To Hug a Porcupine: A Marin County Passenger Talks Bojack Horseman and Intergenerational Trauma

*Names changed to protect confidentiality

For many years, Marin County was home to Robin Williams. Its natural beauty and proximity to San Francisco have made it a popular dwelling for affluent retirees in search of sanctuary without having to forgo easy access to the culture and bustle of a city.

When I look up from my book inside a Mill Valley park’s red wooden railway car, lush views relax my brain and reward my eyes. Bushy verdant trees cluster together into a group hug that reaches high into the sky.

Brandon,* who grew up in Marin, says he didn’t realize how privileged he was until leaving for school in Humboldt County. 

“It’s clean, impossibly green, right next to all these unreal hikes. You can really get complacent, living here. You can forget that you’re inside this beautiful bubble.”

Mark lives in San Francisco now, and though he does go back to Marin occasionally (and enjoys it when he does), he feels he couldn’t live here anymore. His “need to have some exposure to a grittier reality” is a large reason why.

“To stay connected to the world, you know,” he explains. “When I’m in Marin, I lose touch with that reality. Maybe that’s a character flaw though, and not Marin’s fault,” he acknowledges, while laughing.

Other passengers are less cynical of the county. While Marin might not be the place for the growing, inquiring, and restless 20-something, for other people it is the perfect match for their needs.

“It was just what we needed for retirement,” passenger Linda says. “Being a two-minute walk from lush trails. Having SF nearby if and when we do seek some grittiness to spice up the daily lull.”


Bigger Passenger Story: To Hug a Porcupine: Passenger on Intergenerational Trauma

 Are there assholes in this world who haven’t gone through any trauma? Or is every difficult person that way because of something, or many somethings, truly shattering that happened long before they possessed resilience or the tools to process it? 

These are questions posed during my ride with Brandon.

We exchange small initially. Eventually Brandon gets to talking about his dad. He’s spotted the printed-out review of season 5 of Bojack Horseman on my backseat floor.

Taking a leap of faith with me, Brandon discloses that he is considering a relationship with his dad again, after having shut him out for many years. Watching the Bojack episodes with Bojack and his aging abusive mom played a partial role in this reconsideration.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show: throughout Bojack’s childhood, his mom chided him for ruining her, almost daily. From the time he was barely three she griped about him robbing her of a life. One T.V. reviewer describes their relationship as “one-sided and brutal.”

Like Bojack, Brandon too had a very rocky relationship with his dad, whom as Brandon got older, he began to view as a small, even cartoonish man.

 “This thing he did after every tirade really brought that cartoon image to life. My family kept all these giant frozen steaks in the freezer—they were his supply. After cooling down from a fight, he’d sit at the kitchen table and quietly devour one of them,” he recalls.

“In the morning when we woke up there’d be a cutting board and a dirty dish sitting in the sink, both coated in steak grease. The knife would glisten sometimes if the light from the window hit it just right. Like at a certain angle.”

 To prove a point, was the reason Brandon’s dad often used to justify his unthinkable actions. He was trying to “teach them something.” Their father might deprive them of a meal to prove a point. He might lock them outside of the house. He might humiliate them in front of their peers. In the most extreme cases he might use physical force. It was all in the name of learning.

 As the years went by Brandon started realizing that proving a point was his dad’s prime ammunition in life.

“It’s what guided him most. More than love did. Being right, or at least looking like he was right, was his mojo. That shit was his life blood.”

 Brandon’s mom’s sense of purpose in life came to revolve around attempting to save the man who’d dedicated his own to staying in control at all costs. Meanwhile, Brandon’s older brother became his protector.

“There’s this moment in Back to the Future II when the bolder Marty Senior says to the more timid Marty Junior, ‘Sit down and shut up’ before he goes to take on the bad guy. Growing up I was Marty Junior. a lot, and my brother was Marty Senior, and Biff was my dad.”

Unlike Biff though, Brandon’s dad didn’t look like your typical tough guy. And he was nice to everyone, which made his mistreatment behind closed doors all the more shocking and difficult to reconcile.

Where it gets complicated

As Amber Tamblyn wrote in her book The Era of Ignition, “The reciprocity of human cruelty gets handed down between battered psyches and bodies, becoming a snowball of emotional labor. The notion that hurt people hurt people is not just a saying, it is a statistical truth.”

Later on the show producers bring us back to who Bojack’s mom had been before her prolonged mistreatment of her son. They show us what she went through as a kid. They show her mom being lobotimized, losing her soul to a medical procedure after her husband couldn’t handle her ‘hysterical” emotions (brought on by her army son’s combat-induced death) any longer.

They show her dad having no regard for what she wanted (in fact he even harbored disdain for it. They show him trying to pawn her off to a suitor as if she were an object. They show him placidly seizing all her belongings from her, tearing away everything that mattered in her five-year-old world. They show him throwing it all into the fire to “de-contagion” the home from his daughter’s scarlet fever. 

Finally they show him reminding her not to cry because she “didn’t want to end up like [her] mother, did she?” 

Brandon and I talk about this.

“I realized I know super little about my dad’s past,” Brandon says, bringing my attention back to our ride. “I don’t have any of those lightbulb moments that really helped me put his present behavior into context. I don’t have much context at all. All I have is the collateral damage of whatever it was.”

Despite the mistreatment, Brandon does hold some positive memories. He acknowledges that his dad wasn’t “all bad.”

“When we were younger, he built my brother and me a tree-house and filled it with books. He’d encourage us to spend time up there. He said we could use it as our “get-away” when life got tough.”

 In grade school Brandon and his brother took turns having friends up there (but never more than three at a time, or else it would collapse). Apples grew from the tree’s branches. Sometimes they would pick them though the window—a carved-out hole in the wood, which they covered with confetti paper to function as the curtain.  

“In high school I started using it as a study lounge,” he recalls.

He treasured the moments his dad would pull him aside to read him a story before bed. Brandon would cuddle with his left arm while peering onto the picture-filled pages. Since he could never predict when these moments would come, he learned to hold on to them for as long as he could, squeezing from them every last minute. He’d push the boundaries, until he had to be physically carried to bed.

Brandon doesn’t want a close relationship with his dad again, but wonders if distant but cordial connection—with boundaries in place—might be possible.

“My feelings are so complicated. I wish I could just hate him and not have him in my life, or love him and have him be present in it in an effortless way. But that’s not how it is.”

The struggle to reconcile

The question Brandon poses at the beginning leads me to feel momentarily heavy. It’s not so much the question itself or the fact  that I can’t answer it definitively (I know he’s not fishing for a yes or no response) that does. It’s more the larger truth that it points to: that everyone out there, even the seeming monsters, or occasional monsters, or monster-angel hybrids, has pieces inside them that are hurting and in need of empathy.

Yet how do you, as author Debbie Joffe Ellis phrased it, “hug a porcupine without getting hurt yourself?” Can you?

 I’d asked myself these questions many times before, but both the episode and Brandon’s story bring them to the forefront of my mind once more.

The intergenerational trauma that ripples from one generation to the next like hot searing wax: where did the trickle-down originate? Who is to blame? Upon whom does the onus of original sin lie? When did this legacy of harm begin? 

I find myself wanting to locate it, if only so that there can be a place into which to channel my anger and unrest.

Where does it begin for any of us? Who broke the soul of the person who bullied the caregiver of the parent who failed to provide the stability we needed? A few more questions.

No simple answer exists to any of these questions. So we’re left paddling around inside the mire of mess and confusion.

I’ve found the most helpful way to cope with the cognitive dissonance is by being good to myself; taking care of my soul; tending to my needs.

It’s by being good to those around me; practicing kindness and patience and flexibility, without losing grasp on fairness to my own self.  Bojack does this when he sits down and reads to his dementia-addled mom. He’d been so close to walking out of her retirement home room— abandoning her like she had him innumerable times. But he stayed.

We can choose not to emulate the behaviors of those who have hurt us. We can re-align our priorities if we haven’t been living in a way that allows for our positive qualities to emerge.

Like Bojack, Brandon hasn’t forgotten the past. The scars his dad left haven’t fully healed. They might not ever heal completely.

“I can learn from what he did though, and not repeat it,” he says with conviction. “I can use the hurt as motivation to be a better person.”

*Thanks for reading! For more content, follow us on IG @lyft_tales


Photo credits

Mill Valley—

Bojack and mom—

Kids’ treehouse —

Back to the Future–

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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