To Write Love On Her Arms

This may come as a shocker, but I don’t think fairytale endings exist. In fact, I think that, most of the time, people don’t even know what we’re doing. Today I watched a movie called To Write Love On Her Arms (2012), and it made me even more sure of these things. Here’s why.

To Write Love On Her Arms is a movie based on the true story of a girl named Renee who grew up with what is referred to both as bipolar disorder and as an active imagination. In high school she becomes a victim of rape, and that event in addition to her previous condition snowballs into what becomes a serious cutting habit along with a drug and alcohol addiction. The majority of the movie takes place in and around the time she decides to get clean.

What I loved about this movie was how all of its characters balanced between fighting their own demons and each other’s, and the character of David McKenna illustrates this idea more than anyone. We’re introduced to him as a recovered addict and as Renee’s best friend Dylan’s boss. He comes into the movie as a mentor figure who knows what Renee is going through and where to take her. That’s typical in a movie, or any story for that matter- to have a character who has advice and knows what to do.

But McKenna is different. As the movie goes on, we realize that he isn’t as put together as he seems to be. In fact, although he attempts to put forth this narrative that he has gone through the dark side and seen the light, he is in fact just as vulnerable as Renee, maybe even more. Eventually, he admits his belief that he himself is the problem central to his addiction, that no matter who he meets or where he goes, his problem won’t go away because the problem is him. These are not the words of a man who has come to terms with his past or who has everything figured out. These are the words of a man who goes through an invisible battle every day, a man who believes that his life is a problem to be solved. How can he possibly be helping someone else?

Renee feels the same way when her story begins to touch people who then reach out to her for support. They do this because we are so often taught that stories work a certain way, that people go through problems and come out on the other side newly enlightened and with the ability to help others in the same position. But, right out of rehab, Renee is “still messed up.” She doesn’t believe that she has any right to offer advice to others, because she hasn’t even figured out herself.

This movie illuminates so many oft-unspoken things, but one of them is the invaluable lesson that even the people who help us also need help themselves. That sometimes those of us who need help the most are the ones who won’t ask for it. That the stories we tell arc much more gracefully than the sketched and smudged lines of real life. Jamie, the man who brings Renee’s story to the world, says that he wrote her story because he wanted to believe in happy endings. But happy endings are not that simple: the truth is that sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes things are over before we can find the good side. Sometimes sober people relapse.

In fact, at the end of the movie, Renee realizes that it’s her turn to help McKenna through his own relapse. At first she can’t understand how the man who mentored her let himself fall back into his addictions. But then he admits what Renee, and all of us, have felt at some point: “I don’t have anybody, okay?” Renee simply replies, “I don’t either.” It’s not a conventional story: the student has not become the teacher and the teacher has not become the student. Instead, the story has become much more real because Renee and McKenna both feel alone, and that’s what brings them together.

At one point in the movie, Renee asks God, “Why did you make me like this?” In this powerful moment, it’s easy to understand how Renee- or anyone else- could wonder what the point is in even being alive. One might think, why does the world need someone like me? To that I answer, because we all suffer. And the fact that you suffer- not whether or not you turn out “okay”- is what gives you the ability to connect with others. I’ve said before that things fit better together when they’re roughed up a little bit. Maybe it’s our bumps, our bruises, our cracks, and our scars that help us to find our place with each other.

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Learn about To Write Love On Her Arms here.