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Mysterious Creatures is a film based on a tragic true story; it was made for British TV in 2006, and has been recently released on DVD. It follows a year in the life of Bill and Wendy Anscow and their daughter Lisa. In real life, at the times of the events depicted, Bill was 75 and Wendy was 64, although the actors Timothy Spall and Brenda Blethyn were 49 and 60 at the times of the film's release. Lisa was 33. Initially she has a diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder, and atypical Asperger's syndrome. After hospitalization, she is given a new diagnosis of mixed personality disorder. The Ainscows have been in the British newspapers frequently; Bill was prosecuted for stealing £50,000 from his employers; it turned out he did it in order to pay the bills Lisa accumulated from her shopping sprees. He went to prison for 3 months and was then released. However, Bill and Wendy gained more publicity for a series of suicide attempts. Bill succeeded in one of them, but Wendy survived. Just before the film was shown on British TV, she made another attempt. Yet she survived, and continues to work as a teacher in Birmingham, seeing Lisa, who lives in the Liverpool area, on weekends.
Writer Gwyneth Hughes interviewed both Wendy and Lisa in researching for the script, and says in an interview that she was very concerned to make the story accurate. It is impossible for viewers to know how successful she was, but she depicts Lisa as a moral monster. She shouts and screams at home, making her parents' lives impossible. She hates her father and manipulates her mother. Lisa is totally self-concerned and shows no love at all for her parents. Yet Bill and Wendy don't give her boundaries, and let Lisa go on spending sprees, buying expensive shoes and going to nice restaurants, so it seems they could have done more to get Lisa to understand her limits. They could have put her in an institution where she was looked after by trained professionals. We see Bill wanting to take a stand against Lisa, but Wendy won't let him. She loves Lisa too much, but since this means she gives into Lisa's ever whim, it is doubtful that she actually does what's best for her. Strangely, after Bill dies, Lisa and Wendy get on more smoothly, and at the end of the film, there is text saying that she is now very happy. From what we saw of her earlier on, it is hard to believe she could ever be happy.
One question raised by the story is whether Lisa should ever have been hospitalized against her will. If she has a personality disorder, then there is real doubt as to whether she could be successfully treated, and while she seemed to have some delusions and self-destructive ideas (self-harming, often saying she wanted to be euthanized, and wanting to have her breasts removed), she wasn't suicidal. What's more, although she may have driven her father to suicide, she wasn't violent towards others. So it is hard to see how her hospitalization could be justified. It is clear, however, that the family needed professional help and the Wendy and Bill would have benefited from advice about how to react to Lisa to protect their own mental health and to get Lisa to be more independent. Something could have been done to avert the misery Lisa caused her parents and to help her have her own life with more rewarding activities than buying shoes.
While Mysterious Creatures compresses a great deal of information into 70 minutes, and so leaves a great deal uncertain and resolved, it is also very well directed and the acting is superb. There's no way to tell what Lisa's diagnosis should be: most of what we see is her anxiety, excessive anger, materialism, acquisitiveness, selfishness, inappropriate behavior, lack of empathy, and manipulativeness. These are all moral deficits, although they may also be part of a mental disorder. So the film provides a strong test case for the boundaries of what we as a society count as mental illness. Recommended.
Link: Manchester Evening News article on Mysterious Creatures
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.