“Hereditary”, and a personal journey with mental illness

(Content warning for ableism, descriptions depictions of violence and abuse)

I picked a hell of a time to watch something like this.

Hereditary is ugly. At its core is a journey of abuse, grief and mental illness which posits that there is no good way to cope when one’s world is torn apart by any of these things. And as it goes on it morphs into a visceral, soul-crushing experience merged with  bits of genre conventions that will have horror geeks patting themselves on the back  while others will be left unsure how to feel about the whole thing. It’s an overwhelming work, using silence, sound, atmospheric music and motifs of dolls, arts and crafts  to suggest and underline a story of people torn apart by forces beyond their control. But talking about this movie in a typical review format is very difficult, at least when writing in a post J.J. Abrams, “mystery box” age where talking about what something is about is apparently a crime to the same media fandom that harassed Kelly Marie Tran off of Instagram. What makes this difficult for me in particular is how much Ari Aster and company understand the oppressive and isolating traits of mental illness, even in privileged circumstances. And that understanding hits a bit too close to home, not just with the precision of its moviemaking but also with how these illnesses are portrayed.

The plot centers on a family consisting of Annie (Toni Collete), Peter (Alex Wolff), Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Their grandmother has died and Annie recounts through her art and through multiple conversations a strained bond with them, along with a history of abuse and mental illness. This movie skirts the line between sadism and intimacy when exploring psychological disarray through a prism of genre moviemaking. But at the core is a story of ghosts of the past, accountability, and the knowledge that one is one is in the wrong, or that something may be wrong with you, tearing you apart. And what makes this story hit hard is how much it explores and scrutinizes the seemingly normal, clean, “nuclear family” structure and the past which has lead up to it until it all breaks down.

But this isn’t a cinematic adaptation of Frederich Engel’s Origin of the Family or something. This is about family members failing to check on each other and face themselves. Whether it is Charlie the shrink trying to give stern advice to Peter and Charlie while providing intimate touches to his wife Annie, and Annie trying take care of Peter and Charlie to the best of her ability, and Charlie and Peter contending with each other and their disconnect from each other despite being related, these failings, plus the pushes and pulls from the outside world, pile on. As time goes on, you begin to understand why these struggles are there, through a series of plot turns and revelations that will leave you wondering who is the main character and who is one supposed to be sympathetic to. And that’s the dark brilliance of the thing: through its frankness and creativity, you come to sympathize with individual members not because they are the good kind of dysfunctional family or because they’re, “relatable”, but simply on the basis of them being human beings living with grief and despair. You also come to understand their accountability (or lack thereof) with how they deal with each other. “No one admits to what they have done!” cries Annie in one heated dinner table conversation that feels like something inspired by Anton Chekov’s famous portrait of a broken family Uncle Vanya. And then things get really fucked up, thanks to the disorienting cinematography of Pawel Pongorzelski, the taut editing of Lucian Johnston & Jennifer Lame, the nerve-shreading music of Colin Stetson plus the production design of Grace Yun and others.

So, how does this relate to me? I have learned that my main abuser, who raised me, is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I have also known other family members from my childhood who lived with schizoprhenia. And I have had personal experiences that I believe could be signs of schizophrenia, or not. This on on top of a history of being diagnosed with autism and being sent to special education courses before transitioning to normal schooling. Which my other more distant abuser, the one who knew of my main abuser’s condition for years without telling me, now says was just a fraud to funnel me through the system to get money. All this despite them witnessing and criticizing behaviors of mine that are popularly associated with autism to the point where they once said that I would become like one of the mass shooters portrayed in the news media if I didn’t straighten up and become normal.

I learned the revelation of my abuser, who bought me into this world and raised me after a divorce, having schizophrenia with no one telling me, days before I saw, “Hereditary” at a dying theater in a dead mall in the middle of Downtown.

I am frightened and angry. And it feels weird to be writing about this. After all, aren’t I excusing what may have been some unsavory behavior on my part? It’s not like I can say, “Hey, my family has a history of schizophrenia, so that extended period where I was a dipshit? Forgive me for that, won’t you?” Hell, I’m pretty sure I have been a dipshit last week. Its not like people are going to be sympathetic just because my brain may be somehow broken to a eugenicist world that says, “No fats, no femmes, no blacks”. However fucked up the world is, how you make people feel still matters, whether one is hurting themselves or not.

But the thing is, mentally ill people are not given solidarity or resources. We are pushed aside and isolated. We are scrutinized. Being poor makes this even worse, but as of this writing one of my favorite writers, Anthony Bourdain, committed suicide. And people are outraged, saddened, remember how cool he was, how uncool he was, and other things. Here is a man who is certainly a lot better off than the poor folk he wrote about in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food who stood in line for Popeye’s chicken on Tuesdays in response to Alice Waters’ utopian vision about everyone in the United States of America somehow surviving only on seasonal, mostly vegetarian/vegan meals. But he still suffered.

Does Hereditary contribute to people living with schizophrenia, mania, developmental disorders and even anxiety being further pushed to the brinks of society? I don’t think so. Granted the movie does end on a more traditional note for horror movies, as the merging of searing family drama, sharp depictions of mental illness and suffocating atmosphere are folded into a few notable horror movie traits that flatten everything down to predictable (though augmented) means. On this note I can see some merit to the idea of the movie being…well, patriarchal. But far from being a polemic about the evils of mentally ill people, it is instead a tragedy told in a way that can only be done by one who has familiarity with grief, guilt and mental illness.

What resonates is how the movie portrays Peter and Charlie in relation to all of this. Peter is from the outset a stock horror movie character that usually is among the first to get offed: a stoner, horny and always getting a stern word or two from his parents. But the movie throws some of the worst his way and he comes to be defined by overwhelming guilt and fear. He feels guilt for having lived after a family member dies, merging with and augmenting his fear of his parents and of himself. There are scenes where Peter contends with what may or may not auditory hallucinations, along with well-acted moments of grief after and emotional paralysis, that show him for what he is: a troubled person with a conscience dealing with shitty parents and even shittier circumstances.

There is a similar dynamic with Charlie, a young girl with developmental disorder and a nut allergy who expresses herself creatively like her mother Annie. She isn’t the best at school and she often keeps to herself, sometimes wandering away from home, other times sleeping in the treehouse near her home despite being warned of how cold it is. But these behaviors are motivated by one thing: they just want to see grandma again. A grandma who, it turns out, was a lot more involved in her growth in some ways than Annie was, a story detail that lends to some bitter notes of drama and explanations for some awful behavior.

Which brings us to parents Annie and Steve. Steve is the straight man, literal and figurative, of this story, being a shrink who offers space for his family to grieve one moment and care through cooking, touching and cleaning the next. The thing is, his approach is clinical, a means of maintaining order more than it is one of passion, at least outwardly. As things spiral into hell, he grows exasperated and retreats into his rationality, where motions of care are made hollow by a growing disconnect from his own family, to the point where such actions become dehumanizing. But if Steve’s clinical approach is alienating, Annie’s creativity and presumed empathy are suffocating and toxic.

Annie is my abuser, one who is protective but also condescending, proud of her offspring while also denying their agency for whatever reason they can find (Peter’s drug usage/being a teenager, Charlie being young and with developmental disorders), and all because they believe themselves to be a good mother at the end of it all. That would be bad enough, but unlike my abuser, Annie at least has the privilege of being able to be an artist who can afford a family home. Annie has the material cushion that many with mental illness want for, but it fails to protect her or shield her actions by the movie’s climax. Her behavior grows more erratic over the course of the story, and tellingly she bounds better with Joan (played by Ann Dowd), a friend she meets at a support group than she does her own children. It is Joan whom she confesses the worse acts towards her children, while in another scene she berates the rest of the family for not admitting to what they are doing. She sticks out the most due to being both a powerful performance by Toni Colette and a startling mirror of what it is like to live under someone who endangers you while believing themselves to be right.

It is all of this which forms that dark heart of Hereditary. However broken people are, they are still with each other. The specter that haunts the family here is one made by parents. Parents who chose to abandon their young or steal the agency of those below them. Parents who fall in and out of people’s lives, yet still demand authority. Parents who provide but can also take away, by force of discipline or by, “sleepwalking”. This is a story of abuse and mental illness being folded into each other, ignored, conflated and placed into spaces where it does not help. And as time goes on, it all morphs into outright evil. The kind of evil that gets Hereditary listed in publications like Fangoria and Birth, Movies, Death, sure, but it is a potent one that left had me watching through my fingers and in shocked, empty silence by the end, contemplating just what the overall picture of mental illness, abuse, privilege, community and accountability means.

And, well, relating back to myself…I could go, “crazy” at any moment, become dangerous to be around. Maybe I have already become that as time goes on. But then why are people still around me? Should I be punished or reformed for what I done (or what I am)? And what about the rest of my family? Why didn’t people get help or help others out? Why won’t people speak up about all of this? Why won’t people admit to what they have done?

These are just a few of the many questions that have begun to spring up between learning about my blood family and trying to survive in the world with a chosen family, with the aspiration to transform it overtaken by the immediate concern of losing the people I love. When the ending credits rolled, a person sitting near me in the theater said, “I don’t know how to feel right now”. You have no idea, buddy. No idea.

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