“Hit me”: Jay, Wally, and “The Tree of Life”

Last week I did something I haven’t done in two years and probably won’t do again for two more: I went to see a movie without Caroline.  (Basically, if I’m going to ask her to take a bullet/ put both boys to bed it usually has to be for something that I can’t do just as easily two months later on Netflix.)

The flick was “The Tree of Life,” which is only the fifth movie the legendary director Terrence Malick has made in the last 38 years, and which has been hyped in some quarters as just about the greatest artistic achievement in the history of film.  I went to see it partly for the hype, partly because my cinephile pal Andrew told me he’d disown me if I didn’t, but even more because “Tree of Life” concerns a topic that I think about a lot these days.

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, a strict, hard-driving dad in a small Texas town in the 1950s.  He wants his two sons to be tough—to grow up to have the grit to bend the world to their desires—and he’s especially demanding of his oldest son, Jack.  He hounds Jack into performing menial tasks, like weeding the lawn or closing the screen door gently, with scrupulous perfection.  And in the most widely replayed scene from the movie he challenges Jack to prove his mettle by punching him in the face.  “Hit me, hit me,” he says, slapping his chin.  When Jack can’t bring himself to do it, his father bats him humiliatingly to the ground.

Not surprisingly, Jack grows to hate his father.  As a young child he’s able to bear his father’s will, but as he grows into adolescence he comes to resent his domination.  In one ominous scene an emerging Jack stands over his father as he lies on the ground fixing a car.  We hear him think, “Please kill him. Let him die.”

I saw the movie with two friends and we all agreed that we’ve never seen a movie capture the sensations and perspectives of childhood better than “Tree of Life” does.  But we also had our separate reasons for sitting rapt for two hours. One friend said afterwards that Brad Pitt’s character had had him thinking about his childhood growing up with a stern Lebanese-immigrant father who’d once told him and his younger brother, when they were still in elementary school, “After your mother and I are dead you’ll only have each other.”

For my part, I spent the entire movie thinking about Jay.

I haven’t figured out yet how strong a presence I want to be in his life.  Two nights ago Jay had a tantrum in the living room just before bed.  After ten minutes of failed coaxing I hoisted him, kicking and screaming, off to bed.  On the short walk to his room he cried out, “Noooo Daaady, noooo,” in a voice that would have made you think I was making him watch as, one at a time, I set his toys on fire.

Even as I was carrying Jay off to bed I was thinking about how intense an experience this must be for him.  Here he was, being forced to do the one thing in the world he least wanted to do, by this overwhelming force of a person called his Dad with whom, once he gets a good grip on you, it’s all over.  It’s a necessary role sometimes when you’re raising a toddler, but it’s not one I’m completely comfortable with.

Well before Jay was born, before Caroline and I even knew the sex of the child we’d have, there was a part of me that hoped we’d have a girl.  A girl, I thought, would mean a simple relationship: I’d tell her how pretty she was, be a little overprotective when she was a teenager, and walk her down the aisle when she was an adult, grinning the whole way.

But a son is a more complicated thing.  Jay will be taking a lot of his cues about how—and how not—to live his life from me, and I don’t have complete confidence that either a) I’ll give him the right cues; or b) that he’ll know how to read them. I know there will come a day when he gets around to judging me and the job I did raising him.  I can only hope that by that point I’ll have taught him at least what it means to be compassionate.

At the same time, I like that there’s no sidestepping what it means to be a father.  There is a part of my personality that prefers to sit back rather than act under conditions of uncertainty—to do nothing instead of taking the chance that I’ll do the wrong thing.  But when it comes to raising a child there’s no sitting back, no waiting until later to figure it out.  Every day Jay wakes up and Caroline and I go live again, whether or not we know our lines.

Under these conditions the best I can think to do is be aware of how big an impact my actions have on Jay and Wally, and to think and reflect and try and get better each day at being a dad, while at same time keeping in mind that one day they might make a movie about me.

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6 thoughts on ““Hit me”: Jay, Wally, and “The Tree of Life”

  1. Kevin-

    I am absolutely loving your posts and surprisingly, this is the first one that I felt I needed to comment on. I know that you were generalizing in this particular blog, but I think that having a girl is just as complicated as having a son (for a father). I’ve taken a ton of cues and learned many life lessons from my father growing up (and he has 2 girls, 0 boys) and although telling your daughter that “she’s pretty” and “being overprotective when she is a teenager” is certainly part of the job, it is so much deeper than that. Values like going to college and starting a career were instilled in me from the get-go by my father and love/marriage was viewed as a “great, but make sure you’re settled in your career first” life step. I am hands-down so much more like my father than my mother in the way I act, speak and…even look to tell you the truth! Just thought you might want to hear a daughter’s side of things…I’m sure Caroline would be able to give you a little “female child” perspective as well. 🙂 Food for “future writing” thought…

    Michelle

    • First of all, thanks for reading and for the very thoughtful comment. It’s fair to say that I know nothing about raising a daughter, so I very much appreciate your perspective. I was exaggerating slightly when I said raising a girl, for a father, comes down to just those 3 things, but I guess I do think that parent-child relationships are more complicated when they’re daughter-mother or son-father. I think kids of either sex can and do take plenty of cues from both their parents. (I imagine if I were to make a list of the 10 most important life values/lessons I learned from my parents half or more would come from my mom.) But at the same time, I think a boy’s relationship with his father is more psychologically complicated than his relationship with his mother (Oedipal business aside), and a girl’s relationship with her mother is more psychologically complicated than her relationship with her father. I wonder how this has played out in your family? Your dad has been a clear role model for you- which relationship would you describe as more “complicated”?

      • Hmmm…that’s a tough one. Because I think much more like my father, that relationship (growing up at least) seemed certainly more complicated. We butted heads often because our personalities are fundamentally (and eerily) similar and he was the disciplinarian in our household- and I, the rebel. But I never attributed it to our father/daughter dynamic. I thought of it more as it being in the realm of “differences of opinion” most of the time. As an adult, my father and I have a wonderful and smart relationship.

        My mother and I have had a much more “emotional” relationship through the years and that continues to this day. Many people would categorize THAT as the more complicated one! I guess I’m a little torn.

  2. Hi — I don’t know you but have been enjoying reading your blog. I like your idea of “going live”, or being aware that what you’re doing is registering with your child, but not necessarily being completely sure how it’s registering in the moment.

    However, I have to agree with the commenter above — I don’t think a father/son or mother/daughter relationship is innately more complex. Do you say that because of the similarities that come from sharing a gender, or what is it that you think causes the extra complications? Could there be other similarities that don’t depend on gender that lead to the complexity you’re talking about?

    In my case (as a woman), I’ve pursued the same career as my father, and he’s influenced me far more in terms of professional and intellectual growth over the years as a result. I guess that makes it a more complex relationship in that we have interacted in many realms over time — home, school, work — whereas I have only interacted with my mother in the context of home.

    I thought it was so interesting that your friend’s father said “After your mother and I are dead you’ll only have each other”. My (American-born) father said the same thing to my sister and me repeatedly as children. I didn’t think about what an odd comment it was until now.

    • as the friend in question, i wanted to add some color to the anecdote that might make it seem less odd. my entire family (myself included) immigrated to the US and settled in a fairly homogeneous area, so that comment of his was informed by our collective family experience as outsiders struggling and working to acclimate. i think that the normal “alone-ness” that envelopes the adult lives of children after their parents pass away is multiplied exponentially for immigrant families, particularly for those – like us – who leave behind the entirety of their non-nuclear family support structure in their home country.

      the other nuance worth remembering is the vast change in technology over the intervening years. today, when we’re constantly connected by facebook, skype, email and phone to our families around the world, the notion of being alone seems cutely outdated. but i doubt anyone in the 80s and early 90s, let alone my parents, would have predicted these advances, certainly not when it cost dollars per minute to call foreign countries and our phone successfully connected maybe 20% of the time. that shroud of uncertainty over our futures must have been frightening to them.

      the contrast is made even more poignant when i think of the stories they heard from their preceding generation, of branches of the family which boarded ships in the early 20th century for far-flung places like brazil, australia and detroit, and which weren’t reunited for 40 or 50 years. this, in turn, almost certainly biased their own expectations and predictions for how isolated we might be as adults.

      it all turned out fine in the end, but deliberating about all of this reminded me of something else i loved about the movie, which is that as much as we believe ourselves to be agents of our own fate, our behaviors, fears, aspirations and expectations are vastly and unconsciously influenced by the circumstances of the age during which we live. it seems to me that one of life’s major projects is understanding when one is acting as an individual and when one is acting as the ultimate terminal effector of larger, ageless cosmic processes.

  3. Hi Jane- Thanks for taking the time to write, and thanks for reading. When I said father/son and mother/daughter relationships were more psychologically complicated I was pointing to (as you inferred) gender: my thinking being that b/c gender is such a big part of one’s identity there are more ways that a mother is entangled in a daughter’s identity formation (and a father in a son’s) than a father is with his daughter or a mother with her son.

    But, you and Michelle (the first commenter) said, that hasn’t been true in your lives. I talked with Caroline (my wife) about this issue and she pointed out that people’s opinions on these issues probably mirror their personal experiences. So, in my case, my relationship with my father has been more psychologically complicated- at each stage in my life I find I’m in more intimate conversation with the corresponding stage in his life than I am with my mother. (ie: When I think of myself at 30 (my current age) it’s more natural for me to compare myself to my dad at this age than my mom.)

    But you and Michelle have convinced me that it’s not necessarily accurate to generalize from my experience. I imagine, though, that if you were to survey a large group of people, father/son and mother/daughter relationships would be cited as “more psychologically complex” more of the time than father/daughter and mother/son relationships. I could, of course, be wrong about that too.

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