Stepmonster

Reaching to the core of the stepmother experience

Your Kid Wants to Kill You: Orphan, Stepfather, and Hollywood's Psychotic Family Interlopers

Radical shift in American families spawns two paranoid new movies

Previews, even for the worst movies, are always pretty compelling, with their "In a world where" intros to improbable and insane scenarios, their pumped-up volume and vertigo-inducing fast cuts. When the subject matter is families, particularly imperiled families, or families in crisis, then the studio really has my interest, and very likely yours as well. It seems that as a nation we are suckers for any movie that ramps up family melodrama and dysfunction to the utter, technicolor, 3D max: Mildred Pierce, Star Wars, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The Bad Seed, The Royal Tennenbaums, Giant.

But two recent previews--I hope you've seen them--suggest that one new release, and another on the horizon, really jump the shark. What can I say about Orphan except that the protagonist, Esther, makes the homicidal Rhoda Penmark of The Bad Seed look like a compliant first grader and good citizen? Adoption advocacy groups across the world have recently been protesting that Orphan gives a bad name to adoptees. But the movie is so comprehensive in its paranoias and biases, stoking such primitive and bizarre anxieties (and so many of them) that getting worked up about it giving adoption a bad name doesn't even begin to cover it.

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Perhaps you know the storyline. A very nice couple goes somewhere unspecified but vaguely Eastern European in search of a child to complete their family. At an orphanage they fall in love with Esther, a sweet and deep-seeming, doe-eyed, dark-haired little girl with a very severe part (always an indicator of a serious attachment disorder. Check your DSM). Once they've adopted her and brought her to their home full of nice art and blond kids, she basically destroys their lives and (spoiler alert) tries to murder the entire family in cold blood. Slowly--too slowly--the unwitting, well-intentioned parents discover that Esther is basically the spawn of Satan. Put another way, the adoption agency and orphanage were not entirely honest about Esther.

One might read the whole thing as kind of paranoid meditation on the perils of adopting a kid with reactive attachment disorder. The popular and clinical literature are full of such cases: children, toddlers, and infants, raised in cold, clinical institutions, deprived of love, affection, even minimal interaction with adults who really cannot be called caregivers, since they effectively ignore their charges.

Longitudinal studies of institutionalized children showed that by age eight, serious damage had been done to those kids who had never known a reliable and responsive attachment figure in early life: girls struggled with friendships and remained disengaged from caregivers while boys showed self-endangering behaviors, separation anxiety, and problems with impulsivity. In the very worst case, children raised this way may be unable to bond even with loving, responsive, committed adoptive parents.

Orphan engages and exacerbates not the just the fear of adoptive parents, but of all parents. Who are our children, at their core, and what are they capable of? What if our love and good intentions and life lessons, everything we impart, is not enough? Are some kids just bad? What if I end up with one?

Esther is our worst fears blown up to parade-float proportions. What would we do in her adoptive parents' shoes? What if our biological kids turned on us, like the teen boy in Miami recently arrested for hiring a friend to kill his mother (because she refused to allow him to switch high schools) and the Grapevine, Texas teen arrested for literally stabbing his mother in the back (she survived)? One mother refused to press charges and called for the nation to pray for her son. The other called 911.

Ultimately, a movie like Orphan recasts not just our personal fears but some of our most potent cultural terrors. "Orphan" is a word that usually connotes vulnerability, a Dickensian pathos. Esther the Killer turns meaning itself on its head. And with this flip, the movie shows its hand. In the same way that film noir meditated on just how scary and powerful women could become when you went off to fight a war, leaving them to their own devices, Orphan sounds a paranoid note. As the demographics of our nation shift--as stepfamilies outnumber first families, as interracial, international adoptions become not only acceptable but glamorous, and births out of wedlock those within marriage, Hollywood brings out a movie that suggests that the "real" American family is in literally danger. Watch out!

Next up, a review of Stepfather, in which a homicidal maniac is living in your house, eating your food, trying to pass himself off as your father and, perhaps worst of all, having sex with your mom.

Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is the author of the book Stepmonster.

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