Linda Brown joins us to discuss her new film YOU SEE ME, a powerful dive into her family's collective memory amidst her father's deteriorating health.
You are a very experienced filmmaker, how does YOU SEE ME stand out from your previous projects?
It’s my most personal and mature film to date. I tried to make this film when I was younger and a less seasoned filmmaker, but I don’t think I was ready, and I suspect neither were my parents. I lacked the insight and confidence needed to ask the difficult questions that would help me delve into my father’s complex and troubled past. I also think my parents were too young and vibrant. But twenty years later and after my father suffered a debilitating stroke; I knew I had to try once again.
This time things were different. Now when I asked my mom in the film why she put up with the abuse, I heard a thoughtful, reasoned answer, not a weak excuse. When I felt angry with my dad for endlessly trying to get his mother’s love, I realized I had been doing the same thing with him. Once I saw my parents as equals, allies, I was able to empathize with them because I saw myself in them.
How would you describe this film to someone who has never seen it?
I jokingly call it a baby boomer’s coming of age story. On a more serious note, YOU SEE ME is about my family dealing with trauma, loss and grief, as well as my own journey to rehabilitate the memory of my father and connect with my mother in a new and unexpected way.
It deals with the meaning of family and the power of forgiveness to turn loss into an opportunity for insight and growth.
What do you like most about the raw materials you used like the home movies, family photos, and interviews?
I absolutely love how many of those images gain significance beyond their literal meaning. In addition, their meaning can shift within the narrative context. For example, the first time we see the 8mm home movies of my sister and me dressed as a husband and wife dancing, fighting and making-up, the footage seems innocuous, iconic, simply kids imitating their parents. However, when repeated after my mother talks about the violence that occurred in our home, that footage takes on a completely new meaning. It’s more than kids playing; we’re functioning as a mirror reflecting back to our parents what we witnessed. There’s an innocence in the play, yet a foreshadowing of how we might repeat the cycle of violence in our future relationships.
Someone at one of the post screening Q & A’s suggested, it could also be viewed as a plea to anyone who views the footage, including my parents, to see what we were witnessing, and stop the violence. I had never considered that but find it an interesting premise.
What do you think you can tell about a family from their home videos?
What a great question. I have had this conversation with Rhonda Vigeant at Pro8mm during an interview for her radio show Home Movie Legacy Project. Unlike stills that people generally pose for, home movies or videos capture those candid moments such as a tender touch, a snide remark, that when studied can build a narrative or counter one we have come to believe.
I’m a professional cinematographer and a visual learner. As a child, I asked my father to teach me to thread our Kodak movie projector and I remember screening our home movies repeatedly. At the time, I just thought I liked watching them but I now believe it’s how I learned about life, relationships, people, their strengths, motives, fears, and vulnerabilities. While my childhood friends were exploring the world through books, I was trying to understand my world in the images on those tiny 8mm home movie frames.
It’s so ironic that my father, who was incapable of expressing his love and affection, chose to interview himself with our family’s video camera where he felt free to share intimate stories and his deepest feelings.
Caregiving for family members in later life is an emotionally and physically exhausting process that affects nearly all Americans, what do you say to families going through this?
If possible, use this time to get to know your parent’s in a new way. It’s an opportunity to give meaning to their life and in turn, yours. There’s a wonderful article by hospice chaplain, Kerry Egan titled,
What People Talk About Before They Die. She explains they mostly talk about their families because that’s where we first experience love and where we first give it. When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned: forgiveness. The life work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.
When I say giving meaning to your parent’s life in turn gives meaning to yours, there is research that reveals a correlation between how much a child knows about their family history and their level of self- esteem and resilience. All families have narratives, the stories we tell about mom and dad’s first date, a beloved aunt who died of alcoholism or how grandparent’s first arrived in this country. When those narratives are truthful and accurate, when they include the families’ successes, struggles and, most importantly, how they bounced back from challenging times, children from those homes tend to enjoy more emotional health and happiness.
I don’t think it’s ever too late to redefine a relationship. It takes humility, courage, and an open heart. There are resources to get you started. The Conversation Project is a good example. It’s dedicated to helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care. I’ve read testimonials where three or four generations gathered to have the conversation. The questions range from what kind of care do you want to, do you have any regrets? Often unknown facts are discovered, stories are shared and bonds are formed. It’s simple but can be transformative.
In what ways did your father’s dementia compound the impact of your father’s initial illness on your family?
When someone is physically ill, the medical team and family can rely on the patient’s description of symptoms. But when mental illness is involved and patients are confused, agitated or delusional, their accounts are less reliable and accurate which makes diagnosis and treatment a guessing game.
In my father’s case, the dementia progressed, I believe, slowly but steadily after his stroke, which made it harder to discern. It started as slight exaggerations and eventually grew into more outrageous statements.
What surprised me was how convincing he could be when he shared these beliefs. While I never thought my mother had a boyfriend, my father’s insistence and detailed accounts caused me to wonder if it was possible. I have a theory that because of his past, my father never believed he deserved love. When he was young, healthy, busy working and supporting a family, this fear lived on an unconscious level and surfaced only in his dreams. He shared that dream with me when I was making my earlier film, YOUR FAVORITE. But as he aged, grew frail and ill that fear surfaced and became, in his mind, a reality.
Around that time, my brother decided to have a man-to- man talk with my dad to logically and rationally explain how this was not true. After two hours, my father who seemed to be agreeing with my brother said, “Yes, I understand but it really hurts that after 60 years of marriage she has a boyfriend.”
I called my sister, who also dismissed the idea that my mother was seeing another man, and asked, “What if we’re wrong?”
So, it caused confusion and doubt among us, which complicated our plans concerning his care.
YOU SEE ME dug really deep into your family’s history of both intimacy and abuse—particularly at the hands of your father—how do you square the two?
I struggled with this dichotomy my whole life. As a child I spent a lot of time with my dad. We were buddies, always doing things together, yet I can’t say I ever really understood him. Because he was abandoned by his biological father and neglected by his mother, family was very important to him. However, he didn’t have the emotional skills to show it. I had the feeling he truly wanted to be more connected and engaged but his mood swings, anger and erratic behavior seemed to consume him. I wanted to figure out the reason for that disconnect.
There is a growing interest in narrativity, which is basically, how stories help people make sense of the world. English, Journalism, Psychology, Science and Art Departments are all offering courses and degrees in this area of study. Dr. Rita Charon, Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and the originator of the field of Narrative Medicine, emphasizes the importance of storytelling to the healing process.
I desperately wanted to understand the reasons for my father’s behavior and heal from the trauma I suffered. I worked with therapists throughout my life to prepare for this and if you watch the film, you’ll see I devoted a little over a decade to this work.
It was a long and arduous journey during which I began to see my parents differently, separate from me, with their own stories, virtues and faults. They were more than the roles and labels I had ascribed to them. They were products of their own histories and parents, wrestling with their own demons, just like me. They were simply flawed humans doing their best.
How do you express this dichotomy in YOU SEE ME?
I was fortunate that my family had dozens of photo albums, boxes of 8mm and super 8 films and tons of videos that documented our lives over many years. Plus my insistence on placing a camera on a tripod and letting it roll meant my family got very comfortable being recorded.
Having so much footage to select really helped me show many sides of my family. But the two most critical scenes are when my father visits his mother at the care facility and his self interview when he bears his soul.
My sister, Nancy shot the scene of my dad and his mother and when she described it I asked her to send it to me immediately. However, she was in the process of moving and wasn’t sure where it was or if she still had it. I promised I’d be patient until she could locate it, but I wasn’t. I think I drove her crazy until she found and sent it. That footage is heart wrenching. It shows my grandmother’s utter disdain for my father and his efforts to forgive her. Audiences always cite this scene as painful to watch.
The videotape of my dad’s self-interview was in a box that ended up in my brother’s attic. I had him ship them and watched them high speed late one night because most were duplicates. Then suddenly, I found a tape labeled Christmas 1999 crossed out and relabeled Stan’s memories. As I say in the film, finding that tape was like a message from the afterlife.
Compare the 1960s masculinity that your father embodied to the shifting masculinity of today.
While I do think there has been some progress in men showing and expressing their emotions, I think there’s still a lot of 1960’s masculinity alive today. How can men who have little or no emotional connection with their fathers learn how to create that connection with their children? This requires stepping outside their comfort zone and finding new ways to deal with their frustrations, anger, depression as well as how to share their joy, gratitude and successes. There’s still a lot of work to be done in this area.
Do you think this old school masculinity is important to understanding gender in America today?
Absolutely, our definition of masculinity is too narrow, prescriptive, and old. Compared to the decades of research, writings and conversations about what it means to be female, sadly there has not been a significant movement to help males explore a full expression of their gender. There is important work being done by men like Jackson Katz, Tony Porter, and Michael Kimmel, to name a few. In addition to their research and writings, all have formed organizations to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence, and all three have amazing TED talks.
Interestingly, transgendered men and women have a unique perspective on this topic because they have experiences from both sides.
I want to hear a man’s point of view, just like I expect them to listen to mine. I just can’t and won’t do their work for them.
It seems like a lot of the family history you brought up in the film hadn’t been confronted yet. What has your head-on approach yielded for you and your family members?
Surprisingly they were all willing to participate even if they didn’t always agree with my point of view or me. When I asked my sister Susan, if she’d agree to an interview I was surprised she said yes because there was a lot of discord and tension between us. So, I’m grateful that she respected me and valued the film enough to be interviewed.
It was essential that everyone screened the final cut and approved it.
I needed to know the film represented my family fairly and respectfully. My mother gave me the best compliment, saying it was an honest film.
The ending of YOU SEE ME was so strong-I cried both times I watched. How has this closure lasted for both you individually and your family?
The opportunity to travel the festival circuit with YOU SEE ME and witness its profound impact on audiences, has been life changing. I’ve had people confide they were victims of sexual abuse, they rejoiced at the death of a mentally unstable mother, they secretly raised their sister’s child, or they never told their children they loved them. While sharing these secrets, their pain and shame is almost palpable.
Audience members seem to fall into two camps: Those who immediately respond to the film and those who contact me a few days later and say, “I’ve been thinking about your film and I really get it.”
The screening in my hometown was special because both my mother and sister Nancy joined me for the post screening Q & A. I asked my mother if she was nervous and she said a little but when she got on stage and I handed her the mic, she was amazingly articulate and gracious. She received a standing ovation. What a joy for me to witness that.
I believe there has been closure for my mom and my sister Nancy. I don’t feel I can speak for my sister Susan or my brother, Paul. Personally, I continue to experience closure, healing and the pleasure of connecting with an audience.
What do you want most for students to take away from YOU SEE ME?
What I’d like most is for viewers to reflect on their families because all families have secrets, scars and regrets that produce shame. Many of us carry that shame with us our entire lives because we judge ourselves, usually harshly, and fear others will judge us too. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, etc. Brené Brown’s research and writings on this topic are groundbreaking. She contends shame is an epidemic in our culture. The three things shame needs to grow are secrecy, silence, and judgment. Brown believes the antidote is empathy. When sharing our stories, what we long to hear the listener say is, I understand. I get it.
I know from emails I receive from audiences and the reviews on IMDB that YOU SEE ME is very relatable. As one reviewer said we’re just an average American family. My hope is the film gives comfort to viewers to know they are not alone. That it gives them faith to believe it’s never too late to live free of shame. And last, that it gives them courage to share their stories.
If YOU SEE ME does that, I will consider it a success.