What gets in the way of warming up emotionally, especially to another person? In the film “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s November 2017 directorial debut, we see a mother and her teenage daughter driving back from touring colleges. They connect emotionally listening to an audio version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, then launch into a characteristically cruel fight that ends with the daughter’s dramatic and desperate self-destructive escape from her mother’s disapproval by escaping from the car. While it’s moving.
Separation is an important part of adolescence
The main character, Christine McPherson, who has named herself Lady Bird and is played brilliantly by Saoirse Ronan, can’t wait to leave her hometown of Sacramento. She hopes to attend college on the east coast “…where culture is—like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.” Her mother, played by the incomparable Laurie Metcalf, interprets Lady Bird’s ambitions as a complete rejection of her and a lack of gratitude.
Marion, the mother, is prickly. She often feels unappreciated and burdened, and takes everything personally. Life is a giant narcissistic wound. Instead of encouraging Lady Bird’s sometimes clumsy and ill-advised attempts at making her own way and helping her learn from the inevitable mistakes, Marion feels attacked whenever Lady Bird attempts to separate, and becomes unapologetically cruel and unsupportive.
The effects of psychological absorption
She has unknowingly absorbed her own abusive, alcoholic mother, who must have felt perpetually victimized. Marion unconsciously sees Lady Bird as a (disappointing) reflection of herself. Marion is warm to her son and his girlfriend, her coworkers, her patients (she’s a nurse at a psychiatric hospital), her husband, and Lady Bird’s friends—but not to Lady Bird, except on rare occasions.
Because she’s unaware of the effects of her childhood, Marion doesn’t see what she’s doing, so doesn’t stop herself. Some of her cringe-worthy zingers: “You couldn’t get into those schools anyway. You couldn’t even pass your driver’s test….You’re not even worth state tuition…With your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail and back to City College and then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything…”
Separation isn’t rejection
The family is suffering financial hardships, and Marion has a simmering, bitter streak of resentment about this. She begrudges Lady Bird everything she has spent raising her, and at one point, Lady Bird has had enough and tells her mother to let her know how much her parents have spent and Lady Bird will write the mother a check for that amount, so she never has to talk to her mother again. Just as Marion absorbed her mean mother, Lady Bird absorbed Marion’s mean streak. Marion’s rejoinder? Some version of “You’ll never be able to get a job to earn that much money.” Marion is a mother who would see her baby crawling away from her to explore the larger world as a rejection.
Tracy Letts plays the affable dad, who loves his wife and daughter and sees their similar personalities as the cause of their storms. He is a generous and warm presence in the family, though a bit passive and depressed.
Along with many hilarious parts of this realistically-played coming-of-age mother-daughter love story, there are moments of heartbreaking poignancy.
There’s a thrift store prom-dress shopping scene in which Lady Bird tries on a dress that she likes and shyly comes out of the dressing room hoping for her mother’s approval, which Marion just can’t bring herself to give. Lady Bird asks if her mother likes her and her mother says that she loves her. Lady Bird presses the point and asks if her mother likes her and her mother says that she just wants Lady Bird to be the best possible version of herself. Lady Bird asks “What if this is the best version of myself?” and closes the dressing room door. We watch Marion fight with herself to give her daughter warmth, but in the end, Marion is locked in her coldness, and the words remain unspoken.
Locked in coldness
Lady Bird applies to one local college and enlists her father’s help in going behind her mother’s back to apply to colleges in NYC, asking that he complete the financial aid forms and saying she wants to delay telling her mother until and unless she is admitted, because she doesn’t want to start a fight that may not even be necessary. Her father agrees.
Lady Bird is accepted at a local university and wait-listed at NYU. We’re treated to a lovely high school graduation scene and family celebration party at a restaurant, where we see Marion’s pride in and happiness for Lady Bird.
Marion is actually lighthearted! But this is short-lived.
A classmate stops by their table and innocently asks whether Lady Bird has heard yet about her final wait-list results. This is how Marion learns of the deception. Marion completely freezes out Lady Bird, refusing speak to her. We see Lady Bird apologizing profusely—desperately, even. Marion will not relent. Once again, she is locked in her coldness.
The coldness continues, mitigated by the warmth and love of Lady Bird’s dad. He wakes Lady Bird on the morning of her 18th birthday with a cupcake. She asks him if he and her mom are going to get a divorce over the deception, and he reassures her that they will not, that he loves Marion.
Missed opportunities for love
We see Marion at the kitchen table writing and crumpling pages from a legal pad, notes she’s writing to Lady Bird, but she throws them all away. And Marion’s coldness is unabated, including when she and Lady Bird’s dad drive their daughter to the airport to go to college. Marion refuses to park the car and accompany Lady Bird to the TSA line, saying that they can’t afford the expense of parking the car for that brief time. We register Lady Bird’s hurt. Lady Bird’s father enters the terminal with her, and we see Marion drive away, stony in her coldness.
There’s a closeup of Marion’s face as she slowly thaws and begins to cry, acknowledging the missed opportunity to connect with her daughter, whom she truly loves. She turns back to the “Departures” lane, parks illegally at the curb, and dashes into the terminal to say goodbye to Lady Bird, but is too late. Her husband holds her and reassures her that Lady Bird will come back.
The gift that keeps on giving
Many other issues are dealt with in this beautiful movie, but my focus is the tremendous cost of living the unexamined life. This cost is paid by successive generations, as we see Marion’s absorption of her abusive mother and Lady Bird’s absorption of Marion’s cruelty. Are these two characters thoroughly cruel? No! There’s a real love for each other and a capacity for love in each, but their disconnect with each other is directly traceable to what they absorbed, “the gift that keeps on giving.”
This “gift” that we each are unknowingly given in childhood will continue to infect our lives and our children’s lives unless and until we unwrap it, learn the effect it’s had on us. The “gift” is what our parents unconsciously absorbed of their own parents’ deficiencies (rage, bitterness, depression, anxiety, burdensomeness, pessimism, passivity, etc.) and unintentionally passed on to us.
Warming up to the conscious life
Therapy is a cure for the “gift.” It can’t remove the “gift” we absorbed, but it allows us to recognize it in our daily lives and learn to work around it. This allows us to make satisfying lives and teach our children more useful ways to be in the world.
If you’d like help living a conscious life, warming up to life, connecting with other people, give me a call at 212-353-0296 or use the contact form. I look forward to helping you find the joy in everyday life!