March Madness: They Took the Sky From Her – River Tam

As madness goes, this is a sad one. When Andy asked me to put forth some suggestions for those in popular culture whom I found interesting and stark-raving mad, the first person who came to mind was the pixie-ish River Tam.

For those who don’t know the cult favourite science-fiction western Firefly (and its later feature-length film, Serenity), River Tam is the genius and psychotic sister of Serenity’s doctor, Simon Tam. Simon risked his life and destroyed his standing in society, as well as divorcing himself entirely from his family, in order to save his sister from the clutches of a corrupt and monstrously bureaucratic government. She was supposed to be at a school for the gifted; she was supposed to be safe; everything was supposed to be wonderful for the young woman’s future.

Apparently “supposed to” means nothing in the universe of Firefly. Instead of being sent to a school for gifted children, River is instead experimented on time and time again because she displays some psychic ability.

They slice, dice, and maim her brain, leaving her a shell of her former self in many ways (the flashbacks to these scenes still give me shivers). In addition to latent psychosis (and occasional sociopathic tendencies), she displays signs of autism, freaking out during what would normally be the most mundane of activities or the most straightforward of social interactions. While still retaining her brilliance, she comes across time and time again as an outright lunatic. This takes its toll on the crew of Serenity, but it affects no one as strongly as it does her brother, Simon. Simon knew her former self, and to watch it crumble all around her is often too much for the young doctor.

I chose River because of the sadness of the situation and because madness was cut into her, quite literally. Her entire life was ahead of her, and it was scooped out of her brain by a clandestine group of monsters in the name of science. They turn her into a psychotic killer and something that can never be entirely trusted. This is not a woman with a history of mental illness or social behavioural problems, but instead a woman who is brought to the brink because of vivisection and intense, irreparable trauma. She is, sadly, a poster-child for PTSD, if in the far future.

The one saving grace is she can still laugh. It’s rare, but it’s genuine and therefore precious.

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