Saturday, October 10, 2015

Parentified Children and Phryne Fisher

Chris and I have been enjoying Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix lately. We adore Phryne Fisher, the smart, sassy, fierce, curious, capable, and self-assured lady detective. She's everything I want to be. And damn sexy to boot!

Miss Fisher with her ward, Jane

We were unwinding with glasses of wine in front of the television the other night, my head resting on Chris's lap. When the tears began to spill silently down my face, he didn't need me to explain; he'd seen it, too.

Jane, an at-risk girl being fostered by our heroine, had gone to visit her recently-surfaced birth mother.

Jane's mother wants to be loving and nurturing. They cuddle and read a story, she bakes Jane a cake. After years of neglect, this attention . But we soon see that Jane's mother is too needy to look after herself, let alone her daughter. Fearful to the point of paranoia, she ends up trying to jump from the building, endangering Jane who valiantly keeps her head and protects her mother until help arrives.

Miss Fisher takes her exhausted protégé's face between her hands. "You're safe now," she assures.

Supported once more by sane and capable adults, Jane allows herself to break down.

"She wouldn't listen to me! I tried," she tells Phryne, tearfully. But quickly, in her mom's defense, "She's not mean. She just needs me."

Of course our heroine takes both Jane and her mother home, where she is able to show Jane that other adults can assist with her mother's care. Jane, knowing her mother's inability to care for herself, is afraid of her mother being hurt.

But Phryne knows that a child ought not be saddled with responsibility for a parent's health or safety.
"We'll find someplace where she's happy."

And Jane trusts her to make good on that promise.

* * *

I sniffled through the entire scene because deep inside, my younger self identified with Jane. I understand what it is to feel needed by a fearful mother. To feel endangered by her paranoia. To feel both helpless yet responsible for the well-being of one's primary caregiver.

In what therapist and author Pete Walker calls "a tragic role reversal", the abused or neglected child may become "as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can". This can become such a habit that "hints of danger soon immediately trigger...abdication of rights and needs."

Since recognizing this pattern in my own behavior last year, I've been working to relearn healthier relationship skills. It's not as easy as flipping a switch, and often feels like trial-and-error, but I'm making progress! That night, we both knew the tears were one more piece of the restorative grieving process.
"Grieving ... tends to unlock healthy anger about a life lived with such a diminished sense of self. This anger can then be worked into recovering a healthy fight-response that is the basis of the instinct of self-protection, of balanced assertiveness, and of the courage that will be needed in the journey of creating relationships based on equality and fairness."  --Pete Walker

As we get to know Phryne Fisher throughout the season, we realize that she also identifies with Jane. Beneath her confident exterior, she also carries a traumatized little girl with an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Her ability to nurture Jane grows out of her need to assure and comfort her younger self.

We turned on the TV expecting to be entertained, but we got so much more. Thank you, Miss Fisher, for modeling the way adults should care for the children in their lives, for one another, and for themselves.


  1. Enmeshment (a.k.a. emotional incest, when adults inappropriately use children to meet emotional needs) is closely related to parentification of children. When parents are unable or unwilling to act like parents, they violate an important boundary, and the child always suffers.