CW: Stories of emotional child abuse.
Also Spoiler Alert
Ron and I watched Red Notice the other night. We were looking for something light and blowy-uppy, and figured that an action-comedy with both Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne Johnson in it was a safe bet to fit the bill. We’d just turn off our brains, we thought. Nothing heavy to see here. And for the most part, we were right.
For the most part.
But there’s this scene about 1/3 of the way through. It’s a pretty typical scene for this kind of film, where the main character, who’s clever and charming and insanely handsome, has a serious moment to make him a bit more human and someone the audience actually feels for, as well as cheers for.
In this case, it’s Reynolds’ character, Nolan Booth, who has that moment. And in that moment, he tells a story.
His story is about his father, whom he refers to as ‘a prolific asshole.’ When Nolan was eight years old, his father’s favourite watch went missing. His father accused Nolan of stealing it. Nolan didn’t, but his father called him a liar, and then didn’t speak to him for almost a year – ‘not on Christmas, not on my birthday.’
It turns out the watch had been in his father’s desk at work the whole time, buried behind some papers. Nolan finds this out when his father sits down to dinner one night, wearing the watch. His father doesn’t apologize, instead asking him how his day was at school, like the past year never happened.
I have rarely leapt for the remote control so fast. My heart was pounding, and I was shaking, and I just had to pause the movie to tell Ron a story of my own.
My story started with a bird.
When I was a kid, I had a pet budgie named Luke. I also had a couple of ‘businesses’ that were foisted on me by my prolific asshole of a father. (That’s too perfect a description not to steal.) One was raising budgies to sell – although I don’t think I ever sold one – and the other was spending my summers selling corn from the end of the driveway. One year, when I was maybe 11 years old, my father, who loomed over both ventures, decided I should combine the two, and set up some bird cages with budgies in them by the corn stand.
This meant digging out the various cages that were stashed about the basement, one of which was Luke’s. Luke had died during the night a couple of years earlier, and my mother had packed his cage away while I was at school that day, because she didn’t want me to be upset by it sitting there empty when I got home.
Now, Luke’s cage had two yellow food dishes that sat in slots at either end. When we found the cage, those two yellow food dishes were missing.
And my father Lost. His. Shit.
He started raging at me for losing the dishes. I explained to him that I hadn’t packed the cage away, so it wasn’t my fault, but he didn’t care. He was looking for someone to blame, and that someone was me. So I tried to help – to fix a mistake that wasn’t mine and, in reality, wasn’t even that big a deal – by looking for the dishes. And I remember, clear as day, when I went to open a cardboard box that was sitting on the front step, him shouting at me that he’d already looked in that box and they weren’t there.
I ran away. But a little while later, I snuck back and looked in the box.
Guess what I found?
Hint: They were yellow.
I took the food dishes inside, to where my father was now sulking in his chair in the living room and, careful to stand a good distance away, held them up for him to see.
“Don’t let it happen again.”
And then he didn’t talk to me – or anyone else in my family – for weeks.
I feel like I talk about my father a lot. I know I write about him a lot. Sometimes I get concerned that he’s taking up too much space in my head.
But the reality is, when you’ve survived abuse, no matter how well you you’ve been able to work through it and how at peace with it all you may be, sometimes you still get blindsided. That’s what happened with Red Notice. It was supposed to be an over-the-top, completely unbelievable fantasy story, which it totally was.
Until it wasn’t.
And I was honestly excited to tell Ron my story. I thought it was neat that something so similar to my own past had appeared in this piece of pop culture. It was cool to me that this character’s moment of humanity mirrored my experience. I was genuinely chuffed.
I didn’t even cry until I got to the part where I showed my father the dishes.
When I rewatched the scene before writing this article, I noticed that Nolan sniffles a bit at the end and it struck me just how right they got it. Oftentimes these Make The Protagonist Human bits are as unbelievable as the rest of the narrative, but in this case, the writers wrote something real, and Reynolds nailed the performance (within the limits of how men express emotions in the movies, of course.) I could feel the, “I was just a kid,” vibes coming through the screen, and the combination of anger and confusion at why an adult would treat a child that way.
After the movie was over, it occurred to me that, of course, Ron had heard about the yellow food dishes before, likely more than once. But he patiently listened to me retell it, agreed that its similarity to Nolan’s story was, indeed, very cool, and gave me validation that my father was, without doubt, a prolific asshole.
This is far better than the reaction Nolan gets from John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), who first pretends to have fallen asleep, then follows up with a lukewarm, “Hey, I’m sorry about all that.” In fairness, his reaction is at least partially plot-driven. And again, there are those limitations on just how emotionally vulnerable men are allowed to be in the movie world.
In the real world, be like Ron, not John. Over my lifetime, when relaying stories about my childhood, I’ve gotten reactions across the entire spectrum. I’ve been fortunate in that I have a lot of friends who have listened to a lot of stories, and who have been nothing but supportive as I’ve worked through my trauma. The patience and comfort they’ve shown me means the world.
The ones who haven’t been supportive? Who have made the responsibility for my father’s actions mine, somehow? Those have stung. They still sting.
Trust me, I wish I didn’t have these stories to tell. I wish that my memories of Christmas and birthdays didn’t include walking on eggshells, trying in vain to prevent the inevitable temper tantrum. I wish that when people tell me about their childhoods, I had more to share back that didn’t include fear and darkness.
But I also won’t be ashamed of my past. That’s not to say that I immediately regale people with all the bad stuff the moment we meet. It just means that I don’t hide it. If my father’s temper is part of the story, then it’s part of the story, and I share it.
Abusers thrive on the silence of others. It’s one of the reasons I talk about it so openly. I was in my 20s before I even realized there was anything abnormal with my family’s dynamic, and well into my 40s before I connected the term ‘abuse’ with my own past. My father may be long gone, but perhaps, if someone in a similar situation as mine was hears me talking about it, it will help them with their own journey out.
While I might wish my childhood had been a happier one, the reality is, it’s all part of what shaped me into the person I am today. True, I’m nowhere near as clever and charming and insanely handsome as Nolan is, but that’s okay.
Because I’m okay.
And no matter how messed up my father was, and no matter how hard he tried (and often succeeded) to mess me up, as well, that’s one thing he’ll never be able to take away from me.