“Pure” is an honest, sensitive look at OCD

Pure Charly Clive in Pure (BBC/HBO Max)

Charly Clive stars as a twentysomething struggling with an often misunderstood mental illness.

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24-year-old Marnie (a very endearing Charly Clive) doesn’t know what’s wrong with her, she just knows that it’s something. On her parent’s anniversary, she can’t stop imagining a party-wide, very graphic, incestuous orgy. She’s been having thoughts like this, all overwhelming, intrusive, and often depraved, since she was 14, but this particular thought puts her over the edge. She finds herself fleeing the party, hopping on a coach bus, and leaving her small Scottish town for London with no plan, just the vague idea that things will get better. 

Pure was originally produced for the UK’s Channel 4, but comes to HBO Max on August 27. The show is based on writer Rose Cartwright’s memoir of the same name, which detailed her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, and is directed by Aneil Karia and Alicia MacDonald. Pure focuses on Marnie and her new life in London as she tries, usually unsuccessfully, to cope with her disturbing thoughts. The show isn’t as concerned with London as it is with its people though, and we primarily see person-focused shots rather than location-based or atmospheric. 

Most notably, there are many, many vignettes that attempt to convey to the viewer what having OCD with sexual obsessions might look like. There are moments when Marnie looks into a crowded train and everyone is naked, where she sees her mom and imagines kissing her, or looks at her best friend’s chest and wonders what her nipples look like.

In her trips to various bars, coffee shops, and therapists, Marnie also develops her platonic and sexual relationships with an ensemble cast of characters, including the sex addict Charlie (Joe Cole), who bonds with Marnie about their strained sex lives, and the overly forgiving Shereen (Kiran Sonia Sawar), an old acquiantaice from Scotland who lets Marnie live in her apartment rent-free. We also meet Amber (Niamh Alger) and Joe (Anthony Welsh), both of whom support Marnie even when she’s a bit undeserving. 

Pure is proof that TV can be realistic, emotionally nuanced, and entertaining.

Not long after settling in London, Marnie learns that the only thing wrong with her is a misfiring brain — she has OCD. Like Marnie, I’ve had OCD for a bit over 10 years, since I was 10 years old, and before I started OCD-specific therapy, I always equated my thoughts with social difficulty, a lot of emotional confusion, and, well, debilitating anxiety! 

That’s kind of the whole goal of the disorder, to make you feel paralyzingly responsible for some evil thing when you’re simply an anxious person having an uncomfortable thought. My intrusive thoughts are pretty versatile, and enjoy dabbling in a variety of obsessional topics, or “themes,” which include supernatural obsessions (“If I watch this movie, I will be possessed by the devil tonight”), the often misunderstood pedophilia OCD (“If I make eye contact with a child, I’m a pedophile”), and sexual intrusive thoughts like Marnie experiences, just to name a few. 

To say I struggled growing up with these thoughts would be an understatement. I didn’t know what they were or what they meant about me. Was I an evil person? Did I really want to do those things? Did I have to enact on the thoughts to find out? No, no, I couldn’t do that. We often see Marnie grappling with these same questions, and it’s part of the reason that OCD is nicknamed “the doubting disease.” 

Everyone gets intrusive thoughts to some degree, but for OCD sufferers, the offhand thought of What if I crashed my car right now? isn’t simply shrugged off. It sparks something. 

Personally, I had a phase where I was obsessed with running people over. My compulsions included looking for bodies in my rearview mirror, making my passengers confirm that I had not hit anyone, and compulsively checking my local police dispatch to find any “evidence” that I was part of a hit-and-run. I think it’s very hard to describe just how anxious these thoughts made me, something Pure tries to capture through Marnie’s impulsive and self-destructive behaviors, like her sudden move to London and binge drinking. 

When trying to get people to understand my OCD, I try to give more understated examples, like how I couldn’t look directly at my baby sister for about 10 years, let alone speak to her or hug her, out of fear that I was going to “harm” her in some way. I destroyed more than one relationship by being highly paranoid that they were upset at me, oscillating between extremely clingy and disengaging completely, which was the coping mechanism I developed to deal with my uncontrollable thoughts and emotions. 

Charly Clive in Pure (BBC/HBO Max

I’m grateful that I was able to find my therapy center, which specializes in OCD treatment, after experiencing three other therapists who didn’t really know what to do with my OCD. I’m now doing daily cognitive behavioral-therapy (CBT) and exposure-and-response-prevention (ERP) therapy, the only types of therapy that truly make a dent in the OCD experience. 

Two of my exposures include listening to a voice recording of myself narrating a possession, (“It’s 12 AM, and I am possessed. I can’t feel my body, I’m not in control. I’m going to go to hell, and I want to,”) and watching movies with young actors and preventing myself from searching their ages. Exposures make you anxious, but that’s the point. My therapist likes to say “anxiety is good,” which can be difficult to internalize since anxiety is the thing that most people want to avoid. But pushing feelings away can only make them stronger, or more insidious.

Sometimes I want to shake Marnie because of how hard she pushes her thoughts away. Something about Pure that concerns me is that it’s never really clear to the audience, or even to Marnie, that her thoughts are just thoughts, not real wants or urges. She makes futile reminders to herself, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD,” but repeating phrases like this are just compulsions, making the tangle of an obsessive web stronger. 

She’s encouraged by a very bad therapist to experiment with women as a supposed antidote to her anxiety-inducing intrusive thoughts about fucking them, is judged and misunderstood by her friends for having intrusive thoughts, and walks out on OCD treatment in order to intimidate a potential lover into having sex with her, or an uninterested stripper to give her a lap dance in a misguided and dangerous attempt to uncover her true self. 

Marnie’s understanding of her own mind and how to effectively treat it is poor, to say the least, and at first, she rejects the very idea that she might have OCD since she’s so messy. Damn you, popular myth of the obsessive-compulsive neat freak! 

I was grateful for a lot of Pure’s depictions of OCD, though, especially the more nuanced aspects of Marnie’s situation. The show explores the confusion in navigating sexual intrusive thoughts depicting things you don’t want to do while having an actual sex drive pushing you towards things you do want, the difficulty of explaining thoughts that even gross you out to your loved ones, and the complicated realization that having a difficult mental health issue doesn’t excuse bad behavior. 

All of this is a massive step up from pop culture’s typical, one-dimensional and often factually incorrect portrayal of OCD, and I think Pure is proof that TV can be realistic, emotionally nuanced, and entertaining. Clive has a very easy humor in her performance of somewhat dark subject matter, and she never crosses the line into melodrama, just languishes in zones of intense frustration and uncertainty. Every character seems to have a beating heart and their own world of subtle problems. The dialogue is naturalistic, often pulling you through various exciting shades of painful and charming. 

Culturally, we have a somewhat collective understanding of common disorders like mild cases of generalized anxiety and depression.but the spectrum of mental health issues that people suffer is much more broad, and often a lot more ugly to look at. 

I’m sick of the Splits and 13 Reasons Whys of the world. I’m sick of people calling themselves OCD because they like being clean (what a concept!), or “so bipolar” because they have more than one emotion. I don’t like the idea that having a malfunctioning brain automatically makes you a pariah, or a villain, or a joke. 

Unlike intrusive thoughts, the way popular media depicts vulnerable people has real and meaningful implications. But Pure seems to understand that, and I’m glad for it. 

Pure premieres on HBO Max August 27th.

Pure Trailer:

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