As a child of toxic, gaslighting parents, I almost walked out of the theater during A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood
For kids of all backgrounds, Fred Rogers is a beloved icon.
For kids from unstable, toxic, or abusive families, Mister Rogers — and his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — was an especially profound influence, teaching unconditional love for ourselves and absolute acceptance of our feelings, even when they were angry, painful, and unforgiving.
That’s why A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the film based loosely on Rogers’ relationship with journalist Tom Junod, is so hard to watch. The movie seems to go directly against the lessons Fred Rogers spent so many years teaching us, and instead, sends a new message that says taking care of others’ feelings is more important than taking care of our own, and maintaining relationships with family, however toxic they may be, is more important than our own feelings of comfort and safety.
The film follows Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel, who has been assigned to write a short profile on Rogers. Throughout the movie, from clues peppered into various scenes, we learn that Lloyd is estranged from his father, who long ago abandoned his family — Lloyd and his sister as children, and their mother on her deathbed — to run away with another woman. In an early scene, Lloyd encounters his father at his sister’s wedding. The father gets stumbling drunk and makes a horrifyingly callous joke about his children’s dead mother. He and Lloyd come to blows over it, but the father escapes unscathed while Lloyd has a nasty black eye and a broken nose. To make matters worse, Lloyd’s wife blames him for the fight and for ruining the wedding.
The next day, Lloyd has his first encounter with Mr. Rogers, who notices his injuries and asks about them. After brushing off the questions with a few jokes, Lloyd finally reveals that he was in a fight with his father. Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers is shocked, and starts to press Lloyd for more information about his relationship with his father. He also starts, from his first meeting with Lloyd, to talk about forgiveness.
The scene that almost had me walking out of the theater comes about halfway through the movie. Lloyd returns home from a hard day at work to find his father (and his father’s wife, the woman he abandoned his family for), in his apartment. Lloyd’s wife invited them in to ambush Lloyd into speaking to them. It’s important to note that this takes place several days after the wedding scene, where Lloyd’s father was drunk and the two came to blows over his intentionally hurtful comment about Lloyd’s mother. The father begins the sort of half-apology that will feel achingly familiar to any child of parents who gaslight. “I may have messed up, but you played your part too.”
It’s horrifying to watch Lloyd face such a toxic person in his own home without even his own wife on his side. But the scene gets even worse. As Lloyd confronts his father, the older man suffers what appears to be a heart attack. Lloyd stands there in shock while his wife screams at him to do something, and later, when Lloyd wants to leave the hospital to go back to work, his wife tells him bitterly, “Fine, I guess I’ll just go sit with your family.”
This film repeatedly paints Lloyd as the one to blame for his estrangement from his father. The fact is that abuse victims have every right to set boundaries as to when and how their abusers can contact them, and they deserve to be able to do so without judgement or blame.
At no point in A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood are Lloyd’s feelings recognized as being valid or OK. Instead, he’s told over and over that the onus is on him to repair a relationship that was broken when he was a young child, certainly too young to be held responsible for what went wrong between his father and him. And while childhood trauma is itself a valid reason for Lloyd’s decision not to have contact with his father, the fact that the man exhibits over and over that he has not and will not change is all the more reason.
But what makes A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood a true slap in the face to the legacy of the real Mr. Rogers is how, as Lloyd’s interviews with Mr. Rogers come to center around forgiveness, Lloyd isn’t encouraged to forgive his father while maintaining healthy boundaries that keep his father from being able to reenter his life and continue to abuse him. Instead, Mr. Rogers encourages Lloyd to welcome his father back in, because to do so would be the ultimate act of empathy toward his father, now being portrayed not as an abusive narcissist, but as a complex albeit flawed character who deserves a place in his son’s life.
The problem with the world through the eyes of this Mr. Rogers is that while empathy is an invaluable thing to practice, it isn’t always possible. The idea that all you have to do to forgive others and establish healthy relationships with them is to put yourself in their shoes and understand the choices they make banks on the fact that you can understand the choices they make. But children of abusers, narcissists, and gaslighters already know all too well that you can’t always understand other people’s choices. You may never understand them. And part of making peace with toxic people in your life is to be able to accept that you will never understand them. Their cruelty will never make sense. They’re not going to suddenly grow up, or have a chat with Mr. Rogers, and be cured.
There’s too much media already in the world that tells us that in order to be whole, we need our families. But what if our families are the reason we’re not whole to begin with? How can we expect the very people who broke us to be the ones who put us back together again? Forgiveness is important, but only when you’re forgiving a toxic person to heal yourself. Forgiveness does not mean having a relationship with a person who hurts you and refuses to change.
The real Fred Rogers always said, “I like you just the way you are.” Even without forgiving, even without relationships with people who don’t deserve to be a part of your life.
Your value, your worth, your completeness doesn’t depend on letting toxic people back in. You’re just as worthy of love if you never reopen those doors.