Friday, January 14, 2022

Encanto and Metaphors for Abuse and Healing

So many people in my newsfeed in the last 24 hours have complained that "We Don't Talk About Bruno" from Encanto is stuck in their head.

That one is a super heartbreaker as soon as you realize that Bruno was there listening to them sing about how they don't talk about him because he ruins everything--listening to them while he patched the cracks in their house to keep it standing, and loving them and wishing he could be part of the family still, even while they sang that song. It just kills me. The poor kid.

It's kinda dark, as my 14 yo said.

Actually, the whole movie is kind of dark. It’s a movie about abuse.

In fact, I can't get one particular scene from Encanto out of my mind.

First a little background so you can understand why. In Encanto, the magical house that helps everyone with everything represents family--family love especially, but family stability in general. And the house gets cracks in it, which are abuse. Each cruel word or behavior, each abusive attitude or action, causes a crack in the building. Enough abuse builds up that the house crumbles.

This is actually a really great metaphor. And it's true. Every person is sometimes mean or cruel to other people. That's part of being human. Each of us causes cracks, but increases of real love, apologies, fixing our mistakes, etc., erase those cracks and we can stay stable as a house/family. But an abuser causes so many cracks that eventually the house falls--and the individuals left have to decide if and how to rebuild.

In the movie, the victims can see the cracks, but the abuser makes them invisible to the outside world and even sometimes to the victims. Everything looks stable, and the message that the abuser deliberately projects to the public is that we are stable and perfect and beautiful, even as things are crumbling. The abuser doesn't even let the people in the family see how badly things are crumbling if they can manage that. And the abuser often won't acknowledge even to themselves that the cracks exist because that would entail acknowledging to themselves and others that the fault was their own--that they made the cracks.

And then when the building comes down, the abuser inevitably blames the victims, not themself--most abusers do not take personal responsibility ever. And most of the victims blame themselves for the collapse, even though it wasn’t their fault. But they’re trained by the abuser to always see pain as their own fault, so they see the collapse as their fault, too.

Okay, with that all in mind, here is the scene that is haunting me and hurting my heart:

In the movie, there is one family member (Bruno) who knows the abuse is happening because it hurt him so badly that he had to stop interacting with everyone else. He can see the cracks. He, the abuse victim, is working furiously to make his own mortar and patch all the cracks inside the walls, trying to keep the house from falling down on the other victims (for which he is demonized by the abuser and, because of that, the other victims as well).

This happens SO Often. The injured child (and the hurt child inside the adult they grow into) loves their family and frantically tries to make all the cracks better as if it is their fault or within their power to fix the breaks and make things okay. But they are just a child. They can't fix these things. They didn't cause these things, and their attempts to repair the damage don't do anything because the abuser keeps abusing. And it's not their job or within their abilities to fix each little crack. But they feel like it must be, and they give their all to trying to address every little break.

That's the picture that haunts me. A poor hurt child, rejected by everyone at the abuser's insistence, frantically trying to invent mortar and fill the cracks to save everyone else in the family and maintain the existence of the family--to fix the brokenness as if they can and as if it's their job to do so. This is deeply painful to think about.

The image seared in my mind of that scene has driven me to tears, and I woke up multiple times last night thinking of it and all the abuse victims trying to patch the cracks to save something that is trying to break them. This is every abused child who is hit (verbally or physically) and says, "I'm sorry I'm sorry" as if that will fix things, when they have nothing to be sorry for. This hurts.

It hurts because I know this child.

In fact, Bruno is not the only character in Encanto who is a perfect avatar of a defensive adaptation to abuse. The characters in Encanto are mostly actually adaptive identities that abused people take on to protect themselves. Each of the "gifts" is actually something people do to survive abuse in real life, and each of them is highly effective in an abuse situation but it maladaptive in a healed, healthy life.

You have:

*The character who feeds everyone and tries to heal their wounds, but still can't escape. They bury themselves in taking care of people's bodies.

*The character who has to modulate and deny their own feelings in order to try to control the "weather" in the home.

*The guy who can see what's going to happen and tries to warn others, but also feels like they are hurting everyone else and people would be better off without them "causing trouble" and so they become "invisible" to protect everyone else from raising the ire of the abuser.

*The person who is hyper-sensitive to things going on around them so they can know as quickly as possible what everyone is thinking and saying and judge what to do--but can't really be heard for themselves even while they hear everything.

*The person who is a chameleon, who becomes everyone else around them and never can be comfortable as themself.

*The person who is perfect all the time so that wrath never falls on them, but at the expense of their being free to be human, make mistakes, or even have desires and thoughts of their own.

*The person who is extra strong, not for themselves but to protect the littler ones--the one who takes the beating to protect the smaller kids, or who feels like they have to guard and protect everyone and never get a chance to be vulnerable, sad, or even relax. This one is also the one in the story who feels like their worth comes exclusively for how they can serve others or what they do for others.

*The one who loses themself in communicating with animals instead of people because animals are safer.

And you have the one who is pretty much normal and not so maladaptive (has no gift) and so they just get the brunt of the emotional abuse.

Interesting, no?

These are all very common reactions. The less common reaction is Mirabel’s eventual confrontation of her abuser.

I think it needs to be made very very clear that most children subjected to emotional or other abuse (like literally every child in this family, even the adult children) will never and probably should never confront their abuser because 90+% of the time, those abusers will not humbly turn and change, but will double down and abuse more often and more viciously. And when the family breaks from the abuse, they will blame the victim, not take responsibility. 

        It's a false narrative (and potentially a dangerous one) that abused children do and should confront their abusers. Sometimes a confrontation is important, but not always, and it often makes things worse—and it rarely makes things better. The work Mirabel did freeing her siblings and starting them on the path toward healing was much more realistic (although sometimes trauma must be healed in separation, even of sibling victims).

Also, it needs to be stated clearly that children are not responsible for healing the trauma of their parents. Parental trauma can and often does lead to abuse of children--but the children are not supposed to be the ones who shoulder the burden of healing. We are each responsible for our own healing and for our own behavior toward our children. If we need help, we turn to professionals or to Jesus (or both! Yay for both!); we don't put that responsibility on our kids or grandkids to fix us.

It’s also important to remember that someone going through something traumatic might explain but it does not justify or excuse abusive behavior. Past trauma does not erase the consequences for the abuser or the victim. 

Now, I'm not a professional therapist, but I have supported a lot of people through healing from abuse. So I've been around the subject a lot and have done a lot of research in trying to help loved ones and navigate complicated landscapes.

One of the things I've learned is summed up perfectly by Encanto: Every abused person has to move from "I love my family and we're great" (Mirabel's first song in the movie—promoting and embracing the abuser’s version of “family”) through "Actually, Wow that hurts" (sitting in her room acknowledging her reality) to "This is actually not okay" (cracks that she can see and she realizes others are feeling, too) to "it's not what she does--it's what you do" (what Bruno says to Mirabel to tell her she has to act if she wants to change things; she can't wait for someone else to change) to "build a new house on a better foundation" (last song in the movie). The movie is actually really brilliant in a way that it gives us the words and metaphors that are needed to talk about this and help people understand it.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the person no longer loves their family at the end of the process. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. That outcome is very much an individual thing, but the journey itself is remarkably similar in all the people I’ve interacted with who need to heal from abuse. 

Healing from abuse isn't a moment--it's a journey. And it's a consistent journey that includes those steps every time, for every person, usually in that order, although in their own ways. 

Sometimes the last part, building a new house, includes members of the broken family, but sometimes it doesn't--at least not in the same way with the same relationships and dynamics as before because of the realities of what it means to build a new foundation and a new structure that works better and protects you. 

Bruno got a good way through that journey, but he tried to repair the old house instead of building a new one--and the building of a new house is vital to healing. You can't keep living in the old abuse and still heal. You have to build a house on a new foundation if the old foundation is broken, and in abuse situations, it absolutely is (no matter how much the abuser denies this). This is not to say there is no contact ever again with family members; it's just to say the person healing gets to define how their new house is built and on what foundation--the broken family, and especially the abuser, has no say in this. Even other victims of the same abuser don’t get to define how this works or what it looks like: Healing is individual.

What I've seen consistently in the journeys of the people around me is that people cannot heal from abuse—they can’t  move from living in the abuse to building a new house--until they go through the middle three steps. And, even though that’s an individual journey that looks different for every person, certain things are consistent among all the journeys.

1. To heal, people have to acknowledge that things are broken. Usually they have to be able to say the word "abuse" in context of their situation before any change can happen. As long as they are denying the reality or hiding in the illusion that all is well, they can't heal. 

2. They have to start to allow themselves to have and recognize their own feelings, and specifically to feel sad (about the way they were treated, about the broken relationships, about the mess and pain, etc.). 

and 3. They have to get angry (about how they were treated, about being hurt, etc.).  

In Encanto, we see Mirabel go through all three of these. She not only notices the cracks in the house, but tries to alert the others (remember, the cracks symbolize abuse). She feels sad. She gets angry.

Ideally, eventually people also get to a point where they can forgive and move on, as Mirabel did, because this gives victims the ultimate freedom from their abusers. Forgiving does not mean things go back to the way they were, though. Unlike in Encanto, this often (maybe even usually) happens without retaining an actual familial relationship with the abuser--sometimes a relationship can be fixed or rebuilt, but only if the abuser is repentant, and most are not. (I do actually know people who were informed or realized they were being abusive, and they changed and worked toward healing and growth and fixing their mistakes and problems. So it IS possible. I've seen it happen. Not as often as I've seen people double down, but it really does happen sometimes.)

Forgiving often includes acknowledging the challenges their abuser faced; it does not include denial, though. Denial is a sign someone isn't ready to heal yet.

Healing from abuse can't be imposed on someone. They have to be ready, and being ready often happens in fits and starts, here a little and there a little as a person processes what their experience was like and realizes it wasn't okay. It's hard for a lot of people to work from "But I love my family and it will break if I don't pretend nothing was wrong" to get to "It was wrong. I should not have been treated this way." (As Kate Bishop says in Hawkeye, "It's not okay. It was never okay." And, like Kate Bishop, sometimes love remains, but on new, different terms that include what is right and what is wrong. And sometimes people just move on entirely, no love remaining.)

In Encanto, Mirabel is not only on this journey--she enables others to take the journey, too. She takes time to approach her siblings as people. She makes them feel safe, and they open up to her and acknowledge that all is not well, express fear and anger, and then she helps them find a path toward healing, in part because she helps them see that she values them separate from their adaptive behavior/identity they are hiding in (their "gift"). She helps them feel sincerely loved and understood and safe, and also human, and supports them as they process and change and begin healing.

Mirabel helps her siblings do this, and she also has to do this. You watch her feel sad, acknowledge things are broken (the cracks she can finally see), get angry, and eventually come to a place where she can forgive (and her abuser is repentant, so they have a healing journey together for a happy ending).

Still, despite Abuela being repentant, you’ll notice that the house, at the end, recognizes the source of the love—the magic—is Mirabel, not Abuela. Mirabel has replaced Abuela as the one who can open the door to family—she is the new head of the family. Even though Abuela changed, there are still consequences, and the family cannot be rebuilt on her terms or under her control and guidance. The family can only heal with someone else in charge.

What can you do to help someone going through all this?

Don't be afraid of their abuse. Don't shy away from their reality. Don't flinch when they need to tell you what they've been through. Let them talk.

Listen listen listen, and don't judge them for feeling sad, angry, or needing to build a new foundation without their abuser.

Love them for who they are, outside their adaptive behaviors/identities. Everyone needs to feel valued and loved. Love is very healing.