The Film

Jan and Bill Mohat at the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance (SPEA) memorial walk, Cleveland, Ohio

“The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt –and there is the story of mankind.”

–John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The feature-length documentary REJECT takes an in-depth look at the science of social rejection. The film was originally inspired by the work of the Director’s father, Dr. Herbert E. Thomas, who wrote a book called The Shame Response to Rejection. During his work as a resident psychiatrist for 30 years in a maximum-security prison, he witnessed a clear connection between the experience of rejection and physical pain and how this could often lead to acts of violence. It led to the discovery that there is indeed scientific support for this “potentially vital, and certainly provocative thesis.” (National Science Foundation)

Experts in psychology, education, medicine, neuroscience, and juvenile justice who have studied rejection in their respective fields give commentary in REJECT. They include renowned early childhood expert Vivian Gussin Paley, youth violence expert James Garbarino, and the leading researchers in the study of ostracism and social exclusion. Using brain imaging (fMRI) and a simple ball-tossing game, researchers demonstrate that the brain looks like it’s in actual physical pain when people are rejected, even when the person doing the rejecting is a total stranger. In contrast, pioneers in education show models of acceptance that influence physical and mental health and self-esteem, even IQ and kids ability to stay in school.

Two personal stories woven throughout the film take profoundly different paths. We meet the family of 17-year-old Eric Mohat, a boy from a town outside of Cleveland who was severely bullied in his math class every day for seven months until he finally took his own life. His parents, Jan and Bill, along with one of his best friends Brandon, try to piece together the chain of events that might have driven Eric to commit suicide.  In Stillwater, Oklahoma, we meet 5-year-old Justin, the son of Mexican immigrants. He has already been labeled a troublemaker at school, if not a bully, landing in the principal’s office every day until he is suspended and moved to a new kindergarten. He finds himself in a new classroom under the watchful eye of teacher Terry Varnell, who understands that Justin needs boundaries, and more importantly, to feel accepted.

REJECT takes a science-based and solution-oriented look at the roots of bullying behavior and violent behavior against the self or others. The film aims to raise public consciousness about the serious and potentially lethal consequences of interpersonal rejection in its many forms: ”peer bullying, parental neglect (or abuse), race discrimination, and other forms of social rejection across all age groups. It speaks to parents, teachers, administrators, organizations that train teachers, coaches, mental health professionals, clergy, counselors, juvenile judges, office managers … that is, anyone entrusted with influence over others and in a position to foster acceptance, inclusion and social connection.