A Quiet Place Is a Parable About Family

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A Quiet Place is a family movie. We’re hearing that it’s a post-apocalyptic horror movie, and it’s really effective at being that, but it’s real power–and its potential for staying power–is parabolic. It’s a taut depiction of the challenges families face, and even more so the unique journeys of individuals within families. Whether you’re a son or a daughter or a mother, father, brother or sister, A Quiet Place might have something to say to you.

Plot summaries and full reviews are plentiful elsewhere, so I just want to articulate a few (spoiler-filled!) reflections on what A Quiet Place has to say about families, especially about traditional family roles, the strength of mothers, and how we treat our most vulnerable children.

It’s surprising initially how much the husband and wife in the film, played by director John Krasinski and his real-life spouse Emily Blunt, fall into traditional male-female roles. From the very opening sequence, the film establishes that the father is a protector and provider, while the mother is a nurturer and caretaker. We don’t yet know a lot about what this family of five is going through, but we know they’re in a post-apocalyptic landscape, fending for themselves. They may be the only family on earth — or even a first family of a new earth, which reinforces the symbolic weight of each of their roles.

The husband/father, Lee, is almost a paragon of manliness. He reminded me of Michael Landon in Little House on the Prairie. Rugged, handsome. Tender toward wife and kids. He’s something of a scientist, but also something of a farmer. A skilled hunter-gatherer. A strategic thinker. It’s amazing how little of this comes off as corny or over-done — even his beard and broad shoulders are idealized types. But again, this is a parable, and parables work in types.

Meanwhile, the wife/mother, Evelyn (note the first three letters of her name), also falls into a traditional role. She cooks, she cleans. In a pivotal scene, when Lee goes off with his son to do some hunting-gathering, Evelyn stays behind with her daughter. (They are now a family of only four.) We see Lee teaching his son to trap and kill; we see Evelyn pinning shirts to the clothesline.

So the film had me thinking: Is it really embracing these old-school gender stereotypes?

But by the end of the film, much of this is upended. Not contradicted, but rather extended and complicated. The father remains heroic, even as he reaches the final limits of what he can do for his family. But the mother emerges much more fully by the final frame.

Indeed, a huge portion of the third act is devoted to Evelyn and to depicting her struggle and her strength. Again, she’s been left behind, and it becomes clear why the film arranged to leave her alone. It’s not only to ratchet up the tension when the monster inevitably terrorizes individual family members, one at a time. It’s also because it’s crucial for us to experience Evelyn in her solitude.

Things work differently for different families, of course, but for so many mothers, the experience of motherhood involves considerable loneliness. Much of the work of mothering happens alone. Perhaps there’s pleasure in this solitude; there’s also undoubtedly pain in it. At one point, we see Evelyn sitting alone in a room, reflecting on the loss of her son and weeping. We’ve not seen her mourn before now, when everyone else is around—her agony is private.

Later, Evelyn goes into labor, and she has to fend for herself and her new baby against the monster. (Emily Blunt is always good, but her performance in this sequence is  stunning.) Labor pangs start right as the monster is on the prowl. Because the one rule with this monster is that you can’t make a sound, she has to endure the suffering of childbirth in absolute quiet. She’s also injured her foot and is bleeding profusely. Evelyn has to suffer some of the worst pain a body can suffer–all without making a peep. And she does it, with an awesome display of determination and power.

Watching her wore me out.

Because so much screen time is invested in depicting her strength, the finale makes sense. In the last moment, she cocks her gun to take on the coming monsters, and we do not doubt that she has the power to protect her children and survive.

Finally, there is the daughter, who is deaf and who is the center of this story. (The wonderful actor who plays her, Millicent Simmonds, is deaf, too. Much of the dialogue in the film occurs through American Sign Language.) This movie has a lot to say about how we regard our disabled children — how we care for them, and how much we have to learn from them, and how ultimately, in the end, they might save us.

Go to see a well-made horror flick. That’s what I did. But unlike a lot of horror films, there’s not much sinister here. On the contrary, there’s a benevolent parable about people who find themselves in families, and what people in families can do for each other.

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Things I Am Learning About Grief

It’s been nearly 4 weeks since my mother died. The hardest question to answer is the one everyone keeps asking: “How are you doing?” I do not know how I am doing, exactly, but I am starting to learn. I am beginning to understand a few things about grief, and it’s helping me know what to expect on the road ahead.

1. Grief is a time machine.

Every few days, what everyone calls “a wave of grief” will crash over me. When it does, and when the tears come, a familiar feeling accompanies them: I’m a little boy left behind at the store, or lost in the woods, afraid that I’ll never see my mom again. I knew that feeling a time or three as a child, that momentary terror, that gasp of I am alone. The grief resurrects those moments, transports me to that feeling I had at 10 or 12 years old. I suppose my brain is summoning up something it can recognize, something it can pin these pangs to: my childhood self, afraid that he’s been left alone for good.

2. Grief is a mansion, not a room.

Things get worse before they get better. This surprised me. I thought the biggest pains would be immediate—watching her die, the torture of a funeral, the first few days without her voice. It turns out those pains were precursors. They were pointed and time-sensitive; they belonged to the events of her passing. Now a new pain has developed, the pain of permanent loss. Every day brings a fresh set of reminders that she’s not here. She can’t get on the phone when I need her after a hard day or before a tough meeting at work. She can’t receive the text with the photo of Bel goofing or Henry at baseball or Lou on roller-skates or tonight’s dinner prep. My reflex is to reach out to her, and now the reflex is no good.

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The grief is a not a new room I’ve entered; it’s an entire mansion. Every few days, I stumble down another corridor. There’s more to explore. I hope to map it all soon, have it sized up, but I am coming to accept that this will take some time.

3. Grief is hard on the body.

It is the plug coming out of the drain. It is the slow leak of a tire. I feel as though I’ve taken lethargy pills. Things in my life don’t matter any less to me now; I’m not despondent or despairing. It’s just that I feel like I’m taking in less oxygen—all action is taxing. Writing this short reflection is hard, every sentence a struggle. I started to google “chronic fatigue syndrome” the other day, thinking something else must be going on with me. I did an inventory of what I’m eating, how much sleep I’m getting, how much exercise. But no, it’s just the loss. Grief is a deep dive, and it’s taking a while to reach the surface. Soon, I hope, I will breathe normal again.

4. Grief is not sadness.

I have whole portions of days where I don’t feel sad at all. I know this essay is sad. I should probably put a picture of Eeyore at the top. But I would not have known before now that grief is a foundation for emotions of all kinds, including joy: sometimes missing her makes me remember her goodness, her gifts, the ways she’s loving me still. I tell stories about her and smile. My kids quote one of her funny phrases and we laugh. This, too, is grief.

Sadness comes and goes. Grief is a constant companion.

5. Grief can make you inconsolable.

That word means something fresh to me now: inconsolable. I’m not without consolation overall. Lord knows I have been given comfort in spades, and I’m grateful for it. My wife, Michaela, is a wonder. My sister, Kaysie, is a saint. My kids and Kaysie’s kids and our extended families and our friends and on and on—we can turn in so many directions for comfort. We have especially the comfort of the memory of our mother, Dawn, who was as good a person and guide to this life as we could have ever hoped for, and we’ll be following her lead for years to come.

Still — at times, when the wave crashes, for a few moments, or sometimes for hours, the pain is a wound that has no salve. There’s no hug, no words, no prayers that can bring it to a close. It just is, and it stays that way for a while. You just have to breathe, and wait, and move your body around a little. Eat and drink. Eventually the pain lifts. The comforts settle back in, and you give thanks and keep going.

Okay, that’s all for now. I may add to this list over time.

Lil’ ole me

another smiling My most recent book is The Prayer Wheel, a historical devotional co-authored with the religion journalists Jana Riess and David van Biema. Over the years, I’ve published essays, profiles, news reports, Q&As, and books and movie reviews — plus occasional blog posts and listicles. My work has appeared in a range of publications including the Wall Street JournalWashington Post, CNN.com, NewsweekFinancial Times, SlateChristianity TodayKilling the BuddhaBooks and Culture, Patheos, and The Shambhala Sun. Not all of my pieces are listed on this site, but some of my favorites are listed under “Some Things I’ve Written.”

Most of my writing is about religion and something. I have a Ph.D. from Boston University in religion and literature, and my main interests have been with the intersection of religion and the movies, or sports, or politics, or novels. For my dissertation, I studied the relationship between Hollywood and contemporary Christianity by looking for Christian villains in film. (There were a lot of them).

I’ve published a memoir, My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion. I also wrote an ebook, The Tebow Mystique. I tweet, but mostly I read.

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