Let’s Talk About Bruno….and Trauma
Yes…Let’s Talk About Bruno…and Trauma!
I have seen a lot of things written about Encanto. Everyone has recognized the role that generational trauma is playing in the movie, which is a very important conversation to have. I am glad that Disney has taken the opportunity to provide space for that conversation. Musicals, theater, art, and literature tend to be great ways to engage people on difficult topics in a way that is more palatable and safer. As a therapist that specializes in trauma, I would like to take this opportunity to take the discussion a little deeper.
Here is what we know, Abuela experiences a trauma, war and the death of her husband shortly after giving birth to triplet, and out of that trauma, comes the miracle. A house is built and the subsequent family members, except for Mirabel, are blessed with a magical gift. Throughout the movie we begin to see that what started as a magical gift eventually becomes a burden to most of them; Bruno was even excommunicated due to his gift.
Let’s take a look at these gifts through a trauma informed lens. This is ultimately how I ended up viewing this movie and believe that it holds some very important messages. When people endure prolonged trauma, complex trauma, they are forced to find ways to manage, to survive. They create a whole system of survival mechanisms that allow them to continue to live and exist in this world as a functioning human being. This is a gift. It is miraculous what our brains do in order to survive. Our brain allows us to accommodate to trauma in whatever way necessary.
Abuela experienced extreme trauma (war and the killing of her husband). Her home was then created on a foundation of trauma that is slowly starting to crumble, as it usually does. Due to Abuela’s inability to process her trauma and to grieve the many losses, due to her need to survive and take care of her family, she unknowingly forces her family to manage the trauma for her. Abuela passes on this trauma from one generation to another. This management of the trauma is defined as a gift. It is idealized and it is never questioned. This allows the family to continue to protect the matriarch of the family from her own feelings and to continue to function as a family.
The gifts that are provided to the family members are survival skills that I have seen over and over in clients that I have worked with.
- Luisa’s strength is a common defense mechanism. Survivors are often put in a position to be strong not only for themselves, but for others. They are forced to shoulder the burden for the rest of the family. Abused children are often parentified and keep their abuse a secret in order to protect their family. Their strength is often complimented and valued. When natural emotions and fatigue set in, it creates shame and a feeling of weakness. We, as a society, award the strong and provide little reason for those who use strength as a coping mechanism to voluntarily allow themselves to feel, to fall, to heal.
- Isabela has the gift of perfection. Everywhere she goes she can create a beautiful, perfect scene of flowers. Her appearance is perfect in every way. She behaves as expected and even plans to marry the perfect (in theory) man. Perfection is an illusion mean to shield others from what is truly going on. It is a way to avoid questions. One way that survivors cope with trauma is by pushing the trauma to the background. Abused children will be successful in school, they will be social, well liked, and highly functioning members of society. This allows them to keep their trauma a secret, to protect their family. It also allows for a type of containment that keeps the intense emotions associated with the trauma at bay.
- Dolores has superhuman hearing. Those who experience prolonged trauma can develop a skill called tracking. These individuals are always aware, alert, and ready to fight, run, or freeze if, and when, needed. They notice everything. They hear everything. They are tuned into everything that is going on in their environment. This allows them the ability to always be prepared to survive.
- Camilo can shapeshift, which is also a common survival skill. This skill allows individuals to morph into whoever and whatever they need to be. Sometimes this skill allows them to just blend into the background so that no one notices them. Survivors of trauma are often times very good at shifting in a moment’s notice when deemed necessary.
- Antonio’s gift is his ability to communicate with animals. His room is every child’s dream. He gets to escape into a room full of fun and fantasy. This type of escape is much like dissociation. Survivors of trauma often learn how to disconnect as means of coping with the ongoing trauma. They are able to go to fantastical places in their mind. Sometimes they disappear, sometimes they float over their bodies, and sometimes they create elaborate fantasies during the trauma and/or when triggered and flooded with intense emotions.
- Julieta heals with food. She is the caretaker, and everyone comes to her when they are ill or hurt. Julieta’s worth is defined by her ability to care for others. Much like Luisa, this is a valued role but also a role that allows the individual to ignore their own needs in order to care for others.
- Pepa is a little different. She controls the weather with her emotions. To me, Pepa is the trauma survivor who can’t quite keep it all together. Survivors often have a difficult time regulating their emotions due to the structural changes that occur in the brain. The weather cloud above her indicates her mood and it provides a concrete indicator to all family members of how Pepa is feeling. Unfortunately, this then allows the family members to constantly remind Pepa to keep her emotions in check for the sake of the family. Throughout the movie, you see Pepa trying to self sooth or convince herself to calm down.
Then there is Mirabel and Bruno. Yes, I talked about Bruno. Mirabel and Bruno were the disruptors of the defense system. Bruno had the power to see the future; he had insight. Bruno was the trauma warning system. He warned about what would/could happen and for that he was shunned, ultimately because they viewed him as a threat to the system. Instead of leaving, Bruno hid in the walls. He did not leave, because he couldn’t. Bruno hid in order to protect his family and to allow them to continue to live, happily utilizing the survival mechanisms that they were gifted. He did his best to manage behind the scenes. He ate dinner with his family behind the walls. He created different personas to pass the time, to feel less alone, and to accomplish different tasks. He utilized differently coping skills to help him manage through this difficult, lonely time. It should not be lost that, despite being rejected by the family, Bruno was as much a part of the family dynamic as anyone else. This prevented him from leaving.
And lastly, Mirabel. She is the scapegoated child with appropriate boundaries. She is the child who typically gets referred for counseling for failing to conform to the needs of the family. Mirabel didn’t receive a magical gift because she did not need one. She was able to see the cracks in the foundation. She was willing to face them head on and had the will and courage to explore them further. Mirabel stood up to a long established, well-fortified trauma foundation. She knew that the family could not continue to exist in this manner any longer. She saw how exhausted Luisa and Isabela were and how much they needed to be a little less strong or a little less perfect. Mirabel saw that the family could be different, happier, healthier.
In the end, the foundation crumbles. Insight, honest and open communication, compassion, strength, and community allows for the walls to come down and a new, stable foundation to be built. You see, what often happens is that we continue to utilize trauma survival skills even when the trauma no longer exists. Mirabel provided the family an opportunity to create a foundation based on community and emotional health when the prior foundation, built on trauma, was no longer working and/or necessary.
Here’s the thing though. None of the character lost their gift. It is important that we recognize that their ability to manage the trauma truly is a gift. None of the family members lost what made them unique and special. What changed is that the gifts became about thriving rather than surviving. Luisa got to be strong without always needing to be shoulder it all on her own. Isabela got to create beauty in a way that didn’t require perfection. These gifts became about want rather than need. There was now a space to discuss the past hurt so that healing could occur. It provided a sense of freedom for all family members to discover who they are outside of the family trauma. Bruno was welcomed back in the family as what made him special was no longer a threat.
• We have to acknowledge and honor all that we do to survive and cope. It truly is a gift. We should not shame ourselves or anyone else for what we do to survive. The more we shame ourselves or others, the harder it is to heal.
• We have to take a step back and assess the role that generational trauma has played in our own lives. How have we accommodated to the needs of your family’s desire to NOT talk about traumatic events? What can we do to help provide a safe space for discussion about trauma? Which character do we most identify with? How can your “gift” be worked through so that it can be utilized outside of a place of trauma?
• If you are the scapegoated/ostracized child, we see you. We know the burden you have endured and what you have had to shoulder for the sake of your family. Your gift of insight can also be a great burden and it can leave you feeling very alone. Surround yourself with people who see you and provide a safe space to be your true self and never stop fighting to be heard.
• Normalize therapy. Therapy is a necessary tool for emotional healing, especially for those who experience trauma.
• More Disney movies like this. This is an amazing tool to begin a conversation with children AND adults about the role of trauma in a family.