In Brian Forbes’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) persuades her husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) to commit a “savage” act: He kidnaps a young girl, and then by revealing knowledge about the girl’s whereabouts to the parents, Myra hopes to achieve fame and fortune as a medium. Billy becomes a criminal due to a long-standing habit of appeasement in his marriage.
Appeasement is giving in to the unjust demands of another person to avoid a conflict. Ayn Rand defines appeasement as “the consideration for and compliance with the unjust, irrational and evil feelings of others. It is a policy of exempting the emotions of others from moral judgment, and of willingness to sacrifice innocent, virtuous victims to the evil malice of such emotions.”1 To stop being an appeaser requires strength—the ability to say no. Billy is a weak husband, giving in to Myra’s unjust demands. He risks the physical and emotional well-being of an innocent girl to make his wife happy.
One reason Billy appeases Myra is because he is financially dependent on her. Due to his asthma, he is unable to work, making it easier for Myra to manipulate him. She tells him, “you’re weak” and “you need me.” He obeys her like a willing servant, his eyes often averted from her gaze. Myra is a bully who has her unemployed husband “whipped.”
Myra manipulates Billy so she can achieve her dream of becoming a famous medium. Because her plan involves a crime, she engages in rationalization to justify it: “the most commonly used defense mechanism, in which an individual justifies ideas, actions, or feelings with seemingly acceptable reasons or explanations.”2 Myra reasons that “what we are doing is not wrong” because “the child won’t be hurt in any way.” In Myra’s mind, the only kind of harm she can cause a child is physical, not emotional. She even convinces herself that they have not kidnapped the girl: “We’ve borrowed a child, Billy. Borrowed, borrowed. Just keep saying that.” Through rationalization, Myra convinces herself that they have not committed a crime.
Myra’s reasoning is that the ends justify the means. She tells Billy, “What we are doing is a means to an end. You agree with the end, don’t you?” She then argues, “Well, you must agree with the means.” Myra believes that if Billy agrees with her desire to become famous (the ends) then he should agree with kidnapping a girl (the means). Later, she orders Billy to kill the child: “Do it for me, Billy, so we both can be safe.” To believe that the ends justify the means is to reject any absolute standard of right and wrong. This relativistic “reasoning” allows Myra to feel no guilt for her crime.
The largest gap in Myra’s reasoning is the kidnapping plot itself. If she is a real medium, then she wouldn’t need to prove her abilities by faking them. For Myra, the truth is the opposite of truth. This is seen when Mrs. Clayton (Nanette Newman) unexpectedly arrives at the Savage’s house, and Myra becomes ecstatic saying, “She can share my truth.” Her so-called “truth” involves telling Mrs. Clayton knowledge about her daughter that she gained by abducting her. Myra engages in doublespeak, calling things the opposite of what they are.
Myra manipulates Billy to kidnap a young girl because she is insane. A woman who suffered “too much sorrow”, the death of her unborn baby shattered her mind, and became delusional—believing that she was in contact with the spirit of her dead son. Billy’s actions show how madness can be contagious. He tells Myra, “We’re mad, you and me. We’re both mad.” Billy is not mentally-ill, but appeasing his wife—submitting to her irrational demands—was an act of madness.
- “Appeasement,” Ayn Rand Lexicon, accessed August 15, 2013, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/appeasement.html
- Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, 8th edition, s.v. “Rationalization,” accessed April 27, 2015, http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/rationalization