On the Year 1990 in Film

After revisiting Dances with Wolves this morning, I’m left meditating on the 63rd Academy Awards. I know three of the Best Picture contenders were some of my father’s favorites, and a fourth reminds me of my mother.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I rewatched Dances with Wolves this morning for what must have been the umpteenth time. It obsessed me from the night I first experienced it in the years following 2006, when you died within three weeks of each other. There was a period in my life, though, when I asked myself if I would ever see it again – I had fallen prey to food poisoning back in high school, and, too weak to get out of bed, I played it as a way to pass three hours. Like a Pavlovian dog, I associated Kevin Costner’s epic with an upset stomach for years afterward.

Thankfully, those years are now forgotten.

Since studying film in undergraduate school, I take issue with some of the identity politics underpinning the movie’s representation of race relations between white and indigenous Americans, as well as its depiction of Lakota culture. Writing for Salon, David Sirota is right to characterize Costner’s protagonist as a “white savior,” while his Lakota co-stars succumb to the “noble savage” trope. Meanwhile, Blackfeet filmmaker George Budreau is quoted as saying, “No matter how sensitive and wonderful this movie is, you have to ask who’s telling the story. It’s certainly not an Indian.”

Nevertheless, Dances with Wolves remains a groundbreaking mainstream Hollywood Western in its sympathetic and (at times) authentic portrayal of the Lakota nation. Because unproblematic media doesn’t exist, it is still one of my most treasured blockbusters.

And maybe part of the reason why is because I first saw it with Grandma, who says she and Grandpa took Dad to see it in theaters on New Year’s Eve 1990, when he was only nineteen years old. It’s almost like Dances with Wolves is a member of our family.

But for all the sentiment surrounding it, I agree that Dances with Wolves snubbed GoodFellas for Best Picture at the 1991 Academy Awards ceremony.

Over the years, I’ve criticized 1995’s Casino as derivative of GoodFellas, and while I still hold that to be true, Casino has grown on me as Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece (in no small part because Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone’s relationship reminds me of you at your worst, Mom and Dad, what with the fighting and the drugs). Regardless, before Casino, GoodFellas was Scorsese’s magnum opus, and it goes without saying that Scorsese is a more important director than Costner.

Grandma says GoodFellas was another one of your all-timers, Dad – everything from The Godfather to The Sopranos engrossed you with the Mafia, enough for Grandma to joke you would’ve joined Cosa Nostra if you could. Because you drank yourself to death when I was twelve years old, I would have been too young to watch GoodFellas with you, but I know we would have reveled in it together.

Which brings us to that other gangster classic (and Best Picture nominee) from 1990 – The Godfather Part III. Personally, I think it about as mediocre as Grandpa did when he saw it with you and Grandma on Christmas Day that year, but Grandma says you were as rabid a fan of it as you were of the first two installments in the trilogy. Again, I was too young to have watched any of The Godfather movies with you when you were alive, but the best part of them is how they remind me of you at your most spirited (and least likely to drink).

As for you, Mom, I don’t know what your opinion was of Ghost – perhaps tied with The Godfather Part III on the lower end of these four Best Picture contenders – but the Righteous Brothers’ iconic cover of “Unchained Melody” from the film’s soundtrack recalls the Elvis Presley version that surely possessed you. I remember you telling me before you overdosed that you expended much of your teenage angst listening to music, and your most beloved singer must have been to you what Lady Gaga was to me during my own high school days: something to live for while dying of unaddressed mental sickness.

A film professor once observed, Mom and Dad, that you must have been fond of blockbusters, and 1990 came and went not long before 1997’s Titanic (another favorite of yours) became one of the last Best Picture winners people have even heard of, much less seen. Yes, 1990 was a seminal year in popular cinematic history, but more significant than that is how these and other titles regale me with a release of your loss like only “movie magic” can provide.


On Harry and Meghan’s Paparazzi Chase

With its uncanny resemblance to the night Princess Diana died, Prince Harry and Meghan’s own paparazzi chase leaves me wondering about how my mother would have reacted to the event. Because we both lost our mothers at twelve years old – in fact, Harry’s birthday is the day before mine – I feel for the Duke of Sussex.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I was too young to know where I was when Diana, Princess of Wales, died. All I can remember is Mom recounting her death to me years later. We were sitting in the dimmed living room of the triplex we were evicted from when I was ten years old. The light of the TV flickered over us. Maybe that was back when Mom slept on the floor in a nest of blankets and pillows every night, more than likely as part of a quarrel with Dad. Sometimes, my sister and I joined her.

Either way, Mom subscribed to the conspiracy theory that Diana’s car crash was no accident, but, rather, that the royal family had assassinated her. Or, at least, you said that was what you believed – it wasn’t always easy to tell where your sense of humor began or ended, especially when I was a child.

But regardless, as I grew up to learn more about Diana in the years after you and Dad died within three weeks of each other in 2006, I found myself aching to leave behind the same gracious legacy as she did. I even entertained the notion of studying social work in undergraduate school, and though I ultimately decided against it, I think it’s still in me to reach out and redeem somebody a world away like Diana did to me, as if to be remembered for something “good” despite my own disabling unhappiness.

It’s true that I may be more of a “literary” journalist than an investigative reporter, but that doesn’t mean I can’t show even one of my readers how to live with the grief Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, endured when he lost his own mother in Diana.

To catch you up to speed, Mom and Dad, Harry and his wife, the Duchess of Sussex formerly known as Meghan Markle, claim they recently survived a high-speed paparazzi chase in New York City reminiscent of the one that killed Diana in Paris. Mom, I can picture you following the story on the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle no less fanatically than you would have watched Harry and Meghan’s wedding, telephoning Grandma every once in a while about the parallels between Diana and Harry’s respective encounters with the press.

Having stayed home from class enough times for the school to take our family to court over attendance, I can attest that the news was your answer to daytime television, which is perhaps why you had the intelligence to match your instability.

In any case, what Harry went through would have been frightful for anyone, but doubtless his mother’s memory flashed across his mind in much the same way the cameras burst outside his and Meghan’s car. What would it have done to him to relive what happened to her when he was still a boy, the same age I was when I lost my mom, too?

Not to speak for Harry, but I know what it’s like to go about my day with the same vulnerabilities that consumed each one of you, Mom and Dad. After I had my wisdom teeth removed in 2012, I almost didn’t dip into my Vicodin prescription for fear of ending up like you, Mom (until the agony forced my hand). And Dad, with every drink I take at an office lunch or during a party, I run the risk of craving one too many and ruining my life, or worse.

As for Harry, he was born into the life of a public figure through no choice of his own, and all he could do was bear witness to the masses crucifying his mother (as though he were just another estranged onlooker), only to go on living that same lifestyle – helpless to avoid it – until it nearly destroyed him, too. I wonder how many other children of deceased parents can identify with this fatalism – what is the quasi-inevitability of outliving a parent, if not a confrontation with one’s own mortality and fallibility?

No, I applaud Harry and Meghan for attempting to distance themselves from these dangerous patterns with as much vigor as I would celebrate anyone else for trying to do the same – myself included.

What could you have done differently, Mom and Dad, to take control and change your own destinies?

On Writing and Healing

Anyone with a penchant for the literary arts knows the power of the written word to effect change off the page. Whether it’s as consequential as the Marxist revolutions or as personal as one of these open letters to my deceased parents, writing can make a difference in our unhealed world.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Before I lost you both within three weeks of each other at twelve years old, I had promised Mom I would dedicate my first book to her. She never got to read it, but willing my imagination onto the page made me feel that much more insulated from the drugs and alcohol that ultimately ended your lives. Although I have yet to finish a book of publishable quality, I’ve been writing ever since.

This note is as much a “thank you” to my own craft as it is a correspondence to beyond the grave.

As you may recall, Mom and Dad, it was in yesterday’s letter that I lighted upon my obsession with the crosstalk between “writing” and “healing” for the first time in this blog series. How appropriate, given that I attended my weekly dialectical behavior therapy group last night to help me overcome my borderline personality disorder; in fact, my counselor thought it encouraging for me to pursue this new blogging subject.

As DBT involves filling out worksheets and keeping “diary cards,” I can’t think of a better example of how writing has the power to heal – after all, seventy percent of people with BPD will attempt suicide at least once in their lifetimes, and eight to ten percent will succeed, at a prevalence fifty times greater than the rates of suicide in the general population. As grim as those statistics are, though, I can attest to how effective DBT is in treating my BPD; I haven’t snuck a blade into the shower since my date-rape in February 2022, because I document my day-to-day with an eye on the same catharsis as all my other writings.

And my wish, Mom, is that you could’ve saved your own life by beautifying all the stories you no doubt had to tell about your past.

For context, I took a class on this very subject in graduate school, aptly titled “Writing and Healing.” It awakened us to how carnal language can engage the senses, as well as the ways in which poetry more specifically can somaticize as movement in the body. I found myself at my most interested in this concept when I viewed it through the lens of mental wellness, and when we were asked for our final project to compose a response to a piece of somatic writing, I nestled into my wheelhouse of journalism and critical theory when I chose an analysis of Lady Gaga’s 2020 album, Chromatica.

Of course, Gaga is an electronic dance artist, so, by its very nature, her lyricism courses through the physique – how poetic it is, no less, that in my mind, Chromatica is redolent of the curative hand sanitizer that defined the novel coronavirus pandemic during which it was released.

But more explicit than its genre is the thematic content of Chromatica, in particular the track “911.” Gaga uses the emergency hotline number as a metaphor for her antipsychotics, which harmonizes with my attraction to “Somatica,” if you will, as an instrument of mental recovery.

For all her battles with chronic pain, Gaga speaks through “911” most directly to my own experience with life-saving mood stabilizers.

All that being said, Mom, I have a feeling you would have found the pop music of Lady Gaga as infectious as I do, had you not overdosed in 2006. As you may recall, I didn’t “like” music at that time in my life (perhaps because it grounded me in the present moment from the spats of disassociation that comforted me through and distracted me from the reality of growing up under your roof, powerless to escape), and it used to frustrate you that you couldn’t play your favorite songs throughout the house without annoying me. Maybe the rush of hormones that accompanied my falling in love for the first time in 2009 or 2010 precipitated my enthusiasm for Lady Gaga when I “discovered” her around that same year – suddenly, I yearned to participate in the same world as my crush, and what is music if not the currency of passion? It would have built a bridge between us, Mom, if you could have lived to see me declare a journalism major on my college application in 2012 for the express purpose of writing about the music you so delighted in.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I wonder if Gaga would have motivated you the same way she motivates me to celebrate my own darkness, to spill copious ink about her ode to Zyprexa as though caught up in the frenzy of penning a love letter instead. “Writing and Healing” revealed to us that the act of writing, in and of itself, demands action from the body, and even composing this very letter to you, Mom and Dad, floods my veins with inspiration.

You may not have been a writer, Mom, but you could have been. Dad insisted you were smarter than he himself, and you were no less literary than he himself, either – you influenced my affection for storytelling, and your way with words translated into nothing but acutely timed hilarity.

My understanding of borderline personality disorder is that it is a reaction to trauma, and, though I have no way of knowing if you suffered from it, your life was nothing short of traumatic. From the moment the grandfather I never knew walked out on your family while you were still in pigtails (at least, according to the only photograph you showed me of you two together, one of the few where your mother hadn’t cut out his face with a pair of scissors, the one where you looked so much like my sister did at that age), you were all but fated to lick the harsh salt of mental illness. Indeed, you were the youngest of four born to a single, working woman who was about as qualified to be your mother as she was to be our grandmother – which is, to say, not at all. To be sure, this was the same woman who gifted our family a box of poker chips for Christmas (mind you, my sister and I were eight and nine at the time, respectively), only to borrow them and never give them back.

No, I can remember you telling me about how she used to paddle you with a wooden spoon, and when you hid it, she paddled you with a hairbrush instead.

Is it any wonder that my sister and I walked in on her throwing you down on her bed and beating you bloody with her wooden backscratcher in the year leading up to your death?

Even if your only mental ailment was the substance use disorder that killed you, it overtook you for a reason. Not at all unlike my own disassociations, your pills enabled you to fantasize your way out of this existence, to make those daydreams come true. Wouldn’t it have been more constructive for you to face your history instead, to leverage it as the backstory behind your hero’s journey toward becoming a mother your children could depend upon to love them as much as she loved herself?

We’ll never know what could have come of such an exercise in your own insight, Mom, which leaves me to write your story instead, to pray it reaches someone who is scrambling to reconcile their own meaningless tragedy with a meaning greater than themselves, and to dedicate all that transcendence and sublimity to your memory.

On Meeting Your Heroes

My father saw Rudolph Giuliani speak during a stop “America’s Mayor” made in Colorado, sometime before Dad drank himself to death in 2006. Given the scandals now coming to light, Rudy is a far cry away from the man who so impressed my father almost twenty years ago.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Even though it took place in the week leading up to my eighth birthday, I still remember the September 11 attacks. In fact, I can remember you flying us to Disneyland that summer, because my sister and I were among the last kids allowed to visit the pilots in the cockpit.

But the morning of 9/11, Dad, while you were buttoning up your shirt in front of the TV, I demanded we change the channel to one of my cartoons because I thought the video of the airliner crashing into the World Trade Center was something from one of your movies. You explained to me it was the news we were watching, and the catastrophe unfolding on screen was happening in real time.

“This is history,” you said.

Amidst the uncertainty of when or where the next disaster would take place, Mom, you called us out of school so we could watch the media coverage for the rest of the day. I’ll never forget the crowds who took to the streets outside, brandishing newspapers with the explosions at the Twin Towers splashed across the front page.

I asked you in a panic what was wrong when you started to cry, wondering if it meant the grownups knew something I didn’t, like whether we were in danger.

“It’s nothing,” you wept, “just… all those poor people…”

Given that you and Dad were around the age I am now when the attacks occurred, it isn’t difficult for me to imagine how impactful it must have been for you to understand the scale of the event, to watch your pre-9/11 world give way to our post-9/11 world, to listen to fighter jets patrol the skies overhead that night while your children tried to sleep.

So it comes as little surprise to hear from Grandma and Grandpa how starstruck you were, Dad, to listen to Rudolph Giuliani speak in Denver sometime between 2001 and the Easter Sunday you drank yourself to death in 2006, three weeks to the day after Mom fatally overdosed on her prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines. Yes, even though Mom sat me on her lap in the voting booth to push the button for Al Gore in 2000, even though you both were the most vocal critics I knew of the Bush Administration, even though Giuliani is a Republican, the former Mayor of New York City still commanded your respect with what he had to say, Dad, after 9/11 rocked his city to its foundation.

It goes without saying that I am as disappointed as you would have been to see “America’s Mayor” in such disgrace, what with allegations of predatory and corrupt behavior of the highest order emerging against him in the hours leading up to this post.

Not that Giuliani had much credibility left after attempting to overturn the results of the free and fair election that voted out the indicted, twice-impeached, one-term ex-President Donald J. Trump in 2020, who was found liable for his own accusations of sexual assault and battery not long ago. These bad-faith efforts led to more Americans dying at the January 6 Capitol insurrection in 2021 than those lost in the 2012 Benghazi attacks. As though my voting record were one of your tennis trophies, Dad, I cast my first presidential ballot to reelect Barack Obama in 2012, I was one of the millions of people who helped Hillary Clinton win the popular vote in 2016, and I found myself on the right side of history yet again when I threw my weight behind Joe Biden in 2020. You and Mom brought me up to vote with my ethics, and I laugh to think how you would have reacted to the Trump years.

Still, Dad, I’m sure there’s little vindication in watching a man you admire get cast down from his pedestal, even if he’s a leader of the political party of war criminals that was destined to subscribe to the regressive “MAGA” ideology. Indeed, during the Global War on Terror unit of my Film and Social Change course at Colorado State University, I was one of the only students in my class whose parents hadn’t sheltered him from the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in 2004.

But I know how disheartening it would have been for you to behold Giuliani’s fall from grace, Dad, because I witnessed the same with you, time and again.

Ours was a contradictory relationship, Dad – it still is, in many ways; from beyond the gave, even. To be honest, since you spent so much time at work to provide us with the stay-at-home mom neither of you got to have, I have fewer memories of you than I do of her, and most of the memories I do have of you reek of vodka. You already had an explosive temper, and the booze only added fuel to the fire – you once penned a letter much like this one before work the next morning to apologize to me after one of these screaming fits the night before. I may have grown up to be even taller than you, but you were taller than your father and he was taller than his, so it would petrify any child to face such a man when he’s in a rage.

All of which is to say, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I worshipped you like a hero – to this day, I still have no idea how you would have responded to me coming out as gay. Regardless, I did sob at Mom not to call the police on you one night as she was wont to do during one of your arguments, insisting you were “a good daddy” while he sat out on the front porch, as if waiting to go to jail. I can’t say if she ultimately didn’t call the cops because she was faced with the reality of her own child growing up without a father like she did, or if she suspected the officers would tell her she “gave as good as she got” like the last time she had sic’d them on you.

Either way, for all your height and all your bluster and all our estrangement, Dad, I knew back then you were the best of a bad situation, the lesser of two evils, that your worst day was better than Mom’s best day. You told me you’d tried to spank me once when I was too young to remember it, but you hit the small of my back on accident instead and so never raised a hand against me again.

The same couldn’t be said for your wife.

I was the most reliant upon her in my early childhood, as any kid would be if their mom was a housewife, but as I got older and became more independent, Dad, and as she descended into greater instability near the end of her life, I grew closer to you. My last and fondest memories of you involve us setting aside our differences and bonding over Star Wars. I wasn’t a young athlete like you were – in fact, the last time you took me to baseball practice, I was in kindergarten, and I cried until I threw up on our way to the diamond. However, The Phantom Menace came out for me at around the same age you were when A New Hope came out for you, and by the time you died, R2-D2 was no longer my favorite character, but rather Anakin Skywalker, who was yours. We would watch and re-watch the movies for as many hours as we would discuss them, because, in a way, we had grown up with them together.

Little did either of us know, though, that less than a year after the release of Revenge of the Sith, you would go down as the Romeo to Mom’s Juliet and join her in death.

I wish we could have been adults together, Dad. I wish I could have heard your opinion on Giuliani’s downfall. I wish you could have lived long enough for me to see you redeem yourself in my eyes like Darth Vader redeemed himself in Luke’s, because I have faith you would have done it. Even the family physician who wrote Mom the prescriptions that killed her, warned you that you would never quit drinking for as long as you stayed with her. You were the only in that marriage who tried.

Now, you two are together forever, having abandoned my sister and me in the pursuit of your own pleasure, and I will spend the rest of my life yearning to listen to what you had to say.

Then again, might that be the most important lesson you could have taught me, Dad – not to idolize anyone, be it Giuliani, be it Anakin, be it my own father? To be sure, you didn’t imbue me with that wisdom on purpose. You staggered into it like one of your drunken tumbles down the stairs. Nevertheless, I am a more insightful person for having known you, one who no longer waits for somebody else to rescue me, and if that’s how I am to steel myself against your loss, Dad, then I owe my vitality and resilience to you.

On New Beginnings

With Mother’s Day 2023 come and gone, I find myself reflecting on what a complicated time it can be for some. This is for everybody who didn’t have anyone to celebrate yesterday.

Dear Mom and Dad,

It seems only fitting that the idea for this new blog series would occur to me yesterday, on Mother’s Day. My sister and I celebrated the weekend with your mother, Dad – the same grandma who took us in and raised us according to the tearful wishes you expressed to her over the phone, Mom.

But there was still a seat at the table where you should have been, as there is for so many who don’t have mothers, or who don’t have mothers deserving of recognition.

With that said, welcome to my blog.

I was twelve years old when the two of you passed away in 2006, so I have no memory of whether the three of us had even heard of “blogging.” All I know is that Mom saw a story on the news once about MySpace and warned me never to make an account with them, which isn’t even to mention the time you both walked in on users cursing at me in a video game chat room I visited on Grandma and Grandpa’s computer (which they didn’t know I was logged onto at the time).

Well, not only do I have my own computer now, but I also have my own website.

And as you can see, I dedicated much of it to writing about film.

I look back with pride on my journalism major and film theory minor in undergraduate school, partly because I know you each wished for me to go farther with my education than either of you did, and partly because some of my favorite moments with you involve the movies we watched together. Mom, I can remember you weeping during Pearl Harbor as you told me about the grandfather you were closest to – the war veteran who inspired your fascination with history. And Dad, I can remember the family going out to see Revenge of the Sith, only to glance over at you and see tears in your eyes by the light of the silver screen as you watched your childhood come to life one more time.

Still, as highly as I continue to value the cinematic arts, my life is not the same as it was when I last blogged here in 2020, and my writing will reflect that. Between then and now, I studied creative nonfiction at the graduate level, and I learned the science of the memoir and the personal essay. One of the most crucial lessons a student can grasp is the difference between “critical” writing and “creative” writing, and though critical writing may be faster and easier to master, creative writing is the more “artistic” alternative.

And what is our chaotic and painful existence without the structure and significance of art?

The year 2022, in particular, left a taste of that chaos and pain in my mouth bitterer than any I had ever known before, when I was date-raped, mugged, and left for dead in the slushy gutters of downtown Denver last February. You aren’t here anymore, Mom, to protect me – to the extent that the office at my elementary school called you a “helicopter parent.”

It is for me to protect myself now.

And the best way I know how to make a setting for those flashbacks and intrusive thoughts in my mind is the creative nonfiction that leaves behind a world more beautiful than I found it.

Since graduating with my Master of Arts degree in December, I have grappled with what to do next as a blogger: I challenged myself to write daily “flash” essays; I pushed myself to compose weekly posts about none other than blog marketing itself; I even attempted to publish a monograph on Lady Gaga, as though writing about music weren’t tantamount to dancing about architecture.

But what I taught myself through all this trial and error is that I have a story only I can tell about life’s greatest greatest tragedy, and that is death itself.

Because when it came for you, Mom and Dad, it took two people unlike any I’ll ever meet again.

However, in all honesty, if you were alive today, Mom, I don’t know if I would have spent Mother’s Day with you this year. I nurse as much resentment toward you as I do nostalgia for the only mother I’ll ever have, thanks in no small part to the nights I went to bed with an empty stomach and a racing mind, or the bruises that flecked Dad’s body when he took his shirt off at pool parties, or the time you told me you didn’t like me.

Not that Dad was the better parent, slurring at me about how stupid I was with breath that smelled like hand sanitizer when he wasn’t snoring among the half-full vodka bottles in the basement, or – maybe worst of all – declining to defend us from you.

I may be in therapy today because of your parenting, but I hope this open letter can reach even one person who needs to hear the importance of making peace with the truth about who their mother is – knowing that it did would help me make peace with mine, because if someone is reading this, whoever they are, heartache need not take up any more space in their life than a room makes up a house. For if one fails to accept that their mother is part of them, then they could find themselves swallowing opioids by the fistful like you did, Mom, three weeks before my Dad drank himself to death just to kill the demons inside him, too.

No, I might not have been able to save either one of you, and that could be why I drank until I blacked out in 2022 – because I couldn’t justify my own existence unless it was enough for somebody else’s; but is it possible for this post to do what I couldn’t do when I was a child in 2006, and knock the pills out of one person’s hands, or yank the bottle away from the lips of another?

As with the revolution this personal blog is undergoing so I can reconcile it with what happened last year that changed me forever, sometimes we must radicalize our relationships with our mothers, Mom, like you never did with yours – the grandma you didn’t want us to end up with in the event that you couldn’t be there for us anymore. You wouldn’t accept her for the Cluster B personality-disordered abuser that she was, and the way she rejected and scapegoated you not long before you died, casting you out from her flock like the proverbial black sheep, is what killed you in the end. Since you were, during your most impressionable and formative years, dependent upon her care, you believed her capable of love and empathy even though she had the capacity for neither, so you blamed yourself when she acted without concern for your own behavioral health. The family you found in Dad, and the family you created in my sister and me, weren’t enough for you because, in more ways than one, you were your mother’s daughter.

So now I must live without that closure I could have otherwise forged with you, because we’ll never know what would have awaited us had you chosen to live without your mother in your life.

Wherever you are, Mom, I pray this Mother’s Day was a lesson in what you meant to us during what little time we got to share with you, and how we longed for you to realize you could have done better than the woman it was your dying wish to shield us from.

Indeed, having enjoyed the most catharsis I’ve felt from this site in the past three years, I can promise the life our mothers give us – for better or worse – is worth the fight.