"Us" and the Horror of Our Other Selves
Even before things go to hell in Jordan Peele's Us, protagonist Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) senses trouble on the horizon. She's been uneasy throughout a family trip to her mother's vacation home in Santa Cruz, particularly when they go to the beach, where she experienced a traumatic encounter as a child that she's never been able to fully discuss. "It feels like there's a black cloud over my head," she tells her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and that she doesn't feel like herself.
Before Adelaide gets a chance to elaborate, she and Gabe are beset upon by a group of unsettling visitors: doppelgangers of them and their two children, who aren't there bearing Girl Scout cookies and raffle tickets. Malevolent and animal-like, they can't be reasoned with, and are there for one purpose: to murder their real world doubles. Red, Adelaide's doppelganger, and the only member of the "other family" who can speak, explains to her that they are the Tethered, part of a failed government experiment to control the public, abandoned to fend for themselves in underground tunnels. Whatever happens to a person in the real world, their Tethered counterpart experiences the exact opposite. Love is hate, pleasure is pain, safety is danger. While we flourish on the outside, down below they wither on the vine.
Later in the film, we get to see a little bit about how the Tethered function, and it's one of the eeriest scenes in recent horror. Mimicking their doubles, they look like nothing if not broken toys, wound up and set loose to bump into walls, walk around in circles, and endlessly imitate "normal" human behavior. When they finally escape the underground, they violently take what they feel belongs to them, destroying their other self in the process.
If you’ve been reading my long and storied attempts at blogging, or follow me on social media, you’ll know that I’m open about my experience with mental illness. Major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, a couple of related side issues. In layman’s terms, I’m kind of a mess. It’s often suggested that one should treat their mental illness as though it’s a separate being, to make it easier to combat. I’ve tried that, addressing it like a hostile invader that just barged its way into my brain one day and decided it liked it there so much it would stay. I realize it’s not all that far from claiming that it’s demons, or something that could be banished with essential oils, but it’s still a comforting thought. It’s outside forces, not something I’m inadvertently doing to myself.
Yet, while watching the empty-eyed Tethered, and their single-minded desire to hurt their other selves in repayment for all the suffering they’ve endured, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I’ve been in the midst of a particularly bad…I don’t know what the term would be—phase? Patch? Period? Anyway, since before the Christmas holidays my mood has wildly varied between “okay” and “hey, maybe I should go to a hospital,” while mostly leaning towards the latter end of that scale. Nothing specific triggered it, which is puzzling, and there’s no sign that it’s letting up, which is terrifying. It impacts my energy, my motivation, my ability to enjoy things. It creeps into every aspect of my life. At my very worst moments, I think about hurting myself, and destroying my life, attacking everything with the relentlessness of an animal.
The hardest part about living with a mental illness is accepting that there is no mysterious invader. Depression doesn’t hang in the air like cold germs, waiting for you breathe it in. It’s in you. It is you.
Or rather, it’s me.
In the past week since seeing Us, I’ve been picturing my “other self” in her mirror world, mimicking everything I do, pantomiming my life. For every minor victory in my world, something is taken away from her. For every loving gesture made towards me, a back is turned to her. Bliss, despair, sunshine, darkness. She comes to the surface more often than Red and the other Tethered do, however, just to let me know she’s there, just underground, close enough that I can hear her breathing. Eventually she goes back and leaves me be for a while.
But I worry, a lot, that someday she’ll come and she’ll never leave. She’ll destroy me, and take what she thinks is hers, and maybe it is. Or, as in the last minute twist in Us, I’ll soon come to discover that she’s been the “real” me all along, and I’m the impostor.