Case study: Standing on the edge of a thorn

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.