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Ruth Thomas-Suh, “Reject”

by on October 18, 2013
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In her documentary “Reject,” filmmaker Ruth Thomas-Suh discusses the effect of rejection on the human psyche and its role in various tragedies over the past several years, including a variety of high-profile cases involving suicides and mass murders.

Thomas-Suh used as a starting point the work of her father, Dr. Herbert E. Thomas, who wrote a book called “The Shame Response to Rejection,” which observed and recorded a connection between the experience of rejection and physical pain and how this could often lead to acts of violence during Thomas’s 30 years as a prison psychiatrist.

Thomas-Suh’s film uses profiles and case studies and chronicles experiments in rejection to shine a light on this phenomenon and steps that can be taken to prevent these feelings from occurring.

“Reject” is playing at the Heartland Film Festival Oct. 18-24. Thomas-Suh spoke to The Film Yap about her film, her father’s research and whether strategies to reduce feelings of rejection in children are proving effective.

Click here for tickets and showtimes.

Reject inside

So with “Reject,” you are essentially continuing your father’s work. What sort of additional touch does that put on the project? Does it mean more to you?

I don’t think he’d mind me saying that he’ll celebrate his 85th birthday at the “Reject” screenings at the Heartland Film Festival. That is pretty cool for our whole family, and I’m hugely grateful that he is here to be a part of it. It’s been extremely special for me to work with him.

If you had told me 10 years ago that I was going to make a documentary inspired by my father’s work, I wouldn’t have believed you. I heard him talk about his theory of the “shame response to rejection” for years, but it didn’t resonate with me until much later. Essentially, my father wrote about the idea of the physical pain of rejection from his vantage point as a psychiatrist, not as a scientist or clinical researcher. So, it’s also been an exciting, challenging and ultimately rewarding journey to find that there is indeed scientific support for his idea that social rejection can hurt people physically, not just emotionally.

That comes through a lot in the film, the link between emotional and physical pain.

My father has been a constructive critic during the edit when our material was not clearly communicating the idea of physical pain caused by interpersonal rejection. He even says it in the film, “It’s all about pain. Physical pain.”

What inspired you to actually take this research and make a film from it?

The science of the physical pain of rejection is new during the past 10 years or so, and while it has been written about in various news and science publications, it hasn’t been presented yet in a documentary.

In 2000, there was a conference built around my father’s book in New Harmony, Indiana, called “A Vaccine for Violence.” Everyone left the conference saying, “Someone has to do the clinical research on this.” Little did anyone know that one of the key researchers would be Kip Williams, who was up the road at Purdue University. I left the conference thinking that I wanted to do something, but not knowing what.

Later, when my children were in preschool in New York City, the parents were assigned the book “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” by the educator Vivian Paley. I read the first page and immediately called my father, somewhat incredulous that she was talking about the exact same thing he talked about, but in the play yard versus the prison yard.

Then, around this same time, someone told me about about the breakthrough experiment at UCLA supporting the idea that rejection and exclusion can show up as physical pain in the brain. It’s ironic because many people feel they know this to be true, but there had been no scientific support for it until that experiment. Anyway, the idea of doing a documentary came into my head, and seven years later, it’s finished.

How has the reaction been like so far?

At the time I started the film in 2006, there was little to no dialogue about this. In fact, when I told people about the film, there were a lot of blank looks, but I felt that it was an essential truth that needed to get out in a broader way. The tipping point seemed to be when the tragedy of suicide due to bullying was covered in the national news. The Phoebe Prince case was on the cover of People magazine, and from then on, people said, “What you are doing is important.”

Ultimately, it has been the new and ongoing scientific research about social rejection that propelled me forward, and still does. New research was released from the University of Michigan just this week talking about why certain people might be more resilient to the physical pain of rejection. It involves the way a certain chemical is released in the brain.

Do you think there has been enough of an emphasis placed on these feelings of rejection among our youth, especially given the number of tragic incidents over the past several years?

As to whether there has been enough emphasis, it is encouraging that there have been such rigorous efforts on the part of so many to address bullying and other issues. At the same time, we can dig deeper now, look at the messages we send our children through our behaviors and consider solutions that can potentially address some of our problems at the root level.

Has this phenomena of suicides and mass shootings been on the rise in recent years? Certainly, the number of stories in the news has been on the rise over the past few years, but were these sorts of things not reported on in the past?

The statistics on suicide say “yes,” absolutely. Suicide has gone from the number three to the number two cause of death among American youth. I don’t have the statistics on shootings, but just while we were editing the film, mass shootings occurred at Chardon, Aurora, Oikos University, the Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Sandy Hook School in Newtown and many other places.

Do you feel like reporting on and giving these stories as much attention as we do helps shine a light on the problem, or does it just as much (or more so) inspire others to do the same?

We’ve discussed that and worried about that. In the case of our film, we hope that by people understanding that the pain of ostracism, rejection and social exclusion is universal, it can reduce the shame and anguish people live with thinking that they are alone in feeling so emotionally and even physically bad when they perceive themselves to be rejected from parents, peers, groups, even society. In so many of these tragic stories, people didn’t go for help.

The same information can also inspire people to behave differently (i.e., better) if they land on the side of being more of a “perpetrator,” or even a “bystander.” It’s one thing to believe you are hurting someone’s feelings but quite another if you consider that you might be causing someone physical pain. It’s also a concept that we can very easily teach to our children, i.e., basic respect and tolerance of others.

I think what is available now in terms of brain research is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the research to come and how interpersonal rejection relates to our emotional and physical health.

A large part of your narrative involves ostracizing children at school who are considered “problem children,” or who have behavior issues. I’ve seen this firsthand at my son’s school. We had meetings with my son’s teacher because he was having problems, and she blamed much of it on “making bad decisions on who he associates with.” One day, I had lunch with my son and saw this boy sitting by himself at a lunch table, literally the only kid in the place sitting by himself. It made me sick to my stomach to see. He was labeled as a behavior problem and clearly ostracized.

As adults, we participate in these behaviors, even unconsciously, by not understanding the impact. Again, we’re not talking about giving everyone an “A” on the test or that everyone can be the star baseball player or even that everyone should be your best friend. It’s about providing a base-level environment of inclusion and acceptance for children, and even for adults actually. But especially in the world of children, each child needs to at least feel connected and cared for, even if they aren’t the most popular. We as adults set the tone for inclusion or exclusion.

Let’s talk just a bit about the “you can’t say you can’t play” techniques. Does it really help?

Vivian Paley had amazing results in her classroom using her rule “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,” but at the end of the day, it is about creating an environment where kids feel safe and empowered to learn. If you know about the science of exclusion and social rejection, Vivian Paley’s rule, to make everyone feel a “part” of things, can free children up to accomplish great things, and she found as much in her own classroom at University of Chicago Lab School.

In Stillwater, Oklahoma, where we filmed, the teacher really modeled acceptance. It was much more about her attitude than about a phrase, but the phrase was a simple idea they could latch on to. This school, Will Rogers Elementary, gave the children basic tools for healthy social interaction, and it was amazing to watch how the kids took them and made them their own, particularly when faced with a conflict. In fact, this teacher, Terry Varnell, somehow got her kindergarteners to get excited when a troubled child in the class started to behave better! She brought a completely different perspective to the kids, and it was easy to see that they loved it.

Come on, all of this is really just us making excuses for our kids, who just aren’t tough enough these days…right?

Our expert James Garbarino (FBI consultant, youth violence expert) calls this “poisonous pedagogy” similar to how we used to believe that cigarettes did not cause long-term damage. Once you know about the impact of extreme parental (or significant adult figure) rejection or peer rejection, it’s hard to ignore it when you see it. Also, researchers are also finding out that rejection sensitivity varies among people, and new research from Michigan this week shows that a particular chemical in the brain determines who of us can be more resilient in dealing with the pain of rejection. Again, I believe there is much more to come with the research, but even now there is ample evidence to support why the old way of doings things might not be the best way. Also, I don’t remember kids telling kids to “go shoot themselves,” do you?

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