Trauma. It can have an array of effects on people including nightmares, fear, and depression, among other responses. In media, it can be used to explore a type of trauma and/or to help the character grow. It’s not uncommon, yet not an everyday occurrence.
In The Power of the Dog, both the book and movie, it’s something Peter Gordon, one of the main characters is familiar with. The death of his father. Having seen his father’s lifeless body after he killed himself, which the book goes into more detail on, to say that Peter was effected by it might be an understatement.
Then comes the Burbank brothers. While George is a wonderful gentleman, it’s his brother Phil who makes the home a bit more hostile.
They way his father’s death not only effected him personally, but how he perceives his duty. Because he never really had a father figure in between his father’s death and Rose’s marriage to George, he in some ways had to grow up and take care of his family. And though not as expressive or emotional, readers and viewers never really get to see how he grieved. If he did.
Through various quotes and moments, I wanted to take a deep dive into Peter Gordon as a character. Mainly how things like his father’s death, alcoholism in the family, and Phil may have contributed to some form of trauma.
“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”-Peter Gordon (The Power of the Dog)
The movie starts off with this quote. Because of the death of his father, Peter essentially was the “man of the house” and was in charge of making sure his mother was safe. This also foreshadows how he approaches Phil later on in the story, specifically more towards the end, giving what he did more motive.
He has to worry about his mother, since he is all she had until she marries George Burbank. And when she does get married, he still worries about her.
While Peter did become independent, his relationship with Rose could be seen as a form of parentification. He genuinely loves his mother and wants to protect her, because of his father’s death. However, in some ways, Peter had essentially become a caretaker for Rose.
Parentification is defined as a child taking on the role of parent for other children and/or parents. There are two main subsections in parentification: instrumental and emotional parentification. Instrumental is where the child performs duties that might normally fall on parents, like making dinner for the household, taking care of sick family members, and taking other children to and from school. Emotional parentification is when the child takes on the role of emotional confidant/counselor/caretaker to their parents.
I would say that Peter could suffer from a combination of both. Because while he does care for his mother and had cause to confront Phil on her behalf, he shouldn’t have been required to. And while Peter was mature for his age, he was still a sixteen year old who was dealing with the lose of his father with his mother. He shouldn’t have had to with him being sixteen, but he did. Things were also much different in the 1920’s too.
While I am not a psychologist, I can’t say that he does exhibit that behavior. However, I could see how Peter could have developed a sense of parentification after his father’s death. The trauma of losing his father and how Phil treated her could have culminated into something along those lines.
“…Yeah, your father. I guess he hit the bottle pretty hard. The booze.
Until right at the very end, then he hung himself. I found him, cut him down. … He used to worry I wasn’t kind enough. Then I was too strong.
You, too strong? Huh! He got that wrong. Poor kid. Things will work out for you yet.”-Phil Burbank and Peter Gordon (Power of the Dog)
At this point of the movie, Peter is back home for the summer and finds himself essentially under Phil Burbank’s guidance. The man, who for the most part, was belligerent to his mother and picked on Peter, wants to start over by helping Peter and get to know him. During a moment of peace, the two end up discussing Rose, Peter’s mother, and her alcoholism. This discussion takes a turn when Phil asks about his father, resulting in the excerpt above.
The alcoholism is discussed, but rather it being a tale of abusive alcoholics, it’s more a tale of how depression and distress can lead to it. While his parents’ alcoholism might not have effected Peter in the way of physical or emotional abuse, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t effect him in the long run. Whether that be in the form of inheriting their alcoholic tendencies or being completely turned off by drinking entirely.
Essentially, while not being abused due to a drunken rage, it could have caused Peter to be turned off from it. Seeing what happened to his father and how his mother fell into a drunken state because of Phil, he could have hated how it effected the people close to him. And seeing the spiral it caused, it could have made him hate it and maybe fear losing people because of it.
Antisocial Personality Disorder as a Result of Trauma
Antisocial Personality Disorder, also commonly referred to as sociopathy, can be defined as someone who has a hard time in social settings, may have a hard time caring for right and wrong, and can be seen as manipulative. Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) is a term that was used to describe sociopathy, however ASPD is a bit more complex than that.
While I am not a psychology major, I do like to look into psychology from time to time. Especially if I want to better understand a condition. When it comes to ASPD, I’ve found that there doesn’t seem to be one set definition or ruling on the condition. DSM or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental defines it as
Do I Think Peter is a Sociopath?
Yes and No
I feel this really comes down to how the character is interpreted. Some might say that he was a sociopath given the nature of his plan and/or sympathizing a bit with Phil given where his character ended up. Some might say no, because of Peter’s motivation and Phil’s antagonistic behavior towards Rose.
One thing that could add to a viewer’s interpretation of Peter is Peter’s father. While the movie addresses that he dies, viewers are never really shown what lead up to it. As such, it could be easier to infer that Peter had no qualms with killing Phil and how he could have been behind his father’s death.
I have also seen the case made that Peter could have autism, and how the director, Jane Campion, may have brought that to the foreground of his character. ASPD, Autism, and Psychopathy, while all different conditions, do have some overlap in symptoms. Similar to how ADHD and autism may have similar or overlapping traits. Yet, despite the similarities, an individual can have one or both.
In the case of Peter Gordon, I think he has ASPD, but isn’t a sociopath. Because while his actions may have been manipulative, may not be as empathetic, and crosses a line of morality, his motives weren’t out of indifference. Rather out of love.
Because while he nay have a hard time expressing emotion, it was out of love and a sense of duty to keep his mother safe. Based on my interpretation of the character, and with the general research I did, I would say that Peter has a comorbid (two or more conditions diagnosed in an individual) diagnosis of autism and anti-social personality disorder.
Autism would help explain things like areas of his interest in becoming a doctor and the repeated behavior with running his thumb through the teeth of the comb in a repetitive and relaxing way (stimming). The manipulative tactic he used and disregard for whether it was right or wrong could be explained by anti-social personality disorder. While both could explain why he seems emotionless, not particularly social, and seen as awkward in social interact.
It might not be a perfect diagnosis, but it is a reasonable explanation. With Campion putting it to the foreground according to some sources and some of his behaviors being associated with it, it’s not hard to see why he would have autism. And with the movie taking place in the 1920’s, it wouldn’t have been diagnosed and could have been a factor in people making fun of him. Not because he should have been made fun of for it, but because understanding of autism wasn’t as understood back then as it is today.
As for anti-social personality disorder, I believe the death of his father is what triggered it. While the movie doesn’t show what happened to his father, it’s understandable if people would see Peter as more of a sociopath and possibly killed his father. However, if someone has read the book, it does state that his father took his own life. Whether he had autism or not, seeing that at a young age would have effected him negatively. I suspect that seeing this was what pushed him into the quiet, introverted state readers and viewers got to see. I also think it could have been what caused him to feel it was his duty to go as far as he did to protect his mother. conclusion
With everything Peter has been through, I believe he has had his fair share if trauma and struggles. From the death of his father to the way Phil treated Rose, he probably had some baggage. He felt like it was his duty to keep his mother safe, he probably had animosity towards alcohol, and due to seeing how his father died probably contributed to an ASPD diagnosis on top of a possible autism diagnosis.