This isn’t a movie review. It’s my take on Elvis’s man story as revealed in the new biopic which I watched this week.
Although Elvis’ life played out on an epic scale, the story was quite the opposite, a difficult family entanglement that Elvis wasn’t able to free himself from. It sheds light on how, beneath the glitz and glam, there’s always a more personal story. We can live this story, or as I think happened for Elvis, it can live us.
Elvis was the star in the family. His father Vernon was weak and ineffectual and Mom didn’t have eyes for him. She had eyes for Elvis. He was always the King. He wasn’t free to be a kid protected by two adults. Rather he was conscripted as the confidante and rescuer of his mother and the rival of his father. It doesn’t appear he ever outgrew that.
This isn’t a story we’re familiar with. So much so that most people have never heard of emotional incest, the name in the scanty literature for the situation in which a parent treats the child with the feelings and care owed a lover. Emotional incest is more associated with women, just as sexual incest is more associated with men.
In one scene in which the dynamic shows up Elvis, on the brink of mega-stardom, enters his mother’s bedroom to find her crying; she’s afraid of being left behind. Elvis takes her face in his hands, looks in her eyes and says she’s his “bestest” and always will be. He hugs her from behind and their two faces look into the mirror together. In another scene that takes place not many years later, Mom has just died from alcohol abuse. We see Elvis is on the floor in her closet, tearfully smelling and holding on to her garments in his grief.
As we all do, Elvis first learned what love is from his parents and his case the important boundary between adult intimacy and childhood protection was breached. This transgression has serious repercussions. One may be born into it, for example when the child is used as a buffer to keep the spouse away.
Elvis was conscripted into a role as consort and couldn’t get out. Much of the movie is Elvis eliciting extreme female adulation, unable to give it up even as his family and his health fall apart.
Elvis’ effect on women is the key emotional – and physical – trope of the movie, and it’s repeated again and again. You think he’s been knocked out but, as we can see by the captivation of his audience, he triumphs again and again. The women love him and he loves them.
You can check out a video to get a taste.
Men respond differently. Some young musicians want to emulate him; Hank Snow is shown to be a fuddy-duddy who can’t compete. His manager Colonel Parker is the perpetrator in the movie – not the family situation. His nickname is “The Snowman” and we see him snowing the heck out of Elvis to feed his lust for money. Parker sets up Elvis’ father Vernon the father with fake prestige and makes him a “useful idiot” in his scam.
So the movie shows the results of what happened to Elvis in all its lurid glory. It cares much less about the cause, or maybe about Elvis too. That’s just not the point of the movie. And of course it wouldn’t be the blockbuster it is if it were the point. The audience is invited to glory in the sexual display and to cheer for Elvis as he pulls the charisma out of his hat yet one more time. Such charisma itself may be related to a rampant sexual energy that doesn’t know how to be contained.
When the father isn’t respected or is perceived as an unworthy mate, the temptation for the mother to have the boy take the man’s place is always there. It’s easy, and there’s little risk as we’ve little collective social awareness that the situation exists, let alone that, as I believe, it’s very common. It looks loving and good when a young man adores his mother. “Awww” is a common reaction. The reality is that when the adult child boundary around intimate feelings aren’t respected, the effects for the child – AND the mother, and the father, and the whole family are severe. This is a relational problem, not an individual sin.
Men have a part in this too, a big one. We’re co-responsible for maintaining the healthy connection and boundaries that is the family foundation. Women who aren’t in a trusting relationship with a man when children come struggle to feel safe and secure themselves. This affects the children’s secure attachment and the troubles continue.
Part of the setting for this is the widespread denigration of men and fathers that erupted in the 60s and took firm root in western culture. Respect between the sexes has degenerated since. It’s a long way back and it will need men and women of goodwill to rebuild the trust.