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Decoding the Proof

The movie Proof, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis, is mainly about the struggles of a young woman to communicate with the people around her as she re-examines her life and ultimately discovers her greater potentials. The movie circles around Catherine, played by Paltrow, the daughter of a Mathematics genius, Robert, played by Hopkins. Robert was a professor in the University of Chicago. In his early twenties, he contributed so much in the field of mathematics. He was highly esteemed by his colleagues and students.

However, later in his life, he started to have bouts of psychosis, although the exact disorder was not mentioned in the movie. Claire, Catherine’s elder sister was in New York working as a currency analyst. So Catherine had to drop out of school to take care of her father, as she was the only one left to fend for him. And this marked Catherine’s sort of downward spiral. After their father died, Claire came back to Chicago wanting to help her sister get her life back together. In the process, old issues surfaced and previous hurts that were not communicated become known.

Meanwhile, Hal, a former graduate student of Robert, is on a quest to look for breakthrough works by Robert during his lucid moments when he was having fits of insanity. In the course of Hal’s research he slowly falls in love with Catherine. In general, Catherine felt that she could not relate with the world, like she was always different. This is because her inability to communicate herself effectively. Once, one of her college professors almost failed her because she was not able to answer the given problem sets correctly.

Even though the professor acknowledged that the solutions were good, the answers were not the correct ones that he was looking for. Clearly, the professor did not recognize that Catherine might also be a genius like his father. That she may have missed the rights answers but her problem-solving technique was remarkable. The professor may have not distinguished this potential because Catherine herself does not exude this. She does not project this potential because she was in denial of her true talents.

Her self-image, or the way Catherine perceives herself, is flawed and this is why the way she presents herself to people is also flawed. There is a certain disconnect between who Catherine really is and what she presents herself to people. When Hal noticed that she had a lot of Mathematics books in her room, she quickly said that all the math books are just window dressing and that she really just reads Cosmo magazines. This disengagement between who she really is and who she makes people think she is creates an inability for Catherine to effectively communicate.

When Catherine presented a complicated proof to Hal, he had a hard time accepting this was truly her work because she made Hal think that all the Math are just pretend. She was outraged that Hal could not believe that she could actually come up with a complicated proof but she failed to realize that this failure to communicate is partly because of her. There is miscommunication between Catherine and Hal because of differences in their expectations. Hal may have already formed an image of Catherine to be smart but not that smart.

Catherine claiming ownership of the proof went against his expectations of her. His reaction validates his expectations. Catherine, on the other hand, since this happened right after they spent the night together, thought that Hal already trusted her enough to believe her. She expected Hal to back her up against Claire. But instead Hal agreed with Claire that the proof might have been Robert’s work and not Catherine’s. Hence, Catherine moves in a cycle of miscommunication. She could not accept that she has her father’s genius because this would mean that she also has her father’s psychotic tendencies.

She then creates a false self-concept. Her misrepresentation of herself to other people causes them to have a different expectation of who she is. And when they react accordingly to their expectations of Catherine, she lashes out because in reality she is not who she presents herself to be. However, the case is different between Catherine and her sister. It is Claire who presents a different expectation of Catherine and Catherine, in return, acts as expected of her. Claire believes that Catherine has inherited some of their father’s talents and also some of his tendencies.

In a way, Claire expects Catherine to be a nutshell. The result is that Catherine acts like a nutshell – a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Catherine initially told Claire about Hal, Claire had doubts whether Hal really exists or just a figment of Catherine’s imagination. So when Hal appears, proof that he exists, Catherine lashes out at Claire in public acting insane like how Claire expects her to be. Also, when Claire refuses to believe that the proof is really by Catherine, Catherine breaks down and falsely admits that the proof is not hers and that she made up the story.

This gave Claire a basis that Catherine might really possess their father’s tendencies. She made Catherine agree to seek professional help. So despite the fact that Catherine is just going through a depression, with what she has been though and all, she manifested the symptoms of a nervous breakdown because this is what Claire expects from Catherine. Verbally, Claire never said anything about her thoughts on the fragile state of mind of Catherine. In fact, every time Catherine confronts Claire whether Claire thinks she is crazy, Claire always tells her that this is not so.

The only time that Claire hinted this was when she said to Catherine that she has her father’s talent and maybe also some of his tendencies, but other than that, it was Claire’s non-verbal communication that led Catherine to believe that there is something really wrong with her. When Claire forced her sister to take a shower undermined Catherine’s capacity to take care of herself. Also, Claire’s initial doubt that Hal exists reinforces her negative thoughts on Catherine’s mental health. Even towards at the end of the film, Claire asked her sister if she wants coffee.

Catherine said no but Claire went ahead and bought a cup for her anyway. Claire’s non-verbal communication says that she thinks she knows what is good for Catherine better than Catherine herself and also that Catherine does not really know what she wants. It is a good thing that this small gesture of Claire led Catherine to realize that she needs to take over her own life. Knapp mentions in his book Interpersonal Communication and Human Relationships that it is not only the verbal communication between two people that affects the conversation, and ultimately the relationship.

There are other non-verbal languages that we use, whether consciously or unconsciously, to convey our true emotions. And sometimes what we verbally communicate is opposite of that we non-verbally communicate. The cycle of miscommunication is very evident in all the dyads of Catherine and Claire. From the moment Claire arrived, both have been arguing with each other. One of their initial conversations was about the conditioner that Claire sent Catherine. Claire was insisting that Catherine use the conditioner.

It is clear that Catherine did not want to use it but instead of arguing on the premise of not wanting to use it, she begins to attack her sister by questioning her on the composition of the conditioner. Likewise with Claire, instead of directly telling Catherine that she is selling the house and that she should move out, Claire talked about where Catherine could get good coffee in New York. Claire and Catherine are similar in that they both skirt around smaller issues rather than actually confronting the real issue at hand.

This causes a lot of miscommunication between the sisters. The possibility for a miscommunication to occur would be lessened if both parties involved in a dyad would stick to the original premise or the current issue at hand rather than skirting around smaller inconsequential issues. There is constant disconnection between the encoding of the message and decoding of the message in the dyads of Catherine and Claire. Catherine almost always misinterprets her sister’s intentions.

In the conversation about the conditioner, Catherine mistook her sister’s concern for Claire just trying to control her life. Another situation was when Catherine was in Northwestern University and she was worried why their father was not answering the phone so she called Claire about it. Claire simply said that there was nothing that she should worry about. Catherine interpreted this as Claire not caring enough for their father. Contrariwise, Catherine interprets Claire’s absence during their father’s nervous breakdown as not caring enough for their father.

In fact, Claire was not able to spend more time with their father because she was working 14 hours everyday so she could pay for the mortgage of the house that Claire and their father were living in. The sisters are both looking at the same experience but how they understood the experience is totally different from each other. This is a common cause of miscommunication, when the receiver decodes the message that is not in conjunction with the original intent of the message. With the case of Claire and Catherine, their misinterpretation is a product of their previous hurts and frustrations.

Catherine’s disappointment on dropping out of school makes Claire’s life in the city seems more appealing. She specifically told Claire that at least Claire has a life of her own while she was stuck taking care of their insane father. Claire, on the other hand, was overworked in New York and living in a small studio to be able to pay for the mortgage of their house in Chicago. Claire blames Catherine for not taking care enough care of their father. Claire believes that he could have been better if Catherine asked for a professional help rather that taking care of their father herself.

However, at this point in their conversation, Catherine did not mention the notebook where their father wrote his thanks to her for not placing him in an institution. If she mentioned this, it would have given her a more concrete argument with Claire. This would have cleared the channels of communication but Catherine made no mention of it. It is true that Catherine withdrew from the world. When she dropped out of school she just stayed home with her father and made no effort to socialize. In one scene, her father was scolding her for mopping around. He told Catherine that she was wasting a lot of her time doing nothing.

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