Psychological Disorders in film: Analysis of Sterile Cuckoo

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Sterile Cuckoo is an American comedy film by Paramount Pictures that was released in 1969. The film tells the story of two young couples who have experienced indifference and inadequacy in their relationship. In particular, the Sterile Cuckoo movie is based on two main characters, Mary Ann Pookie and Jerry Payne, who meet at a bus depot. Both of them waited for a bus going to college. Their universities, though separate, were similar to each other. An aggressive Pookie, who arrives unannounced at his place on a Saturday morning, encounters Jerry, who has just settled well on campus. It is clear that Pookie shows unusual behaviors when the film starts. These include her walking up to Jerry who had just opened a camera that presumably he had just purchased and asked if he needs a model and she tells him to take her a photo so that she can give her father which she does not do.

Moreover, the parting with the father is also odd as they do not have a standard goodbye. He wishes her an enjoyable time in college while she just stares at him looking very timid. This incident was a bit odd as they are family. She then boards the bus and creates a bizarre story just so that she can sit next to Jerry since she has asked him to save her space but he did not.

On settling down, Jerry noticed that a woman was staring at them and when he asked why Pookie told him that she had told her their mother had died and that is why they needed to sit together. If this was not so bad, she went on suggesting that they need to know what they should write on their dead mother’s tombstone in which Jerry proclaimed, “You are a very unusual person”.

Pookie’s behaviors in the film are synonymous with symptoms of a personality disorder, specifically borderline personality disorder. The DSM V has defined this disorder as a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self -image and affects and marked impulsivity beginning from early adulthood and presents in a variety of contexts.

The presenting symptoms of the disorder from the DSM V that are congruent with Pookie’s behaviors are outlined below.

Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment.

This criterion can be seen in Pookie at the scene after being intimate with Jerry at the motel where Jerry finds her sitting alone in the chapel looking very distressed. He asks her what the problem is and she responds that when things seem perfect, she gets nervous as it will not last.

Secondly, during her phone conversation with Jerry, she cried as well as mentioned how her father was always absent during holidays so that Jerry could feel sorry for her and change his mind about her staying with him during that Easter holiday.

A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships

The unstable interpersonal relationships are characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation. Pookie’s behavior of always referring to people as ‘wierdos’ both from her past life seemingly high school and her experience in college with two room-mates who left her and went elsewhere fits this criterion.

Identity disturbance

Identity disturbance is markedly by persistently unstable self-image or sense of self. This criterion is depicted in the graveyard scene where she tells Jerry that her first kill was her mother. This she said because her mother passed away after delivering her.


Impulsivity in this situation should be potentially self-damaging. Pookie’s pregnancy scare shows her impulsive action of having unprotected sex with Jerry.

Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior.

Pookie displayed both suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This is shown first in her conversation with Jerry in the bus where she gives an account of time spent during activities such as blinking eyes and sleeping yet only gives one minute at having good things and then stresses on her wonder on when that minute will be up.

The second time she displays suicidal behavior is at the graveyard scene where she says that sometimes you have to get away from the noise after they left the fraternity club. After that, she asks Jerry to take her a photo, in which her pose is her laying on the ground in the exact position as the person buried at the spot.

Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger.

Pookie’s and Jerry’s phone conversation depicts her anger outbursts at someone who needed to use the phone just because Jerry did not want to spend Easter with her.

Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.

Pookie displayed dissociative symptoms especially involving play. For example, in the scene where she made Jerry join her in playing imaginary American football.

The above criteria from the DSM V offer a complete diagnosis of Pookie having borderline personality disorder because out of the nine symptoms she displays seven of them. Moreover, the DSM V gives a difference in manipulative behavior of anti-social personality disorder and borderline personality disorder in that the latter utilizes manipulation solely to gain nurturance. The film shows this in in two instances.

The first instance is when Pookie lied to passengers that sat next to Jerry after he failed to save a sit for her next to him. Her lie was that Jerry was her brother and that their mother had passed away. Thus they needed to sit together. The second instance is when she decided to visit Jerry at his campus spontaneously and had to seek accommodation. The lady who gave them housing cautioned them about fraternizing with each other and Pookie used the lie of them being siblings so that she pities them and leave them.

It is interesting that neither Pookie nor other people around her know she has a personality disorder. I watched the movie several times and it was a bit easy to identify Pookie’s behaviors that fit into the criteria for borderline personality disorder. The movie also brought to light how easy it is to be manipulated by people and made me to be a bit weary of people’s intentions.

In conclusion analysis into Pookie’ character shows that she suffered from some mental illness related to personality disorder. She started out as young and kind girl but later developed these awkward behavioral antics. Her character is shaped out of her lying, obsession for death. From watching the movie her fixated liking of hanging out at the cemeteries is evident. Her constant mood swings also show her mental condition. It is quite hard to understand and predict what Pookie’s moves will be since she acts like a wounded misfit seeking someone to love and appreciate her.

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