United states of Tara

Mark A. Hadley

Multiple personality disorder may be a controversial diagnosis for psychiatrists, but it's unlikely to raise objections with actors. What other condition will allow a performer to claim all four leading roles? United States of Tara is just such a windfall for Australia's Toni Collette. It also provides Christians with an opportunity to discuss the unhealthy fragmentation of our secular and spiritual lives.

United States of Tara capitalises on the chameleon abilities of leading lady Toni Collette. Tara Gregson is a married mother of two who suffers from a disorder that sees distinct personalities take over every time her stress levels rise too high. Considering Tara is constantly battling with a sexually promiscuous daughter and managing a potentially gay son, her alter egos get significant screen time. Collette demonstrates considerable talent presenting Alice (the perfect 1950's housewife), 'T' (a wild, pot-smoking teen), and Buck (a violent, beer-swilling good ol' boy). She rivals Cate Blanchet in her ability to disappear into a role, leaving nothing but a believable character behind.

United States of Tara is pitched as a comedy, but the dramatic qualities make it well worth the watch. It is rated M for coarse language and sexual references, so this show is not for everyone. Also some fairly typical stereotypes of mindlessly intolerant Christianity rear their head (one clean cut teen asks Marshall, "Are you cool with taking off your shirt [for our play]? We need an AIDS patient being flogged in Hell."). However it's great to see the stigma of mental illness being examined in prime time, though mums and dads will already know they don't need suffer such burdens to be considered an encumbrance by their adolescents. Prepare for pangs of solidarity as Tara struggles to find the right balance of guidance and discipline for the teenage years. After all, what parent of a teen hasn't heard some variation on this line from Tara's daughter:

Dad: (Reasoning) Well, she's your mother and she cares so you gotta love her.
Kate: (Playing with her iPod) You have to maybe - you married her, and you chose that. But for me it's just all drama and weirdness. Bye.

However the best parts of the series are those that highlight the multiple identities residing in all of us. It is clear that Tara's 'alters' as she calls them are fragments of her own suppressed personality. When she can't seem to understand or relate to her daughter, she becomes 'T'; when she feels ineffective she reaches for Alice; when she senses the need for the straightforward, even aggressive approach to life that seems to be the prerogative of men, she calls on Buck. Tara's fictional life is an overblown image of what we all experience to some degree on a daily basis: a selection of personalities that emerge under different pressures. A passing character reflects not uncharitably on Tara's condition:

"I kind of think that everyone has a little it of it. I mean over the course of a day, how many different women do we have to be?"

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld gained big laughs by talking about the different people we become in different circumstances and what happens 'when worlds collide'. Tara's less comic approach reminds us that we cannot hope to lock significant parts of ourselves out of our day-to-day existence. Yet that is exactly what an increasingly secular society seems to aim at. Humans are hybrid creatures - physical and spiritual beings. Yet spirituality has become so confined to the realm of the private that people are made to feel as though it were unfit for any sort of public outing. However if United States of Tara has any grand lesson to learn it is probably that we cannot hope to ignore any part of our identity that is integral to our existence. We have to understand it, not suppress it.

In times of great crisis, in the face of public disasters or personal tragedies, we continue to find people reaching for the universal meanings, ultimate justice and enduring assurance that are the province of the spiritual world. We can attempt to address these pangs with wealth, adrenalin, alcohol, sex . but these are physical solutions to spiritual problems and the best they can hope to do is deaden and distract. It's early days for United States of Tara but the drama looks likely to centre on Tara coming to terms with the longings that are connected to those other sides of herself. The average viewer could hope to do the same the next time they find themselves thinking some uncomfortably spiritual thoughts.