A Case for Childhood Abuse,Memory Repression or Memory Illusion/Assimilation

Missing the Subtlety of Chaos Theory


            Review of: The Butterfly Effect. (2004, Frank Masterpasqua)                                    

In nonlinear dynamical systems theory “chaos” refers to the unpredictable and irregular evolution of the behavior of some of nature’s complex systems, systems ranging from insect colonies to human economies. Although unpredictable, the trajectories of chaotic systems are nevertheless determined by events whose influence can only be observed in retrospect. The nature of chaotic systems makes it especially tempting to apply their principles to human development. In The Butterfly Effect directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber attempt to apply an essential principle of chaos to the course of one young man’s life.

The butterfly effect, technically known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” alludes to the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might ultimately lead to a typhoon in Japan. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions means that if two systems differ by even the smallest of amounts at their onsets, they eventually will diverge from each exponentially. Very small changes at the start of a system will lead to entirely different trajectories.

In the film, actor Ashton Kutcher portrays a young man (Evan) driven to reexperience and assimilate repressed episodes of abuse from his childhood (As a psychology major in college, he devotes his thesis to memory assimilation.) By returning to his childhood diary, Evan is able to reexperience, and ultimately to revise his role in the traumas that shaped life. The film depicts the courses that Evan’s life would have taken had these early traumas taken different forms.

The directors portray the horrors of child abuse and the consequences of repressing, remembering, or revising those horrors. In one scene, Evan reenvisions himself assertively refusing to be the victim of his caregiver’s pedophilia. In another, he reinvents himself by saving the lives of a mother and baby killed by his friends’ childhood prank. In yet another scene, he revisits the experience of being choked by his institutionalized father who he is visiting for the first time. While being choked, Evan witnesses the clubbing death of his father by guards trying to save the young boy’s life. Evan also witnesses his pet dog incinerated by a neighborhood peer. Suffice it to say, these scenes do not bring to mind the flaps of a butterfly’s wings.

The directors’ message and moral appear to be that the directors’ alter our memories, even the horrible ones, at our own peril. Each of Evan’s retrospective reenactments leads to an unpredictable outcome, often worse than what came before. Thus, the film accurately depicts the unforeseen and unpredictable outcomes of chaotic systems. Nevertheless, it does not convey the potential significance of the butterfly effect. The elegance and the importance of the butterfly effect is that very small, often undetectable, nuances can lead to entirely different life trajectories; the smile or frown of a friend, the kiss or shrug of a loved one, a single, or nonverbal acknowledgment or disavowal of one’s therapist. These are not the kinds of early influences portrayed in the film. Instead, the directors witness experiences intended more for their shock value than for teaching us about the significance of small changes in our lives. Apparently, butterflies are hard to capture in a net made in Hollywood.

Ironically, the film includes missed opportunities to accurately depict the power of early subtle influences. For instance, in one scene Evan gently kisses his girlfriend on the cheek to comfort her own experiences of abuse. It could have shown us the impact of a simple act of compassion. Instead, the tender kiss is lost in a barrage of horror movie clich�s.

Although the butterfly effect may have been too subtle to capture in this latest Hollywood effort, other directors have been more successful. In the autobiographical Amarcord, Federico Fellini (1973) captured the seemingly inconsequential memories that shaped his life as person and director. In Small Change, Francois Truffaut (1976) depicted children’s perspectives that go easily unnoticed by adults. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra (1946) reminded us that the director may not always recognize the small ways that the directors impact the lives of our neighbors and loved ones. In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles (1941) begins and ends the film with the mystery of “rosebud,” which turns out to be Kane’s childhood sled symbolizing an unrequited psychological yearning for love and family. More than all of his grandiose achievements, the seemingly insignificant sled played the largest part in shaping the great man’s life.

The Butterfly Effect dramatically conveys the horrors of child abuse, and the unpredictable trajectories that our lives can take. Nevertheless, the directors missed an opportunity to show how our small kindnesses or trespasses can lead to influences well beyond our expectations.


1. Capra, F., (1946) It’s a wonderful life, Motion picture. United States: RKO Radio Pictures.

2. Fellini, F., Cristaldi, F., Fellini, F. & Guerra, T., (1973) Amarcord, Motion picture. Paris, France: Cinnecitta.

3. Truffaut, F., (1976) Small change, Motion picture. Paris, France: Les Films du Carrousse.

4. Welles, O. & Mankiewicz, H. J., Citizen Kane, Motion picture]. United States..


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