Why we HAVE TO talk about Bruno: validating survivors mental illness, trauma, and abuse.
*this post contains spoilers for Disney’s new movie, Encanto, and discussion of sexual assault, and traumatic events*
My breath caught in my throat when the image came up on the screen. It was a simple image — one that sticks out, in contrast with the vivid technicolor of the rest of the movie. There was a crate, and on the crate was a plate, and on the plate was a name. The crate is nestled up against a wall, and through the crack in the wall, the viewer realizes that they are looking in on the Madrigal family’s dining room, with the table set for all minus one. It is a blink and you’ll miss it moment — one that underscores just how troubled this family is . It is nestled within a movie with a grandiose message about loving yourself for who you are, not what your gifts are, are hidden and not-so-hidden messages that will seem all too familiar to those who have lived within the walls of our own homes — we are in the house, with everyone else, going through the same motions — but we are not quite there.
Recent Disney and Pixar films have done a remarkable job at sliding in messages about mental health, lovingly, as thinly veiled subplots, often using the metaphor of “gift” for something that particularly stands out. Encanto is no different, however, the intricate layering of internal experiences deserves a bit of a closer look. The movie centers around The Madrigal Family, a multigenerational household who lives together by a small town, whose magical “gifts” (super strength, the ability to control the weather, supersonic hearing, healing through food…) uphold the wellbeing of the town. When each child reaches “gift” age, they undergo an elaborate ceremony where their gift is revealed. That is, until, the arrival of Mirabel- who has no magical gift. The whole household is managed by Abuela Alma, a rigid and anxiety ridden matriarch, whose traumatic loss of her husband and safety is the root of, and creation of these “gifts”.
The link to theme of intergenerational trauma is not lost on the viewer — at least the one who has spent much of their life in the world of the healing of mental illness, and the care of others with it. Abuela , having suffered such a dramatic, and life shattering loss, internalizes the despair, the fear, and the knowing that one can lose everything in just one moment. She is given a magical candle, which bestows “gifts” upon her descendants, and ensures that the family remains together in their magical house. The house, of course, is silently crumbling.
I paused the movie. My six year old child, who was watching this movie for the third time now, asked me what I was looking at. I pointed out that Bruno, exiled from his family because his “gift” was too troublesome, just wanted to be a part of the family, to feel like he belonged. We nuzzled closer on the couch, and the movie went on — but the scene never left me. It is part of a larger reveal of Bruno’s backstory — one of the original family siblings, ousted from the family because his magical “gift’ of seeing the future became burdensome when this “gift” indicated a coming breakdown.
Living with mental illness can feel like living just outside the neatly drawn border of life. Often, it feels like looking at warm, vibrant life from behind a crack in the walls, where it is cold, dusty and filled with rats. The scene brought me back to sitting at meals with my family, in the midst of battling an eating disorder. While we are all at the table, I am experiencing the meal through a wall. While everyone there has no issue with taking food to nourish their bodies, my every move is dictated by an incessantly critical inner voice. I sat, isolated, lonely, and afraid in my own dis-ease, aching to participate fully in life, but just barely mimicking it from behind the walls, slipping further and further into separation. The irony in Bruno’s story is that from behind the walls, he is patching up the cracks in the house’s crumbling walls. This, as folks who struggle with their mental health within a family system will know, often becomes part of their inherited struggle — I am the problem, but I also need to fix it.
The image took me back to being an 8 year old survivor of sexual trauma —my psyche working overtime to conceal a secret deeply within me, so that it would not come out and disrupt my family. Bruno lived in the walls for decades —secretly patching up the walls — and my secret lived hidden for 12 years, before speaking it and living consequences of delayed onset post traumatic stress. The image took me back into the spiritual force it took for me to come out as a survivor, and as someone deeply struggling. The image took me back to the living in the void — the space just outside of life itself.
My experience is not unique, by far. Survivors of struggles with mental illness, of trauma, and of abuse often describe this experience of moving through life, but not quite feeling part of it. Children and adolescents with whom I work have even described their feelings of anxiety as a separating force from those who appear “normal”. “Why can’t I just be like everyone else in my family/class/community?” is a question I tackle often when working with young people who already carry the weight of an internal battle. The work centers around integrating those parts of themselves that they have already orphaned: the feelings, sensations, thoughts, and emotions that they have already pushed away for fear of standing out as too much of an other.
Bruno, in the movie, is abandoned — orphaned — by his family, as his struggles are deemed too frightening, too destructive. He is gone, forgotten, not talked about — ghosted — for most of his adult life. The lesson passed down to the rest of the family is — you better use your “gift” to please the world, otherwise, you will falter and the foundation will crack. Which, of course, is what happens as each family member struggles with the dissonance of the forced outward appearance of their “gift” and their internal need to be fully integrated, wholehearted people. While his twin sisters contribute to the family with their gifts (healing via food, and controlling the weather), and by having children — Bruno is frozen in time, unable to grow, to evolve, to contribute — trapped by the fear of his family, and eventually his own fear and abandonment of himself.
Bruno’s story is resolved in one song. ONE SONG to resolve three generations of inherited trauma and psychological dis-ease! My Gd, if only it were so easy. The truth is, reintegrating these parts ourselves often takes years of careful, empathetic, purposeful work — and the longer we wait, the more time it takes. The difference between recognizing and validating these experiences at age 9 versus age 15 is monumental. While I am certain that Bruno finally being seen and validated by his family contributed to his healing, the healer and healing in me wanted to see some of that work on the screen.
This story resonates especially now, given the prevalence of stories of survivors of sexual assault and abuse in a variety of communities. Adult survivors, who were children when their innocence was robbed from them, are coming out from behind the cracks in the walls, and finding a world that still wants them to hide with the rats. Buoyed by the #MeToo movement, and by conversations around the topic becoming more mainstream, survivors — people in the marshlands of healing — emerge from the walls, and try to find their place at the table. The validating reception of these stories — from children and adults alike — is what can create the container for the work to happen, and integration to begin. Empathy, in this case is believing the stories of trauma survivors as their understanding of their own lived experience — without inserting doubt. This is a crucial step for families and communities to be able to create a foundation built on trust and togetherness.
In our reality, this kind of healing doesn’t happen in just one song. It isn’t enough to sing “Let it go” and then *poof* our ice powers are welcomed because we can create instant ice skating rinks in the summer. In our reality, accepting and validating stories of illness, of trauma, of abuse is messy, complicated, and never neatly wrapped up in a bow. We use spaces to process that aren’t necessarily conducive to it — we offload complex emotional clusters into our relationships, into our classrooms, and into work contexts. In our reality, healing takes a deliberate step out of routine to break rusting internal chains, many that span generations back, and reconnect them as healing links into the future. It takes thousands of hours of habit formation to restructure neural connections, thousands of hours in talk therapy, practice of tools, and an event-free landing into our own bodies as a destination.
I’m happy for Bruno — his family welcomed him back, and they rebuilt the house together, with everyone realizing that they are better off as nuanced, complex individuals. They are “more than just their gifts.” The little trauma warrior in me finds it hopeful — if we can sing songs about it, then we can talk about it. If we talk about it, then we can validate it. If we validate it then we can do the work. If we do the work, we can integrate our broken pieces into our wholeness. If we integrate, then healing can actually begin.