Robert Lemelson, PhD, President, FPR; Research Anthropologist, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior; Assistant Adjunct Professor, Department of Anthropology, UCLA | Website
Abstract: Standing on the Edge of a Thorn is an intimate portrait of a family in rural Indonesia grappling with poverty, mental illness, and participation in the sex trade. Shot over the course of 12 years, the film centers on Iman Rohani, a former civil servant struggling with a mental disorder, who takes in Tri, an unwed pregnant teenager 30 years his junior. Iman refuses to marry Tri, which would have made her an accepted member of the village. Instead, the couple are scorned by the other villagers and become isolated. Over time, trapped by traditional values that stigmatize their relationship, Iman and Tri sink even deeper into destitution and make a series of choices that lead Tri into a life a prostitution and violence.
The narrator of the film is Iman and Tri’s daughter, Lisa, who has witnessed most of these events. Starting when Lisa was a young child, the film documents her unfolding sense of self and identity against the backdrop of a destitute and unstable family. As the film progresses, Lisa struggles to understand her parent’s predicaments, while she herself is being drawn into the sex trade. At the end of the film, we experience Lisa as a 16-year old-teenager, attempting to free herself from her parent’s conflicts and troubles, as she plans to leave the village to pursue a new life in urban Indonesia.
Bio: Robert B. Lemelson is an adjunct professor of anthropology in the Division of Social Sciences and a research anthropologist at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. His areas of specialty are Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology, and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia in 1996–1997, received his master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and earned his doctorate from UCLA; he is additionally trained as a clinical psychologist.
Having conducted ethnographic research since 1993, Dr. Lemelson has focused his work on personal experience, culture, and mental illness in Indonesia and in the United States. He has published articles in numerous journals and book chapters and recently co-edited a path-breaking volume, Understanding Trauma: Integrating Biological, Clinical and Cultural Approaches (Cambridge University Press, 2007), with cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer and neurobiologist Mark Barad. As founder and head of Elemental Productions, a documentary film production company, Dr. Lemelson has also written, produced, and directed a series of award-winning ethnographic films based on his research, including 40 Years of Silence (2008), a documentary about the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia; the six-part series Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia (2010); Jathilan: Trance and Possession in Java (2011); and Ngaben: Emotion and Restraint in a Balinese Heart (2012). He is currently in production on a film series on gender, violence, and polygamy in Indonesia.
Dr. Lemelson is also the founder and president of the Foundation for Psychocultural Research (FPR), which is co-hosting this conference with UCLA. The FPR was established in 1999 “to support and advance interdisciplinary research projects and scholarship at the intersection of psychology, culture, neuroscience, and psychiatry, with an emphasis on cultural factors as central, not peripheral.” A key objective of Dr. Lemelson and the FPR’s distinguished scientific advisory board is to create, nurture, and sustain connections among anthropologists, research and clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, and neuroscientists who are interested in issues of fundamental social concern and to train the next generation of scientists. This is implemented through research and research training programs as well as a series of workshops, conferences, and publications that allow participants to think across disciplinary boundaries. Areas of topical focus since 1999 have ranged from the impact of psychologically traumatic experiences and other forms of human suffering on mental health and wellbeing; the formative effects of early life experiences; the wide diversity in the experience, expression, and regulation of emotion across cultures; and most recently global mental health and illness, particularly the significance of culture and context in psychosis and autism.
In 2002, the FPR established the FPR-UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development (CBD), which fosters training and research on how culture and social relations inform brain development, how the brain organizes cultural and social development, and how development gives rise to a cultural brain. In 2003, the FPR and Dr. Barbara Yngvesson launched a similar initiative in Culture, Brain, and Development at Hampshire College, which reaches across Hampshire’s five schools to promote interdisciplinary learning and research at the undergraduate level.
Funding of CBD at UCLA was expanded in 2010 to include a new program for Culture, Brain, Development, and Mental Health, under the direction of anthropologist Douglas Hollan of UCLA and cultural psychologist Steven R. López of USC. The goal is to establish a strong program in cultural psychiatry, with an emphasis on integrating neuroscience and social science perspectives through focused field-based domestic and international research projects conducted by interdisciplinary multinational teams led by Dr. López, anthropologist Thomas Weisner (UCLA), and cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer (McGill).
Dr. Lemelson has also been active in supporting other scholarly and research initiatives at UCLA through the Robert Lemelson Foundation, including the Indonesian Studies Program and the Lemelson Anthropological Fellows/Scholars Program, which grew out of his belief that “close mentoring relationships and creative, problem-oriented field research skills are of crucial importance in training active and engaged anthropologists.” In addition, the Robert Lemelson Foundation provides funds for two programs sponsored by the Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA), the Lemelson Student Fellows Program and the Lemelson/SPA Conference Fund. Dr. Lemelson is also co-vice president and secretary of The Lemelson Foundation, a family foundation dedicated to improving lives through invention.