The Whale and My Father

I don’t own any social media accounts and I don’t really stream TV so I am often a month or two behind on current events and new movie releases. It was about a month ago that I learned about Brendan Fraser’s comeback in The Whale, released December 2022. When I heard that the movie was about a 600-lb disabled father trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, I knew that it would emotionally devastate me and that I had to see it. So, I did go see it – in theater. And yes, I was emotionally devastated by the movie, not just because of the empathy-provoking material and stunning performances, but because of how much I saw myself and my own relationship with my now-deceased father in the story.

I’ve been wanting to write an article about the confusing and complex relationship I had with my beloved father for a while now, but just couldn’t get it going. When I saw The Whale, I connected so deeply with the portrayal of the father and daughter’s relationship that I knew this movie would be the perfect vehicle to share my own story. I’m not yet sure what shape this article is going to take as I flesh it out, but I will offer the requisite warning: this post contains spoilers for The Whale (2022). If you don’t want the movie to be spoiled for you, then don’t read any further. At the same time, I don’t think I’m going to be turning this into a film analysis or overview per se, so if you haven’t seen the movie but want to know the detailed plot for context, I’ll direct you to the film’s Wikipedia page. Mostly, I just want to share how I connected with this movie and the reflections it provoked for me.

With that out the way, let’s dive in.

The Whale opens up to the dark and dingy Idaho apartment of Charlie, the father of this story. His apartment serves as the sole setting for this entire film. Right away the appearance of this apartment took me back to a time when I was a professional in-home caregiver for disabled adults. I had seen many homes like Charlie’s. Suddenly the scent of mildew and insulin filled my sensorium; remnants of my old career. I have cared for people who lived solely in their recliner due to their weight – slept, ate, bathed, and even used the bathroom. When Charlie’s friend and nurse, Liz, entered the home and got straight to work it was familiar. I know some people criticized the appearance of this film for looking like a horror movie, interpreting this as a way of portraying Charlie as a monster, but I disagree. This is the ugly truth a lot of people do not realize about our disabled adult population – many people live in squalid, poorly-lit conditions like this. This is what depression and isolation looks like. It’s often not cozy or pleasant to look at and even smells weird, as Charlie’s daughter, Ellie, later expresses in a haiku. It doesn’t mean Charlie is being portrayed as a monster, but it does punctuate the anguish of his character. During the last years of my father’s life, his bedroom began to take on a similar appearance to Charlie’s apartment, weird smells and all. He spent much of his days bed-ridden in the dark, watching TV or reading the Bible. He was isolated from the rest of our family, who were burnt out on caring for him and dealing with his outbursts, and he felt a lot of shame around that. My father often expressed that he felt we would all be better off without him and would occasionally make grand declarations that he would divorce my mother and get his own place – his bedroom having become more akin to a prison cell.

There are many similarities between Charlie and my own father – but also important differences. My father was not 600lbs, but he was disabled and for a long time was just a few gallons of milk shy of 300lbs. When I was in middle school, my father suffered a severely herniated disk that required a complicated surgery to correct. Not long after this event he was diagnosed with diabetes and hepatitis C, in addition to asthma and congenital heart disease. He lost a great deal of his ability to function independently during this time, which meant my brother and I had to step up and do much more than ever before. This included tasks such as cooking meals, house chores, and responding to every beck and call of my frustrated father. My father resisted the loss of his health and independence to the point that it eventually killed him, frankly. I think being in such a vulnerable position utterly terrified him, and so he coped by abusing opiates and alcohol. Unlike Charlie, who in spite of his grief and regret remains quite emotionally differentiated, my father became emotionally abusive. There’s a lot to say about why my father became that way that I will get into later. However, that isn’t to say that my father lacked the capacity to be as genuinely supportive, understanding, and nurturing as Charlie. That is what made our relationship so complicated – how do you reconcile that someone who loved and cared for you so deeply also betrayed and abandoned you?

My father was the parent who stayed at home and raised my brother and I while my mother worked. He bathed, clothed, and fed us faithfully no matter the circumstances. His substance abuse was a problem throughout my life, and while that came with its own set of terrible problems and trauma, he wasn’t necessarily a bad father. He was exceptionally proud to be a father – a trait he radiated so strongly that everyone took notice. It was very important to him to be the father that he never had, which was setting the bar quite low, admittedly. Still, I remember him as loving and present and genuinely interested in me and my hobbies. When he saw that I loved art, he bought me art sets and encouraged me. He took me to the library to check out sketching books and then he would sit with me and show me how to use those books to practice drawing. He was like that with anything I showed an interest in from guitar lessons to roller blading, and more. He was also very protective; he took time to teach me skills to protect myself and learn how to be independent within safe parameters. My father empowered me. When I see Charlie praising his daughter Ellie for her unique perspectives and intelligent writing, even as everyone else rejects and shames her, it reminded me of the way my father would praise me. My father was one of the first people in my life to ever believe in me and my abilities, and he told me how proud he was of me nearly every day of my life. And yet, he also abandoned me in a way similar to how Charlie abandoned Ellie.

When Charlie realizes he is going to die, possibly within days, he calls his daughter over to try to reconnect with her. They had not spoken in 9 years after Charlie left her mother for another man. Ellie is curt and dismissive towards Charlie, calling him and his dwelling disgusting. She is about to leave when Charlie tells her that he can give her money and help her pass her English class by reviewing her essays. He just wants her to do some writing for him, telling her she is smart and a strong writer. She doesn’t believe him and turns to leave again, stopping at the door. She turns around and commands Charlie to stand up and walk towards her, without relying on his walking device. Charlie tries to explain he can’t do it, but she will not relent. Charlie proceeds to try to stand, experiencing chest pain as he exerts the effort. Bracing himself with an end table, it gives out and he collapses to the floor. He stares up at Ellie, who stares back unmoved and then leaves him there. This scene is cruel and humiliating to Charlie, but Ellie’s position in this exchange is relatable to someone like me.

Ellie’s command is characteristic of the bitterness of a daughter who has been abandoned, whose warmth and tenderness is now being solicited by the very father who abandoned her. I remember experiencing similar moments, wanting to see my father do something that would demonstrate his renunciation of the addictions and behaviors that created the distance between us. Like Charlie, my father simply could not live up to my expectations. This only added to my resentment. Ellie faithfully portrays the disorganized response a daughter experiences in such a situation. She is viscerally angry, hurt, and won’t directly admit that she cares about or yearns for a relationship with her father. I was very much the same way after my father’s personality changed. I was angry and bitter and even mean like Ellie was, but I still loved my father. I felt intense resistance whenever invitations to connect were presented to me – my entire body just froze and refused. For years I would not reciprocate hugs or “I love you”‘s to my father, and why would I? He emotionally abandoned me when he continuously chose drugs, alcohol and the same fruitless cycles of dysfunctional coping behaviors over me. His verbal abuse and rageful outbursts over the way I completed chores was a deep betrayal of our bond. It used to infuriate me that he wouldn’t take meaningful steps to address the root source of all his problems: unresolved trauma.

My father’s life, while filled with inspirational and lively adventures, was devastatingly traumatic. Born out of a one-night extramarital affair, he is the only one among his five younger siblings who never knew his father. His own mother, after being abandoned by her family, learned to prostitute herself to survive and was often cycling through abusive relationships. Eventually she settled into a long-term relationship with a man who regularly subjected my father to horrific, dehumanizing abuse. My father told me stories of being hoisted upside-down by his feet like an animal and whipped so severely by belts that the embossing left patterned welts on his skin for days. When my grandmother attempted suicide, this man forced her to choose between him and my father. She surrendered custody of my father over to the state and he entered the foster care system, where the abuse did not abate. On one occasion he was held down and force-fed hot sauce as punishment for telling a white lie; it got in his eyes and all he could see was red. On another occasion he was forced to stand outside and hold up buckets of rocks for 15 minutes without lowering his arms, or else the timer would restart; they did not let him stop even after he urinated himself. I once interviewed him about his experiences in foster care (in the context of being separated from his siblings) for a college project. You can see that here:

Recounting these events causes me deep grief and pain – how could anyone do that to a child, especially the child that would go on to become my loving father? It is no wonder that by the age of 13 my father suffered from a nervous breakdown and was sent to a Christian community center in the mountains, which offered him a much-needed though short-lived reprieve. When my father returned to civilization, he fell to delinquency that lead to him being sentenced to 5 years in prison for attempted burglary at the age of 18. My father was of course mistreated in prison as well – thrown into cells covered in feces, kept in prolonged solitary confinement, and so on. It doesn’t take much to imagine how this impacts a developing person. The message the world sent him is succinct: “You are worthless, unlovable trash.” My father became a reactive, hot-headed maverick as a result. Throughout my life he spoke out against government corruption and proclaimed the virtues of being self-assured, independent, and steadfast in one’s integrity. His life experience taught him that he could be abandoned by the state, people, and his own family at a moment’s notice, leaving him the only one standing in his corner. He intimately knew the pain of being shamed, belittled, and treated like he was worthless. I believe that is why he made such an effort to be present throughout my life – chaperoning field trips, constantly affirming my strengths, telling me he loves me every day, supporting my decisions, taking me on adventures. He didn’t want me to go through what he went through. That’s what makes it so regretful that he ultimately became overruled by fear and addiction.

The film progresses into a climactic conflict when Ellie drugs Charlie with Ambien and Liz brings Ellie’s mother, Mary, to the apartment. This is when Liz discovers that Charlie had promised Ellie $120,000 in exchange for her spending time with him while he rewrites her essays for school. Liz, having been lead to believe that Charlie had no money for healthcare this entire time, is devastated and angry. She leaves and Mary orders Ellie to leave as well. Charlie and Mary talk about their failed marriage and Charlie discloses that he is dying. They begin arguing about Ellie. Mary believes Ellie is evil and irredeemably selfish and cruel, while Charlie is stunned and disagrees. He is persistent in advocating that Ellie is intelligent and cares about others and goes on to talk about his worries about her slipping through the cracks. The arguing begins to escalate as Mary is uncooperative in his bids to not give up on Ellie, ending in him tearfully exclaiming that he needs to know there is at least one thing he did right in his life. This was the scene that is shown in promotions for the movie and got me crying at just the trailer. It reminded me of my father and the way he leaned on his role as a father as a source of confidence and self-esteem. His identity was deeply entrenched in being a father, which created its own problems as I became an adult and he struggled to allow our relationship to change. To him, being a father was the one right thing he did in his life. This is what made it very hard for me to go no contact with him as his condition sharply deteriorated.

My father’s behavior became increasingly erratic and unhinged in the last years of his life. My mother was oblivious to what was happening, in spite of my and my brother’s efforts to point it out to her. I had cared for individuals with dementia before, and I remember when I started recognizing the traits of what seemed like dementia as my father’s mental state deteriorated. He started getting involved in religious money schemes, disappearing for hours on end, and was recurrently getting in car accidents or roped into buying junk cars. He often would go shopping, a few days later forget what he bought, and go and buy more of the same thing. He became inappropriately preoccupied with our relationship, becoming angry and impulsive whenever I was not available at a moment’s notice to answer his calls or come see him. Him and my husband had a tense relationship (for justifiable reasons, on both their parts), but he crossed a line by showing up at my husband’s work to try and prove to me he was lying about even having a job (he wasn’t). He also had a habit of showing up at my home unannounced and becoming irate when I asked him to leave. There came a point when enough was enough and I had to block his number and only see him under controlled circumstances, such as having lunch in public with my mother present. This was necessary and I do not regret doing this, but it hurts me that it had to happen. It dramatically improved our relationship for me to do that though, as our limited interactions during that time became more positive. I even came to look forward to our sparsely spent time together, which ended up being some of his more lucid moments towards the end.

Ultimately my father passed away due to complications related to his alcoholism. He suffered something like a stroke and was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed as terminally ill and put under hospice care. His condition was called “wet brain syndrome,” a type of brain disorder that is common to alcoholics. I remember visiting him in the hospital upon receiving the news. He looked really happy to see me. You could tell he was searching for words but struggled to be able to say anything, the way people with brain damage often do. He did manage some words, but I don’t remember what they were. I just remember how genuinely joyful he looked to see me, especially his eyes. They stared at me intently, aching and lovingly. That was the most lucid he appeared during the remainder of his time alive. He died within a month at the age of 58. There was a lot I wanted to say to him during this time that I could not bring myself to say. Things like, how much I loved him and that I had forgiven him. It was still too hard to say those things out loud in the end, but I think he knew anyways. He always picked up on things like that.

As Charlie approaches his death, Ellie enters the apartment and for the first time we see that it is sunny outside. The sun is blinding in this scene. Ellie is angry with Charlie for replacing her essay with one she had written about Moby Dick in 8th grade, which he kept. Throughout the movie we see Charlie referring back to this essay, cherishing it and rereading it often in case it is the last time he will be able to. The scene feels feverish and desperate, as Ellie finally understands that Charlie is indeed dying before her. At first she rebukes him and turns to leave when he asks her to read the essay to him in his final moments. She hesitates at the door and turns around and begins tearfully reading the essay to him. The sunlight is growing brighter as Charlie begins to stand up and walk towards Ellie, as she had commanded him to early on in the film. This time, with palpable effort, Charlie stands on his own and takes a step towards her. Ellie looks up as she continues reading to him. As he walks towards her, she walks towards him. She continues reading. At last, Charlie is standing before her smiling and she briefly returns his smile. We see his feet leave the ground as the screen becomes engulfed in light and we are transported to a memory of Charlie standing at the beach while a young Ellie plays in the sand.

Memories are all I have left of my father now. While some are painful, they have significantly lessened in their emotional intensity and are now eclipsed by cherished moments shared between us. Much of my resentment effortlessly dissipated when my father died; a welcomed relief. What remains are his words of affirmation, affection, and appreciation for his contribution to who I am today. I frequently draw upon his memory to encourage myself and push forward on my own path in life. I’m grateful that he was my father, even though things could have been better. His unique essence played a pivotal role in my development. I can’t really imagine ending up the way I am – with my gifts, perspective, and resilient character – if not for him. Somehow I think Ellie would feel similarly.

Thank you for reading this far. I’d like to close this article with one little gem of a candid moment I captured on video that reveals a bit of the endearing soul my father possessed:

Take care, and please go see The Whale if you have the chance.

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