The Psychological Explanation for Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi by W. Steven Saunders, Psy.D.
I am a Licensed Psychologist and an Associate Lecturer of Psychology at the University of Central Florida and I have been a Star Wars fan since 1977. This is my essay and diagnosis of Luke Skywalker and a explanation, perhaps even an accounting, for his behavior in The Last Jedi.
Luke Skywalker is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I think if you look at Luke as being a veteran of combat and someone who has been through traumatic experiences that may explain his behavior in TLJ and his reluctance to engage in further combat. My evidence?
First, let’s define PTSD.
PTSD is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. Certainly, Luke has experienced both combat and experiencing other life threatening events.
His first traumatic experience, Revenge of the Sith, is that he was taken from his mother and sister at birth. Even if you argue that he was too young to remember this, you can’t argue that his inability to bond with his birth mother didn’t affect him. Many studies support the importance of early bonding with a primary caregiver within the first few hours of birth. Nevertheless, He appeared to have a fairly stable childhood, in A New Hope. However, in late adolescence he was again traumatized upon seeing the charred remains of the only parents he ever had, his Aunt and Uncle. While he was away searching for the runaway droid R2D2, he was hit on the head by a Sand-Creature, aka Tusken Raiders, but rescued by “Old Ben Kenobi”. Obi Wan became his mentor and surrogate parent after his Aunt and Uncle died tragically. Then he was again traumatized by seeing Obi Wan cut down and killed by Darth Vader. Later, he was in combat during the assault on the Death Star (A New Hope). During this time, he heard the voice of Obi Wan. Was this a spiritual experience induced by the force or a PTSD induced hallucination or maybe both?
In The Empire Strikes Back, he was later traumatized again by his new mentor Yoda who forced him to “face his fears” in a Jedi rite of passage ritual in the Dagobah System, where apparently, he learned that the only fear he had to overcome was himself. During his time on Dagobah he again experienced both an auditory and visual hallucination and even had a conversation with Obi Wan. However, we witness Yoda also conversing with Obi Wan so at this point we can deduce that this is a reality based event and not necessarily a psychotic one. Perhaps this experience was healing and helped Luke move forward. He went through some days or weeks of training, then went off against the wishes of Yoda and faced his arch nemesis Darth Vader. Prior to facing Vader, Luke witnesses his friend Han Solo being encased in carbonite after being tortured. Upon facing Darth Vader he learns that Vader is his father after Vader cuts off his hand. Certainly a shocking perhaps traumatic revelation. Certainly having your hand cut off is apparently a very painful event. Luke falls to what surely would be the death of anyone else. But he is not killed by some means (the force?), negative pressure of a space station orbiting a gas giant? He hangs on for his life while he uses the force to summon his sister and his friends to find and rescue him.
In Return of the Jedi, Luke was again traumatized, albeit less so by Jabba the Hutt, a gangster and not very nice being. Luke was “captured” by Jabba. He was thrown into a pit with the Rancor who tried to kill and eat him. Luke defeated the creature then was taken to be thrown into yet another pit with an even worse creature, the Sarlacc. However, later we discover this was a ruse. Luke had a plan to free his friends. Luke engages in Battle, kills several of Jabba’s soldiers or henchmen. Later Luke returns to Dagobah to finish his training, only to watch his old master die in front of him and disappear. He rejoins his friends and then is captured by a band of tiny but adorable creatures, Ewoks, on the forest moon of Endor. The Ewoks prepare to cook and eat Luke and his biologically based friends. He convinces them they are not food and the Ewoks join the rebel alliance. Luke then again faces Vader for the last time. He allows himself to be captured and faces the evil Emperor. The Emperor both emotionally and physically tortures Luke, traumatizing him yet again. Luke watches helplessly as his friends and allies are killed off in the battle of Endor. Luke fights Vader. Luke is tortured with force lightening, obviously a very unpleasant experience. Vader changes to the good side and throws the Emperor to his death. Luke then finally sees the eyes of his father only to watch him die in front of him. Luke seemingly is at ease or at peace he burns the remains of his father. Later we see Luke celebrating with his friends. Then he sees the “force ghosts” of all his dead mentors and his father.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs,there are four types of symptoms of PTSD, but they may not be exactly the same for everyone. Each person experiences symptoms in their own way:
1) Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms). A person may have bad memories or nightmares. They may even feel like they’re going through the event again. This is called a flashback.
2) Avoiding situations that remind them of the event. They may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. They may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.
3) Having more negative beliefs and feelings. The way one thinks about themselves and others may change because of the trauma. They may feel guilt or shame. Or, they may not be interested in activities they used to enjoy. They may feel that the world is dangerous, and they can’t trust anyone. They might be numb, or find it hard to feel happy.
4) Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal). They may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. Or, they may have trouble concentrating or sleeping. They might suddenly get angry or irritable, startle easily, or act in unhealthy ways (like smoking, using drugs and alcohol, drinking alien milk with unknown psychotropic properties, or refusing to leave home).
It’s apparent in The Last Jedi that Luke is clearly manifesting all the symptoms of a war veteran and a trauma victim. He has virtually every symptom of PTSD. Yet, even through his pain he decides to join the fight one last time. Like Obi Wan, he trains his protégé for a short time and then lets them go. He faces his fears and traumas for the good of his sister and his friends and his protégé. He sees that the old order that led to his traumatization is necessarily needing die. It needs to be brought down. Because only then can something new grow. Luke gives his last bit of strength and resolve and at the end is finally healed. Luke is a trauma victim. But even in spite of the weight of his enormous burden he carries, he rises above his own sufferings and becomes the hero he always was destined to be.
I for one am proud of Luke Skywalker and I am glad he has found the peace that life events robbed from him.
To learn more about PTSD or how you can help, check out The Soldiers Project : The Soldiers Project provides free and confidential treatment to thousands of military service members and their families, and provides trainings in best clinical practices to thousands of clinicians via in-person conferences, symposia and online webinars. https://www.thesoldiersproject.org/
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in theaters NOW!
Dr W. Steven Saunders
Dr. Saunders is a licensed psychologist practicing in Clermont, FL. He is a Associate Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Florida. Steven is huge fan of all things Star Wars since 1977 and a great SciFi fan generally. He lives with his beautiful wife Cindy and has two grown sons, Donovan (Aka Revan) and Dylan. He can be reached for comment or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org