Its hard to date the moment when I first became aware that I wanted to be a social worker. Like most things in my life, my interest in it grew out of the movies, life, and struggles in between. This weekend, we watched two of the movies that informed that disposition, reviewing the stories of fellow travelers going through their struggles to make sense of the world, with its breaks, connections, ruptures, and moments where we connect once more.
I can’t remember which I saw first – Ordinary People, 1980, or Kramer vs Kramer, 1979, – but both touched me. Stories of families grappling with loss, they highlight the way people let each other down, and others swoop in to offer support. Neither romanticizes the point, but they point to the value of essential others, attachment, and affectional bonds we all need to grow, develop trust, and foster resiliency, as we connect, bond, fuse with others, and separate. Yet when they break prematurely, so do we. This is the story of Ordinary People. When the protagonist Conrad’s teenage brother dies in a boating trip, he is left to pick up the pieces of his memories, grief, and guilt for having survived. Few seem to understand, a mother walks away, and a friend from the hospital where he stayed after he tried to take his life takes her life, and Conrad’s therapist steps in, offering guidance, authenticity, and a reminder that maybe it is not his fault that he held on. Maybe he did not do anything wrong after all.
Watching this film over three decades ago, I was fascinated with what it could show us about how we manage, adapt, and cope with very real pain, the awkwardness of not being able to get along with peers, and the ways a new supporter can move us through such moments.
The film also highlighted the specter of a distant mother, who could not quite connect with her son. Gradually the family and marriage comes apart, while the father and son become closer, sharing their own mutual engagement in making sense of their loss, while the mother becomes more and more estranged. It is hard for me not to think of Dad and our years together in Dallas before his divorce to my mother became finalized. We watched Ordinary People and talked about Mary Tyler Moore and my mom. Dad compared the two, perhaps unfairly. What was similar was the marriages in the movie and in life that both broke down.
Kramer vs Kramer, another story about divorce, only extended this thinking. None of us choose parents. And parents certainly do not choose us. But we all need each other in families. Yet, when our attachments are broken we all suffer. Capacity for trust is eroded, resilience challenged. Hopefully, we come out the other side, coping and growing up together. That was the story with my father and I. It was the story in Kramer vs Kramer. But the pain in between is very, very real.
Early in the film, Dustin Hoffman tells his wife about someone in the office, whispering, “committed suicide.”
My first godfather killed himself some four decades ago. His son suffered for years afterward. I will never forget when my parents told me about what happened. The week before, we had been hanging out. And now he was gone. It was the first of many such laments. And it still feels odd to remember. Maybe this was what all those serious parents in the movies, or even my parents for that matter, maybe this was what they were talking about late into the night?
Kramer vs Kramer and Ordinary People were movies about a generation that learned to make sense of divorce, seeing its vast impacts on all us, who survived it, as kids, young adults, and eventually parents ourselves.
I will never forget art class in fifth grade and one of the kids in class, a young girl, and I were talking about dinners at home. She had had pizza the night before. I told her that sounded great.
“Not if you have it every night,” she lamented and started crying. There was something else there. Her parents, like most of the kids in my grade, were separating.
My family suffered divorce, as did most of my friends, and I regret the pain of that separation to this day. But of course, we adapt as we all did, as the characters in the movies do, as we are all forced to.
My kids and I talked about the movies all weekend, how good they were, and how sad they seemed. They were in awe of the younger Meryl Streep. But who could imagine a mom leaving in that way? And they were sad for the son left behind.
But the making and breaking of affectional bonds is real and long lasting. Its something we spend forever rehashing, as we navigate the course of our lives, from growing connected to parents, separating from them, making our way through the world, and connecting with others through time.
I am still glad those movies were made and to watch them with my kids, who I hope will avoid enduring such breaks. But we can’t avoid life and its pain. We cannot avoid it. I just hope it won’t hit too hard as they grow through this world.