'BoJack Horseman' Helped Me Grapple with the Death of an Abusive Parent

What happens when you lose a parent who was abused, but traumatized you your entire life.

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Sep 24 2018, 10:25pm

Photo courtesy of Netflix.

BoJack Horseman isn’t afraid to tackle the nuances of mental health. The latest season is no exception. Season five grapples with the complexity of grieving a traumatized and traumatizing parent--the now deceased Beatrice, BoJack’s mother, suffered from trauma, but also contributed to traumatizing BoJack, so he is forced to confront how he will process the loss of an imperfect parent.

In episode six, BoJack gives a 20-minute-long eulogy for his mother. He’s standing behind a podium in a funeral parlor next to the closed casket, and he begins with an interaction from earlier that day at a Jack In the Box. The cashier enthusiastically asks BoJack if he’s having an "awesome" day and BoJack gives her an honest answer: his mom died. That, he tells those at the funeral, gave him a valid reason “to be shitty.” The interaction led to the cashier bursting into tears, then offering him a free churro.

“And as I’m leaving, I think, ‘I just got a free churro because my mom died.’ No one ever tells you that when your mom dies, you get a free churro,” he says.That realization is followed by another. He turns to the casket and blurts out, "Can I just say how amazing it is to be in a room with my mother and I can just talk and talk without her telling me to shut up and make her a drink?"

The monologue speaks to the nuance of loss. BoJack grapples with the complexity of grief when it involves someone who was complicit in traumatizing him, and who was extremely traumatized herself. In dealing with the loss of his mother and eulogizing her not just at her funeral but even at a Jack in the Box, BoJack must perform grief while wrestling with the complicated internal struggle that comes with losing a abusive parent who themselves survived abuse.

During a flashback in the previous season, young Beatrice learns quickly how women with mental health issues can be punished for expressing their emotions. We see Beatrice’s husband, Butterscotch, explains that when Beatrice was a child, her mother, Honey, had an operation. She returns from the hospital and her father says, “She’s a brand new woman now.” Moments later, Beatrice approaches her mother as she’s playing the piano. Her mother has purple bags around her eyes and a scar with stitches on her forehead, implying she underwent a lobotomy.

“Beatrice, promise me you’ll never love me as much as I loved Crackerjack,” Honey instructs Beatrice a few moments later, referring to Beatrice’s recently deceased brother. This theme of emotional distance represents how Beatrice would grow to become emotionally absent from her son throughout his life, up until her death.

It’s clear the loss of Crackerjack became a catalyst for what would become a multi- generational pattern of emotional neglect. Beatrice may have never been so distant from her BoJack if her mother hadn't been so traumatized from the loss of her son, which led to what appears to be a complete mental breakdown. Had Honey received emotional support from her husband—who once said “As a modern American man, I’m woefully unprepared to manage a woman’s emotions. I was never taught and I will not learn”—perhaps she could have had a chance to work through her pain and not pass on a legacy of abuse to her surviving child. BoJack inherited his trauma along with an addiction to alcohol passed to him from Beatrice, and while trauma can be intervened, the eulogy proves the cycle continues in the Sugarman/Horseman family.

The emotional conflict BoJack feels resonated with me. Three years ago, my mom died unexpectedly. To this day, I can’t tell you whether her “accidental”—the medical examiner’s words, not mine—death was truly “accidental” or if it was suicide. However, I do know she was disabled and suffered from severe mental health issues that prevented her from keeping a stable job and taking care of herself. My mom also came from generations of women who had suffered from mental health issues, addiction disorders, and domestic violence. Trauma was a fundamental part of her life. And without proper access to care, trauma eventually became a fundamental part of mine as well.

When she passed, I felt a whirlwind of emotions. I was forced to perform grief by maintaining a sorrowful expression, all while delivering the news of her death to my closest relatives and friends, calling out of work, and posting a commemorative status on Facebook. I did this all with a poker face and teary eyes, hoping I’d fool everyone into thinking I was sad and only sad. Like BoJack, I understood that performing grief had to center the person who died, and drawing any attention to myself would be selfish and unacceptable.

I wanted to avoid turning the “you-logy” into a “me-logy,” as BoJack references in his monologue. Meanwhile, I was still lost on how to process what the hell just happened: a parent was gone forever, and it was very complicated. I’ll never have the chance to ask how she really felt about her mother going to a psychiatric ward, and how it discouraged her from seeking help. I’ll never get to ask if she understood her trauma, if she even could put a name to it. I’ll never fully know how helpless she felt as a mother, who always wanted to be a mother but couldn’t even take care of herself. I’ll never know whether she really felt “out of control” when she hurt me or if it was intentional. I’ll never have the chance to confront her about what she did to me because sometimes, I wonder if she even realizes she hurt me at all.

“Suddenly, you realize you’ll never have the good relationship you wanted,” BoJack continues. “As long as you were alive, even though you’d never admit it, part of you, the stupidest god damn part of you, was still holding onto that shit. And you didn’t even realize it until that chance went away.”

I had to pretend that sadness was all that I felt, but now I can be honest and say that sadness wasn’t the only thing I felt. I wasn’t just grieving my mother; I was grieving the relationship I’d always wanted us to have, and the relationship my mother may have always wanted us to have. Just like BoJack, Beatrice, and Honey.

Beatrice’s last words to BoJack were “I see you.” While BoJack originally interpreted the statement as “I see you”—a phrase to express acknowledgement and acceptance of physical presence, which Beatrice rarely expressed— he realized, during his monologue, that she was reading a sign that read “ICU,” meaning the “Intensive Care Unit” of a hospital.

“Beatrice Horseman was born in 1938 and she died in 2018 and I have no idea what she wanted, unless she wanted what we all want: to be seen,” BoJack says to end the eulogy.

The episode ends in a typical BoJack Horseman way, where he opens the casket and finally realizes he’d been delivering a eulogy at the wrong funeral service in front of a room full of strangers.

Many television shows grapple with how children experience the loss of a parent. But rarely do shows dive into just how complicated grief can be when a parent’s trauma was passed down to their children. Episode six didn’t have a happy ending, because like BoJack and anyone else grieving their traumatized/traumatizing parent, we will spend the rest of our lives wondering what could have been. But at least by the end of episode six, I felt what BoJack and Beatrice wanted all along: to be seen.

Follow Danielle Corcione on Twitter.

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