Interview With Dominic Callahan, Ph.D.
“A Beautiful Mistake: Possession and Consciousness In Captain Fantastic

November, 2017

Photograph by: Raymond Gehman,

The Center for Jungian Studies of South Florida (CJSSF) offers a special event “A Beautiful Mistake: Possession and Consciousness In Captain Fantastic.” This film screening will take place on Saturday, December 2nd, from 12:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Cinema Paradiso (Savor Cinema) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Dominic Callahan, Ph.D., is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Coral Springs, FL. A former President of the Center for Jungian Studies, he has presented often for the Center, the most recent being the film Adam Resurrected in April of 2011, The Descendants in 2013, HER in 2014, and Life of Pi in 2015.

CJSSF: Dominic, welcome back to Cinema Paradiso in Ft. Lauderdale where you will again present a film for the Center. What are the titles of the films you have presented for us in the past? What are some of the qualities you look for in a film to present for a Jungian discussion. 

CALLAHAN:  I have presented four previous films for the Center, beginning in 2009 with Adam Resurrected, then The Descendants in 2011, Her in 2013 and Life of Pi in 2015. I look for films which offer compelling and relevant portraits of individuals undergoing significant conflict in which stereotypes are avoided and the complexity of psychic life is honored. Inevitably, such films involve a journey towards consciousness where one’s shortcomings and unexamined projections are the essential prima materia for the transformation psyche is seeking. When done with artistry, both in image and narrative, films about such a struggle can give the viewer a means of feeling their own lives in ways that often promote reflection, courage, and hope. The importance that Jungian thought gives to seeing our lives as a unique and unfolding story, and to the immense value of crisis to facilitate an understanding of this story, makes thoughtful movies a natural medium for communities such as ours.

CJSSF: In the tragicomedy, Captain Fantastic, Ben and his fragile wife have raised six fantastic children off the grid in a lush forest in Washington state. A yurt, a school bus, and bows and arrows are their main protections from the wild. Ben is a throwback to the Beat Generation writers who romanced nature in the pristine Pacific Northwest in the late 50s. The Beats were the precursors to a generation of hippies in the 60s who rejected capitalism and corporate greed and had a romantic notion of nature and man’s relationship to the Earth. They were early environmentalists. The Novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, by Beat writer Ken Kesey is a paean to a family living off logging land in Washington. What is the ‘great notion’ of Ben (Viggo Mortensen) in Captain Fantastic? How is he possessed by the archetype of Eden? What does it mean to be possessed by an archetype?

CALLAHAN:  Ben is a man who, along with his wife, Leslie, is possessed by the notion that children can be raised in the purity and beauty of nature in such a manner that they will become “philosopher kings.” This was Plato’s term for beings that would blend authority and philosophical wisdom to lead a city in a manner that would be just and in the best interest of all. By virtue of vigorous academic and physical training, complete devotion, and removal from the pollutants of consumerism and greed, Ben and Leslie believed they could produce children who could think for themselves, love one another, live off the land, and become self-sufficient adults who could better a fallen, modern world.

Ben and Leslie pursue the ideal of raising his children in a sacred, Edenic space in which a natural order provides the harmonious setting for a family where aspiration, effort and love would be sufficient and providential. However, as evidence of Leslie’s mental illness became increasingly apparent, they struggled to reconcile their longing for a beautiful connection with Nature with the crisis her condition presented. In a sense, Leslie’s mental illness can be seen as the serpent whose presence in Eden eventually necessitates Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden and which initiated consciousness in mankind. Ben’s refusal to see how their way of life was imposing impossible demands on his wife’s psyche reveals the extent to which he was in the grip of the archetype of Eden. To be possessed in such a manner is to have one’s capacity for reflection largely lost to an overwhelming emotional identification with an ideal/image.

Jung believed that archetypes, or universal patterns/images, are especially powerful due to their elemental, apriori role in human psychic life. If a dangerous inflation/identification is to be avoided, the individual must learn to dialogue with the archetype’s bidding through the development of a discerning consciousness. Otherwise, we remain mere ciphers of the Gods rather than human beings building their own authentic lives. This film is a beautiful depiction of both an archetype’s allure and danger, and it offers a moving illustration of how one man becomes able to see his children’s real needs over his projections.


CFSSF: Ben is a valiant anti-authoritarian warrior, dominating his family to protect them from dark external forces of civilization, and he is a ruthless drill sergeant, training the children in survival skills. At the same time he is raising home-schooled “philosopher kings” — children who are learned beyond their years from advanced readings and discussions. But Ben fails to protect his wife from dark inner forces, and she abandons her children. What is Ben’s shadow, in Jungian terms? How is the archetype of the father lived in him?

CALLAHAN: In Jungian terms, the individual shadow is comprised of all those parts of ourselves the ego has either repressed or does not know about. It can contain both negative and creative aspects of the person which the development of a persona made necessary to deny or never imagine. The shadow and the persona are always in a compensatory relationship. Until re-assimilated by the hard work of conscientious attention, the shadow’s presence is usually found in the utter certainty and indignation of our reactions to others, in our dreams/fantasies, addictions, and in embarrassing moments where we suddenly act in ways uncharacteristic of us. Often, our shadow is more easily seen by others than by ourselves.

Ben’s shadow can be seen in how his fierce desire to protect his family from the gluttony and moral vacuity of modern life prevents him seeing his family when their actual needs go against the dictates of his vision. Consider his words when first telling his children that their mother has committed suicide.  He states, “Last night, mommy killed herself. She finally did it. Nothing is going to change. We will go on living in exactly the same way. We are a family.”  You can hear the severe insistence on nothing altering the narrative of his dream for them even as they are absorbing the devastating news that will, indeed, change everything. In keeping with the compensatory dynamic between persona and shadow, Ben’s conscious determination to raise “philosopher kings” an image infused with the bright light of good intentions, silently funds the corresponding darkness of a power drive that is antithetical to the very values of listening and humility he seeks to embody and instill. One of his children, Rellian, (a nice play on the word hellion), sees his shadow quite clearly and becomes a vital figure in Ben’s awakening to his shadow.

The archetype of the father is constellated in Ben in both its light and dark forms. He is both a magnificent father whose vision has guided the development of 6 extraordinary children and a rigid and intolerant father when his vision is challenged by what he cannot control. In today’s often fatherless society, many have not known a father as committed and aspirational as Ben. However, the arrow (another operative symbol in the movie) which flies from such a quiver is often true and able to inspire excellence and character in ways a more reasonable archer could not. This film asks us to feel the value of a father being summoned to show up with passion and potency even as such an appearance is destined to wound and fail.


CFSSF: Ben says the paradise they created away from the modern world was a “beautiful mistake.” What can be beautiful about a mistake?

CALLAHAN: This utterance by Ben to his children, coming towards the end of the film, is a poignant example of holding the tension of opposite ideas/images. In it, Ben is acknowledging both the beauty of the parental aspirations which guided him and Leslie and how these very aspirations, when not held sufficiently accountable to experience, led to unintended and even ruinous outcomes. When committed in the service of genuine passion and the best of intentions, a mistake is the necessary corrective that both reveal an attitude’s one-sidedness while reminding us of its nobility. In the film, Ben taught his children to say, “Power to the people, stick it to the man.” Such an attitude guarantees a corrective experience yet challenges us to a heroic life in which, as Ben states, “we are defined by our actions, not our words.” May all of us commit mistakes of such beauty as they are paeans to a life lived with courage, idealism and wrongheadedness, becoming, along the way, our own authentic expression of being human.


Interview by Teresa Oster, MSW, MS, CJSSF board member

The Center for Jungian Studies of South Florida is a Not-For-Profit organization that serves the wider community by presenting lectures, workshops, and discussions to address psychological, social and spiritual issues and provide a forum for personal reflection and growth inspired by C.G. Jung's Analytical Psychology.

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