Understanding a Human Mind: Clarice’s Unexpected Knowledge

Renowned psychotherapist Alfred Adler once said, “Man knows much more than he understands.” This means that although we might be rich in education, we do not understand much of what we know. The Silence of the Lambs brings insight to this quote on a much deeper level. In the novel, and FBI trainee named Clarice Starling is given the opportunity to work in the high profile case of a serial killer named Buffalo Bill. Through her journey she befriends cannibal and serial killer Hannibal Lecter, who feeds her hints leading to the capture of Buffalo Bill. Lecter leaves Clarice with many pieces of knowledge, but it is up to her to understand what the knowledge truly means.

In between interviewing Hannibal Lecter and examining bodies, Clarice Starling experiences many of Alfred Adler’s theories. In The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, female protagonist Clarice Starling embodies Adler’s theories of social interest and compensation, as well as the use of defense mechanisms, created by Alfred Adler. Clarice Starling demonstrates the theory of social interest through cooperating with others and valuing the common good over her own interests. While examining the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims, Jack Crawford, the agent in charge of the behavioral science unit at Quantico, makes the following observation about Clarice Starling, “Wherever this victim came from, whoever she was, the river had carried her into the country, Clarice Starling had a special relationship with her,” (Harris 75). Crawford can sense that Clarice has social interest through her automatic bond with the victim. He sees that Clarice is able to relate to her even though she is dead, and through this “special relationship” Clarice can learn new things about the victim that will help the case. Through her ability to relate to victims in ways her colleagues cannot, Clarice demonstrates social interest because she uses these bonds and relationships to contribute to the common good of her work.

This concept is shown even further when Clarice is convincing Crawford to let her search with the others for Buffalo Bill. Clarice explains to Jack, “The victims are all women and there aren’t any women working this. I can walk in a woman’s room and know three times as much about her as a man would know, and you know that’s a fact,” (Harris 274). Clarice is explaining to Crawford how her being a woman working on the case puts their team at an advantage because she is able to gain more information than a male can. Since she would be the only female working on the case, there would be some sense of discomfort for Clarice being surrounded by men all the time. However, her social interest allows her to brush this discomfort to the side in order to use her female brains to help save Catherine from Buffalo Bill. Starling’s social interest allows her to utilize every skill she has to work with others in order to achieve the goal of the greater good. Starling demonstrates Alfred’s theory of compensation by attempting to overcome an inferiority complex as a result of her upbringing. While visiting the home of the wealthy Catherina Martin, the narrator explains, “Starling had done her time in boarding schools, living on scholarships, her grades much better than her clothes,” (Harris 191). The author is describing how Starling has had to compensate for her poor upbringing through her grades and schooling. Since Clarice grew up having “grades much better than her clothes” she has always had to compensate for her families financial background. Through her boarding schools and UVA education Starling was able to dissolve herself in a crowd of wealth students, which allowed her to counterbalance the reality of her home life.

Clarice is the perfect example of Alfred’s theory of compensation because all her life she has worked hard and attended prestigious academies in order to compensate for her upbringing in a low-income household. Starling’s embodiment of this theory is show again when Clarice is recalling the accomplishments of her family members; the author narrates, “One of Starling’s uncles had his junior college degree cut on his tombstone. Starling had lived by schools, her weapon the competitive exam, for all the years there was no place else for her to go,” (Harris 266). Starling is the first in her family to ever attend and graduate from a real university. When Clarice had “no place else for her to go” she focused all her efforts into school to compensate for her aloneness and her family’s lack of accomplishment. Clarice Starling exemplifies Alfred’s theory of compensation throughout her life by pushing herself to excel in school in order to make up for the incompetence of her own family. Clarice uses defense mechanisms throughout the novel to separate herself from the unpleasant memories that inhibit her from doing her job. Before Clarice enters the house of Frederica Bimmel, Harris narrates, “She should hurry, but to think about why, to dwell on Catherine’s plight on this final day, would be to waste the day entirely. To think of her in real time, being processed at this moment as Kimberley Emberg and Fredrica Bimmel had been processed, would jam all other thought,” (Harris 282). The narrator is describing Clarice’s use of the defense mechanism repression. Repression allows a person to block out or push aside unwanted stressful or anxious thoughts.

If Clarice were to focus on the thought of Catherine dying all day, she would “waste the day entirely” because of the stress and anxiety that accompany those thoughts. Clarice utilizes this defense mechanism in order to carry out her job to the best of her ability. This is further shown when Starling receives a call that a team is en route to potentially rescue Catherina Martin. Harris describes this scene as, “Still to be so close, to get a hand on the rump of it, to have a good idea a day late and wind up far from the arrest, busted out of school, it all smacked of losing. Starling and long suspected, guilty, that the Starlings’ luck had been sour for a couple of hundred of years now,” (Harris 299). Starling is upset because she feels as if she has lost the case while being so close to solving it. Instead of claiming responsibility for her misfortune, Starling attributes her loss to the bad luck that seems to continuously strike her family. This defense mechanism is called denial. Starling refuses to accept that her lost might have been due to her actions, and instead suggests her misfortune is due to bad lucky. Starling uses this defense mechanism in order to keep her self-confidence, which allows her to carry out her job productively, along with the defense mechanism of repression.

Clarice Starling exemplifies Adler’s theories of social interest, compensation, and defense mechanisms. Starling demonstrates social interest through bonding with and caring for victims, compensation by always trying her hardest to make up for her inadequate family, and defense mechanisms by clearing her head and attributing her misfortune to forces she cannot control. These theories demonstrate that although Starling has much knowledge, she does not understand what is going on inside her own head because she is not aware of these psychological happenings. Just like Adler said, “man knows much more than he understands.” Although we may be smart, we must remember we still do not understand most of what is happening inside our own heads.

Works Cited

Harris, Thomas. The Silence of the Lambs. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988. Print.