I cannot watch violence on TV or in movies

My family thinks it's just entertainment, but it leaves me anxious and sleepless.

Published May 15, 2009 10:21AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

This is a controversy that has been brewing in my house for some time now and I would really appreciate your take on it. Is it wrong that I refuse to watch any form of rape, torture, degradation or abuse of people on television or in the movies? My husband and grown children insist it is a problem, but I just see it as a matter of personal preference and a conscious choice not to fill my head with poisonous content. I know it's not real, but garbage in, garbage out, I argue.

I was raised in a very physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic home and with a lot of conscious effort (and therapy) I managed to educate myself and escape infecting my own home with any of the abuse I suffered. I raised my children to be confident, successful, happy adults who aren't burdened with the baggage I shouldered throughout my youth. However, as a result of my background, I remain a fairly emotionally sensitive person. I can't bear to witness cruelty of any kind to humans or animals and I do my best to avoid it. As a result, I refuse to watch many of the television shows and movies that seem to be so popular today.

My children, who only watched limited television growing up and never any shows with violent content, now happily enjoy slasher films with their friends and glibly claim it's just a matter of separating entertainment and reality. I, on the other hand, may not sleep at night after subjecting myself to such horrors. And a particularly cruel scene where a person is being tortured, such as the electrocution scene, though brief, in "Slumdog Millionaire," can leave me distraught for days. I don't tell my family that they can't watch such things; I just ask they don't do it in my presence. They say I am too sensitive and denying myself the cultural context that these shows offer.

I don't hide from the world. I read the news every day and find more than enough horror there. I just don't see the entertainment value in adding insult to injury. What do you think?

Hiding Under the covers

Dear Hiding Under the Covers,

I can picture what is happening on the surface. Your family wants you to share in their enjoyment. They want to watch shows that they like, and they do not want to feel guilty about it, and they do not want to have to turn it off when you walk into the room. And they can't feel good about it if they know that it causes you trouble.

But these are the surface phenomena. What is at issue is your right to set your own boundaries and have your own experiences. Naturally, having grown up in an alcoholic household, you have experienced lifelong difficulty setting these boundaries and claiming your own experiences.

As you are bickering with your family about violence on TV, underneath it are a set of conflicting facts. One is the fact that as an adult individual you are free to watch what you want and not watch what you don't want. The other is that as a family member you are enmeshed in a web of avoidance and irrelevancy. And it is difficult to assert the one without challenging the other. Because at the root of both your difficulty asserting your boundaries, and of the family system's web of avoidance, is the pain of your abusive childhood. It's right there in the room with you. It's the subtext of all of this. And by refusing to acknowledge and respect your feelings about violence on television, they are in a manner of speaking refusing to acknowledge your own painful past. They are attempting, in fact, to avoid acknowledging your pain.

They're not being mean in that. They love you. You're their mom. They do not want to think of you as being in pain. They don't really know what they are doing. They don't know that by refusing to acknowledge your pain, they are causing you pain.

It is not clear if you have told them explicitly about your childhood or not. But the childhood of their mother hovers about this discussion about violence on TV and movies. It may be the hidden topic, or the subtext, whether anyone knows it or not, whether you have openly discussed it or not, but it is there. When something painful like that is there, families adopt collective strategies of avoidance. Rather than speak of who you are and why, we speak about what's on TV. Rather than accept you as you are, we speak of you as a set of preferences and beliefs, a consumer. To speak of what shows you like best is to speak as a consumer.

Your preferences are mutable and can be argued about. But a childhood of abuse is not a set of preferences that can shift with a new offering of choices. A childhood of abuse is permanent, like a scar on your face. It is deep and real and always with you, yet you keep it hidden. Because it is hidden, it acquires an intimate and frightening power. It is a taboo: The powerful thing we dare not speak the name of. It is something a family is not going to talk about easily; it can be as though it were some intimate part of your body that you would never show your family; to speak of it, or show it, could be that uncomfortable, because it is that real. It threatens to rend the shrouding from the family's taboo system. It threatens to reveal.

So that's what I think is going on. Underneath the discussion of the violence on TV is your own childhood, about which your family members may dimly know. As a group, you naturally avoid it.

So you speak of it as though you were neutral consumers, exercising free choice. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The truth is much more interesting. Because in the same way, or by the same mechanism, by which you avoid talking about your childhood, you are in a sense replaying it, keeping it alive, right there in the living room.

I wonder if there is any way to disentangle the web of mutual shrouding and protection from the truth without in some way getting to the down-and-dirty truth. It would be nice to think that you could accomplish this in purely intellectual terms, by drawing a firm conceptual boundary, by saying, with finality, that this is your preference and that is it. That would be nice, but the more I pay attention to the subterranean currents of feeling that pass invisibly but sensibly through all human commerce from the most intimate to the most casual, the more I think that intellectual edicts do not have much power. Assertions do not have much power. Facing the actual emotional content of the situation has a great deal of power.

It may be idealistic of me, but if you have never told your adult children the truth about your childhood, perhaps now is the time. I sense that you are skirting around it as you try to defend your sensitivity to violence. There is no right or wrong here. There is nothing to be defended. This is not about society, or television, or standards, or taste. This is about trauma. If they could see that this trauma, this injury, is as real as a scar or a broken bone, perhaps it would be real to them and they would see that it's not about cultural preference, but who you really, really are.

Such things are uncomfortable. And revelation is always imperfect: Family members do not just put down their defenses when called upon. People don't change overnight. Your role as mom will work against your hope to be seen as an individual. In asking them to see you simply as an individual, you are shifting the ground under their feet. To them, you will never be simply an individual. You are the mom. As the mom, you have been the person who says what is OK and what is not OK. You have done this implicitly, by example, and explicitly, by command. You have said this is OK and this is not OK.

But now you are saying something more complicated. You are saying this is OK for you but not for me. That is a healthy thing but it is a big change. You are trying to move from your role of setting examples and rules to a more distanced, adult, acknowledgment of difference.

In soap operas, when a revelation is made, the music swells and everybody gasps as the secret is revealed. The truth is less dramatic and glamorous: You have learned to live with an abusive past, but it remains, in a thousand ways, all around you, and reappears in your family and in media, like a constant ghost of trauma. So no dramatic revelation or family meeting is going to fix everything. What it can do is set a new direction, toward which you can all aim.

And there is a wonderful bright side to all of this: You, after all, are a survivor. Your childhood did not leave you broken or monstrous, doomed to repeat its horrors. You survived this childhood; you protected your children from it; you gave them the kind of life you wanted to give them.

Perhaps that is something to celebrate.

You pick the entertainment.

Troubled past? There's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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