Take Off the Nostalgia Goggles or Suffer: 10 Important Mental Health Lessons from "F is for Family"

Lisa Martens

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Courtesy Netflix

F is for Family is set in the 1970s...a time in the United States many people are nostalgic for. However, the show clearly shows that things were not necessarily perfect back then, either. Repressed emotions, sexism, racism, and frustration run rampant through this slice of all-American life. Dangerous items like asbestos are unregulated, and children slip through the cracks in an imperfect public school system.

So what can we learn from Frank and the "F is For Family"crew?

1. Repressed emotions never go away.

Frank, the main character, has a lot of repressed emotions regarding his abusive father and his time spent fighting in Korea. He has also witnessed two coworkers die due to unsafe work conditions and an attempted hijacking.

Instead of confronting what he sees, he tells his son Bill what he always does—Shove it down (S:3; E:10).

Frank represses his emotions, and he's miserable for it. He's resentful of his family and dislikes his job. He doesn't have it in him to help his neighbors or be kind to his coworkers. When his wife needs emotional support in her career, Frank only becomes jealous that she is more successful than he is. His emotional range is flying between anger and depression, and he constantly sees himself as a victim in his own life.

He's too emotionally unaware to even recognize or care about the problems of other people—the racism his coworker Rosie experiences, his neighbor Vic's drug problem, and the strange stalker behavior of another neighbor, Goomer.

Frank's repressed emotions rob him of his capacity to experience joy. He thinks he's dealing with his feelings by pushing them down, but in reality, they poison his entire life.

2. It's possible to repeat your parent's mistakes.

Frank thinks he's doing a better job than his father, but he makes the same mistakes. He verbally abuses them, reminds them to be grateful that he clothes and feeds them, and threatens them with physical violence.

However, when he confronts his own father on these issues, he doesn't seem to see the parallel. Instead of threatening to shove his kids down a well, Frank states that he's different from his father because he threatens to shove them through a wall (S:4; E:1).

He doesn't admit to his son that his neglect almost caused him to drown. He doesn't hold himself accountable and makes excuses instead of apologizing, the same way his dad does. Frank embarasses his daughter while she's performing in a school play, just like his dad did to him.

We see this cycle of refusing to apologize and take responsibility creating a loop of destructive behavior. F is for Family warns us that if we do not examine ourselves, we may repeat the mistakes of our parents.

3. Anger is sometimes a signal of a deeper issue.

Many characters use anger to mask deeper feelings. Frank uses anger to mask his fear of vulnerability. Sue uses anger to mask her disappointment in herself and her life's direction, and her inner conflict regarding having children. The kids use anger similarly because they copy the behavior of their parents.

What we see is that when people are unable to express emotions like frustration, fear, disappointment, or uncertainty, they can be masked as anger and aggression.

4. Nostalgia goggles make the past look better than it was.

A key component of F is for Family is a confrontation of the nostalgia many Americans have for some bygone past. The show reminds us that in the 70s, sexism, racism, and corporate greed still ran rampant. People felt dissatisfied with their lives and stuck in cycles of poverty. TV shows were regularly very problematic and uses racist tropes and imagery.

When we romanticize and over-simplify the past, we can begin to think it was better than it was. We can start to think that the world is terrible now, but was perfect then. Even Frank's father is nostalgic for the town as it used to be. And what is Frank's father nostalgic for? Segregation and a time before the cure for polio, because he was making money selling iron lungs and crutches.

It's important to realize that the way we remember our childhoods or some bygone time may not be how it actually was. Nostalgia goggles make us long for a fantasy version of the past that may not have existed. If we are constantly pining for the past, we will suffer in the present.

5. Children understand (and are impacted by) more than we think they do.

Kevin Murphy remembers almost drowning when he was a child. Maureen recognizes that her parents resent marrying one another. Bill figures out that his grandfather is also abusive, even though he tries hard to seem like a perfect grandpa. Bill also regularly witnesses naked men, women, and sexual situations, often completely by accident, but he's horrified and disgusted by what he sees.

Throughout the show, we see that children are far more aware than they're usually given credit for. It's common for parents to assume their kids are "too young" to understand what is going on.

In fact, even children who are very young can be impacted by what is going on around them. Just because they don't understand exactly what is happening, does not mean they are not traumatized or afraid.

6. Society's expectations can damage a relationship and our ability to be honest.

Sue is expected to be a wife and mother, but she has aspirations outside of the home. She was a very accomplished scholar and athlete, and she expected to have a successful career. She has trouble expressing this frustration because she's supposed to be content with being a wife, in Frank's eyes.

When Frank is unemployed, however, he does not take on extra responsibilities in the home because he still thinks that's a job for his wife. Sue is working and trying to manage the household, and Frank slips into a depression. Sue is then expected to pull him out of the slump he's in. She is doing a lot of emotional labor for the entire family, and Frank's disappointment in himself prevents him from being honest about what he is experiencing and feeling. He feels like "less of a man" but instead of talking it through, he stops bathing and day drinks.

7. It's not helpful to compare pain or trauma.

When Susan is attending her baby shower, Frank, his father-in-law, and a few neighbor's are drinking at the Murphy house. They get into a competition over "who had the worst father." Goomer says, "Now it's a party!" (S:4;E:4).

They all take turns describing how their fathers tortured and abused them, all while laughing. Them trying to outdo one another is the closest to therapy the men get.

Is it somewhat cathartic for them to talk? Maybe. And maybe, for them, this pain contest is the only socially acceptable way for them to express their feelings.

However, it's actually not helpful to see pain or trauma in this light. When we try to compare our pain, we may make people feel like they have not "earned" the right to be traumatized. We may tell people that they didn't "have it bad enough" to feel hurt and suffering.

The truth is, all of these men were treated poorly by their fathers. Their feelings are all valid. But instead of taking the step to realize their parents all made mistakes, they turn it into a "bad dad contest."

What does the winner get, exactly?

8. Positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement.

Kevin Murphy is the eldest Murphy child. He seems reasonably intelligent but is constantly failing school. He wants to make music and thinks school is a waste of time. He sometimes applies himself, but usually, he just gets into trouble.

This starts to change when Kevin meets a girl his age who tells him that he is smart and creative. She gives him a book to read, and praises him when he finishes. As a result of this positive reinforcement, Kevin begins to believe in himself. He starts to do better in school, and he also creates happier music, something he was previously unable to do.

9. Gaslighting erodes a person's self-esteem.

The show is absolutely filled with gaslighting. Characters often diminish the pain of other people and refuse to validate their experiences. Parents refuse to apologize, children run from their responsibilities, and authority figures are openly sexist and racist. Over time, we see how this gaslighting frustrates and infuriates people. It diminishes their abilitity to feel in control and empowered.

No one's experiences are validated, and so they are trapped wondering if they are really experiencing what they are experiencing. This self-doubt plagues their entire existence.

10. Untreated PTSD impacts entire lives and communities.

Chet and Frank seem to have PTSD from their experiences in war. Chet definitely seems to have trauma issues stemming from childhood. He is manipulative, and seems to think even the neighborhood is a war zone. Mentally, he's still in the war, and everyone is either a friend or an enemy. He turned on Frank because Frank says he does not want to cheat on his wife. To Chet, this is an attack on his personality, since he doesn't seem to have a problem cheating on his wife. Because of Frank's simple choice, Chet wages an all-out war on the Murphy family. He gets them in trouble with the town, works at Frank's job so he has to see him every day, and insults Sue a number of times.

Chet seems unable to live in one place and maintain healthy relationships. Eventually, his abused wife poisons him and kills him. She ends up in jail for her crimes.

Chet's untreated PTSD impacted his life and the lives of everyone around him. His inability to leave the war zone ruined his life and his potential to be happy with a partner. He caused pain to his neighbors and eventually died all alone.

Could his life had been different if he sought help? We will never know.

There are many hidden messages in this show that takes place about 40 years ago. We are brought back to a time many Americans pine for. However, when we look at the way people treated one another, we may be surprised to see that this show reveals so much about mental health in America.

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