Sunday, August 27, 2006

Tikkun at the Movies: Billy Elliot and the Toxic Parent

I’m not giving a spoiler alert here, because I doubt that such a movie can be spoiled. I’ve already seen it a few times, and have enjoyed it more each time. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so, and then come back to read this post.

The plot
Billy Elliot is the story of an 11-year-old boy growing up in a coal-mining town in northern England. His tough coal-mining father sends him to boxing class once a week. Although Billy does his best, he doesn’t have it in him, and one day he is forced to stay after class to make up his deficiencies. Coincidentally, a ballet class starts on the opposite end of the gymnasium, and Billy is captivated and although he doesn’t realize it yet – he has found his destiny.
The rest of the movie is the story of the struggle between Billy and his father and older brother, both tough, heavy-set men’s-men, who cannot conceive of a way of life different than theirs. Billy’s father refuses to allow him to indulge in his infatuation with ballet, and goes completely berserk on the subject. Luckily for Billy, his father experiences a change of heart when he happens to see him dancing one cold Christmas eve, and after that he stands behind Billy’s attempt to gain entrance to the royal ballet school.

The Natural Life Force
After many hardships, Billy auditions for the royal Ballet and although he does not realize it at the time he does beautifully. After dancing, he is invited back for a short interview, and just as he is leaving, one of the panelists asks Billy what does he feel when he is dancing. This is his answer:

Panelist: “Just one last question. Can I ask you, Billy::  What does it feel like when you're dancing?
Billy:  Don't know.  Sort of feels good.  It's sort of stiff and that...but once I get going.... then I, like, forget everything...and...sort of disappear… I sort of disappear. Like I feel a change in me whole body. Like there's a fire in me body. I'm just a bird. Like electricity.

The Imago Theory (short intro here) postulates that every human being is born with a natural connection to the life force. When I heard Billy’s description of his feelings when dancing, I was instantly reminded of this notion, and it seems to me an excellent description of a human being connecting to that life force – the feeling of being immersed, of being carried, of effortlessness, of flowing with energy – with “electricity” as he puts it – that feeling is exactly what we were all born with, and lost, and yearn and struggle to gain again.
How did we lose this natural connection?

The Toxic Parent - Murdering the Spirit
In the opening moments of the movie, Billy is shown in his home fooling around with the piano that apparently belonged to his late mother. His father sees this and angrily demands that he stop playing, nearly crashing the lid on Billy’s fingers.
This is a small example of a parent seeing his child express himself, enjoying himself, and, instead of encouraging this, and displaying interest – he does the exact opposite, punishing Billy for being himself.
But this is only the beginning – when Billy’s father discovers that instead of going to boxing class he’s using the money to pay for ballet classes he confronts his son:

Billy:  What's wrong with ballet?
Dad:  (raising his voice) What's wrong with ballet?
Billy: It's perfectly normal.
Dad: (incredulous) "Perfectly normal"?
Senile Grandma: I used to go to ballet.
Billy:  See?
Dad: Aye, for your nana. For girls, not for lads, Billy. Lads do football, or...boxing, or...wrestling. Not frigging ballet.
Billy: What lads do wrestling?
Dad:  Don't start.
Billy: I don't see what's wrong with it.
Dad: You know exactly what's wrong with it.
Billy:  - No, I don't.
Dad - Yes, you do.
Billy:No, I don't.
Dad   - You're asking for a hiding, son
.Billy - I'm not, honest.
Dad: You are, Billy…. Listen, son, from now on you can forget about the fucking ballet. You can forget about the fucking boxing, as well.  I'm busting my ass for those half pences, and you're... No, from now on you stay here, you look after your nana.
Dad:  Got it? Good.
Billy: I hate you! You're a bastard! (Escapes the house, running away from his father)

The father’s behavior here is the exact definition of a toxic parent. The toxic parent cannot make any distinction between himself and his children. What was good for him must be good for all his children too. What he wants for them is what they must want for themselves, if they know what’s good for them. (Which is why Billy must do like his father did, and his father before him and be a boxer). The toxic parent displays no interest in his children’s life, (notice that Billy’s father is not interested in Billy’s experience or his feelings while doing ballet) but rather is interested only in using him for his own emotional needs, (in this case – affirming his ideal of manhood, and avoiding ridicule from the community) and finally, and worst of all, the toxic parent cannot, under any circumstances stand idly by when his (or her) child is enjoying himself, feasting on the abundant life force, being himself. This the toxic parent cannot allow because he was not allowed it either, and since he is suffering, he sees no reason why anyone else, especially his children, should enjoy life.
Of course, the toxic parent has no conscious knowledge of what he is doing and why. Most likely, Billy’s father would say that he is only doing his duty as a parent, and most authority figures would agree with him. But they would be wrong, and Billy knows it, which is why he sneaks off to his teacher’s house and continues his ballet lessons, this time with the intention of preparing for an audition for the Royal Ballet School.  Unfortunately, the night before the audition, Billy’s brother is arrested for his part in the coalminers strike, and Billy is forced to miss it. His teacher comes looking for him, and another highly emotional confrontation occurs, involving Billy’s father, brother and teacher. It ends like this:

Brother:You say he can dance? Go on, then.  Let's see this fucking dancing.
Teacher:  This is ridiculous!
Brother: If you're a fucking ballet dancer, then let's be having you.
Teacher: (to Billy) Don't you dare!
Brother:- What sort of a teacher are you? He's got the chance to dance. Now, you're fucking telling him not to. (raging brother lifts Billy on to the kitchen table ) dance, you little twat!
(Billy remains standing on the table, paralyzed with fright.)
Brother:  So, piss off. He's not doing any more ballet!  If you go near him again, I'll smack you, you middle-class cow.
Teacher:  You know nothing about me, you sanctimonious little shit!
He won't grow up to race whippets, grow leeks or piss his wages up the wall.
Listen! He's been with me...
(At this point, Billy again runs away from home, and bursts into a beautiful dance sequence, played out on the streets)

The toxic parent is usually not alone – some one, usually his spouse, enables his behavior, and even participates in it. Many times children get in on the act as well – like Billy’s brother, who echoes his father’s first tirade. The father in this case remains silent, enabling his eldest, “normal” son to do the work for him.

The Child of A Toxic Parent
Growing up in a toxic family is not an easy ordeal, as anyone who has experienced it can attest. Basically, the child is struggling to maintain the connection with the life force he was born with. Since the child is wholly dependent upon his parents, he (or she) usually cannot win this struggle, the connection is lost and with it the natural sense of identity, the innate knowledge of who we are and what we are supposed to be doing here on this planet, all are lost. If we are fortunate, we can try to recover this knowledge later in our lives, but always this will entail severe spiritual trials. A toxic parent can ruin a life in a very short period of time, while rehabilitating that life may take a whole lifetime.
However, Billy is different. Somehow he manages to stand up to his father and his brother, and even after the second time his father finds out that he has disobeyed his orders, he still has the nerve to bust out of his house and start dancing like the wind. Billy’s spirit appears to be unquenchable. His secret is revealed to us when he brings some personal things to a private ballet lesson, so that they will give his teacher some ideas for a dance. In this scene Billy repeats by heart a letter that his late mother left for him to open when he would become eighteen:

"To my son, Billy."
"Dear Billy:
I know I must seem like a distant memory to you...which is probably a good thing.It will have been a long time....and I will have missed seeing you grow.Missed you crying, laughing...and shouting. I will have missed telling you off. But please know that I was always there with you through everything. I always will be.And I am proud to have known you and I'm proud that you were mine.Always be yourself.
I'll love you forever.

When the authority figure raising the child imparts to him this kind of message “always be yourself” and backs it up with actions (as Billy’s mom did), then the chances of losing touch with the sustaining life force, with god, or the Tao or whatever people wish to call it – are substantially diminished. In other words – Billy Elliot is not only a very talented child – he is also a very fortunate one. And he is fortunate in another way too – his remaining living parent has a heart, and rediscovers it.

Can the Toxic Parent Change?
Dr. Susan Forward, the author of the book “Toxic Parents” states that from her experience toxic parents very rarely change, or even admit that they are to blame for anything. She actually describes a case where a father who raped his daughter for years completely denied the charges and still blamed his daughter (by then grown up) for being promiscuous with other men. For the child trying to recover from the disastrous affects of a toxic parent, even a verbal apology can mean a lot, and even this small gesture is refused him in most cases.
But Billy’s father turns out to be different. Like any toxic parent he is confronted with a choice: he has to choose between his self image, and between his son’s talents and aspirations, and also he has to choose between the community he lives in (which, like him, disapproves of ballet for men), and between his own child. Twice he chooses himself and his emotional needs over those of his child, in effect murdering his child’s soul.
But on Christmas Eve a miracle happens – he is out celebrating, and on the way home his pals notice that the gym lights are on. Billy is there with a friend (unfortunately, wearing a ballerina skirt), his father comes in, and all is silent. Suddenly, Billy starts dancing, gathering steam he erupts into a wonderful dance, starting and ending right under his father’s nose. As hard as it may be to believe – this is actually the first time Billy’s father has witnessed him dancing, even though this is  a consuming passion of the son that he supposedly loves so much.
In any case – Billy’s father is shocked, and touched, and as it turns out - convinced. From that point on he get’s behind Billy with all his might, enlisting his friend’s to help him out, and sacrificing cherished personal belongings. In order to raise money for his son’s trip to the audition in London he even crosses the picket line and resumes work. His son, a leader in the union confronts him:

Billy’s Brother: Dad, you can't go back, not now!
Dad: Look at the state of us! What've we got to offer Billy?
Brother: You can't! Not now! Not after everything we've been through!
Dad: It's for wee Billy! He might be a fucking genius, for all we know.
Brother: For fuck's sake, Dad. You can't do this, man! Dad!
Dad:   He's only eleven   for fuck's sake.  He's a kid. He's just a fucking little kid.                I'm sorry. I'm sorry, son. Please! - I'm sorry, son.  We're finished, son!  What choice have we got, eh? Let's give the boy a fucking chance!
Brother - Please. Please don't do this to me, Dad. We'll find him some money. We'll find it for him.

Thus, in the end, the father comes to his senses and makes the right choice, and we are shown a  parent who actually loves his child more than he loves himself. How rare is that? Let’s see.

Conclusion in Mahneh Yehuda Market
A few weeks ago I went to the Mahneh Yehuda market. I walked to the bus, and no one I passed was smiling. On the bus, about forty people were riding, most of them dressed in black, I saw no one smile and heard no one laugh. I went through the whole marketplace, and still I saw no one expressing any kind of joi de vivre. But standing on the curb at the far end of the market, waiting for the cars to pass, I see one man digging a ditch. Of all people – he is the only one smiling, and he looks to me completely at peace with himself, resting for a second on his spade, before lifting it again.
I do not know how many Billy Elliot’s are out there, and how many parents are now, at this very moment, denying their children a chance to live life at the fullest. But if what I am seeing on the streets, what I have seen in every walk of life that I have been in (lots!), is any indication, if the level of violence in our society is any indication – then millions; literally millions of children are being crushed and trampled, their spirits deformed, their will denied and broken, their innocence and simple joy in life desecrated.
I weep for these children.
As I weep for myself.

Surprisingly, I could not find any good resources on the net for the subject of Toxic Parents. I guess in this case the best thing would be to buy the book. It is not expensive, nor overly complicated. Dr. Forward is very direct and accurate, and anyone who has grown with toxic parents will easily recognize the horrifying reality she is describing. The book also includes some exercises, intended mostly for rape victims, but in my experience, they are useful for any abused child.


Hope Forus said...

WOW! Intelligent, thought-provoking blog! I remember this movie! Thinking back about it and your blog about it really helped me sort through one of my own memories of my toxic mother. She shamed me for a drawing I was very proud of that I did around the age of 10. She never liked the "real" me. Thanks for the motivation. I think I'll write about this experience on my blog today. Take care, Hope Forus

Jerusalem Joe said...

thank you very much for the encouragement.
i'm glad you we're able to connect with it.