The Metaphor of Chronic Illness in Rosemary’s Baby & Safe

A month or so ago I finally saw Rosemary’s Baby for the first time. My S.O. had been trying to watch it with me for awhile, and I always pushed it off. (I don’t watch a lot of scary movies). This week I watched Todd Haynes’ film Safe, on the recommendation of another friend.  With both films I was floored by how specifically relatable I found them. Both films follow a character suffering with a medical ailment that seems unknowable and incurable. Shortly after becoming pregnant, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) experiences painful stomach cramps. She loses weight, becomes pale, and has unusual cravings. Her doctor insists all is normal, and that the pain will subside soon, but it doesn’t. In Safe, Carol’s (Julianne Moore) mundane life is suddenly interrupted by extreme “reactions” with no apparent cause. She has bouts of coughing, fatigue, nose bleeds, and seizures. Doctor’s tell her she’s perfectly healthy and her husband doesn’t take her seriously, but her symptoms persist.

Both films examine gender roles. Both lead character’s are women with a lot of expectations set on them. Both Rosemary and Carol perform traditionally “feminine” roles. Both face a collective of people, mostly men, who put them in harm’s way and then make them feel dumb for raising concern. Both are domestic horror films about the frustrating, dangerous, and polite practice of gaslighting. These films heighten the very real and banal terror of being made to doubt yourself, and second guess your own experience. I believe everybody experiences gaslighting at some point, with varying levels of severity, but women and other marginalized people experience it on a more macro, societal scale. I, being a straight, cis, white man, have not and never will experience such gaslighting first hand. I do however relate to these films, and I viscerally feel the experience they posit…an effect similar to that of gaslighting, if not gaslighting itself.

For the past five years, I’ve struggled with an unidentified chronic illness. Only about an hour after eating I feel tremendously hungry again. Even if my stomach still feels full, I feel shaky and fatigued. I never sleep through the night without needing to get up for a snack at least once, usually more. I never feel fully rested. I need to carefully plan around meals and constantly have snacks on me. Initially I thought it was hyperglycemia. Symptomatically that seemed to fit the bill, more or less. Tests show that it was not hyperglycemia, my blood sugar is perfectly normal. I’ve seen three gastroenterologists, an endocrinologist, an allergist, a homeopath, an infectious disease specialist, and a neurologist. They’ve sucked a lot of blood out of my arm, they’ve taken dozens of pictures of my guts and my brain, and they’ve made me mail them my shit more times than I can count. Then they tell me that I seem totally normal.

Both of these films perfectly depict how I feel trying to investigate my medical issue: overwhelmed, isolated, and powerless. Luckily I haven’t had any doctor’s as cruelly manipulative as Dr. Sapirstein or as coldly dismissive as the many Carol visits. I’ve seen a few doctors who were genuinely interested in investigating what was wrong with me and took substantial steps to try to figure it out. But when every single investigation leads to a dead end, an “I don’t know” I feel trapped in my physically uncomfortable body. Safe portrays this disheartening repetition. Even when Carol diagnoses herself with an “Environmental Illness” and is firmly convinced she has solved the mystery, she still is unable to control the symptoms. I have often felt  close to an answer. The ID specialist found a parasite. I was sure that was what was causing me issue, but after treating it with a full run of antibiotics my symptoms never changed. I’ve tried changing my diet, I’ve tried vitamin supplements, nothing had any affect.

These films were clearly meant as social allegories. Satirical horror movies often use the human body to literalize more abstract societal violence. Get Out does exactly this, having white people literally steal and occupy black bodies, as a metaphor for how white people exploit black people and their culture. While I cannot relate to the misogyny Rosemary and Carol experience, these films have helped me empathize with what living under constant misogyny might feel like. At the very least, I viscerally identify with the soul-crushing feeling of being told, “Everything’s fine” when I know for a fact that everything is not.

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One thought on “The Metaphor of Chronic Illness in Rosemary’s Baby & Safe

  1. Hi Sam,
    Not understanding what is wrong with your body and what is controling they way you feel is a burden you have to carry. Having coached athletes for many years I taught them to listen to their bodies and make adjustments that will help their performance.

    Not having control and to be marginalised is awful. A coach telling an athlete you can do better with out a solution compounds the athlete’s problem of why his or her body is failing. Understading that day off
    May improve performance is hard for some to understand.

    My daughter Kate is a type one diabetic. People often think that she can control her diease by eating something sweet. Diabetes is a silent killer. The high and low blood sugars affects how she feels and if not controlled shortens her life. Being told oh you will be alright have a juice box is demeaning.

    Thank you for your post and comments. Good luck as you move forward in your film making career. Prayers for you to find out the cause of your illness.

    Liked by 1 person

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