Rehabbing Her Father’s Spirit

Filmmaker Linda Brown

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Over our 20 years of publishing Stroke Connection, we’ve heard many responses to the stroke of a loved one, but Linda Brown’s was unique. When she heard her father, Stanley Brown, had had a stroke, she decided to make a film. Brown, age 65, is a filmmaker and a faculty member in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She had already made one film, Your Favorite, exploring her relationship with her dad.

It’s safe to say that Stanley was not a sweetheart. He could be caring one minute and angry the next, at times belligerent and threatening. For years he feared his wife Natalie had a boyfriend, though she was dedicated to him and their family — daughters Nancy, Sue and Linda and son Paul.

"I needed to understand my father," Brown said. "He was fiercely dedicated and loyal when it came to us, but there seemed to be something that prevented him from expressing and showing his feelings, but I knew family was very important to him."

Stanley was 79 when he had a stroke in 2004. He had a history of heart failure starting in the late ‘80s and a heart attack in the mid 1990s. Ironically, he had his stroke in a doctor’s waiting room. "They called his name, but he didn’t answer," Brown said. "Another patient informed the staff my dad’s head was slumped down and he was unresponsive." In retrospect his family suspected he had suffered a number of TIAs ("mini-strokes"), but he always dismissed them as a "senior moment" or a dizzy spell. When Natalie suggested he share this with his doctor, he ignored her advice.

After the stroke, Brown began to spend more time at her parents’ home in Reading, Pennsylvania. "It seemed like the perfect opportunity to delve into his obscure and painful childhood and attempt to gain access to his guarded emotions," Brown said.

Of course, as a filmmaker she brought her camera and talked to the whole family about making a film about Stanley’s recovery from stroke. But while she was putting the pieces together his health, both mental and physical, declined rapidly.

Then suddenly he died, and other issues surfaced — dealing with the will, settling some financial obligations and everyone defining their roles within the family once their father was gone — all of which caused tension and some ill-will. "Issues arise, like, is everyone carrying their fair share of caregiving, financial arrangements, making medical decisions," Brown said. "That’s a big part of this process families don’t usually talk about. I have footage that deals with some of these issues, and it’s hinted at but isn’t the main focus of the film."

In Brown’s estimation, her father’s violence, jealousy, anger and depression were adaptive survival skills.

Clockwise from left: Stanley, Natalie, Linda and Susan Brown in 1953

Uncovering her father’s past meant shining a light into dark places. Stanley was illegitimate and his father had abandoned his mother before he was born. Stanley’s mother had never really wanted him and was not shy about communicating that. There is a painful scene after his stroke where he visits his mother in her assisted living home, and she slaps his hand away and spits at him. "Understanding my father required openly discussing with my mother and siblings the shameful lies about my father’s past and the secrets about the violence within our family," she said.

In the film this is explored in several ways. There are interviews, which clearly demonstrate that each family member has a different perspective about what happened and who Stanley was. Brown also shares old home movies of her and her sister Nancy as adolescents dressed up like a man and woman dancing, then fighting and then making up. "It’s the type of footage you might find in any family’s collection," Brown said. "But when it’s shown a second time after asking my mother about the domestic violence in our family, it takes on a whole new meaning. In that context, it illustrates how parents’ actions shape their children’s behavior and how dark secrets, so carefully guarded, get revealed and uncovered because the children act them out."

Stanley’s traumatic childhood of neglect and abandonment left him feeling unworthy of love and filled with shame. This affected his ability to love and form attachments. In Brown’s estimation, his violence, jealousy, anger and depression were adaptive survival skills. "I believe he always struggled with these feelings, but as a young, strong and healthy man, he was able to suppress them and throw himself into his work," Brown said. "But as he became ill, weaker and unable to hide or avoid them, they surfaced and became part of his conscious reality. In Your Favorite in 1984, he shared that he dreamed my mother had a boyfriend but later in life this fear became a belief."

As his end nears, Stanley becomes increasingly cantankerous, and Brown’s final filmed scenes with him are difficult: he slaps at her and Natalie, much like his own mother slapped at him at their last meeting. There is a heart-wrenching scene after Stanley’s death where Natalie recalls his last two phone calls when he accuses her in all seriousness of having a boyfriend, saying she will be happy with him gone because she can be with her new man. She hangs up on him both times. When the phone rings a third time shortly after, it is the hospital reporting that Stanley has died.

As Brown says in the film, Stanley taught her to be persistent, and her final interaction with him forced her to push forward with the film. "I was never satisfied with the ending of Your Favorite, and I was afraid this one might end the same way — unresolved," Brown said. "I couldn’t bear the thought of all this work leading me to the same ending. That’s why I continued to videotape, ask questions, interview and probe. And that’s when I discovered the hidden treasure."

Buried in a box in her brother Paul’s attic was a videotape marked as a family Christmas, but it had been recorded over. A much younger Stanley comes on the screen and says he wants to say something to Natalie to make up for a paltry acknowledgement he had made at their 50th anniversary celebration.

Looking directly into the camera Stanley says: "Natalie, I was pretty lucky, not a lot of women would have put up with me the way you did. I owe you a lot. I wasn’t as nice as I should have been. I tried to punish myself. We had a lot of good times together and sad ones, too. I love you, always did."

"It’s like a message from the afterlife," Brown says in the film.

And that message changed her perception of her family. "I see both parents differently; separate from me, with their own stories, virtues and flaws," Brown said. "They were more than the roles and labels I had given them — dad and mom, abuser and victim, provider and nurturer. They were products of their own histories and parents, wrestling with their own demons, just like me."

What had started as a film about stroke recovery had become a story of rehabilitation, the rehabilitation of a father with his family. "By the end of my journey it was my intention to portray my father not as a monster, or to define him by his worst acts," Brown said, "but to understand the forces in his history that shaped him and his behavior. Today I have more compassion for my father and admiration for my mother than I had before I made You See Me."

Brown’s advice to others going through a similar situation

Be patient with yourself and your parents. Don’t try to do it alone. Get support from family, professionals, peers and organizations like the American Stroke Association. They offer an abundance of resources. Take time for yourself, nurture and replenish your spirit and body. Try to see and accept it as another phase of your life filled with lessons from which you can grow.

What she does about her risk

Brown has been exercising and eating right for many years, but she struggles to manage the stress in her life. "I’m a tenured member of the faculty at USC, carry a full-time teaching load and serve as head of the cinematography track," she said. "I find yoga and mindfulness meditation help keep me centered and a good sense of humor is needed. It’s all about balance But it’s not easy.

About the film

You See Me had its world premiere in Los Angeles at Dances With Films June 5, 2015, and will travel the festival circuit for about a year. Brown is also planning community screenings and events with partnering organizations around issues of stroke, caregiver support, domestic abuse and medical education. The film will be used as an educational tool in various psychoanalytic training institutes, outpatient mental health clinics, graduate programs of psychology, social work and psychiatry as well as men’s groups and parent education programs. Eventually the film will be available for streaming or sale through the You See Me website. If you want to stay up to date on the film, you can sign up for a newsletter on the website.

Reaction to You See Me

While editing, I had many test screenings and initially thought the film would be most relatable to Baby Boomers who were dealing with caregiving of aging parents," Brown said. "But to my surprise I discovered it had a profound impact on audiences of all ages. I’ve had people confide they were victims of sexual abuse, they rejoiced at the death of an alcoholic mother, they secretly raised their sister’s child, and 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.’ Regardless of which group you are in, the film deals with topics that have already, or will eventually, touch you."



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