I watched The Graduate with my children the other night. (We are working our way through classic films). It was painfully obvious to me that Mrs. Robinson despised her daughter Elaine.
She seduced the person her daughter had feelings for (in her daughter’s bedroom!) and then denied her daughter that very relationship she stole. Later in the movie we learn that Mrs. Robinson (a woman without a first name and therefore without an individual identity) was forced to leave college and marry after she became pregnant with Elaine. Elaine, now at college, has all the opportunities her mother lost. So mother, in her anger and hatred, took something from her daughter.
This is classic passive aggression. Sadly, I see it often. Parents deny their children things that are reasonable and easy to give, simply because they can. Of course there are seemingly legitimate excuses, but the real motivation is control; and worse, to squash their child’s spirit. One young man I knew wanted his bar mitzvah party at a particular restaurant. It was not expensive and he was confident his dad would agree (his parents were divorced). In fact, I overheard him assure his brother that their dad would not host the party at an ethnic restaurant that the father liked because, the boy said confidently, “Dad knows I don’t like that place.” The party was, of course, at the ethnic restaurant.
Why do parents make choices like this? Mrs. Robinson hated Elaine for what her daughter took from her (the opportunity to finish college) and for the opportunities Elaine had (to graduate college and to marry a man she liked, Ben). Elaine also represented the accumulated years of disappointment that characterized Mrs. Robinson’s married life. Some parents hate their children because they are the embodiment of everything the parent is unhappy about with his or her life. Some parents hate their children for who they are not – the fulfillment of all the dreams that child represented when he or she was just a baby. And some parents hate their children for who they are – more capable, more charismatic, smarter, or simply different.
When pushed by Ben, Mrs. Robinson admitted that she didn’t want Ben to date Elaine because Ben wasn’t good enough for her daughter, and that is partly true. She sullied Ben and if Ben and Elaine were to hook up, his presence in her daughter’s life would be a constant reminder of her own despicable behavior. His presence would further reflect her self-hatred and she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from directing that hatred at Elaine and Ben.
Children can be a parent’s lightening rod – absorbing all the parent’s anger and self-hatred. Whatever love the parent feels for her child is marred by the negativity as well as the guilt associated with such socially-unacceptable feelings. The “I love you” is accompanied by a sharp blade that no one is willing to admit exists and the children, who sense that something isn’t quite right, don’t begin to understand until they break away.
Elaine’s escape on the bus with Ben is only the beginning of her journey to understanding. She will either endure years of analysis (professional or not) to make sense of her relationship with her mother. Or she’ll repeat the same mistake her mother made, and marry Ben for all the wrong reasons.