What Tully is Really About

When I saw the first trailer for Tully a few months ago, I was excited.  A full-length feature film that portrayed the real story of new motherhood?  The heartache, the frustration, the despair?  I was ready to book my mom’s night out right then.


What Tully is not about – or only part of the picture


But something stayed my hand from hitting the share button.  Even in a thirty second promo, her night nurse seemed too good to be true.  How could she possibly say the right thing at the exact right time every single time?  And do it all with the Zen voice of a life coach?  Or not even.  Like a lover trying to woo Charlize Theron’s character, Marlo.  I wasn’t sure what, but something was off.

A few days later, a fellow maternal mental health advocate sounded the alarm.  Read Graeme Seabrook’s take here.  More problems arose as the days went on, though.  Apparently, Tully is not just a flawed character; she does not exist at all.  She is entirely a creation of Marlo’s mind.  No wonder she was too good to be true.

In the film, Marlo apparently does receive a diagnosis of postpartum depression.  The plot does admit that her behavior and experience are not ‘normal’.  She does suffer from a condition of mental illness – except postpartum depression is not what it is.  Marlo suffers from postpartum psychosis.

As explained in a recent HuffPost article on the subject:

Postpartum depression is characterized by feelings of anger, irritability, guilt, shame, hopelessness, and sadness, but delusions, strange beliefs and hallucinations are symptoms more in line with a diagnosis of postpartum psychosis, as are cases of infanticide, according to Postpartum Support International (PSI).

The fact that the extreme separate reality Marlo has created is attributed to postpartum depression is dangerous.  If we take this film at face value, which many viewers will if they have no experience with maternal mental health, two things may happen.  One, women who do not have hallucinations will not seek help because they don’t feel they’re that bad.  Two, women who do not have hallucinations but suffer from debilitating depression (or anxiety or OCD) will be seen as mothers who will harm their children.  Women are already afraid to seek out the help they so desperately need when suffering from maternal mental health issues.  If they also have to fear being deemed unfit to care for their children, they will even less likely to obtain and benefit from treatment.

Society already sees every mother with postpartum depression as one with those who desperately drown their children.  As recently as this January, police were called to a California emergency room when a mother requested help for postpartum mental health concerns.  There is enough stigma to fight without movies like Tully perpetuating myths and muddying the water advocates fight daily to clear.

A star-powered film in mainstream cinema has tremendous potential to slay such myths and spread awareness.  What a squandered opportunity.  Many mental health advocates are asking, why didn’t they ask us?  If only Jason Reitman or Diablo Cody had consulted professionals and organizations for the full picture.  But honestly, I don’t think the Hollywood players working on this film are concerned with the women who will come to this movie looking for a funny cathartic look at their real life, but instead get sneak-attack triggered by the surprise turn of events.  They are more concerned with plot; with a compelling, unexpected story.  They are dealing with fictional characters, after all.  Except that they have failed to take into account the devastating effect their largest imaginary character will have on their very real viewers.

Even writers of fiction must research their topic, their time period.  Even in fiction, world-building must be believable.  Egregious errors ruin the integrity of the world, the characters, the entire experience.  Not only did those responsible for Tully fail sufferers and survivors of maternal mental illness, but the standards of good writing as well.

From the moment this film was named, it took power away from mothers – the very first being Marlo.  It’s not her story.  It becomes the story of her illness.  Maternal mental illness does overshadow the mother in its darkest depths.  But it does not define the woman.  The most compelling part of the story should be the journey out of those depths.  A mother’s eventual triumph, not her despair.  Tully totally misses that.


Another great discussion of the film from Motherly here

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  1. I do have to say (and maybe my perception is skewed or I’m extra prickly because of personal experience) that there always seems to be a little disconnect in the mental health community, as there is in the world in general. It goes this way: Finally there is some beginning of recognition that postpartum depression is real, and both more common and more serious than society has treated it to date. But postpartum psychosis is in a different group and needs to be locked in a cage, where even mental health advocates don’t touch it, because it’s just THAT BAD. We’re scared of it, and rightly so.

    But I’ve had multiple experiences with both postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Obviously not firsthand, but that gives me more clarity in a way. The psychosis was diagnosed as depression in a real life scenario, just as it is in the movie. And I am neither a doctor nor a mother, but psychosis and I have an intimate history, so I know it when I’m the one who receives the unfettered access women do not and cannot give to anyone professional.

    I also know about making up another person in your mind, particularly (and while I don’t know, not having seen the movie) one who is everything you wish you could be and need think you need to be in that moment, and how real that other can become. (No disrespect to those who suffer with DID).

    Sounds like the movie screwed up a lot. But never in my life have I seen a movie I felt accurately depicted mental illness. (If you have, I’d love for you to suggest one. Seriously.)

    I think what matters now is how the mental health community reacts. All postpartum experiences I was privy to have (thank God) ended well, with amazing mothers who put themselves through inpatient treatment or ECT or intensive outpatient therapy or medication. They did what every good mother does, something that cannot be put in a Hollywood (or comment) box. They did whatever it took. Women need to be supported and celebrated for fighting the postpartum fight, depression or psychosis or even “just” the baby blues. Hollywood won’t ever get this right, no matter how much we hope and pray and protest. That doesn’t mean we should stop. It does mean that as women, we need to be stronger and even more present and supportive of other women who may be dealing with “the baby blues,” postpartum depression, and postpartum psychosis. You have done something amazing by speaking honestly and emotionally about what you have gone/still go through, Jennifer. And I have to believe that one real-life woman who has lived the experience as you have is a tremendous lot more of an influence for those struggling out there than is a movie, even a big budget, high-profile movie from Shiny Happy People Land.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  April 26, 2018

      Thank you just doesn’t seem enough, Ruby.

      You are absolutely right that media in general does not accurately portray any mental illness. (Though I will say the book/movie A Man Called Ove has a very sensitive treatment of depression/suicide) Certainly postpartum psychosis would fall victim to this. It has to be connected to the perfect ideal to which mothers are held and the absolute horror of the opposite. Still, should we not be reaching out more to those mothers? Obviously yes, as shown by your lovely comments to see all women and mothers in their journeys.

      I also agree that now the focus should be on the response from the mental health community. I’ve already read a wonderful comment from the executive director of Postpartum Support International, Wendy Newhouse Davis (in the linked Huffpost article) about not missing an opportunity to raise awareness and share information.

      I knew from the moment I started this blog I had to own my experience. Thank you for seeing worth in that 💓

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post thank you. However, we need to appreciate that the audience for this film is not the medical or the motherhood advocacy fraternities. It is the general world of cinema, and this film conveys insight into the realiities of post-natal mental health. Few viewers will get hung up over the use of the term post-natal depression versus post-natal psychosis, but those who can read the film will begin to understand the realities of both.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  May 19, 2018

      Thank you for your comment. I agree, that it’s a positive if the film opens discussion and awareness. I’m concerned the understanding will be false or at least incomplete with the misinformation conveyed.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Pleased neither Mother or son labelled as a person is more than their condition

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  May 19, 2018

      Absolutely. Receiving an accurate diagnosis ensures a person gets the help he or she needs, though.

      Liked by 2 people


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