I’d like you all to get on the galloping trope-horse with me for a second to talk about something that I think is the definition of poor writing. It’s not only poor writing, but it reinforces unhealthy behavior and outdated thinking that we need to stop pretending is okay. Our TV, books, and movies can reinforce our negative thoughts, and I feel like, for someone who has been struggling with this subject, it can be quite harmful.
Here’s the situation: A character is one of the leads of the series and they are doing fine – good at what they do, managing their lives, happy, and then out of the blue, their parent returns. This parent has typically not seen them since they were five, not cared to reach out at all, or they had a rocky relationship that was characterized by the parent showing abusive behaviors (not that TV and movies are good at highlighting this behavior as such). They come back and the character is torn between letting them back into their life and shutting them out. Another character will inevitably pull out the big guns and say, “He’s your dad! You have to love him!” Same is said for a returning mom (though TV does love the dad drama).
Writers explore this plotline with all the nuance of a dump truck. It’s a similar idea to a belief I saw often in the south when originally facing my own situation of letting a bad parent go. It was the idea that you have to forgive your parent because the blood in your veins is stronger than any wrong they could ever possibly do. The thinking is that because this person gave you life, you owe them for it. You owe them unwavering allegiance because they had sex once. You owe them forgiveness even when they do not attempt to apologize and, more importantly, change their behavior in noticeable and lasting ways. The onerous of kindness and generosity is on the person hurt in these cases. It becomes an obligation to ignore all the toxic manipulations, pain, and attempts at making the person abused feel like less of a person, and for that person to give out second, third, and fourth chances. People in the south will turn it into a guilt game in which you are to blame when you choose not to have a relationship with a parent. Not forgiving this parent makes the person bad, arrogant, cold, and unwilling to see reason. In short, it makes you an asshole. You become the enemy, (when the enemy, in reality, is the person who abused you. Always).
I’ve been told time and time again that I should forgive my father because he stayed. He didn’t abandon me after my mother had her final breakdown and was taken away by the police, as though not tossing us out on the streets was an accomplishment on his part. He barely fed me and my brother. He never parented beyond getting us up in the morning to go to school. I could do what I want, not come home, run wild, though I never did because I knew I would be on my own if something bad happened. I had to watch my own back, and my brother’s. His indifference was not engineered to keep us in line by reverse psychology. He simply didn’t care. His vices – cigarettes, soda, and Jeopardy – were more important than food, communication, and love. But because he didn’t hit us and scream at us the way my mother did, we owed him.
Being better than someone who hits children doesn’t make anyone a saint.
“He’s your father,” were the words tossed at me. The same words tossed at viewers when a parent comes on screen after being away for the entirety of the person’s life. It’s dumb. Worse, it’s ignorant. A parent is not someone who contributed DNA. It takes more. It takes love and it takes trying. No one is perfect, and I’m not saying that a parent can’t make mistakes, but if someone neglects, abuses, manipulates, and lies to you, and then carries on in this way with no sense of caring that they do this, you owe them nothing.
The only person you are obligated to forgive is yourself. Everyone else is a choice.
No one has to be forgiven. You don’t have to forgive someone in order to move on from them and find a new version of living that is healthy. You can create your space, and work on being in a better place emotionally, without carrying them with you. It can be done. You can let go. And you can put yourself above the person who systemically and purposefully abuses you.
Any person, even a parent, must work at being good. They can’t just skate by on their DNA and assume their choices won’t come back to bite them on the ass. If a person changes and proves it, forgiveness may be in the cards, but you still don’t owe it to them. You don’t owe them that piece of you. You owe yourself the chance to get healthy, to improve your life, and have all the freedom to cut these toxic people from your life. If you were diagnosed with cancer that could metastasize, you wouldn’t think the cancer a good thing. You would work with professionals to find the root and carve out the parts that were hurting you. This is just common sense. You can do the same to the people in your life who only see you as a physical and emotional punching bag.
Letting go does not mean you have to forget.
An infuriating aspect I’ve seen in TV quite often is a character, who has lost a healthy parent to death, telling another character, who had an absent or abusive parent, that, “I wish my parent were still around. You don’t have the time you think you have before they’re gone.” The subtext here is that you should feel guilty that your parent is going to die one day, put all the emotional trauma they put you through aside, and suck it up, because mortality kills people. This is reason enough, for writers of these shows, for the characters to walk into a toxic situation.
One plus apples does not equal sense, okay? You cannot compare a healthy, loving relationship in the past to a toxic one in the present. It’s lazy in life, and it’s lazy in writing. I’ve had friends who have lost their fathers and not one has told me to forgive him because he’s my father. The majority of people are able to look at the situation I was in and see that they are different from the one they were in. They can rationalize that an abusive relationship is not the same as what they had in their father. Encouraging people to willingly walk into an unhealthy relationship with anyone is BAD advice. It needs to stop being written and taken seriously. Relationships are more complex than that, and a writer not being able to understand the nuances of it means they shouldn’t write it.
My advice is to ignore the writers (unless they show these people going to psychologists, having open communication, working toward a solution, etc., which they won’t in these cases, because crappy drama is better than healthy psychology), and to focus on what you need. Because you matter a whole hell of a lot. Does it suck that we have crappy parents? Hell yeah it does. Is it fair? Nope! But you know who we still have left that’s worth investing in? Ourselves.
We can set our boundaries, know what looks healthy and what looks toxic, (and sometimes it takes years to see the differences), and decide that we are worth the people who respect, cherish, and love us. We are not broken because these DNA contributors are awful people. We have within us all the capability to make ourselves a priority, to find the professional help we need, or the relationships we need, or the space we need, or all of the above, and create environments that establish healthy parameters for living and loving. Many people would have you believe that family is more important than the individual, but a good story can’t be told when the character doesn’t know herself and what she’s capable of. Our strength is profound. It is in spite of the people who would harm us and it is there even when we can’t see it. It is not dependent on forgiveness. It is there always.
The choice is yours. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.