The Monster of Your Story: Grief, the Babadook, and Re-membering

Whenever I have a client well-versed in scary movies, I like to bring up the movie "The Babadook". Warning! Some spoilers are coming...

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In the movie The Babadook, a grief-stricken single mother and her attention-seeking son are haunted by a boogieman like monster called the Babadook. He is frightening, unpredictable, and most certainly unwelcome.  He gains entry into the house when the young boy reads a book about him. After he enters, he terrorizes the mother and her son in very specific ways. Though the Babadook is very scary, there may be more to him than meets the eye.

A [very] brief synopsis

Whether you've seen the movie or not (it is definitely a scary one!), there is something to learn from this beast called the Babadook. In the story, the viewer comes to learn that the father passed away in a tragic accident just before the birth of their son. While there are many complicated nuances between the mother and son due to the timely death of his father (like the mother's resentment), the obvious monster is the Babadook.

The boy tries to welcome him in, only to find out that he is much more frightening than he could handle. The mother tries desperately to avoid it and attempts to completely erase it from their lives all together. But the Babadook grows seemingly stronger by this. The Babadook seems so powerful that it is turning the mother against the son! It appears that it has gained the control over her that it wanted. She continues to run from it, and it drives her mad. This progresses throughout the movie until she finally stands up (literally) to confront it with anger, frustration, confusion, and fury. The Babadook shrinks away and it looks like she has finally defeated this monster.

The following scenes show the near future, depicting the mother and her son who are happy and getting along (something that you do not see until this point). The colors are brighter, both mother and son look well rested, and there seems to be more love between them. But what happened to the Babadook? The final scene shows the mother descending into the basement where the Babadook is kept and contained. She feeds it some food, and then returns back upstairs. The end. What?! She kept it and let it stay in her house?!

The grief monster

I was so intrigued by this ending - it was so unexpected! Why would she want to keep this monster in her house?! The more I reflected on this movie, the more I began to draw connections between the Babadook and the monster of grief. The mother was stalked by a monster that she wanted nothing to do with. He appeared when she didn't invite him, he stayed when she demanded he leave, he grew stronger and scarier when she tried to avoid him. Did I mention that he sometimes appeared wearing her husbands old clothes? 

Having lost my father at a young age, I can attest to the fact that sometimes grief uses these tactics. It is unwanted, frightening, and unpredictable. It is far too scary to confront, so we shove it aside and avoid it. It seems to grow stronger the longer we go without confronting it. It grows, and grows, and sharpens its fangs until it cannot be held back any longer. Then it attacks, leaving us face to face with monster that feels far too big to battle on our own. If you've lost someone you love, I'm sure you can relate to this feeling that the more you try to put it out of your mind, the harder it hits when you can't escape it any longer. It feels like it has total control of your life.

Avoiding grief is a very normal and reasonable response, especially for those of us living in a Western culture like the United States. "Out of sight, out of mind," "Be strong," "Big boys don't cry"... These cute and catchy phrases all point to how many of us have been taught deal with grief and other painful emotions. We put on a happy face, ignore the pain, and keep on keepin' on. But does that eliminate the grief and pain that needs to be addressed? Not necessarily.

Feeding the monster

After the initial confusion, I grew to love the final scene of the movie when she feeds the Babadook that lives in the basement. Throughout the movie, the Babadook ran free and had the power to do whatever it wanted. By the end of the movie, it was not defeated but it was contained and it was visited. Much like grief, avoiding it can give it the power to wreak havoc in your life. I don't believe you can fully eliminate grief... and more importantly, would you really want to? Yes, it is scary and uncomfortable. But what if you can get yourself to a place where you are in control of your grief? A place where you can confront it, contain it, visit it, and feed it. As frightening as it is, it holds many of the feelings and memories you held for someone you lost. It may be worth hanging onto. The key here is learning to be in control of it.

Re-membering and grief

As with many things in life, there is no 'one size fits all' approach to feeding the monster of grief. This is an opportunity for you to be creative and personal. I know many people who have referred to the seven stages of grief, attempting to speed up the process to finally 'get over' it. Well, I hate to break it to you but grief is here to stay. It is up to us how we want to feed it. It is our mission to take it from an overbearing monster, to something we can visit in our own time.

I once heard from a colleague that his father had passed in old age. His mother ashamedly told him that she continues to set the table for him and carry a conversation on with him while she eats dinner. She explained that she was embarrassed that she did this, but it really helped her. It not only helped her remember her husband, but re-member her husband.

Remembering is a word you are familiar with - calling upon memories. Re-membering is an idea that we have the ability to continue those who have passed to remain an active member in our lives. While a person may no longer be with us we still carry their wisdom, experiences, opinions, etc. These can live on through the process of re-membering and allowing these people to still have influence in our lives.

Stop running, and re-member

If you have been running from the grief monster, it may be time to slow down and consider feeding it. You can call upon your own love for a person who has passed or your community to think of meaningful ways to re-member this person. How can you allow their wisdom to shape you today? What would this person have to say about you? How can you allow someone to still be a member of your life, even though they are no longer here? Only you can answer these questions, and you may find that through re-membering you can control your monster.

*Re-membering is well-developed idea in the field of Narrative therapy. If you'd like to learn more, you can start here: http://www.rememberingpractices.com/

The Danger of a Single Story

In such times as today, people are often reduced to a single story. Perhaps you've heard a few of these:

"Mexicans are rapists"
"Muslims are terrorists"
"She deserved it, look what she was wearing"

I think you get the point.

We are living in a day of snap judgment - we hear one story about someone and suddenly we have a singular understanding of that person, or culture, or country. [Insert name here], the girl who got pregnant in high school. [Insert name here], the man who was caught with drugs. [Insert name here], the alcoholic. Or as Chimamanda Adichie explains - Africa, the poor, war-torn country(!). Many of us can list off several people or people groups in our lives like this. 

And think of yourself and what you've been through. I bet you can imagine what people might reduce you to. It may be based on your cultural background, your appearance, your education, your socioeconomic status, your race, your gender, your sexuality, your physical capabilities. I'd imagine you would agree that it is very painful to be reduced to a singular story based on these things. 

Watch the video below to hear Chimamanda Adichie explain the danger of a single story.

...when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

As Chimamanda Adichie says, singular stories are painful. To see another person as a multi-storied individual is to bring forth paradise. I can think of many times where I was quickly judgmental about somebody based on what I have heard about them. Upon meeting them, my ideas radically shifted as I realized there was so much more to that person.

So ask yourself this:

Who are you reducing to a single story?
Who is reducing you to a single story?
How will you do your part to bring forth paradise today?

Be A Man

Dear Man,
What makes you a man?

Take a moment to think about this.

I am curious to know what you answered. Strength? Toughness? Provider? Protector? What are some other words you thought of? Did you think of any of these words: Kindness? Sensitivity? Listener? Intelligence?... Well if you did think of some of those words, I am surprised. 

We live in a society that praises hyper-masculinity.

hyper
prefix
1. above, over, or in excess

masculine
adjective
1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.

Early in life we are taught what is masculine and what is feminine. And we are taught that these are two distinctly different realms. Boys don't cry, they grow up to be big and strong, they will find a wife to provide for, and they will be the father that protects and defends their families. Is this a story you've heard before? Me too.

This story line is not a bad thing. In fact, some of those qualities and identities are wonderful! And perhaps if you are religious you get to add other things to that list. Depending on your cultural background, you will probably also be able to add more qualities as well. The story can be good, the identity can be good, and the qualities can be good. Unfortunately though, this story leaves a lot of people out. Men who don't identify as heterosexual, men who are small in stature, men who naturally possess nurturing qualities, men with limited abilities to provide for their family, men who have been systematically oppressed, etc. My question is this:

Did you choose this story for yourself?

If you're being honest with yourself, do you really feel like you get to choose what it means to be a man? If you think really hard, I bet you can remember an instance when you were called a "sissy" for being nice to someone else. Maybe you remember a similar instance in which you were shamed for helping someone, for loving your mother, for wanting to stay at home with the children, for being attracted to another man, for being an artist... Any of these strike a chord for you?

The reality is that the age old stories we hear about what it means to be a man limit men to a very small and singular identity. In my time as a counselor (and really just as a human) I have noticed hyper-masculinity limit men emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Emotional Limitations

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In my counseling experience, I have seen many men from many different cultural backgrounds who have endured wild trauma. I mean fleeing war-torn areas, watching their parents die in the street, being shot at, enduring violent torture from police in their home country, and the list goes on. I think most people would agree that these events are horrific and warrant a serious emotional reaction. I watch as these men who have suffered immensely fight tears and explain that displaying emotion is a sign of weakness. I often wonder how isolating this must be.

Chris Hoff, Ph.D, LMFT shared that in his work he attempts to "flip the script that showing no emotion is strength, and...by helping men to measure themselves against the idea that emotional risk taking is courageous" (Source). This is a radical idea that goes against that typical storyline men are taught to follow. 

Is the story that society writes for us enough for you? Is it enough for you to fit into a rather small box of expectations about who you are to be as a man? Are you suppressing qualities that you have because it doesn't fit the script?

Physical Limitations

While it might be easier to change the storyline for men emotionally, physical change can but much more challenging. "Big and strong" is the goal for many men. Toy stores are lined with super-hero gear, wrestling figurines, and other toys that represent masculinity as uber-macho-muscle-mongers. We praise young boys' strength as top priority.

This facet of masculinity excludes many people. Men born with various disabilities that limit their ability to become "big and strong" are automatically excluded from this physical storyline of masculinity. Men who are small in stature are excluded. Men who have no interest in pursuing physical strength are excluded. Feeling excluded out of an entire identity group that you are supposed to fit into is painful. For many of my male clients, this pain leads to social anxiety. Imagine walking into a room (let's say a gym, for now), and it seems that every single person looks different than you. And it's truly not the different-ness that makes you insecure, because being different in and of itself isn't good or bad. But the pain comes from the idea that all of the people in that room live up to manliness, and because you appear different, society does not value you as manly. Example: A man considered "scrawny" enters into a gym full of men who are larger, taller, and more muscular. The slender man surveys the room and decides this is not a box that I fit in and he leavesThe anxiety rushes in from this brief interaction. The decision is made: I don't belong at the gym, so I will not be going. I am not manly, I can never live up to that standard. Of course this is an example playing on a very stereotypical definition of physical masculinity, but the point is that feeling like you cannot fit into a set of rules for masculinity can breed anxiety, depression, and pain.

*I would like to note as well that this is not a problem for just men and masculinity. This is an experience that spans across race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, etc. Not feeling like you fit in a box that society deems valuable is a painful experience, and for some this happens much more often than for others due to systematic oppression. 

Spiritual Limitations

It is no secret that many religions have historically placed men and women in specific roles, and completely excluded those who identify as anything other than cis or heterosexual.

These roles, particularly in Western culture, have dictated women to raise children and men to provide financially. But what happens when a man is incredibly gifted with the ability and desire to nurture children, or the woman has developed a sharp business acumen? Many times, men and women have to ignore their talents and desires in order to fit in these boxes created by religions and culture. For those who are generally spiritual, this occurs with basic scripts for masculinity that typically align with religion anyway (i.e. man as financial provider). When somebody feels compelled to ignore their natural and cultivated gifting, they can begin to feel incredibly depressed. Feeling forced to ignore something that is deeply important to you in order to be valued by society or culture is a painful experience. And that is why hyper-masculine ideas can certainly cause men to feel depressed, unfulfilled, and misunderstood.

Ultimately, the purpose of this post comes down to this question:

Are you writing your own story?

Or are you letting somebody else write your story? Does hyper-masculinity work for you? Or is it leading to anxiety, depression, fear, pain? Do you feel free to write your own story, or do you feel that you've been trying to live up to impossible standards of masculinity that society defines? If you're tired and lost on this topic, it might be time to start exploring what this means to you.

If you need support, please feel free to contact me.