“The cry we hear from deep in our hearts, comes from the wounded child within. Healing this inner child’s pain is the key to transforming anger, sadness, and fear.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Late in his adult life, actor Marlon Brando had a habit of audio journaling. One could picture him in his palatial living room, alone with a tape recorder, and reminiscing his memories which still beset him in the present moment.
Marlon Brando is a towering name in film history, as his method acting still baffles audiences, even decades after his death. He had a gift for channeling his deepest emotions into his act, narrowing the gap between himself and his role. Seeing Brando onscreen, it is as if we are not seeing a person acting, but behaving — not a movie, but actual life unfolding.
Yet, Brando’s gift was not without a price. In his personal life, he was like a figure that you would read about in mythologies and folklore — one who is cursed in a way that he could have anything he wished for — only that he couldn’t enjoy any of it.
Brando imagined that after his death, someone would uncover his recordings and make a documentary out of them.
“It will be a highly personalized documentary on the life activities of myself, Marlon Brando,” he monologued. “We establish that he is a troubled man, alone, beset with memories, in a state of confusion and sadness, isolation, disorder. He’s wounded beyond being able to be social in an ordinary way, he becomes like a mechanical doll. Maybe he felt that he was treated badly, and that he’s angry about the treatment. He’s collecting bits of information here, odd bits of film to try to explain, ‘why are you this way?’ “
As with most stories, Brando’s starts with his childhood. Growing up was tumultuous, as he was raised in a humble urban home, by parents who were emotionally absent.
“When my mother drank, her breath had a sweetness to it I lack the vocabulary to describe,” said Brando.
His mother, though loving at times, was a heavy drinker. Brando had many memories of his mother’s drunken absences — “Memories even now that fill me with shame and anger,” he confessed. Sometimes, the Brandos would have to fetch her from jail after getting a call from the police station. Other times, it was a lot tougher, as they would have to find her in bar after bar in the skid rows of their town, drunk and disheveled.
His father was adulterous, cold and brutal. Without a doubt, his multiple affairs definitely strained his marriage and his relationship with his children. Brando could not remember a single compliment from his father when he was growing up, as he was constantly being denigrated. Brando Sr. particularly ridiculed him for his love of acting, which he thought was a Bohemian profession reserved for weirdos and homosexuals.
On top of everything, he was physically abusive. Brando could remember a time when he was in his teens, and was finally brave enough to stand up to his abuse. They had just fetched his mother from another drunken spree, when Brando Sr. decided to teach her a lesson.
Young Brando heard the thud of his mother hitting the floor, and the sickening sound of beatings and painful wailing. Brando barged into their room, lunged towards his father and said, “If you ever hit her again, I’ll kill you.”
The first years of our life are critical in determining how healthy we would be as adults. If we were raised by caregivers who were consistently loving and encouraging, we would grow up to become secure, and less likely to resort to unhealthy defense mechanisms.
While it certainly isn’t our fault if we were raised in a less than ideal household, it should be our own responsibility to deal with our traumas. Because as the saying goes, “What we don’t repair, we repeat”.
In Freudian terms, this is called the repetition compulsion. It’s when we have an unconscious impulse to repeat our past horrors in our attempt to either understand or have control over them. Sometimes, we could even repeat them because we simply don’t know a healthier alternative.
When he was in school, Marlon Brando made up for the attention he did not get at home by making a bad reputation as a troublemaker. He was continuously rebelling against authority and getting punished for his antics, like slashing tires, writing his assignments on toilet paper, and even hanging a dead skunk on the football scoreboard.
But even as he grew older, he continued to displace his traumas towards other people. As an adult and a professional actor, he was still rebelling against his father, whom he saw in the face of directors, police officers, and just about anybody who had the authority to tell him what to do. He was notorious for being difficult to work with, as he would often arrive late, if not at all, and would stubbornly want things to be done his way.
In terms of his romantic life, his unresolved feelings of being abandoned by his mother made it virtually impossible for him to stay committed to a relationship. While he had the need to bond and connect with women, he would eventually feel suffocated and abandon them, out of the fear that they would abandon him first.
When it came to his relationship with his children, he was mostly unable to relate with them, just as his father wasn’t able to do the same with him.
Surely, to some extent he did manage to turn his traumatic experiences into sugar, and it contributed to his persuasiveness as an actor. As he remarked, “If I have a scene to play and I have to be angry, there must be within you trigger mechanisms that are spring-loaded, that are filled with contempt about something. I remember my father hitting my mother.”
Yet, it’s far from truly confronting the traumas and healing from them. Misery was still very much by his side once the filming was over.
Even with the critical acclaim and material success that he achieved, it still was not enough to alleviate his malaise. He never really grew out of the shadows of a violent and cold father, and a mother who threw away her precious years of parenthood in a drunken blur.
Inside, he was still a child, broken and unhealed.
How wholesome our success and achievements would be, if there is harmony in both our professional and personal lives. At the end of the day, all the success in the world wouldn’t mean much if we are still feeling empty, anxious and desperately unhappy.
If you constantly feel weighed down by your traumas, it is highly recommended that you go for therapy. Our brain heals by talking it out — the more we’re able to put our troubled experiences into words, to name them — the closer we get to actually overcoming them. And of course, a therapist is professionally trained to guide you in doing that.
Heal the inner child, as best as you can.
In his old age, Brando did his best to forgive his parents for the damage they had done. For one thing, he might have understood a parent’s burden a lot better. Some of his children were deeply troubled, as his daughter Cheyenne committed suicide and his son Christian was addicted to drugs and convicted for murder.
Brando mulled to himself, “Christian was burdened with emotional disorders and psychological disarray. The kind of trouble that I had in life. I never tried to be like my father, but one inadvertently takes on the characteristics of one’s parents. When my father died, I imagined that he was slump-shouldered, walking to the edge of eternity. He looked back and said, ‘I did the best I could, kid.’ Finally I forgave my father, because I realized that I was a sinner because of him. But he was a sinner, because his mother left him when he was four. He didn’t have a chance.”
As he testified for Christian’s murder case, he told the courtroom that “I led a wasted life. I chased a lot of women. Perhaps I failed as a father. There were things I could have done differently.”
He then repeated the same words as what he imagined were said by his father, “I did the best I could.”