The Awakening of a Mystery: True Detective, Revisited (Part 2)

The Awakening of a Mystery

Part 2: The Psychopathology of True Detective

The etymology of the word psychopathology is quite illuminating:

Psyche, meaning mind or soul;

Pathos, meaning suffer or grief;

Logos, meaning discourse, word, or logic.

Rather than imagining “psychopathology” as a dry, clinical term, we can define it as the speech of the suffering soul, the discourse of the grieving mind, the logic of the suffering soul. Personally, I find it more interesting to consider the possibility that the infinite number of ways in which the soul suffers exist in everyone, at least as potentials. It is also more humane than offhandedly diagnosing people and transforming their entire existence into a list of symptoms.

In this article, I examine Detective Marty Hart’s psychopathology, partly from a psychoanalytic perspective. Then, I explore and reimagine the various children of True Detective.

 Broken Hart


People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time.” – Rust Cohle

Detective Marty Hart has a fascinating and disturbing set of psychological defenses. Hart fears vulnerability and constantly postures as “the man in charge” around his family, which continually fails. Hart’s need for dominance eventually ends in divorce and leaves him estranged from his family. One of the most striking examples of his defenses against vulnerability is the scene in which Maggie confronts Hart about his affair without explicitly calling it one: “What have you been doing, Marty?” she repeatedly asks. Hart lies, manipulates Maggie’s affection, and slithers away from responsibility. In this scene, it appears as if they both already know the truth but are not ready to face it. Hart then maneuvers the emotional dialogue into a sexual encounter. Throughout the series, Hart repeatedly uses sex to avoid the reality of his life. 

Hart’s Disavowal

Hart’s avoidance of accountability and intimacy is a common psychological phenomenon, but I would describe another set of his defenses as being less common and more psychotic in nature. Unlike Rustin, Hart’s rage emerges when he is emotionally distressed. Hart’s behavior is sometimes psychotic, because once he finishes violently acting out, his knowledge of his actions evaporates entirely. To me, this resembles the psychoanalytic concept of disavowal, which is described as “a repression of perception” (Green, 1986/2005, p. 124). As Rustin rightly pointed out, Hart seems to have no capacity for guilt or remorse, and when it is forced upon him from the outside—like when Lisa confronts his wife about their affair—he becomes violently angry. Hart cannot acknowledge the pain he has caused because he denies the very reality of his own behavior. Hart rages like a child instead of accepting responsibility.

One scene that illustrates this dynamic is when Hart drunkenly breaks into Lisa’s apartment. Hart threatens to beat the man she is fooling around with until he finds out whether or not she has performed oral sex on him. When he finds out the truth, his body relaxes and his eyes look sane again. Immediately after behaving like a monster, he grins and says, “I’m not a psycho.” Hart appears to believe what he is saying, even though his behavior just communicated the opposite message: “I am a psycho.” Hart’s speech opened up the possibility of this interpretation, because his statement was so conclusive. Latching on to an extreme perspective often constellates its opposite, which perpetuates the conflict. Therefore, by stating “I’m not a psycho,” Hart does not resolve the issue, but instead continues to feed it.

I have seen this episode several times and always find myself asking, “Why did Hart have to know whether or not Lisa had blown the other man? Why is he so desperate to know?” I believe the answer is presented in a scene from “Seeing Things” (Episode 2), which is examined below.

Hart’s Desire

A young Beth; Jan in the foreground

During an interchange between Hart and Jan, the woman who runs a safe-house/brothel for young women, Hart chastises Jan for harboring an underage girl named Beth, who returns later in the series:

Detective Marty Hart: There are other places she [Beth] could go.

Jan: Such holy bullshit from you. It’s a woman’s body, ain’t it? A woman’s choice.

Hart: Well, she don’t look like a woman to me. At that age she is not equipped to make those kinda choices. But I guess you don’t give a shit what kind of damage she’s doin’ to herself as long as you’re makin’ your money.

Jan: Girls walk this Earth all the time screwin’ for free. Why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you. It’s ‘cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.

Jan speaks the truth, as does every woman on True Detective. Hart, like many other men, consciously or unconsciously believes that he owns women’s bodies, desires, and pleasure. Jan’s insight slices through these beliefs, which enrages Hart because he is effectively silenced. He quietly counterattacks by offering Beth money, under the guise of being a helpful hero. Years later, when Hart begins an affair with Beth, we see Rustin was correct in calling Hart’s initial financial offering “an investment.”

Marty’s wife, Maggie

“Marty’s single big problem was that he never really knew himself, so he never really knew what to want.” – Maggie Hart

Hart’s desire is impure: his erotic desire is not differentiated or understood and instead is mixed with aggression and violence. We see this violence expressed whenever an object of his desire and control—like Maggie, Lisa, or even his daughter Audrey—acts against his wishes. Hart retaliates with gendered slurs—“You fucking whore!” or “Slut”—on several occasions. He lashes out at the women he is most intimate with, denigrating their sexuality and denying their capacity to have desires irrespective of his own. Hart’s desire to be intimate with women is contaminated by fear. Initially, he sexually worships women, but once they act as autonomous beings, he wants to destroy them and the power they have over him. Psychoanalyst Stephen Frosh (1994) articulately described this dynamic of inflexible, fragile masculinity:

“Intimacy is potentially dangerous, because the boundaries of the masculine self are so fragile that they can be all too easily overwhelmed. Paradoxically, this explains the apparent rigidity of so much masculinity: one cannot bend at all, for fear of falling apart. It also produces the vicious splitting of the feminine in male fantasy—the Madonna/whore division that parcels out the safe sphere of nurture from the demonic sphere of the erotic, with its accompanying imagery of devouring and being devoured. As he gets close to her, so the man is faced with the potential loss of his identity; sexual rage is never far away.” (pp. 112-113)

Hart constantly splits his desire between his wife Maggie, who holds his need to be nurtured and loved, and Lisa or Beth, who hold his primal, aggressive sexuality. Hart cannot psychologically integrate these two images of women in himself, so he keeps projecting them onto separate pairs of women. In short, Hart’s sexual desire is divorced from love. We continually see Hart involved in destructive and unbalanced relationships, which result from the way he splits his desire and disavows the knowledge of his own behavior. Hart’s soul suffers because he cannot hear its voice or understand its logic. We have to wait until the end of the final episode to see him tearfully break down in front of his family. In this moment, Hart is overwhelmed with a mixture of emotions. He is relieved to be alive, but he also knows that he must begin to mourn the numerous losses of the previous decades. At the end of the series, Hart must finally come to terms with the suffering he has caused himself, his wife, and his children.

The Children of True Detective

Audrey Hart, Daughter Near the Mystery

Hart’s daughter Audrey is probably the most prominently featured child on True Detective. We first see her as a little girl, and even then there were signs of invasion. In one scene, Marty discovers that she has arranged five of her male figurines in a circle around one naked female doll, who lays on her back. Later, this image is mirrored in the videotape of the men in the cult and again in a background photograph, but I want to stay with Audrey’s psychology for now. It is often true that children who act out sexually have been sexualized and abused, but in the context of this series, I see it as an expression of something else. Unlike adults, children are extremely receptive, especially in dysfunctional family systems, and they often internalize and absorb everything in their environment.

Audrey Hart

It is likely that Audrey knew, even on an unconscious level, of the tension between her parents, and it is just as likely that she knew about the case Marty was working on. Much like people’s initial horror at Freud’s statements regarding childhood sexuality, many people believe that children don’t see or hear as much as they actually do, which is something that adults deny to avoid pain and responsibility. Further, the drawings of a man and woman having sex also force me consider the influence of her father, a highly sexual and aggressive man. Who knows what Audrey saw and heard throughout her childhood.

In a practical sense, maybe Audrey found her way into files Hart brought home and left unattended or overheard telephone conversations between Rustin and Hart. On a psychological level, maybe she began to dream of the case, and the images found expression through her play. Or maybe Hart “remembered” seeing Audrey’s dolls laid out in 2012, but it never really happened. Whatever the answer, the effects of Hart’s inattention and parental deficiency are clear enough, like when Audrey rebels as a teenager and is caught engaging sexually with two older boys. All three meet the wrath of Hart’s relentless violence: Audrey with a slap and verbal attacks, and the two boys through severe physical beatings. Later, Maggie says of Audrey, “She’s fine, at the moment. She sometimes decides she doesn’t need her meds.” Fortunately, we also learn that she has a partner who protects her. Little else is said about Audrey or the extent of her suffering as an adult.

Audrey has been creating since childhood, giving expression with toys and markers to things she did not yet have words for. I see Audrey as an artist who is open to a vast array of sensory experience, both seen and unseen. This receptivity also means she is more likely to experience deep psychological suffering, because she cannot always filter what she is taking in. Audrey also grew up in a troubled, turbulent household that did not understand her. It seems likely that she would continue to experience the world as a troubled place and experience herself as being misunderstood. At the series’ end, we learn that Audrey is now painting, which I imagine provides her with the freedom and emotional containment that she so desperately needs.

Maisie Hart, the Forgotten Child

Chaotic families often contain a child who becomes invisible amidst the fighting. In True Detective, this forgotten child is Maisie, the youngest member of the Hart family. Maisie does not live, but quietly survives. She hides from her father’s aggression, and her silence is cultivated in part by his own negligence and inattention. Maisie learned early on to comply with the spoken and unspoken demands of her family, and in the only scene where she actually asserts herself into a family conflict, she is immediately slapped by Audrey. Maisie then looks for comfort from her mother Maggie, who says, “Shut up, go to bed,” and closes her door. This interaction illustrates the Hart family’s need to ignore their own innocence, vulnerability, and capacity to acknowledge their own behavior.

Kelly Reider, Orphan of the Yellow King  

Kelly Reider & Rust Cohle

A frozen girl on a rocking chair with beautiful eyes that have witnessed unspeakable horror. Kelly can no longer speak; she is blind to the world around her. Kelly lives far away from her body and her dissociated consciousness remains eternally safe from physical harm. Her screaming horror in response to Rustin’s questioning shows us that she cannot inhabit her body, because it is still running from a terrible giant who lives inside of her. Kelly remains in an in-between world, tragically unalive, a little girl who will never grow up.

The Boy with the Blue Ball

He is only visible for a few seconds, but who (or what) is he? Is he just a curious child who wandered away from the playground? Is he Errol’s hallucination, or Errol as a child before his facial scarring? Maybe he is another child with a psychopathic predisposition, who recognizes himself in Errol. Whoever he is, he’s still out there.

Miss Dolores, the Coughing Woman 

When Rust and Marty interview Miss Dolores, she is pleasant, calm, and sweet—very Southern traits—but as they descend into the conversation, she falls into a coughing fit because she said too much, just like Kelly saw too much.

 “Him who eats time. Him robes… it’s a wind of invisible voices. Rejoice, death is not the end.” – Miss Dolores

Carcosa is an airless, lifeless place, and to speak of it is to choke. The unspeakable mystery lodged itself in her throat.

Betty Childress

A middle-aged woman with the mind of a child, Betty never grew up. She and her half-brother Errol exist outside of time; they live in a molding house littered with broken dolls, garbage, dog shit, and rotting stacks of paper. They are obsessed with the television because it is their glowing window to the outside world—it speaks to them.

Ann Dowd True Detective
Betty Childress

Betty has a sexual relationship with her half-brother Erroll. She was continually raped by her grandfather (and probably other family members) since childhood. During her confrontation with Hart, however, her childish persona falls away, and the psychotic void that has formed inside of her begins to speak:

“[He is] All around us, before you were born and after you die.” – Betty Childress

At the conclusion of the series, Betty ends up abandoned and alone, likely spending her remaining days in a psychiatric ward somewhere in southern Louisiana.

Errol Childress, Child of Carcosa


“Some mornings, I can see the infernal plane…” – Errol Childress

Although a psychopathic murderer, Errol was, at one point, a child. He grew up in the isolated Louisiana countryside, and his family participated in bizarre and twisted ritual practices which involved incest, rape, and murder. As a child, Errol was tortured by his father, who poured gasoline on his face, leaving him burned and scarred for life. Perhaps not a killer from birth, Errol was definitely a child with enough of a sociopathic predisposition that his family and environment pushed him over the edge into a psychopathic abyss from which he could never return. On the other hand, maybe it was just meant to be.

Errol is a poet filled with mutilated personalities who speak through him: “Come die with me, Little Priest”; “Some mornings I can see the infernal plane”; “Tell me about Grandpa…” Errol is also an artist, determined to create and destroy. His images are primal, colorful, and disturbing—they are bacterial and out of control. Errol’s canvasses are the buildings he previously inhabited, and when they became dilapidated or destroyed—like the burned church or the abandoned school—his images spread over the walls and infected the foundation.

Errol’s paintings

Errol’s canvasses mirror his fragmented mind, scarred face, and abandoned soul. Errol is an uncontained void that seeks to torture and devour, consuming the souls of those he murders and trapping them eternally.

As an adult, Errol has the strength of an ogre and his violence is swift and decisive. He works as a painter, janitor, and landscaper—the type of people our society undervalues and who we are conditioned to ignore. This ignorance provided him with a kind of social invisibility, which allowed him to thrive as a serial murderer—that is, until the final confrontation of the series. Unfortunately, there are more Errols in the world than we would like to believe.

There always will be.

Marie Fontenot, the Missing Child 

Marie Fontenot

Earlier I said that Audrey was probably the most prominently featured child on the series, but really, she is just the most visible child. Marie Fontenot is the ever-present  child of True Detective: she is no longer alive, but the detectives (and the viewer) gradually feel more and more destabilized by the chaos of her disappearance and death. True Detective is really Marie’s story, because solving her murder reveals the identity of the primary killer. Marie leaves breadcrumbs along the edge of a spiral that hovers in a dark void; it is she who leads us to the heart of the mystery.

Form and Void


Frosh, S. (1994). Sexual difference: Masculinity and psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Green, A. (2005). On private madness. Karnac Books Ltd. (Original work published 1986)

Written by Daniel Siuba

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