One True Thing: Speaking Truer Than It Knows

by Susan Hathaway Boydston

November 20, 2002


In the film One True Thing (and Anna Quindlen's novel on which it is based), we see a powerful example of Freud's "return of the repressed" in the way the subplot contradicts (and deconstructs) the main plot. The story is primarily about New York journalist Ellen Gulden's dawning awareness of her stay-at-home mother's strong role in the family, which leads to a reconciliation between the two before Kate dies of cancer. The secondary story is a murder mystery of a sort, in which Ellen stands accused of overdosing Kate with morphine. On its most salient level the subplot seems implausible, but if we look deeper, we can see how it completely undermines the main plot to reveal unconscious Oedipal conflict, forcing One True Thing, in spite of itself, to speak truer than it knows.


    In the early 70's, when I was a student at Simmons College in Boston, I took a Shakespeare survey course taught by Wylie Sypher, a well-known Shakespeare scholar and a popular professor. We read seventeen plays in one semester, with Sypher delivering riveting lectures three times a week throughout the course. One of the man's many pithy expressions that stands out in my mind came in a lecture on Measure For Measure. Sypher pointed out how the pure, innocent Isabella and the self-righteous, moralistic deputy Angelo are always "speaking better than they know." Their repressed sexual attraction for each other reveals itself in the unconscious double entendres of their dialogue. This, of course, is an example of Freud's Wiederkehr des Verdrängten, or the "return of the repressed," the unconscious's devious way of finding a compromise route to expressing our primitive desires (3: 170). Whether the phrase "speaking better than they know" was original with him, or not, I liked Sypher's elegant way of describing one manifestation of the "return of the repressed." A great public example of this is Gary Hart's response to reporters when he was running for President and there were rumors flying that he was unfaithful to his wife. He said, "Go ahead, put a tail on me, you'll find it very boring." It was only a few days later that the shipboard photo of him with Donna Rice sitting on his lap came out. A crass interpretation of his comment would be that, yes, his "tail" was very boring.

    In the film One True Thing (and Anna Quindlen's novel on which it is based), we see a version of Sypher's "speaking better than they know" in the two plot lines, with the subplot contradicting (and deconstructing), in important ways, the intentions of the main plot, while at the same time, in Freudian terms, revealing unconscious Oedipal sexual desire and guilt. The story is primarily about New York journalist Ellen Gulden's dawning awareness of her stay-at-home mother's strong role in the family, which leads to a reconciliation between the two before Kate dies of cancer. The subplot is a murder mystery of a sort, in which Ellen stands accused of overdosing Kate with morphine. On the most salient level the implausibility of this secondary plot obliterates, for me, any of the tearjerker qualities of the mother-daughter reconciliation story. As Stephen Holden says in his 1998 review in The New York Times, "Right up until the end, the film plays an annoyingly coy game of whodunit to drum up a spurious suspense that taints the essential human drama" (Weekend 1+). But, on a deeper level, and much more interesting, is how, if we take a look at the logical flow of events, it completely undermines the intentions of the main story.

    Briefly reviewing the main plot, as the film opens, Ellen is speaking to the poker-faced District Attorney who is conducting an inquiry into her mother's death. Ellen is describing the progression of her mother's illness and, while she speaks, the film flashes back to the return to her hometown of Langhorne for a surprise birthday party Kate is throwing for George, her husband. The next day Kate discovers she has cancer and later George cajoles a reluctant Ellen into taking a leave of absence from New York magazine to live at home and care for her mother. Over the next few months, we see Ellen grow to appreciate and value Kate's cheerful devotion to domesticity, something she has previously dismissed and disdained. Ellen has grown up worshiping, and trying to please, her English professor father, wanting nothing to do with what she has considered the inconsequential interests of her mother. The crisis of Kate's illness forces Ellen to realize that her mother is the one who holds the family together, who keeps it, and everyone in it, from falling apart under the weight of George's self-absorption and philandering. In the most important scene in the film, Kate, in pain and considerably weakened from the cancer, advises Ellen that, "It's so much easier to learn to love what you have instead of yearning always for what you're missing, or what you imagine you're missing." Kate reveals to Ellen that she knows about George's affairs, but many years ago decided to stay on and make the best of it and be happy with her life. If the film (and the book) had confined itself to this central drama, then the story would have been a credible tearjerker.

    After Kate's death, however, there is an autopsy, which she requested in order that her family might be able to find out what caused her cancer, or where it started. This is unusual and, really, not in character with Kate who has spent years ignoring her husband's thinly veiled excuses for his late nights. She doesn't seem to be the type of person who wants any potential unpleasantness revealed. The autopsy results show that Kate died, not of cancer, but of an overdose of morphine. And the suspect is, of course, Kate's caretaker, Ellen, whom everyone in town knows is cold and selfish and probably wants to get back to her high-powered job in New York. Ellen, meanwhile, believes that her father gave her mother the overdose in the rice pudding he spoon fed her the night she died, having found her mother's empty bottle of morphine pills in the wastebasket the next day. But, in the end, we discover that it was neither Ellen, nor her father who administered the fatal morphine, but Kate, herself.

    It is, of course, within the realm of real world possibility that Kate would request an autopsy (maybe in the hopes of protecting her children from a heritable form of cancer) and that the coroner would perform it. But, according to oncologist Doug Hawley, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether she died of an overdose of morphine because, by the time she died, her system would have been able to tolerate such a high dose of the narcotic, that it would be hard to determine what was a lethal dose. In the book, it is not Kate, but her doctor who orders the autopsy, which is even more implausible. Again, summoning Dr. Hawley's expertise, it would be very unusual for a doctor who knew that a patient was dying of cancer and had been in great pain to order an autopsy, even if that patient died at home and not under the controlled conditions of a hospital.

    The autopsy, therefore, appears to be a glaring plot mechanism used to set the whodunit in motion. Aristotle says in his Poetics that a "convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility" (1485-86). Kate's autopsy is an unconvincing possibility, as are other events in the whodunit plot. The inquiry, itself, for instance, is an unconvincing possibility. In the book it is even clearer than in the film that the people of Langhorne hate Ellen because of her reputation as cold, competitive and highly intelligent. The story makes more of Ellen than she warrants; I'm not convinced the townspeople would be that angry with her. I don't think they would even begrudge her having gone to Harvard and her living in New York. It doesn't seem plausible to me they would think about Ellen and envy her as much as the film, and the book, would have us believe. It's more what Ellen, perhaps taking after her narcissistic father, believes people would be thinking about her. It reveals her own misunderstanding of her place in the scheme of things and her own devaluation of other people's lives. Just because she has been brought up by her father to believe that you're nobody unless you're the smartest person in the class, go on to graduate from Harvard and secure a high-powered job in New York doesn't mean that everybody else has the same set of values.

    The implausibility of the autopsy and the ensuing investigation leads me to search for more believable reasons behind the characters' actions. If we look closely at the events of the whodunit, we can see the possibility of a totally different reading of Kate's personality, in diametric opposition to the story's portrayal of her character. Kate self-administers the lethal dose of morphine without telling anyone, which I think we're supposed to believe is because she wants to unburden her family (especially her daughter) from having to care for her. And then the autopsy is, we could suppose, to help her family, as well. But why does she take the overdose when she knows she will be autopsied? Fuzzy thinking when she is near the end of her life, drugged, and in so much pain? Another explanation, however, if you look at the logical consequences of her actions, is that she was setting her daughter up to be a murder suspect and aiming to split her husband and daughter apart with their reciprocal suspicions.

    This would make sense psychologically, considering the dynamics of the family. Kate is characterized as a loving, forgiving and generous person, content to stand in the background while her husband and daughter form a tight intellectual bond and go out into the world to garner recognition and success. In other words, she's too good to be true. However, the secondary plot indicates a more emotionally plausible response to the family role Kate has endured. After all those years of being disdained by her husband and daughter as a lightweight, putting up with her husband's indiscretions and daughter's scorn, receiving no recognition for her own vital role in the family, it would fit psychologically that she would seek revenge beyond the grave. If only author Quindlen and screenwriter Karen Croner had recognized the material before them, both the novel and the film could have had powerfully ambiguous Hitchkockian (or Shyamalanian) endings, leaving Ellen, George and the rest of us pondering who Kate really was. And it would have been extremely satisfying to contemplate her having so elegantly outsmarted Ellen and George.

    Beyond this, it's not just any two people disdaining a third person; it is, of course, an Oedipal triangle, which further supports the motivation for the mother seeking revenge on the daughter and the father. Not only has the father aligned himself with his daughter to devalue the mother, but he has also humiliated the mother by having affairs with his students. The unconscious message from him to the daughter and mother would be, If I think it's okay to sleep with my female students, then I might think it's okay to sleep with my daughter, my most prized and loved female student.

    Even more powerfully, Kate's revenge makes sense from Ellen's point of view. The child, in this case the daughter, in the unconscious Oedipal triangle, unable to bear the guilt and terror of wishing her mother dead and out of the way so she can marry her father, projects her anger onto the mother and re-imagines her as the angry vengeful one. (e.g. the wicked stepmothers in Snow White and Cinderella). This also satisfies another dimension of the Oedipal triangle for the child, which is, as a consequence of the vengeful feelings, a sense of guilt and the need to be punished. The murder accusation against Ellen finds its weakness in the fact that it is based in reality, because it is really a portrayal of punishment for unconscious Oedipal guilt. Ellen, in the Oedipal constellation of her family, feels on some level that she is to blame for her mother's death. If Quindlen and Croner had seen it this way, they could have placed the murder mystery, not in the real world with its consequent implausibility, but in Ellen's and/or Kate's mind where it belongs. The mother-daughter reconciliation story could have then come to a psychologically complex and believable resolution, instead of winding down with a spurious suspense story that undermines, rather than enhances, the central human drama.

    To extrapolate on Professor Sypher's insight into the dialogue of Shakespeare's Isabella and Antonio, One True Thing ends up "speaking truer than it knows." We're meant to interpret 'one true thing' as an uplifting message of love and reconciliation; however, the subplot reveals the repressed Oedipal desires and conflicts that are the dark underbelly, the truth that will not die.

     Finally, and self-reflexively, it is interesting that in my essay which focuses on the Oedipal triangle, I quote in the introductory paragraph three idealized male authority figures: first, Sypher, an English professor like George Gulden; second, Freud, one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century; and, third, Hart, a politician who, again, like George, is a philanderer. In the body of the text I refer to three other male authority figures: film critic Stephen Holden, Aristotle, and physician Doug Hawley. Sypher, Freud, Hart, Holden, Aristotle, Hawley, all male authority figures used to support my critique of the texts of two female authority figures, author Anna Quindlen and screenwriter Karen Croner. Further, in the essay I question the motives of another female authority figure, Ellen's mother Kate. Is there an Oedipal triangle going on in this text? We all speak better than we know.   

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random, 1966.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Trans. and ed. James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alex Strachey and Alan Tyson. 24 vols. London: Hogarth and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-74.

Hawley, Douglas. Personal interview. October 1998.

Holden, Stephen. "A Time to Hold, A Time to Let Go." New York Times 18 Sept. 1998:Weekend 1+.

One True Thing. Dir. Carl Franklin. Perf. Meryl Streep, Renée Zellweger, and William

Hurt. Universal Pictures, 1998.

Quindlen, Anna. One True Thing. New York: Dell, 1994

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Susan Hathaway Boydston "One True Thing: Speaking Truer Than It Knows". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 18, 2002, Published: November 20, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Susan Hathaway Boydston