“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain
Internal wounds often draw us toward one another like a magnet. The walking wounded tend to sense one another’s pain, unconsciously. This same psychological phenomena is depicted in the 2015 biographical film Papa Hemingway in Cuba starring Adrian Sparks as the world-famous author Ernest Hemingway, Giovanni Ribisi as the young Miami Herald journalist, Ed Myers, who idolizes and befriends him, and Joely Richardson as Hemingway’s long-suffering fourth wife, Mary. Filmed in Cuba where the Hemingways were living in the late 1950s, the drama is intensified by the fact that it takes place on the eve of the Cuban revolution.
The story begins when junior reporter, Myers, writes a fan letter to his idol to thank the author for inspiring him. A week later, Hemingway phones the Miami Herald newsroom inviting Myers to Havana; “Good letter, kid,” he growled, “You like to fish?” Myers travels to Cuba and against the turbulent backdrop of the pending revolution, he develops a relationship with Hemingway that results in life changes for both men. Myers, abandoned by his father at age three during the Depression, finds acceptance and friendship from a welcoming father figure in Hemingway; who befriends “the kid” for his own reasons. He mentors Myers in fishing, drinking, and helps him find his literary voice by dragging him into eyewitness reporting of the Cuban Revolution which was now boiling up around them.
Meanwhile, Myers becomes overly involved in “Papa” Hemingway’s personal emotional “revolution” bubbling within him that uncovers the dark side of the literary genius; revealed only when Myers becomes part of Papa’s “inner circle.” At one point he shouts at Myers, “I can’t fuck; I can’t write!” as he indulges in bouts of drinking, mood swings, and suicidal self-loathing. Often his wife Mary gets pulled into the fray. Their mutual dynamics replicate their dysfunctional emotional childhood relationships. We witness Papa’s destructive narcissism, his rages, as well as his seductiveness to reel people in. He uses people, including Myers, his wife, and his friends to fill up his sense of emptiness and help relieve his anxiety and loneliness or he uses the bottle to lull himself into a baby’s blissful sleep. Myers’ own personal history leaves him hungry for love, acceptance, and belonging. And so they do the dance.
Conventional wisdom assumes that a man of great literary renown, idolized by the public for his enormous talent, has it all. However, like many of the clients we see in private practice, appearing as if you have it all can be just a well-developed façade to cover a deep sense of inadequacy. Papa Hemingway lived out loud, appearing abrasive and thick-skinned but was scarred inside from his personal history.
Papa Hemingway in Cuba allows us to bear witness to the depth of the man’s emotional pain and hunger. He felt trapped, enmeshed in a dysfunctional family system and didn’t realize that there was a way out. Here, as with many couples seen in therapy, the two main characters in the film are drawn to one another by a common wound; childhood abandonment, emotional inadequacy, co-dependency, an internalized critic, and anxiety about never feeling “good enough.” We can see the very same attraction in narcissistically wounded couples. Myers’ idol worship made him blind to Hemingway’s narcissism. Being accepted by his idol got Myers hooked, enmeshed, and pulled into that dysfunctional system so familiar to him.
Papa Hemingway probes the hidden forces behind the “magnetic draw” towards destructive relationships and suffering. Hemingway’s marital dynamic replicates those of strong, successful women in the general population who get caught up in victim/controller relationships. This film provides a lens for viewers to look into their own lives. There are universal lessons for couples who have similar kinds of wounding.
In the end, as we know, Hemingway took his own life. Myers, on the other hand, hung on to something Hemingway had once said to him when offering him some unsolicited advice, “Kid, the only value we have as human beings are the risks we’re willing to take.” The “kid” actually took Papa’s fatherly advice seriously and was able to use it to discover his own strengths and advance his life. He was also able to mature enough to recognize a universal truth: All of our heroes are human.