Now and then we find that story which really hits a chord in us. We may become totally engrossed in the lives of its characters, relating with them, befriending them in our minds, and taking a seat on their emotional rollercoaster. For me, ‘White Oleander’ is one of those stories. Woven like poetry, I feel it may appeal to many HSPs, especially the complexity of its characters. The book is written by Janet Finch and has been turned into a film. I have long wanted to write a blog post about it.
A bit like the poisonous White Oleander flower, the story is both beautiful and tragic. Young Astrid enters the American foster care system after her controlling, narcissistic mother, Ingrid, is sent to prison for murdering her [Ingrid’s] boyfriend. We follow Astrid’s search for love and stability as she moves from carer to carer, confronted with more loss, trauma, and people with personality disorders.
The title, ‘White Oleander’, really is very fitting. Time and time again we see characters being allured to something or someone, only to find a horrible tragedy awaits them. Ingrid is the epitome of this. Like a spider, she draws people in with a cobweb of charm, physical beauty, talent, uniqueness, and affection, only to poison them. We see this with her boyfriend, and also with Astrid, where one minute Astrid’s being lovingly embraced, and the next she’s being yelled at and rejected for wearing a cross necklace, something which suggests Astrid’s forming an identity separate from Ingrid. It’s easy to see how Ingrid’s parenting translates to the identity issues Astrid experiences. Ingrid’s inconsistency, her swaying between giving and withdrawing love, is also a factor in Astrid’s ambivalence about close relationships. While Astrid longs for closeness, seeking safety and “home” in men, she also fears it as she’s found anger, invalidation and rejection to come in the same package.
Claire is another fine demonstration of the White Oleander theme. As we see in Part 7, the life Claire initially offers Astrid takes on a utopian-like quality. She is sweet and kind and brings out the best in Astrid. They spend all their time together. It’s like a first love, a honeymoon, and brings to mind certain relationships in my own life which have highlighted my own emptiness and deepest desires. Claire feels like the loving mother and best friend Astrid never had. Yet there’s a sense of surrealism and impending doom as we see them blissfully running along the beach. I think we can sense where this is heading. It’s too good to be true. The light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of an oncoming train. We soon learn that Claire is in a fragile place mentally, plagued by feelings of inadequacy. This is made worse by her infertility and unemployment. She feels like a failure to her husband and their relationship is on the cusp of divorce. This devastates Claire as she’s dependent on him and is petrified of being alone. In fact, this is the very reason why she adopted Astrid, to counter the helplessness she feels when alone, prop up her self-esteem, and feel “needed”. Claire is not that different from Ingrid in that she’s using Astrid to meet her own needs. Astrid and Claire have entered a wonderful yet tragic co-dependency, using each other to fill a void within themselves. However, without having love and care for ourselves, how we truly offer this to others? It’s like trying to build a house in the sky, it just won’t work as it has no foundation. As we see in Part 8, after Ingrid manipulates these feelings of inadequacy in Claire, Claire hits rock bottom with herself and her husband. Yet again Astrid finds a horrible reality behind the White Oleander’s attractive appearance.
I can relate with Astrid in many ways. Like Astrid moved from foster home to foster home, I moved from school to school, or house to house as my family changed location. For both of us, it’s like as soon as we become close to somebody, something happens and the relationship has to end. I think Part 5, where Astrid’s saying goodbye to young David while she’s wheeled off into the ambulance, is particularly sad. This was a very sweet, sibling relationship and it would have been lovely to see these two characters grow into adults together. It hurts to constantly get our hopes up about a relationship and have them dashed. It hurts to go through loss after loss, grief after grief. Growing up with such instability, we begin to expect relationships to end, so naturally put up walls so that we don’t become close to people. We see this later in Astrid’s relationship with Paul where she shuts him out many times, exclaiming that she doesn’t want to be with him, or that life’s better without friends. She ditches her feminine attire and acts as though she’s not interested in guys. I get the impression that with Astrid, these walls were often tests to see whether Paul cared enough to stick with her.
Abandonment is a concern for many characters in “White Oleander”, although they vary dramatically in how they deal with this (spoiler alert!). When Ingrid’s boyfriend cheated on her, Ingrid killed him. When Claire’s husband left, Claire seemed to quickly turn to Astrid as a replacement, before killing herself. I have similarly seen and experienced some peculiar behaviour these past few years which I now recognise as being motivated by abandonment fears. My brother’s ex, a real-life Astrid, lost both her parents to suicide; first her father when she was very young, and then her mother while she was thirteen and going out with my brother. She entered the foster care system but was passed from carer to carer as none could meet her needs. She called my brother 24/7 and he soon got burnt out, deciding to not answer the phone for a few days. The next time they spoke, she ended the relationship. When my brother didn’t answer her calls, I suspect she took this as a sign of abandonment and all that this implies (e.g. she’s a bad person). It was more bearable to think that she was the one who ended the relationship, rather than the victim of yet another person’s severing. Deep down, she wanted to keep the relationship. What I like about ‘White Oleander’ is that it touches on the story behind behaviour like this; Janet Finch really does have keen insight into psychology and the impact of social institutions (I believe she’s worked in the foster care system). We see Astrid’s behaviour in the context of her life, including her narcissistic mother who vacillates between smothering and abandonment, and the trauma Astrid experiences. It teaches us to not judge a book by its cover because, like the White Oleander flower, it’s not always what it seems.
Search “White Oleander” on YouTube and you can watch the film for yourself. Below is an interesting video where the cast themselves reflect on the psychology of their characters, although I should caution it does contain some confronting scenes from 4:10 onwards.