Half the Disney Princesses. Luke and Leia. Harry Potter. The Baudelaires. Spiderman. Batman. Superman. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Hercules. All of these characters and hundreds more have one trope in common: Dead or absent parents.
Over the years, people have come up with extensive reasons as to why writers love removing parents from the lives of our heroes. Some say, parents are removed to make the main character a “child of the world,” meaning the hero is no longer obligated to a parent so they focus on serving the world instead — by saving it. Others say the lack of parents is a plot point that makes room for bigger adventures. After all, its hard to go on a life-changing, epic journey if your mom is calling you every five minutes to check in and tell you about her neighbor who borrowed the rake and won’t return it. Yet another camp speculates that heroes lose their parents to give them motivation as a character to find purpose and fulfillment after battling adversity.
There’s lots of possibilities as to why this trope has become so popular, not just in Western media, but across the globe. Chances are, the phenomenon is caused by a mixture of reasons — and we could spend forever discussing them. But, while we spend a great deal of time examining the causes of this phenomenon, we don’t spend nearly enough time discussing its effects.
I was 17 when my father died and it was one of those horrific situations that would make the perfect comic book origin story. The most common causes of death for men in my dad’s age group (early 50s) include: heart disease at 23%, cancer at 21.1%, unintentional injuries like car accidents at 12.6%, suicide at 5.9% and liver disease at 5.4%, according to the CDC.
My father’s death, however, fell into the last category at 1.4%. Murder.
To make matters even more painfully unusual, my father wasn’t killed during a street mugging or a drive-by shooting that he had nothing to do with. He was killed at the hands of his own son, my only sibling.
My older brother, Corey, was always a little different. He was born highly intelligent. He taught himself to read without any help, he always finished his assignments first in gradeschool, and he aced tests without trying. He was also very disobedient. He hated following rules, he was lazy, he was hyperactive when bored, and during highschool, he took a liking to smoking marijuana and skipping class. My parents had no idea what to do with him. On the one hand, he had an above average IQ and was a super sweet kid, but on the other, he just didn’t like doing what he needed to do on a regular basis. He had so much squandered potential.
Corey ended up with mediocre grades in highschool, but he got near perfect scores on his ACT’s and SAT’s so he still made it into a decent college with a full ride. He dropped out after a year and moved back home. After a few months living with the family again, he developed severe depression and started making suicide attempts. He had multiple stays in our local mental hospital and regularly attended therapy.
As therapists began to explore Corey’s mind, it became clear that he was showing early signs of Schizophrenia. He was hearing voices, visually hallucinating, had disorganized thoughts, and spent more time being introspective than engaging with the world around him in addition to his depression.
As a family, we all learned to revolve around Corey and his illness. We were a loving family. The type of family that gets compliments in restaurants for, “just looking so happy.” But at home, we became utter chaos. There were days where my parents seemed so frustrated that the tiniest upset could make them crumble. There were days that I woke up to shouting and crying. There were days where I visited Corey after school in the mental hospital and I took off all my metal objects and removed my shoelaces and anything else that could be used for self-harm before I could go in to see him. But there were good days too. We were still happy. We still played Jeopardy at the dinner table and drank tea together while reading the paper on Sunday mornings and watched movies like any other family.
That changed on May 2nd, 2013.
On the morning of May 2nd, I woke up and felt like it was any other day. I brushed my teeth, put makeup on, grabbed poptarts, and woke my brother up. I asked him to give me a ride to school and he agreed. We got in the car and he seemed particularly gloomy. It was gray outside. It looked like rain.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Today’s going to be a shitty day,” Corey said.
“It doesn’t have to be! It’s whatever you make of it!” I said. I got out of the car and went to class.
After school, I went to cross country practice, ran several miles and went home. I took a shower and as I was getting out, wrapped in a towel, my dad came in my room without knocking.
“Daddddd! Get outttt!” I shouted. He did. That was the last time I saw him alive.
About 20 minutes later, my mom came rushing into my room, yelling and out of breath.
“You need to run to the elementary school across the street! Your dad and Corey are over there yelling at each other so loud I can hear it through my closed bedroom window! Something is wrong!”
I jumped out of my chair, confused and discombobulated, and ran out of my bedroom door. My room was on the second floor of the house and I had just reached the top of the stairs when my brother came bursting through the front door of our house. My father was hot on his heels and they were shouting. I can’t remember what they were saying.
The two men went racing through the house, down a hallway, through the kitchen, and into the backyard. Corey grabbed the largest knife out of the butcher block in the kitchen on his way. I was nervous, but I wasn’t completely afraid. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. Corey had a particular fixation with knives and he had grabbed that same knife on a previous occasion when threatening to kill himself. Since the entire situation had already occurred, I knew exactly what to do.
My mom went to the backyard after the boys and I grabbed the landline phone in the kitchen. I dialed 911 and spoke as calmly as I could.
“I have a suicidal teenager at 503 Nighthawk Drive. I need an ambulance immediately. He’s trying to stab himself.” I said.
The 911 dispatcher began asking me customary questions about the situation. After about a minute or so, I heard a bloodcurdling scream. It was like the sound you hear when an animal is slaughtered. A guttural wail mixed with shrieks. Seconds later, Corey came into the kitchen through the backdoor.
Corey sauntered over to me with the large kitchen knife in his hand. It was dripping with blood. His eyes were blank, like his soul had briefly escaped his body. He shoved the knife in my face so it was inches from my nose.
“I just killed your fucking father,” he said.
He was gone moments later. He disappeared out the front door.
After spending several moments on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, I dropped the phone and ran outside after Corey. He was nowhere to be found. I knocked on my next-door-neighbor’s door. Our neighbor was a registered nurse and we needed someone to do CPR on my father. She wasn’t home. In a daze, I walked back to my house and stood by the mailbox. I just stood there. I’m not sure why I did, but I think it’s because, when we were little, my parents always told us that during an emergency like a housefire or something, the mailbox was the family meeting spot.
After a minute or two, my brother reappeared. He came around the street corner and started walking towards me. I wasn’t sure if he was going to kill me next or not. I looked at the ground and gently asked him not to hurt anyone else. Seconds later, the police arrived. Corey didn’t put up a fight. They cuffed him and took him away. My father left on stretcher and my mother and I went to the hospital as remaining police decorated our home with bright yellow caution tape. A crime scene.
They pumped several pints of blood into my father. They cracked his chest open and discovered that my brother had stabbed him so hard that the knife had went in one side of his heart and out of the other. It was beyond repair. He had died in less than 30 seconds.
Why did Corey do it? He was sick. Very sick. Corey was experiencing a schizophrenic episode. A voice in his head that he often referred to as, “the programmer” had told him to do terrible things. Corey hadn’t gone into that backyard with the intention of stabbing my father, but he thought that he needed to stab someone. According to the voices he heard, this act would heal him and make him normal.
My father couldn’t bear the thought of his beloved son going to jail for taking the life of some random innocent person. As they argued in the backyard, my father turned his back on Corey and raised his hands in the air. He told him:
“If you’re going to stab someone, stab me.”
Honestly, I think my dad never expected him to actually do it.
After the incident, Corey spent two years in jail awaiting a trial in which he was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental hospital for the criminally insane. My father was cremated and placed in a dark wooden box with diamonds carved into it. I started my journey to recovery from the most horrific day of my life. I went to therapy for two years, but I also had a lot of other things to focus on. My father had died less than a month before my high school graduation, so I only had a few months to recover before I left town and went to college at UNC Chapel Hill.
As I learned what it was like to live with loss and grief I became acutely aware of characters in our media who had lost their parents. Oddly enough, these heroes became…extremely frustrating to look at. The media is always flooding us with countless success stories for those who battle adverse situations. It creates a sort of odd pressure that so few people talk about outside of grief circles and internet forums.
A lot of people who lose parents or have to fight some other sort of battle feel like they are supposed to become heroes. We look at Harry Potter and Spiderman and Tom Sawyer and think about how they all become better people because of their trials and we start to wonder: When am I going to get over this thing already? When am I going to become the person who inspires everyone to grow and learn from their pasts and become a total badass? When am I going to become a hero?
My family circa 1998. Please excuse my dad’s glasses, but at least he wasn’t wearing a fanny pack for once.
I know that the creators of these characters have no intention of making the parent-less or others feel pressured to become great. Neither do the news channels mean to pressure us when they print/air countless stories about cancer survivors who became inspirations or rape survivors who became inspirations or poor people who achieved the American dream. We love to see these stories because they give us hope. But sometimes, when you’re in the darkest period of your life, you just aren’t ready for hope.
I’m not saying that after something terrible happens to you, you should just wallow around forever, but you may need to step away from the TV for awhile. And the newspaper, and the internet and books and comics. You have to be very careful. If you’re not, you may find yourself drowning in inspirational stories about heroes of every kind who fought the worst things that happened to them and became these seemingly perfect figures. And you might feel like you have some duty to yourself to become one of those figures.
The whole first year I was in therapy was completely wasted because I simply pretended everything was fine and that I was bigger than my adversity, and in the end, trying to be the hero made my life a lot harder. It completely stalled my healing process while my mother, who wallowed for months on end, faced her stages of grief head on and recovered.
In the end, I did begin my healing process, but it took me a long time to realize that all those hero stories are just stories. As a society, we love hearing good news, so that’s what we see all the time. But there’s plenty of people out there who I know are just like me. Something horrible happened to them and after that, they didn’t become a unicorn or learn to fly. They just learned how to pick themselves up and put themselves back together — and that’s what really matters.
So for those people out there who have experienced something that was just plain awful, I think it’s really important that you know this: You don’t have to become the hero of everybody’s story. You just need to be the hero of your own.