Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.
A few weeks ago my husband and I listened to this “Democracy Now” interview with Mary Trump (Donald’s niece), who recently published a tell-all book about their deeply dysfunctional family. In the book, Mary talks a lot about her grandfather Fred Trump, drawing parallels between his cruel, misogynistic behavior and that of our president.
Of course Donald Trump doesn’t appreciate his niece’s new book, as expressed in this clip:
“But look, let me just tell you, my father was — I think he was the most solid person I’ve ever met. And he was a very good person. He was a very, very good person. He was strong, but he was good. For her to say the kind of things — a psychopath? That he was a psychopath? Anybody that knew Fred Trump would call him a psychopath? And you know what? If he was, I would tell you. And I would say, “You know, Chris, I was with my father, and it was imposs”— my father was — he was tough. He was tough on me. He was tough on all of the kids. But tough in a — in a solid sense, in a really good sense. For her to say — I think the word she used was ‘psychopath.’ What a disgrace! She ought to be ashamed of herself. That book is a lie.”
As soon as I heard those words, I turned to my husband and slurred in my best drunk Irish Catholic lady voice, “He was a wonderful father.”
If you’ve watched and rewatched 30 Rock as often as we have, perhaps you may know this is a reference to season 1, episode 17 “The Fighting Irish.” In this episode, NBC network exec Jack Donaghy learns from his estranged brother Eddie that their deadbeat father Jim has died. In the spirit of family and forgiveness, Jack lets go of his resentment toward his brother and father, and even arranges a wake with their siblings. The scene in which the Donaghy children gather in Jack’s office to reminisce and guzzle Jameson shots is one of my favorite from the whole series.
The scene begins with Jack introducing employee Kenneth to his brother Patrick and sisters Patricia, Katherine Catherine, and Margaret. Most of them are drunk and laughing a little too hard as they swap stories about their deceased dad. Katherine Catherine proposes a toast. Jack remarks with slight tension, “We’ve been toasting pop for over an hour now,” but she continues pouring shots anyway.
That’s when Patricia chimes in with this weepy observation — “He was a wonderful father. Always ready with rum balls in his pockets for the the kids.” She’s on the verge of tears, but you sense she’s just moments a from a seething outburst. Sure enough, when Katherine Catherine toasts their dad as “the sorriest bastard there ever was,” Patricia screams at her for talking trash about her “daddy.”
“He was a wonderful father” quickly become a personal meme for my husband and me. Whenever someone is in denial about their parent being garbage, I channel that moment. It’s the overcompensation that kills me. It isn’t enough to simply pretend that patriarchs like Jim Donaghy or Fred Trump didn’t physically or emotionally abandon their kids. These broken adult children have to tell themselves that their bad dads were “wonderful” or “the most solid.” But something about layering that denial with alcohol-fueled rage just gives it an extra punch (one that resonates for me personally, given my Irish Catholic upbringing). The way Patricia shifts from sentimental sobbing to rage — thanks to Siobhan Fallon’s pitch-perfect portrayal — really captures the soppy drunk’s version of this cognitive dissonance.
I remember an old therapist telling me that his job was tossing grenades at dysfunctional families, blowing up the whole order, so at least his client could get free. When I look at a fictional family like the Donaghys or a real life family like the Trumps, I perfectly understand the motivation behind that grenade toss. What if somewhere along the way we saw a whole generation of children stop pretending their terrible dads were anything but? What if, instead of creating more Patricias and Donalds and Don Jr.s, we broke the cycle of lying to oneself? Just admit your miserable dad really was the sorriest bastard there ever was and maybe you won’t be such a disaster yourself.