This post is part of a series on Defense Mechanisms for Mental Health Awareness Week 2016. To know more, read the introduction to the series here. You can read all posts connected to the defense mechanisms series here.

I have chosen to write about the broody character, Detective Rustin Cohle from the popular mini-series True Detective. The story revolves around the life and journey of two detectives- Rusty and Martin Hart against a psycho-socio-culturally rich backdrop of Louisiana as they proceed to solve a case that spans almost across two decades involving (spoiler alert for the whole article!) sex, abuse, drugs, satanic rituals, religious undertones, political power and the criminally insane.

Rusty is an intense character with a depressing past. To know about his personality quickly in adjectives- he is shown as a misanthrope, highly self-aware, truthful, responsible, messed up, cruel, obsessive, perceptive, intelligent and socially aloof- all rolled in one, as shown repeatedly throughout the story. 

What Underlies Cohle’s Defenses?

Rusty had run away from his “cold” “survivalist” place in Alaska, where he lived with his emotionally distant Dad after his Mother (single parent at the time) had abandoned him at age two. He goes on to make a life of his own the first chance he gets by moving to a warmer place (for which his Dad deems him “disloyal”), becomes a cop and starts his family. When he has a kid, he probably dares to at least dream- remember, even as a teenager he has no warmth or TV entertainment in Alaska, instead he’d watch a starry sky and make up stories in his head. It reminds me of one of his dialogues during an interaction with a perpetrator: “A child is wonderful. Sometimes people mistake a child to be an answer for something- like a way to change their story.” But he tragically loses his 2 year old in an accident, affecting the marriage to fall apart as well, and probably his dreams of what he must have imagined a normal life to be. Anyone’s mind will have to seriously come up with some defenses to stay sane after this!

Avoidance as the Immediate Defense Mechanism

His grief is sudden, too much to bear, he probably must not have much to look forward to now and finds he “lack(s) the constitution for suicide”. To deal with such a tragic loss and resultant existential crisis Rusty’s unconscious mind, we can say, comes up with the defense of Avoidance: he knows he has to deal with it sometime- but not now, as it is too much. Hence, procrastinate, avoid. The way Rusty “avoids”, is by overworking himself as well as consuming a variety of drugs during an undercover drug-op that lasts a dangerously unhealthy duration of time, altering his personality and state of mind. Avoidance/ consciously suppressing painful things can work for a person for a short while as his/her unconscious can still get a chance to process things when at rest or sleeping. In our tragic Rusty’s case though, (of course-) “I don’t sleep. I just dream.”–he became an insomniac: more avoidance! Read something interesting and more on Avoidance here.

Avoidance as a defense mechanism, simply put, is finding ways and means to escape any confrontation with the feared/threatening object. It manifests in numerous ways: it can range from physically removing yourself from the situation or finding ways to avoid facing the person/feeling/thought. A very common example of avoidance is procrastination – you know you must ultimately get to doing it, but still, you push it a little further.

The Complexity of Entirely Living with Defenses

“I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight. Brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.” -Cohle (writer Nic Pizzolatto)

A few years after the tragedy, his mind must have hit a “reset to last saved settings” button: he goes back to his last successful coping pattern- from his childhood (taking from Freudian theory). So what we see throughout the story, is a retrogressed state of his identity, of his personality: he’s shown to be vigilant and morose, distant, hyper attentive, easily hurt and overly responsible. His entire way of living becomes his defense. This could probably be the way he must have dealt with early life trauma of abandonment, ambivalence, an unmet need for nurturance, issues of neglect and possibly irrational guilt that he may have grown up with. He has a need for human connect but doesn’t pursue it; he excels at his work but doesn’t play by the rules and doesn’t get his due credit and respect. Such conflicting issues within him show that something is off about him – he says things his actions don’t back up. This is a sign that defenses are at play in an otherwise self-aware man. 

This difference between what his needs are, and what he’s willing to admit (as Marty his partner understands) seem to help him distract against the things he doesn’t feel equipped to deal with. The twist is this- see what emotions he’ll be left with by living out these conflicts: difficult feelings of disappointment? anger? being wronged? loneliness? These same feelings in higher intensities become grief and helplessness. He cannot go through them directly- it’s not a part of his coping which has been ‘reset’. So instead, his unconscious creates a smoke screen (not a brick wall- he isn’t that incapacitated) to deal with certain emotions without reaching a panic.

“Sometimes I think I’m just not good enough for people, you know, that it’s not good for them to be around me”

“I think human consciousness is tragic misstep in evolution.”

Most of his defenses are ‘mature’- he is not in complete denial: he doesn’t say no to grief. He probably just doesn’t know how to go ahead and take the next step so his mind uses some defenses to help him survive intellectually and emotionally. His defenses are not as simple as black/white, he is a complex character unlike Hart’s simple everyday Narcissistic and Immature defenses.

The Defense Mechanism of Asceticism

When his two year old, his ray of hope for a gentler life perhaps- dies in an accident, since he was her father and responsible for her safety- he was bound to develop survivor’s guilt. Judging from his own childhood and his nature, his role as a provider for his 2 year old must have been healing and like a ‘life-line’ for him too, encouraging him to lay out a joyous future plan absent within his system until that point. With her sudden death he is bound to feel sad and helpless and has to eventually let it go – something he probably cannot wrap his mind around (obviously). Instead, in his shock, it seems he ‘turned against himself’ feeling the guilt for not being successful – thus avoiding depression by punishing himself. He does share his view to Hart once- “People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.” Marty (regrettably) asked him once if he doesn’t believe in religion, why does he have a cross on the wall, to which Rusty replied that he uses it for meditation! –“I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion.”

It seems he was crucifying himself by denying himself base pleasures (intimacy, laughter, sex, indulging in aesthetic beautification of house, enjoying the present, etc.). This is the defense mechanism of Asceticism:

In using Asceticism as a defense, one tends eliminate the pleasurable aspects of experiences in one’s life and mostly by associating moral implications to the pleasures. One of the primary goals of such a defense is to defend oneself against the potential of becoming excessively pleasure-seeking or overly indulgent in pleasurable or sensual activities.

His actions were not to derive any pleasure for him. As a result, he worked homicide – obsessively – no time for taking interest socially, emotionally: he had to stay detached.

In Rusty’s Defense

Once he quits his job, he starts to let go off his ‘responsibility’ to avenge his daughter, to punish himself in the manner of obsessively working cold cases not relating to homicide directly. Years later, he returns from Alaska (he continued his punishment of living in a place he didn’t like – a skewed version of his ‘penance’ perhaps). This time he is back to complete his unfinished business once and for all, so he can move on in life. As he apprehends the person responsible, he too undergoes a near-death experience. As he emerges from his coma, something has changed in him.

The result: he is free. He is able to build a bridge to his daughter and dead father too, a mental narrative that he could believe in and think about his loved departed ones with joy; than trauma. Along with this joy, his personal connection to joy, attachment and love in general start to return: as we see the budding of a more accepting, relaxed and objective Rusty compared to the overly negative and guarded one in the end (only relatively– he is Rusty after all and there are so many pluses to him being him!). As his closing dialogue went:

Marty: “….it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

Rust: “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”

Marty: “How’s that?” Rust: “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

To conclude, if he had functioned only out of Avoiding and Staying an “Ascetic”, this movement may never have happened in his life; but if he wouldn’t have operated from these defenses, he probably wouldn’t have survived. So to end on a relevant platitude then –  Moderation works- follow it!

Here’s an introduction to Rusty in less than a minute:

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Post Contributed by: Kunjal Shah

Image Credit: HBO (This image is used under the Fair Use Policy, as it is part of a free, online blog and is not being used to sell any product or service.)