"I Never Wanted to be Your Mother": How I Dealt With Trauma Through HEREDITARY
When I was five years old, my mother and father divorced. My mother had been unfaithful and it led to the split that ended up being extremely nasty for a good while. There wasn't a civil and semi-friendly going of separate ways and the situation reached a violent and brutal level when my mother kidnapped my brother and I. Trying to take us to another state, we were thrown into the backseat of her car and she sped off, hoping to take us and never look back. We were a good distance away, before my mother stopped for gas and was met by both my father and her own mother in another car, making way for quite a confrontation. Almost immediately, my left arm was being pulled by my mother and my right arm was being pulled by my father, stretching my muscles to the point of forcing me to cry hysterically as each person tried to get their agenda to win. The tug-o-war continued until my grandmother lifted up a gas hose and sprayed my mother from head to toe with gasoline (it was the '80s, way before automatic shut off hoses). As my mother stood there, covered with gasoline, my grandmother lifted a lighter and flicked it, the small flame holding such power to sway the situation. "Let them go or I'll light you on fire" she told my mother. Enough to scare her, my mother got in her car and left, leading to a couple of years where I didn't see her.
From that moment on, I have never felt close to my mother. She went on the do opium, cocaine and many other drugs and her bipolar disorder made it impossible to have a "normal" relationship with her. I never had that matriarch relationship, one where the child feels like they're protected and taken care of. The lack of that led to my own journey of self discovery, one that led to me trying to find comfort in drugs and alcohol and so on, before I was thankfully lucky to get sober and live a life of sobriety and self love that comes from letting those toxic relationships die. It's been enlightening, but not easy whatsoever. Small things trigger memories of my abusive mother, her words were always like knives, cutting through any happiness you would feel.
One night, when my wife and I got a sitter in order for us to have a date night, we found ourselves going to the theater to see Ari Aster's Hereditary, expecting a scary as hell film, but not expecting a film that would both enthrall me but also trigger a lot of emotions and force me to confront the demons of my mother that I had tried so hard to avoid.
The hype machine was in full effect for Hereditary and though it was in no way the "scariest film of all time," what it WAS was heart wrenching and one of the most pure looks at trauma and how not properly addressing said trauma can lead to the destruction of one's self and those around an individual. Each character was so well written and portrayed, that it stayed with me for weeks after watching the film. Each character meant something else to me and I found myself identifying with each of them more than I had with any other film prior. There was a piece of Annie (Toni Collette)in me, angry at the fact that at 37 years old, I still do not know or understand my mother or her reasoning. I had to have a personal funeral for my mother in my heart and while she is physically alive, I have very much had to treat her existence as if she passed on, making it easier to tell myself that instead of that she just never cared enough to be a good mother. I found parts of Charlie in myself, scared of feeling different and feeling like nobody wanted to have me around. And while I have definitely felt the pressure to not cave depsite everything going on around me, ala Gabriel Byrne's Steve character, the one person in Hereditary that I found to be 100% me growing up, was Alex Wollf's Peter character. There was something in that character that allowed me to deal with feelings and pain that I hadn't known how to deal with prior to seeing Aster's film.
What was so special about the character of Peter to me, was how vulnerable he was, a trait that led to various theater-goers to laugh at moments that I simply did not find to be funny whatsoever. The moments that led to laughter were the most heartbreaking to me and for good reason. The mistake that so many people made when watching Hereditary was thinking that Peter's breaking down was meant to be comical, when in reality is was realistic. As the film escalates and the pain and guilt that Peter must live with grows, he continually does what any boy would do: looks to his mother for guidance and love and he is met with quite the opposite: contempt and hatred. Though we are in the middle of the loss that Peter and Annie and Steve are living with, the pain in Peter's heart was there before the film began. He's already a damaged kid prior to us joining the story, with Annie having doused Peter and Charlie with paint thinner and holding a match up. Though Annie says it was sleepwalking, there's a damage and pain in Peter that we see throughout the entire film, knowing that his own mother attempted to kill him. When things begin to get stranger and stranger throughout the film, Peter's psyche heads back to the mindset he had prior to the paint thinner event in the past, with him begging and CRYING for his mommy. People in my audience laughed when Peter started crying and calling to his mom and it really bothered me to see and hear that laughing. Annie only sees herself, negelcting the pain and suffering her family and specifically her son, is experiencing, failing to be the exact thing she's angry at her mother for never being: a good mother.
As I sat in my seat and watched Hereditary, I found myself living vicariously through Peter, feeling that pain I had kept quiet for most of my life and it felt freeing to me, to finally come to terms with everything I had kept bottled up. The breakdowns, the years of wishing for a normal relationship, it all resurfaced, and during the 2+ hours of sitting through a cinematic panic attack, I felt myself begin to let it all go and it felt so very wonderful.
It's amazing when cinema has the power to affect us in such profound ways. Don't get me wrong, I love to just have fun with certain movies and I am in no way one of those "every film has to be the greatest or worst thing ever" types, but when films like Hereditary are released, they allow us to dissect their meanings and they allow us to look inside ourselves and find meaning. I'm thankful for that kind of cinema.