Like two skins, one inside the other”: Dual Unity in Brokeback Mountain

by David Willbern

October 26, 2008


By focusing on the specific language of Annie Proulx’s story – with some references to the Ang Lee film – I speculate that the sources of imaginative production (writing) and popular reception (reading) lie in memories and evocations of early (infantile) emotional life. Using concepts from object-relations psychoanalysis, I argue that the deepest texture of unconscious experience in Brokeback Mountain links to preverbal life, evoked in the story by metaphors of bodily images and sensations: smells, noises, warmth, coldness, and intimate embrace. I suggest that the extraordinary popularity of both story and film is anchored in this matrix of pre-oedipal, universal, human experience -- beyond sexuality, straight or gay.


David Wilbern Brokeback Mountain EssayIn an interview, Annie Proulx revealed that the impulse for her now-famous story, “Brokeback Mountain,” came from her observation of a middle-aged cowboy in a Wyoming bar, nursing his beer in solitude while gazing at the handsome younger men around him. In another conversation she remarked how especially difficult it was to get inside these particular characters; how the story haunted her for months as she tried to get it right. The question of a writer's uncanny imaginative habitation of characters is in this case intensified by the distances between a New England woman in her seventies and the young, male westerners she invented.1

Inventing characters is of course a main work of writers, but I suggest that the sources for Proulx's literary figures emerged not merely from her empathic social observations, and not merely from her personal preference for male characters. Underlying the fictional relationship of two sexually confused, adolescent men is another scene, anchored in our primary emotional life, and perhaps especially available to Annie Proulx as a woman, and mother. In this brief essay I'll examine the story and the film in terms of literary and cinematic texture, and from the perspective of object-relations psychoanalysis.

The story begins with a short, present-tense prologue: a snapshot of one of the characters as he begins his day.

Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft.

This opening is carefully composed. The verbs “rocking” and “hissing” suggest a metaphoric matrix of primal movement and sound. A glimpse of the shuddering shirts hints at the final climactic scene. The paragraph proceeds to describe Ennis's morning routine, expresses his concerns about his property and family (a married daughter), then concludes with his feelings of pleasure “because Jack Twist was in his dream.”

If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong. The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence.

Those final two sentences produce a collision between past wish-fulfillment and present rough reality. Ennis's feeling that nothing seemed wrong is countered by a blast of wind “like a load of dirt...” Metaphorically, the world dumps on his dream.

The private interiority of Proulx's written scene—inside a trailer, inside the character's head—contrasts vividly with the expansive exteriority of Ang Lee's film version of the story, which opens with a long shot of a truck on a rural highway, slowing to pick up the hitch-hiking Ennis, with massive snow-capped mountains in the background. For the first five minutes there is no dialogue, only moving pictures. (This distinction frames a core difference between fiction and film: in the former, a reader can actively re-create in her or his imagination the experiences evoked on the page; in the latter, a viewer more passively attends to the phenomena on the screen.)

In both story and film, as their emotional and erotic relationship develops, Ennis and Jack variously share conventional postures of male and female, active and passive. Â Ennis tends to be static and domestic; Jack is mobile and promiscuous. Â Ennis rides “a big chestnut called Cigar Butt” while Jack has a bay mare. Jack is a talker; Ennis tends to keep his counsel. When they share the tent one cold winter night, Jack makes the first sexual move but Ennis quickly takes charge, “nothing he'd done before but no instruction manual needed.” They don't talk about the event or its repetitions except to deny their homosexuality: “I'm not no queer”; “Me neither.” Jack seems more comfortable with his sexual orientation than Ennis. He again initiates (by letter) later encounters with Ennis, visits Mexico for male prostitutes, and in the film tries to pick up a rodeo cowboy at a bar. Besides his uncontrollable attraction to Jack, Ennis seems at home, although uncomfortably, with heterosexuality. Jack's fantasy of domestic partnership involves “a little ranch together, little cow and calf operation, your horses, it'd be some sweet life.” He has at least a plan, or thought, or dream of an actual long-term relationship: some kind of constancy and contentment.

Ennis, less comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, quickly counters this dream with an account of two old ranchers, in which one is brutally killed by his homophobic neighbors—“drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp”—suggesting further that his own father may have been involved in the assault. Such dire consequences of aberrant sexual behavior are prefigured in the film by the discovery of a dead sheep, eviscerated by a coyote, on the morning after their first sexual encounter. These themes or fantasies are adumbrated as well in the characters' names: Twist and del Mar.

A theme of family violence and abuse pervades Proulx's story. Ennis tells how his father urged him to sucker-punch his older brother to avoid getting hit, and Jack reveals how his father went into “a crazy rage” over his four-year-old son's toilet tardiness, knocking him down and then urinating all over him.

“But while he was hosin me down I seen he had some extra material that I was missin. I seen they'd cut me different like you'd crop a ear or scorch a brand. No way to get it right with him after that.”

Although the scene strains this reader's credulity (and was wisely not included in the screenplay for the film), it does suggest a deep sexual basis to Jack's “twistedness”: his perceived difference from authentic (and violent) masculinity, remarked in bestial terms (circumcision is analogous to marking cattle). When we meet John Twist, Sr., at the end of the story, his icy severity barely hides his anger about the lifestyle and fate of his dead son. Intra-familial abuse even pervades conversational slang: “Jack said he was doing all right but he missed Ennis bad enough sometimes to make him whip babies.”

Against these scenes of domestic violence, male-on-male, stand memories and wishes of nostalgic harmony. Most powerful is this recollection:

What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger.

They had stood that way for a long time in front of the fire, its burning tossing ruddy chunks of light, the shadow of their bodies a single column against the rock. . . . Ennis's breath came slow and quiet, he hummed, rocked a little in the sparklight and Jack leaned against the steady heartbeat, the vibrations of the humming like faint electricity and, standing, he fell into sleep that was not sleep but something else drowsy and tranced until Ennis, dredging up a rusty but still useable phrase from the childhood time before his mother died, said, “Time to hit the hay, cowboy.” . . .

Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it, even the knowledge that Ennis would not then embrace him face to face because he did not want to see or feel that it was Jack he held.

Ang Lee's film stages the scene in terms of physical postures, but it cannot include the emotional density or literary texture of Proulx's paragraphs. Her style mixes memory and desire, creating a tableau of inarticulate and inarticulable feelings, a “silent [and] sexless” union of two bodies reflected as one: breathing, humming, and rocking to a “steady heartbeat,” in a trance-like semi-consciousness. For Ennis, the moment evokes a memory of his deceased mother's bedtime phrase. Jack's reconstruction of the scene as a perfect moment is modified by a denial that latently admits a problem: “Nothing marred it ….” The echo of Ennis's name (del Mar) precedes an acknowledgement that Jack's fantasy was not shared by his partner, who would not turn face-to-face. What was initially blissful and united develops into separation and divided consciousness.  Dual union splits into duality. The nostalgic dream admits both pleasure and pain.2

Like the windy assault of reality on reverie at the beginning, the next event in the story is Ennis's discovery of Jack's death, when his postcard returns with the stamp “Deceased.” Ennis listens to the official family story of accidental death, but suspects immediately that he was killed by lethal homophobia: “No, he thought, they got him with the tire iron.”3 He visits the “meagre little place [in] desolate country” where Jack's parents live. The father is silent, tense, angry, insisting that his son be buried in the “family plot.” The father doesn't recognize the pun, but I suspect the author does: the official story of the son's death—the family's plot—will admit no version that violates convention. Even in death, especially in death, Jack will be straightened out. The mother is welcoming, offering coffee and cake. She allows Ennis to visit Jack's room, which she has kept as it was when he was a boy. (This family dynamic of distant, angry father and protective, submissive mother neatly sketches or caricatures a textbook case of filial homosexual production as theorized by many psychoanalysts in the 1960s and 70s.)4

In Jack's room, Ennis discovers a closet recess, and in it, hung together, the plaid shirt he thought he had lost and the blood-stained shirt Jack wore during horseplay on Brokeback Mountain, “the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.”

He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it...

Back home in his trailer, Jack creates a modest memorial, consisting of a postcard scene of Brokeback Mountain and the two shirts on their single hanger. He hasn't much to say: “'Jack, I swear -- .'” His silence is however compensated by his dreams, in which Jack appears, big as life, “curly-headed and smiling and bucktoothed,” sitting on a log by a can of beans with a spoon jutting out, in a picture of “comic obscenity. The spoon handle was the kind that could be used as a tire iron.” Ennis would wake in grief or in joy, “the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets.” In these images Proulx neatly manages the ambivalence of arousal and guilt, excitation and mourning, fantasy (spoon) and reality (tire iron).

Several years after the story was published, Ang Lee's film opened to great anticipation, and quickly aroused controversy. Â The movie is largely faithful to the story, although it introduces extraneous events of heterosexuality and patriotism that to my mind inflate and adulterate Proulx's tale. Audiences and reviewers responded largely along three lines:

(1) “Gay Cowboy Movie”: A hasty and conventional take, this perspective upon reflection fades quickly, since the characters are not simply gay, and not cowboys.5 Initially they're teenagers, with little sexual experience, who experiment in their secluded solitude—not unusually so. One, Jack, seems aware of his homosexuality, while the other, Ennis, accepts it with difficulty. On Brokeback Mountain they manage sheep, not cattle, and hence occupy an ancient profession, with a long tradition of pastoral conventions going back to classic Latin and Greek poetry and myth: an idyllic union with nature, outside of society, full of erotic pursuit and play, operating on the pleasure principle.6 This story takes place in Wyoming, where as an old saying goes, “men are men, women are scarce, and the sheep are very nervous.”7 Jack plays at being a cowboy in rodeos, but he's not good at it and soon quits. There is a class distinction here: sheep and shepherds are lower on the western professional ladder than cattle and cowboys, and rodeo riders are not real cowboys—at least according to Ennis's father, who said they were all “fuck-ups” (so Ennis quotes his father in the film).

(2) “Universal Love Story”: This perspective was how the film was advertised, and is a frequent component of audience response. Â It was advanced by the director, Ang Lee, and producer, James Schamus, and to a degree by Proulx. Â In this view the story is about two people in love -- truly, deeply -- who through no fault of their own come to grief, in a modern version of the saga of Romeo and Juliet. Although a popular view, it doesn't hold up well under close examination. In fact it's a denial of major themes of both story and film, which are the dangerous -- indeed lethal -- effects of social homophobia, and the devastating psychological effects of self-contempt in a person who represses core parts of his sexual identity. Daniel Mendelsohn's film review in The New York Review of Books is persuasive on this point.8

(3) “Epistemology of the Closet”: This is Mendelsohn's perspective, based on his own personal and perceptive critique of the film, and on recent scholarship from the gay academic community (“Queer Theory”), particularly Eve Sedgwick, who coined the phrase.9 As Mendelsohn puts it:

Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the "closet"— about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it.

Proulx and the film's screenwriters, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, are clearly aware of the circumstance of the closet, since both story and film frame their dramatic conclusions in that specific space and context, where two shirts hang as forlorn memorial to lost love and lost possibility.

The three perspectives are not really compatible, yet the ideas and energies they arouse highlight the cogency and volatility of contemporary considerations of sexuality, whether gay, straight, or other. In the apparently simpler world of Ennis and Jack—or of America in the 1960s and 70s -- love is either straight or twisted, but contemporary American sexual identities or orientations now claim a range of options: straight, gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered, transsexual, pansexual, or “genderqueer.” We might simplify the phenomenon of Brokeback Mountain—in terms of both artistic production and audience response—by noting how it reveals the collision of idealized, pastoral, “natural” love with socially-formed, repressive “proper” love. From this perspective, both story and film disclose two views of erotic life:

(1) a free, natural relationship of two young men in a pastoral paradise—which we see in the film as high-spirited horseplay in the field of nature, and which we read in the story as “only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air” -- and

(2) a repressive, socially-framed, “unnatural” relationship, as witnessed and judged by the foreman, Joe Aquirre, or by the father, John Twist, Sr.. Â It's now public, subject to moral judgment, under the reality principle. As Mendelsohn points out in his review, we first see the young men in post-coital play transparently, through the camera lens, but then discover that we're looking through the condemnatory binoculars of Joe Aguirre. The director allows us a glimpse of the pure, amoral (natural) relation, then gives it a moral (cultural) twist.

A promotional poster for the film carries the slogan, “Love is a force of nature.” This apparently unarguable assertion blurs boundaries between animal urge and human choice, so that individuals are subjected to a super-personal force; human motives are subsumed in natural impulse. In the film Ennis worries, “If this thing grabs hold of us again,” and in the story he employs an appropriate equine metaphor: “There's no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me.”  Our own experience may well confirm the power of such sexual energies. The promotional claim also reminded me of a book on Freud's theory of Eros: Love and Its Place in Nature, by Jonathan Lear (1990).  Lear reviews Freud's discovery of “the archaic mind” and its primary erotic relationship to the world. Our primitive infantile sexuality consists of touch and smell, confusions of inner and outer, fantasy and reality, self and other, wish and satisfaction. Our earliest modes of pleasure are oral: taking in, incorporation, modes of archaic identification, regularly experienced during the primary and extended period of mother-infant nursing. The template of that experience forms the prototype of subsequent relations: as Freud famously noted, “The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it.”10 Successive love objects are thus substitute objects, as we gradually learn to separate ourselves from that primal union. Love is both regressive (“refinding”) and progressive (search for substitute objects). Normal ego development promotes the emergence of an “I” from the undifferentiated “nature” of archaic life: or as Freud stated, “Wo Es war soll Ich werden” (“Where it was shall I become”).11 Eventually we establish a mature relation to our archaic impulses, achieving a personal acceptance of and responsibility for ourselves, our feelings, thoughts, and actions. Lear puts it this way: “It is through love that the boundaries of [the psyche] are redrawn so that what were once taken to be forces of nature I now recognize as my own active mind.”12   A similar process gets described in Proulx's paragraphs about the dual-union embrace of Jack and Ennis by the fire. What is blissfully semi-conscious gradually emerges into uneasy consciousness.

Lear's recapitulations of Freud extend to post-Freudian theory, especially object-relations, including Klein, Mahler, Winnicott, and Loewald.13 To pinpoint the relevance of these ideas to Brokeback Mountain I want to consider the two shirts, enfolded or embraced within each other, as models of what Mahler termed “the symbiotic phase” of the maternal dyad, or dual unity, and of what Winnicott called the “transitional object.”

Re-creating and reversing the scene of their standing embrace, when Ennis held Jack from behind, here Jack's shirt envelops Ennis's. The pairing materially produces a intimate symbol: “two skins, … two in one.”  The shirts thus re-enact or re-present a primal bond: the pleasurable and nurturing symbiosis (in Mahler's terms) of mother and child, or as Proulx writes, “the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger.”  From another perspective, as an object hanging on a nail in Ennis's trailer, the shirts become a condensed emblem: a refined aesthetic model of a transitional object (in Winnicott's terms) that represents and re-animates in memory and dream his lost relationship with Jack -- and another relationship before that (it is Ennis who recalls his mother during the standing embrace).  “The shadow of their bodies a single column against the rock,” as Proulx describes it. This vivid figure evokes another famous Freudian phrase, appropriately from “Mourning and Melancholia,” connoting psychic development from symbiosis to individuation: “The shadow of the object has fallen on the ego.”14 Torn, dirty, bloodied, the worn fabric holds the crucial past: a link to lost experience, like a child's favorite blanket— a primary con-text. This is I think the deepest texture of unconscious experience in Brokeback Mountain, which is why so many of Proulx's metaphors involve bodily images, smells, noises, warmth and coldness—signs of preverbal life. Perhaps the extraordinary popularity of the story and the film is anchored in this matrix of pre-oedipal, preverbal, universal human experience -- beyond sexuality, straight or gay, and beyond judgment.


1 The story was first published in The New Yorker in 1997, then in a collection titled Close Range: Wyoming Stories in 1999; the film opened in 2005. Several interviews with Proulx can be found online:

Of course her sensitivity to masculine identities may be heightened by the facts of her three sons, whom she raised as a single mother, and her wish that she had had a brother. See her biographical entry in The Literary Encyclopedia, online at

2 The term nostalgia derives from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). The ultimate maternal focus of this moment is clear from its images and associations.

3 In October 1998, one year after “Brokeback Mountain” was first published, the young gay man Matthew Shephard was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming.

4 See Irving Beiber, Homosexuality (1962), and Charles Socarides, The Overt Homosexual (1968). Coincidentally the adventures of Ennis and Jack occur during two decades of heated controversy in the American Psychological Association over definitions and treatments concerning homosexuality. The best account of this period is Ronald Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychiatry (NY: Basic Books, 1981).

5 In an interview, Proulx exclaimed, “Excuse me, but it is NOT a story about ‘two cowboys.' It is a story about two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in 1963 who have left home and who find themselves in a personal sexual situation they did not expect, understand nor can manage.”

6 Christopher Marlowe's famous sixteenth-century lyric, “Come live with me and be my love,” is relevant in this context. Although usually read as a heterosexual seduction poem, it was written by a gay poet.

7 The joke extends to Montana as well; another version goes: “Montana / Wyoming, where men are men, women are scarce, and the sheep are damn little liars.”

8 Daniel Mendelsohn, “An Affair to Remember,” NYRB 53 (February, 2006). The review prompted a reply from James Schamus, producer of the film, which was then answered by Mendelsohn. The disputatious exchange is intelligent and enlightening: see NYRB 53 (April 2006).

9 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1990.

10 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Standard Edition VII, 222.

11 New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933), Standard Edition XXII, 80. Strachey's translation: “Where id was, there ego shall be.” In a nice simile that juxtaposes the forces of nature and civilization, Freud adds a final sentence: “It is a work of culture—not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.”

12 Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature, p. 177. Hans Loewald stated a similar idea with more complexity, when he wrote about “appropriating or owning up to one's needs and impulses as one's own.” “Such appropriation,” he continued,
in the course of which we begin to develop a sense of self-identity, means to experience ourselves as agents, notwithstanding the fact that we were born without our consent and did not pick our parents. To begin with we were more or less fortunate victims, and it may be claimed that in some sense this remains true as long as we live, victims of our instincts and those of others, not to mention other forces of nature and social life. (“The Waning of the Oedipus Complex,” p. 392 [see note below).

13 The core theoretical texts here are Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation, and Other Works, 1921-1945 (New York: The Free Press, 1975), Margaret Mahler, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation (New York: Basic Books, 1975) , D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock Publications, 1971), and Hans Loewald, “The Waning of the Oedipus Complex” (1979), in Papers on Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 384-404. Â Although some of these ideas—especially Klein's and Mahler's—have been challenged by contemporary psychoanalytic thought, I believe they remain relevant to the “nature” of Proulx's story.

14 “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Standard Edition V, 249.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: David Willbern "Like two skins, one inside the other”: Dual Unity in Brokeback Mountain". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 3, 2008, Published: October 26, 2008. Copyright © 2008 David Willbern