By Emily-Rose Njonde
Posted on September 10, 2021
This article contains mentions of emotional child-abuse, narcissistic parenting, and intergenerational trauma
The 2016 Oscar-winning period drama Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis was an exceptionally scripted, filmed and acted work that sparked many conversations. Namely the debate of whether the protagonist/antagonist Troy, is a good father.
The film, set in 1950’s Pittsburg, tells the story of Troy, a 53-year-old garbage truck driver and former baseball player. His dreams of playing for the league were cut short due to his age and the omnipresent racism at the time. Troy’s 17-year-old son Cory, however, has the talent, ability and opportunity to go play college-level football. However, Troy refuses to let him do this, citing racism as an excuse, when the real reason is his bitterness about his past rejections. Troy has also been married to his loyal and loving wife Rose for 18 years and cheats on her through the duration of the movie. At one point, he even impregnates his mistress. The mistress then dies and he asks Rose to care for the child as her own, which she does. When the college scout comes to their family home to talk to Troy about Cory’s potential college future, Troy sends him away and pulls his son off the team, worsening their tense relationship. The breaking point is when Cory sees Troy push his mother. He goes out to defend her and the two get into a physical altercation that results in Cory leaving the family home and joining the marines. At the end of the movie, Troy dies and Cory comes home for the funeral. Here, Rose sees that her son is still clearly holding a grudge against his now-deceased father and explains that Troy should be forgiven, because he did the best he could with the experiences he had. Cory then proceeds to forgive his dead father and understand the sacrifices he made for him.
Troy did his best, with what he was given. That is the excuse given in defence of parents like Troy over and over again. Despite the years of trauma he inflicted on those around him and the horrible things he did to his family, he is meant to be forgiven simply because he “tried.” The idea that parents can evade accountability for their wrongdoings simply because they do not see what they did wrong has plagued the Black community for decades. Parents do not create spaces for open dialogue with their children, thus breeding an environment for the same behaviour to repeat itself with future generations.
Intergenerational trauma comes into play when parents pass down their trauma to their children. Cory lived in a world that would allow him to play college football and did think he was good enough to succeed, but Troy, remembering his own past, stood in the way of his son pursuing his dreams. Troy did not grow to comprehend the changes of the new world, because he did not take the opportunity to due to the bitterness he held on to. Troy’s trauma stunted his growth and negatively impacted his son’s opportunities and possibilities. Children need love, understanding, and a willingness to grow from their parents, not only commodities.
Troy, like many parents in the Black community, was a narcissist. This personality disorder “is characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, interpersonal exploitativeness, and lack of empathy.” This same study also showed that Black people are more likely to suffer from this disorder than other races. This is partially due to circumstances that many Black parents were forced to grow up in. Many of them also had abusive parents and so, they repeat the cycle because they do not know anything else. You cannot model empathy if you never learned how to give it. In fact, it is being argued that in 64% of narcissistic personality disorders, genetics played a large role. Authoritarian style parenting, which Troy seems to have, breeds an obsession with perfection and success, without worrying about self-awareness or self-esteem. So, narcissism is taught, narcissism can be genetic, but narcissism can also be created as a response to trauma. Research indicates that narcissists actually have different brain compositions than non-narcissists. The former have less grey matter, particularly in the regions associated with emotional regulation. This structural change in the brain can be caused by untreated trauma. They become “hypersensitive to their own feelings and fears and utterly unaffected by the pain of others.”
Experiences that our parents passed down to us are often the source of trauma they endured. Whether from poverty or violence, many Black parents have experienced things that negatively affected their emotional intelligence. When growing up in an environment where the primary objective is to survive, there is not much time for feelings or empathy. Obtaining basic necessities was extremely difficult and that was all their parents could provide for them. They then replicate that same experience with their own children. They assume that as parents who provide the necessities, they have done all that is needed to be done. But the problem is, many parents are no longer in situations that require only survival, therefore they do not need to act this way toward their children.
Intergenerational trauma is difficult to talk about because it requires self-evaluation and authentic criticism of one of the most important people in our lives: our parents. To critique the people who raised us may make us seem ungrateful for the sacrifices they had to make to raise us. However, to define “good parenting” as simply giving your children a roof over their heads, food on their plates and clothes on their back is not productive.
We first need to make the distinctions between what it is to be a ‘parent’ vs a ‘good parent.’ Merriam Webster defines a parent as “a person who brings up or cares for another’.’ That’s the basis; a parent is one who provides for their child. Giving your child all the resources they need to survive does not make you a good parent, but an able one. To be a good parent is to be there for your children. Physically, emotionally, and in any capacity that the child needs.
This is why I find the ending of the movie extremely problematic. The conclusion of the movie tells parents that it is okay for them to continue behaving in an abusive manner and it is up to their children to forgive the abuser for the abuse that was inflicted on them. What parents do not realize is that the patterns of abuse they force children to endure are the same ones that end up harming their children later in life. Because abused children are so used to receiving and accepting harmful behaviour from their parents, they no longer see it as problematic and are left vulnerable to be abused by other people.
A child who is verbally abused by their parents may not see the problem with their spouse abusing them in that manner. It may also cause resentment from that child towards their parents in the long run. Once that child is fully grown, they may feel that they can’t freely communicate with their parents, slowly eroding family relations. If a child is raised for years knowing that their parents are not good to them, this does not automatically change in their heads once they gain independence. Instead, it creates a chasm that is hard to cross once that child gains independence. This type of parenting breeds secrecy, fear and distrust that is extremely difficult to unlearn. The way you are raised matters. It is just not a roof over your head and food in your mouth that makes you the person you are. It is the people who surround you and your experiences with them.
Abused or neglected children react out of fear, rather than having willful control of their lives. They become people who may know how to navigate the world physically, but not emotionally. A person who cannot fully comprehend and empathize with the emotions of others will face challenges. Many parents do not have the capacity to understand because they were not raised with empathy. That is why it is so important to promote mental wellness in the Black community, and make support systems readily available and affordable for parents and children to access, so we can break the intergenerational cycle of trauma that plagues the Black community.
We must become the change we hope to see.