Learning to dance with skeletons

Frank Pearson and Buse Tang watch 'Your Mum and Dad', directed by Klaartje Quirijns.

The documentary starts with lines from the Philip Larkin poem that gives its name to this documentary – ‘they fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you’.

Klaartje Quirijns, film director and producer, decided to film her friend, Michael Moskowitz, during his time in therapy. Michael lies down on a couch – a traditional sight in the movies – and shares his deepest struggles, fears and vulnerable moments. 

Michael describes himself as a frightened kid. Later, he admits that for a long time, he found it hard to see himself as an abused child. At this point in the documentary, we learn about the physical abuse and struggles he faced in his childhood. Michael asks, ‘how do you blame someone when they are that way for their own reasons?’. This question takes us back to the poem again: ‘…They may not mean to, but they do… But they were fucked up in their turn...’. 

We also learn that Michael’s mum is a survivor of the Holocaust; she left home when she was 17 and travelled to the USA by herself. Despite Michael’s mother’s experience with the Holocaust, we learn that she moved with a young Michael to an antisemitic town. This baffling choice could be explained in terms of tending to be drawn to the familiar. His mum chose to go back to her own world, the place she knows. Hereby, she introduces a similar trauma to her son. We then learn that Michael’s sister dies by suicide whilst living there.

Klaartje started filming Michael 15 years ago. During the period of filming, she received unsettling medical news and this unknown issue pushes her to look at her own family history. She describes having ‘deeply buried and painful secrets’. While we are listening to Michael and Klaartje’s life, we see in them both similar and unique traumas. We can all relate in some way to their experiences.

In Klaartje’s story, we meet her own family, her parents, two daughters and a husband. Klaartje’s direct family has a secret… one that everyone knows but no one talks about. Even when she interviews her mother, we see that her mum doesn’t want to, or can’t, talk about it. We later learn that Klaartje’s big sister drowned when she was only six. Her parents never talked about it with each other or with her. Similarly, we also see Klaartje develop her own family secret, keeping her medical condition away from her daughters. 

We also learn that her father’s life is never boring; wherever he goes excitement occurs and trouble follows. We learn how this reflects on Klaartje’s choices in life as she is similarly involved in surprising turns of events, such as reporting in a war zone while eight months pregnant. We see that these choices influence her relationship with her daughters.

At the end of the documentary, Michael visits his mother’s grave and expresses his feelings of anger and forgiveness. Klaartje becomes emotional about taking the first step by talking about the secret. 

The documentary leaves a sense of sadness, and the hope that a follow-up documentary would describe the character’s recovery. Generational trauma can change us, and our children, but also keep us in the same cycle. The ending of the poem, ‘get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself’, was alarming to us. Can we successfully break our own cycles, or will trauma follow us and our children around no matter what? Erik Erikson’s famous quote, ‘If you can’t get rid of your skeletons in the closet, then learn to dance with them’ resonates. 

The experiences of the various people within the film strongly suggest a consideration of Attachment Theory (Bowlby) in an attempt to understand the personal experiences and social relationships of the individuals involved, especially Michael. The documentary portrays the Freudian Psychodynamic approach, but the application of Rogerian, Person-Centred Counselling could be useful in identifying and exposing deep-seated ‘prime movers’, which become responsible for the feelings and behaviours that occur later on in life.

- ‘Your Mum And Dad’ is currently showing on BBC iPlayer and Curzon Home Cinema. 

Reviewed by Frank Pearson, Educational Psychologist and Associate Editor for DECP Debate (Reviews); and Buse Tang, Assistant Psychologist, Twitter: @bsmutluu. 

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