Cycles of abuse must be addressed through therapy. Every family member must admit their part in the problem and modify behavior accordingly. If not, the next generation will be brought up in dysfunction. This is true even if the once abused child grows up and goes to the opposite of the spectrum. In this case that means failing to provide any discipline. That is meaning behind Terror in the Family, a 1996 made for television drama. However, the execution—particularly the ending—shows a lack of realism and intimate familiarity with the subject matter. Furthermore, an unexpected element comes into play… one that is apparently not intended. Mother Cynthia Marten goes beyond trying to be friend instead of an authority figure to her daughter. The mother-daughter relationship becomes emotional incest and attributes to the daughter’s violent rages against the mother.
Writer and director Gregory Goodell provides a predictable script, slow moving and overdone with repetition. Over half of the 86 minute movie could have been cut. The cast consists of two once known sitcom parents: Joanna Kerns from Growing Pains as the mother, Cynthia Marten, and Dan Lauria as Todd Marten, the father. Additionally, there is up and coming Hillary Swank—long before she won two Oscars, another forty two awards and nineteen nominations—playing the troubled daughter Deena Marten.
Cynthia’s alcoholism—day-long wine sipping in front of her family—combined with father Todd’s emotional absenteeism is a recipe for problems. Deena skips school to have sex with her boyfriend and manipulates her little brother into forging school excuses for her. That seems to be the only time Deena interacts with her brother. She becomes physically abusive to her mother. Cynthia dismisses the abuse as accidental. Of course the flaws in the family also cause problems for the other child, Adam Marten. Thirteen-year-old Adam is a drinker. Todd hides this from Cynthia, claiming that being upset about it would make her drink more. Secret keeping, excuse making, and deception are habitual in the family.
Deena and Adam’s generation is not breaking new ground in the dysfunction department. No mention is made of the father’s family of origin. However, Cynthia’s mother is a physically abusive alcoholic.
Emotional incest is well established in this movie, although never named or treated as a problem. Deena is emotionally (not verbally or physically) abused by her mother Cynthia through emotional incest. During the entire movie Cynthia runs around dazed, weepy, and needy. There is no mention of Cynthia having a job, adult friends or any life outside the home. The family seems to draw straws as to who has to be the one to comfort Mom. Emotional incest is when a child is used by a parent to fulfill his or her own emotional needs, rendering the child into a “surrogate spouse.” The child is made to feel responsible for the well-being of the parent. In Terror in the Family both children are encouraged by their father to make their mother feel better, even if it involves being insincere out of a sense of obligation. This is Todd’s way of shifting the buck so he can indulge his escapist hobby of bowl making in solitude. Another major red flag for emotional incest is Cynthia telling Deena privileged information. Deena is told that her father wanted to abort her in utero and PG-13 details of her parents’ dating.
An area that should have been developed further is the relationship between Cynthia and her sister, Judith (played by Kathleen Wilhoite). It is mentioned passing how Cynthia resents Judith because of their childhood. Even in her youth Cynthia has been a caregiver to their mean, self-centered, abusive mother who has a tremendous feeling of entitlement. Caregiving is for her non-infirmed mother something that Cynthia continues to do, often dragging her own children along. Cynthia assumes that taking on that role and not having a life outside the home—including friends—has freed up Judith to socialize. Judith has been through therapy and no longer has much, if any contact, with their mother. Resentment like that is often a very instrumental underlying factor in the relationship between adult sisters. With divergent paths like that it is unlikely that there will be a bow-tied happy ending between these sisters.
A completely unrealistic element of the script involves Deena, 15, and her trouble-making boyfriend, 17, Garret. If a teenager is prone to violence against an adult authority figure why wouldn’t she scream and perhaps become violent when catching her boyfriend being unfaithful? Why would a child that has been the center of her mother’s attention since birth and who has held her family emotionally hostage with her tantrums just decide to make it a priority to sacrifice her relationship with her boyfriend to support her father? If their relationship is as consuming as portrayed it is not realistic that the love struck teenagers would just have a conversation and walk away from it all… especially when Garret is on the verge of hitting Deena.
Viewing and reflecting on Terror in the Family could prompt viewers to consider their own life experiences as well as those of others. Happy endings take work-except occasionally on the television screen. It emphasizes that anger and violent behavior can come from deep in the subconscious… even when there is an obvious factor such as parental alcoholism and/ or an emotionally absent parentage. This film unwittingly reinforces the belief that emotional incest is not given the amount of credit that it is due for causing anger and rebellion in teenagers, amongst other maladaptive behaviors and negative coping skills.
In conclusion, this movie receives a 2 out of five star rating. It is somewhat recommended for those who watch Lifetime movies and see it coming on during a lazy Sunday afternoon. Renting it from the library for free would be a stretch. Buying it would just add to clutter.