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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

The Queen's Gambit: A Story of Relational Trauma

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Everyone seems to be talking about the show "The Queen's Gambit", a newer series on Netflix. I initially wondered how the writers might craft an engaging tv series about chess, but I think they were extraordinarily successful in drawing us in--even those of us who don't play the game. I found the show to be beautiful in so many ways, and I think there was a certain "something more"--something about the main character Beth Harmon. I wonder if it wasn't her complexity--her remarkable gifts, her profound trauma and our opportunity to (safely) experience the unfolding of it all right alongside her.

Beth is a quiet girl, and grows into a fairly reserved woman. Yes, she has a beautiful and attention grabbing sense of fashion, but there's something about her personality that's held back. It often feels like it's hard to engage with her, maybe it's part of what makes a good chess player--a "poker face". Even as a child it was hard to get a sense of her; she was reserved, plain, drab even. Yet we saw her world come alive when,at 9 years old, she was introduced to tranquilizers. Her mind came to life, chess pieces came alive, it seemed that maybe for the first time, or the first time in a long time, she felt alive. She becomes impassioned with this fantasy world that offered her a sense of vitality--using tranquilizers and immersing herself into the game of chess.

Beth is a young girl who was abandoned by her father, and shortly after by her mother, who blamed Beth vocally and directly, referring to her as a "rounding error" and a "problem", driving herself (and Beth) into an oncoming vehicle, culminating in her mother's completed suicide. How does a child recover from such betrayals? How does any person continue on living life when the very people they need and depend on have endangered and abandoned them? The aftermath of such an emotional catastrophe is literally too heavy a burden for any child to hold. And so Beth did what many children do in order to survive. She dissociated it all. She didn't feel it. She didn't think about it. Perhaps she shut herself down, becoming the quiet, inhibited little girl who I described earlier. But she also found tranquilizers and chess, which enabled Beth a pathway to feeling alive, to feel in control of being alive, all while without having to feel the pain of her past and emotionally disconnected present.

As a teenager, she cautiously ventured to embrace her adoptive mother, but the relationship remained distanced. It became understood that Beth would be a companion for her new mother; she would not be parented or nurtured. She might even be used for financial gain and as a pawn for her mother's social status and self esteem. Still, Beth needed her, and accepted the relationship even with its limitations; she became attached to her adoptive mother in a protected, cautious, inhibited kind of way. And this relationship too, ended in devastating loss.

The Queen's Gambit refers to one of the oldest strategic chess moves. Specifically it entails the appearance of sacrificing a white pawn, yet it's not really a sacrifice, as the other player cannot retain it without incurring a disadvantage. It seems to me that we all have and live by preferred and felt-to-be-necessary (protective) strategies. We may not play them on a board; rather, we play them in the game of life. Beth did the same, embodying the Queen's Gambit. She seemed to offer herself to relationships, yet like the Black pawn, no one really could get a grasp of her. She was elusive, unavailable, disconnected. She could be your girlfriend, and then she might not take your calls for months at a time, isolating and drinking alone at home. This is her strategy to keep herself in a place that feels safe--it creates distance in relationships so she doesn't get hurt, it helps her to feel alive without feeling. Beth is not alone; we all have ways of protecting ourselves when we've been hurt in our early relationships. And like Beth, our protective strategies often come with a high cost--frequently causing us even more, enduring pain and suffering. They help us feel safe and in control, but they often bring the pain of the past into the future, like a haunting ghost that lives in our sense of who we are and in our relationships with others.

One of the gifts life did give Beth, besides her innate talent for chess, was the janitor at her group home, Mr. Shaibel. He wasn't a particularly warm person, but he did introduce her to chess, and even though he wasn't a particularly warm person, he did give her the gift of attention and the vision of "something more". With his support, she was soon leaving the home to play in high school level chess tournaments, and was even able to enter into the world of competitive chess. Mr. Shaibel validated Beth's talents, and shared his belief that chess was a real possibility for Beth.

Beth's natural talents and protective factors/relationships like the one she had with Mr. Shaibel and with her roommate Jolene helped her to find and reach her goals, but she also continued to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse and troubled relationships because of her dissociated relational wounds and the emotional impact of them on her experience of her self. As a therapist, when I watch The Queen's Gambit, I, like Mr. Shaibel, see "something more" in characters like Beth and imagine who she might be without all of that pain. Moments of suffering in life are inevitable, but they don't have to be endless, haunting or unrelenting.

If you've experienced relational or developmental trauma, give yourself the gift of therapy. Create the opportunity to have a relationship with someone who sees "something more" with you, discover your own protective strategies and recognize their costs, and practice taking the risks of trying something new. You will be so glad that you did!


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