25 February 2013
The Guilt Trip
Why is it so important for us to honour our parents?
Guilt is such a familiar feature of parent-child relationships that we barely stop to think about it. Whichever side of the equation we’re on, we’ll have experienced inadequacy, frustration, or the fear of somehow letting the other down. In the early scenes of new comedy The Guilt Trip, this dynamic
is exaggerated for comic effect – but that doesn’t stop it from ringing true. We watch as doting mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand) repeatedly phones her adult son Andrew (Seth Rogen), and as he repeatedly dodges her calls. She is overbearing; he is evasive and ungrateful.
Things only get worse when Andrew, an aspiring inventor about to set off on a crosscountry business trip, visits his mother at home. Unable to see him as anything other than the child he once was, she fusses over every detail of his existence. She also has a habit of discussing his personal problems with her counsellor, who has advised her to share a little of herself in the hope of strengthening the mother-son bond.
Joyce duly sits Andrew down and tells him a story he’d rather not hear. Widowed when Andrew was young, she confesses that his father was never really the love of her life. Her heart always belonged to a man named Andrew Margolis, with whom she’d had a fling as a young woman – and after whom she eventually named her son. In the years since, she has often regretted the direction her life took, and wondered whether Andrew Margolis still thinks about her.
Startled by this glimpse into his mother’s past, Andrew secretly tracks down his namesake. When he discovers that Margolis actually lives at the end of his planned road trip route, he invites his mother along on the pretext of wanting some company. His real motives are mixed. Deep down, he cares
about Joyce and wants to see her happy, but he also wants her off his hands. He can’t stand the burden of being the sole source of meaning in her life.
Through naming Andrew after her longlost love, Joyce has somehow offloaded her unfulfilled hopes and dreams onto him. And it’s not just that she wants Andrew to find the career and romantic fulfilment she never had: she also desperately needs him to need her. It’s a problem which many children, young and old, will identify with. The weight of expectation, even if it’s lovingly framed, can restrict the possibility of a guilt-free relationship with our parents.
In the course of their journey together, Joyce begins to broaden her horizons. The subsequent shift in her relationship with her son is telling. The less she relies on him to provide her ultimate fulfilment, the more she is able to appreciate the adult he’s become – and to love him unselfishly. Andrew, given the freedom to withdraw from his mother without fearing her disapproval, is paradoxically drawn closer to her.
Andrew, too, has some important lessons to learn. Having long dismissed Joyce as an irrelevance and a nuisance, he starts to see her through different eyes. She has useful contributions to make to his business, life experiences to share, and a sense of humour. In other words, she’s a person in her own right, not just his mother.
In the same way that it’s hard for Joyce to view Andrew as an adult, it’s hard for him to view her as an individual. But once he gains this perspective, he also gains new humility and wholeness. His developing respect for her offers an insight into the biblical fifth commandment, the Old Testament law
which sometimes looks a little out of place in the midst of grander exhortations to love God, to not murder or steal. Why does the God of the Bible seem to care so much about the honouring of parents?
If we can dismiss the human figures who first created and cared for us, it’s easier to view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient entities, owing nothing to anybody. Honouring our parents means acknowledging that we come from somewhere: that wherever we’ve arrived at as adults, we started off our journey helpless and dependent. Challengingly, our attitude towards our parents might reflect something of our beliefs about our place in the universe – and our relationship to God himself.
The Guilt Trip is released on 1 March… and don’t forget Mother’s Day on 10 March!
For free resources see www.damaris.org/guilttrip