment as a Rorschach test:

    Cinema is a supremely valid source of free association, a powerful touchstone into the unconscious. The movies, like waking dreams, interpret every aspect of our lives--the unquiet past, the troubled present, our anxious premonitions of the future, our neurotic conflicts, and our inspired gropings toward light (p. 3). 

Published data in everyday life can provide unique examples of a film’s impact on a person. A case in point is Jean Struven Harris and overlooked effects of seeing Gilda and then obsessively recalling the hit film song, “Put the Blame on Mame” (Fisher and Roberts, 1946/1973). According to Alexander (1983), Harris recalled this song repeatedly as “a secret weapon” (p. 22) from the day she saw the film until the death of Tarnower--a span of approximately 34 years. Biographic data and comments of when and how Harris used the song are extracted from Alexander (1983).  

‘Put the Blame on Mame’ 

Jean Stuven--born in 1923 in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to affluent upper-middle-class parents, Mildred and Albert Stuven--was the second of four siblings and considered the brightest of the girls. Mary Margaret, the eldest, was the good girl; Virginia, the youngest, was the more beautiful one. Youngest of all was Bobby, the only brother. Albert Stuven, a successful civil engineer, has been described as intelligent but humorless, a domineering yeller with a bad temper, hard to please, old-fashioned, tyrannical, and snobbish. He was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder, for which he was hospitalized at least once, and received electro-shock treatment. As a workaholic, he was an absent father and thus it was mainly Mildred who raised the children. She played the piano and loved to sing with them. While Jean was growing up, she was considered self-righteous, stubborn, and like her dad, she had a temper, which earned her the nickname “Struvie.” She also loved to sing, dance, and act, imitating the movies. Later, Jean became a glee-club singer, loved good music, and country club dancing.  

Since childhood, however, Jean had searched for an effective way to control her tears. Chewing the inside of her cheek or tightly closing the palms of her hands was not sufficient. The only defense on which she could rely was to sing mentally, and at a high volume, “a rollicking song” (p. 22) with sufficient loudness to obliterate any event in progress that provoked her tears. She experimented with all kinds of songs (folk, shows, hymns). Her ultimate solution was found one day when she went to the movies with her Smith College roommate and saw: 

    Rita Hayworth in Gilda, slinking across the stage sheathed in black, tossing her long hair, grinding her hips, twirling her long black gloves, and smiling provocatively as she sang: Put the blame on Mame, boys, put the blame on Mame. Mame kissed a buyer from out of town, that kiss burned Chicago down, so you can put the blame on Mame, boys. . . (p. 22, italics in original). 

Jean Struven majored in economics with a minor in Spanish, and graduated in 1945, magna cum laude. Columbia Pictures released Gilda in March of 1946. Rita Hayworth was then Hollywood’s exotic Latina Love-Goddess and a World War II famous pin-up. The film’s tagline read: “There NEVER was a woman like Gilda” (see posters at Hayworth (nee Margarita Carmen Cansino [1918-1987]) was trained as a dancer and made her unforgettable mark as Gilda. It changed her life (McLean, 1992-93; Menard, 1997; People, 1993). Gilda also changed Harris’ life. 

Renting or buying the film video of Gilda (Van Upp and Vidor 1946/2000) brings to light that the lyrics of “Put the Blame on Mame” (Fisher and Roberts, 1946/1973) that Hayworth interprets (dubbed by Anita Ellis) in the cited famous nightclub scene are different from those quoted by Alexander. In this memorable performance, first, Gilda sings a stanza that refers (here paraphrased) to San Francisco’s “19’6” earthquake, attributed to Mother Nature’s tricks. Instead, the real story is that one evening Mame shimmied and shook and this caused the quake. So, blame her, boys. Second, she sings a stanza about a lady Lou who was blamed for the shooting of Dan McGrew, up in the Klondike. The real story was, however, that what murdered Dan was Mame’s dance. And she was blamed. By contrast, film audiences see Gilda, in a first rendering of the song, singing to Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) the quoted stanza about Chicago burning, in a totally different context sitting at the bar table in the empty casino, dressed informally, accompanying herself with a guitar (see photos at: film/gilda/blame1.htm and at Consequently, either Harris’ recall was blurry when interviewed--commonly called a Freudian slip or parapraxis--or Alexander made the change of stanzas, for whatever reasons. Clinically, however, it makes a difference which are the repetitive lyrics used by the evoker; associations to who the song reminds him or her of, how, when, and where, are necessary (Diaz de Chumaceiro, 1993). As Alexander has stressed the impact of the nightclub performance on Harris, the implication taken here is of her use of those particular two stanzas of the film song.  

Jean Struven mentally sang Gilda’s hit song throughout her wedding to James Harris, a handsome Navy veteran and sales engineer. Her father had opposed the marriage and cried openly during the Episcopalian ceremony. (This was the first time Jean had stood up to her father.) The new couple lived in affluent Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and Jean was a traditional mother and housewife--determined to be perfect. David, their first son born in 1950, was followed by Jimmie in 1952. To earn extra income, she started a home kindergarten. As the boys grew up, after much fighting and lack of communication, in 1964, Jean decided to separate from Jim; their divorce was finalized the following year. She moved to Philadelphia and to support her sons, started her career in school administration.  

Soon after, Marge Jacobson, her close friend, introduced the forty-three year old attractive divorcee to the fifty-six year old Jewish bachelor, Dr. Herman (Hi) Tarnower, at a dinner party in her home. Mutual attraction was immediate and courtship ensued with their engagement announced two months later. Yet Harris, not wanting her kids to change schools again, postponed it for one year, which became two, and by then Tarnower failed to follow through to marriage. Harris hid her shock and hurt. Nevertheless, in love with him, she compromised her principles by continuing the relationship on his terms.  

Harris mentally sang “Put the Blame on Mame” throughout her life to maintain control. Occasions included whenever she encountered and struggled with difficult situations at home and at work--e.g., school board meetings, talks with parents. She managed to become so good at it that by the time she was at (what turned out to be) her final year at Madeira School, she could mentally sing the whole song while carrying on a conversation. Harris’ control became “so perfect” that until Tarnower was dead, not even Marge, her best friend, could recall having seen her shed any tears (Alexander, 1983, p. 22).  

Evidently, Harris considered her use of this favorite song so important that she revealed it to Alexander. Why this song became the perfect mental weapon for Harris in 1946, however, will remain a secret which only could have been uncovered with her free associations and interpreted in psychoanalytically informed clinical sessions. Some basic principles for interpreting song recall and a few hypotheses follow.  

Psychoanalytic Perspectives 

Freud’s well-known statement, added to The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901/1960) in 1907, is of relevance to this case: 

    If anyone takes the trouble, as Jung (1907) and Maeder (1909) have done, to note the tunes he finds himself humming, unintentionally and often without noticing he is doing so, he will pretty regularly be able to discover the connection between the words of the song and a subject that is occupying his mind [latter reference added in 1910] (Freud, 1901/1960, p. 215). 

Reik (1953) focused on obsessively repetitive music that came to mind unbidden. He suggested that in this mental singing, the unknown self voices “not only passing moods and impulses, but sometimes a disavowed or denied wish, a longing and a drive we do not like to admit to ourselves.” “Whatever secret message it carries, the incidental music accompanying our conscious thinking is never accidental” (p. 10; italics added). Furthermore, 

    The puzzling phenomenon of the haunting melody presents itself to the psychologist as an artistic expression in the secret service of the same drives and impulses which create obsessive thoughts as their pathological counterpart . . . . The haunting melody can be trifling and insignificant, but the emotions and problems expressed in its emergence are always meaningful. They reflect the concealed basic demands of the drives and fears of the person and seek to convey his most important interests and impulses (Reik, 1953, p. 167).

A decade later, Rosenbaum (1963) stressed that during adolescence, popular songs are a “vital” medium for the indirect communication of painful conflicts. Ideas pressing to be expressed, but loaded with Oedipal guilt, can become conscious comfortably when said or sung by someone else. In her view, individuals who need to express “instinctual forces may find a discharge in the universal obsessional symptom of participation in popular music” (p. 266). In 1964, Hannett proposed that “what appears to be true for the lingering or haunting melody is equally true for the obsessively persistent lyric. Like the former, its ‘secret message’ is never accidental”(p. 229). For Hannett, “The haunting lyric is a ‘voice of the preconscious’ and must be understood in the same way as a dream fragment, a fantasy, or a repetitive act” (p. 237).  

From this vista, Harris’s overlooked attraction to and selection of “Put the Blame on Mame,” over all the other songs she had ever heard at that moment in her life, can be viewed as hardly accidental. As the only song that worked for her, it became a compulsive one, obsessively repeated over time. Her conscious and unconscious choice was determined by her personality development at the time, within her family constellation. The nightclub scene is a pleasurable event that can provide momentary disassociation from stressful negative ones. As Westen and Gabbard (2002a) recently concluded in their integration of developments in cognitive neuroscience with psychoanalytic theories of conflict and compromise: 

    Much of mental life--including the construction of thoughts, memories, feelings, and motives--occurs through a parallel constraint satisfaction process involving both cognitive constraints imposed by sensory information and past experience, and affective constraints comprised of wishes, fears, and affects associated with representations. Thus, at any given time, multiple representations, components of representations, and affective motivational processes will compete, conflict, and collaborate outside of awareness. The resulting behaviors, feelings, and conscious representations reflect compromises among these unconsciously activated processes. In this sense, every act of thought and memory is simultaneously an act of affect regulation (p. 92). 

In two research studies that explored meanings of dyadic songs recalled in psychotherapy, some film songs were included in the sample. Invariably, striking parallels were found between the evoker’s life and the drama of the main protagonist. As the impact had been an audio visual one, it was hardly sufficient to just search for the missing lyrics in cases where evokers had forgotten them--repressed from consciousness. Thus, the context of the evoked song was taken into account and it became clearer that a person may transferentially identify with one or a combination of the following variables: the singer, the music, the lyrics, and film plot (Diaz de Chumaceiro, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1999, 2000, 2001a, 2001b; also see Edelson, 1998).  

The (paraphrased) lyrics of “Put the Blame on Mame” (Fisher and Roberts, 1946/1973), in the first stanza, refer to a rumor about a fire that burned Chicago down, due to a lantern that was kicked by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Instead, the real story is that Mame is to be blamed because Chicago burned due to the kiss she gave to an out-of-town buyer. The second stanza mentions San Francisco’s 19’6 earthquake, attributed to Mother Nature’s tricks. Instead, the real story is that one evening Mame shimmied and shook and this caused the quake. So, blame her, boys. Of the three extra stanzas, the first refers to the story of Manhattan’s 1886 blizzard, which tied up traffic and inconvenienced everyone. It was really Mame’s fault because to a “chump” she gave a very iced-cold negative, and then for seven days all shoveled snow. The second one is about million-dollar dreams of folks who went to California during the gold rush. Instead, Mame is to be blamed as the gold rush was caused by her extraction of gold from a man’s teeth. Finally, the third is about Lou who was blamed for the shooting of Dan McGrew, up in the Klondike. The real story was, however, that what murdered Dan was Mame’s dance. “Put the Blame on Mame, boys” is the hook of the song. In effect, later, the jury blamed Jean Struven Harris.  

Public data suggest that it was the combination of beautiful Rita Hayworth as Gilda in the nightclub scene, taking revenge by acting defiantly when she sings the song “Put the Blame on Mame,” with its self-blaming lyrics that had greatly impacted Jean Struven--an intense positive transference reaction in clinical terms, ubiquitous in daily life. In Westen and Gabbard’s (2002b) recently updated definition of the term:  

    Transference reactions are best understood as constructed from a combination of the patient’s enduring dispositions to react in particular ways under particular conditions; features of the analytic situation and of the analyst; and interactions between patient and analyst (p. 99).  

Identification with a gorgeous singer-dancer in this case suggests sibling rivalry with Jean’s younger sister, chosen in her family as the beautiful one, as well as positive links to her own love of singing and dancing. The public applause Gilda received may also have been a factor--boosting self-esteem. As Jean was trained to blame herself, never others, the hook of the song, “Put the blame on Mame, boys,” merely reinforced an ingrained behavior. From then on, strongly identified with Gilda’s persona, she repeatedly self-induced the recall of this song for defensive reasons, including a stated intense need for controlling her emotions. A look at the underlying dynamics of the film’s plot is illuminating, in view of the outcome of Jean’s life three decades later. 


The film noir Gilda, produced by Virginia Van Upp and directed by Charles Vidor (original story E. A. Ellington; screenplay M. Parsonnet; adaptation Jo Eisinger), premiered on 15 March 1946 and became a box office hit (see Kaplan, 1978/1998; Schauder, 1990). Shark gambler Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) is saved from thugs by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), the owner of an illegal casino in Buenos Aires, Argentina and then is hired. Rapidly, Farrell becomes Mundson’s right-hand man and they work well together until Mundson’s return from a voyage, when he brings home his new sensuous wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Gilda loves his wallet and the better life money can provide. In the past, however, she had had an affair with Farrell, a fact unknown to Mundson, who assigns to Johnny the task of making sure Gilda remains faithful. Encumbered with hate, Gilda makes great efforts to bother, daunt, and make Johnny jealous until life’s circumstances offer him an opportunity for revenge later. Their love-hate relationship characterizes the film, which also has a homosexual subtext between the men. 

After Mundson appears to have died in a plane crash, Johnny and Gilda marry the next day. Then Farrell’s revenge begins: above all, she will be faithful to him. Subsequently, feeling lonely and trapped, she files for divorce and runs away to Montevideo where she obtains a job singing and dancing in a night club. A new paramour (sent by Johnny) convinces her to return to Buenos Aires to secure an annulment--nonexistent--so that she can be free forever. When Gilda discovers that this is only a trick to hand her over to Farrell, enraged, in a revengeful reaction to his rejection and mistreatment, she defiantly decides to make a public performance in the casino’s nightclub, for all to know--not just Johnny--how she really is.  

To his surprise, Johnny hears the orchestra begin to play. From a window in his upstairs office, he then sees her appear on stage, dressed in a sexy, strapless, long black satin dress. She then gives her memorable solo performance singing (dubbed), “Put the Blame on Mame” (Fisher & Roberts, 1946/1973), captivating her audience. (In this scene, as previously noted, the song only includes the stanzas about San Francisco’s earthquake and the shooting of Dan McGrew, for which Mame is blamed.) After the song is over, a bodyguard removes her from stage when she is about to have cheering volunteer guests in the front tables help her unzip her dress for a striptease. Furious, Johnny grabs her by the arm and they fight. 

Gilda has finally decided to return to the United States to escape Johnny’s sadistic punishment and hatred. In the closed nightclub which has been taken over by the Government, she tells the loyal attendant that everything appears “lonely. . .” He answers, “All bad things end up lonely.” And she replies, “I know that.” In the meantime, the chief of police tells Johnny that Gilda is leaving and urges him to go say his goodbye to her--after clarifying that all her seemingly unfaithfulness had just been a show for him which he had believed. Johnny goes to her, but then changes his attitude and requests of her: “Please take me with you, I did everything wrong.” Smiling, she replies, “Isn’t it wonderful? Nobody has to apologize because we both were such stinkers!” At this point, Mundson, who had merely faked his death by parachuting out of the plane because he needed to escape the authorities, returns to the scene and intends to kill them both with a gun. Mundson, however, is suddenly murdered (stabbed) by the employee--not premeditated. When Farrell tries to protect him, the chief of police reminds them all that Mundson committed suicide three months ago, and adds: “Haven’t you heard of a justifiable homicide?” Gilda and Johnny, reconciled and happy, leave the death scene together (from Van Upp & Vidor, 1986/2000). This is the Hollywood ending that Harris had engraved in her long-term memory, underlying her repetitive use of her favorite song. That the usefulness of the song for her persisted for over three decades is striking. 

In retrospect, it is intriguing that this cynical film which so impacted Harris in 1946 is about a sordid triangular situation, with deceit, sadomasochistic relations including mistreatments, hatred and revenge, resolved by an accidental murder which rescues Gilda from being killed. Some parallels with the Harris-Tarnower case are thought-provoking. In the film, in the song, and in reality, murder occurs. Is it merely a coincidence that the timing of Mundson’s death at the end of the film and of Tarnower’s in reality are quite close? Carnival is usually at the end of February, and the murder in the film occurs after the festivities, date not specified. March 10th is near enough--Madeira School spring break began on the 7th. In the unconscious, there is no reality time. 

More specifically, Gilda sings Put the blame on Mame twice: when married to Mundson and then when married to Farrell (with different stanzas). Similarly, Jean sang this song mentally when she married Harris, and then when psychologically tied to Tarnower. Furthermore, at one point in the film, Gilda says to Farrell, “I would destroy myself to take you down with me.” And later, “I hate you so much I’m going to die from it” (from Van Upp & Vidor, 1986/2000). Gilda has become an emotional wreck under his control. Harris, in effect, who declared she had intended to commit suicide, not murder, had became emotionally disturbed in Tarnower’s hands--dependent on Desoxyn (over)prescribed by him for a decade. On that fatal weekend, she had run out of her medication. What was her underlying fear that prevented her from leaving him sooner? Loneliness? Or, did Harris unconsciously harbor the fantasy, following the repetitive movie in her mind, that somehow Tarnower might apologize, get rid of other women, and provide her with a similar happy ending? When the tragedy occurred, in a psychotic state of mind with blurring of distinctions between reality and fantasy, wishful thinking seems possible. What she really thought then in such a distressed and disturbed mental state, however, will never be known in detail. What remains are summarized reports published by Alexander in 1983. 

Trial Errors 

According to Alexander, Joel Martin Aurnou, her defense lawyer made too many mistakes. As he failed to understand Harris, he was unable to make the jury comprehend her behavior. His defense was unbelievable, and he failed to realize the impact of the Scarsdale Letter. He did not offer the jury the option of first degree manslaughter--mercy option. He did not prepare Harris for the trial, and the mental health professionals who tested and treated her were not called to testify, among many other errors.  

Dr. Eileen Bloomingdale, clinical psychologist, administered a standard battery of psychological tests. In her report to the defense she stated that, in her opinion, at no time did Jean intend to murder her lover/father. On the contrary, he was needed as “life-line” (p. 228) to prevent her internal demon from agreement to consummate the suicide act Bloomingdale’s report refers to Jean having felt lonely, empty, inferior, and inadequate throughout her life. Dr. Abraham Halpern, the psychiatrist who treated her after the shooting and during the ensuing months, raised the questions: “Ask yourself: what on earth was Tarnower still doing with Jean Harris? Why did he punish her as he did?” (p. 299). In his opinion, Tarnower malignantly abused Jean; he threatened to banish her but manifestly was unwilling to throw her out. Through her, unconsciously, he was able to continuously revenge himself on all the WASPS whom he hated. Horowitz’s (2001) recent term, “malignant vindictiveness” seems applicable to their relationship.  

Had psychoanalyst Dr. John Train been called to court, he would have declared that on the day of the murder, 10 March 1980, “Jean was psychotic” (p. 276). Her profound resistance to accept a plea of insanity supported his diagnosis of “a psychotic depression of ‘several years’ duration” (p. 276), aggravated by the Desoxyn she had been taking. The initiation of her deterioration could be dated to 1967, when Jean decided to stay with Tarnower, in spite of his not being able to go through the promised marriage, compromising her integrity. He did not considered Harris capable of murder. Although scorned, she only used verbal expressions of her anger--such women kill themselves, not someone else.  

Dr. Train also would have liked to reveal his psychoanalytic interpretation of the struggle Jean had had with her father. To her father’s rejections, she reacted thinking she was nothing. To satisfy her obsessive need to prove herself worthy, she became an overachiever, gaining the approval her father did not give her. Thus, the school mirrored her self, and later the opposite sex had this mirroring role. Then she selected as lover Tarnower, a man lacking empathy who fit her childhood needs, not her adult ones. In the end, she had become a woman utilizing all her energy and skills of adulthood to placate her inner deprived child. This suggests that Harris’s initial attraction to the film song and her use of it at her wedding to Harris was linked with her father’s rejection and mistreatment of her.

The clinical ratification that Harris was suicidal and had no conscious intent to murder Tarnower, as she had declared, is supported in the film. A triangular sadomasochistic relationship is present in both cases. One can only wonder to what extent this overlooked film with Gilda’s hit song “Put the Blame on Mame,” compulsively and obsessively recalled when needed for approximately 34 years, somehow played a role in Harris’s psyche and the tragic outcome of the destructive triangular situation she was living. In Westen and Gabbard’s (2002b) view, “conscious representations spread activation to related unconscious networks” (p. 109). Furthermore,  

    No thought or feeling is free of past influences, any more than it can be free of current ones. All mental processes--feelings, representations, and so forth--reflect the ‘on-line’ integration of previously established potentials with new patterns of perception and thought (p. 112).  

It is lamentable that as a member of the educational system where psychological help is traditionally available, Harris did not engage in professional treatment which would have unmasked her hidden, undiagnosed long-standing depression, and provided her with appropriate medication--not Desoxyn (speed). Alexander reported that just once in fourteen years Harris had reached out to a psychiatric social worker in Connecticut who she had met at another school, asking if and when he would be in New York. Though he was willing to change his plans to meet her, she did not open up on the phone, and never called again. Even more lamentable is that Tarnower, supposedly a caring doctor, failed to refer her to a colleague in the medical profession--a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst.  

People who habitually blame themselves, as Harris, may induce the blaming response in others, like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Additional to being ignorant about the criminal law and the justice system, she was in no mental condition to make decisions on how to conduct her own trial. 

Closing Reflections 

Hayworth in Gilda is remembered for her nightclub performance, recorded in film history; she admitted that it changed her life. Harris, who strongly identified with Gilda’s famous act after graduating from college, sadly enough, decades later, is recalled for her performance on 10 March 1980, recorded in criminal history. It also changed her life.  

Jean Harris is to be thanked for her revelation of her “secret weapon” film song to a journalist, who transmitted the story. It may serve as a red flag for others in the grips of an obsessively recalled film song. Though twenty one years have passed since this work was published, it is never too late for the general public to become aware of the overlooked “secret message”: the use of internal obsessive song recall by family members or friends in daily life may be signaling the need for timely psychological intervention which the evoker may be unable to ask for.  

Repetitive lyrics in the mind, like verbal self-messages, can affect the evoker’s behavior, for better or for worse. It is well known that relationship dynamics in films can affect psychologically vulnerable viewers; less known is that music, particularly with lyrics accompanying such plots, are hardly neutral. Film music in the culture can serve individuals as a healthy avenue for enjoyment and natural cathartic release of tension and stress, or as a pathological escape from an intolerable reality.  


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Cora L. Díaz de Chumaceiro "Jean Harris’ Obsessive Film Song Recall". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 20, 2004, Published: October 16, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Cora L. Díaz de Chumaceiro