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We Need to Talk About Bruno: What Encanto Tells Us About Intergenerational Trauma

Maribel and Bruno

Verywell / Ellen Lindner / Walt Disney Studios

Mind in the Media is an ongoing series discussing mental health and psychological topics in popular movies and television

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the movie Encanto, available on Disney+.

The Madrigal family of the Disney animated film Encanto lives in a beautiful hidden village in Colombia, where a miracle imbues members of the family with a magical gift—from super-strength to the ability to heal to shapeshifting—that they use to help their community.

Yet, while each member of the family does their best to live up to the Madrigals' esteemed reputation, cracks are starting to show—literally—in the house all three generations share.

The movie and its memorable soundtrack are popular with people of all ages, especially the song "We Don't Talk About Bruno," a catchy ditty that also emphasizes the family's collective antipathy toward family member Bruno (John Leguizamo), whose gift is the power to see into the future.

There's a lot to love about Encanto, including its gorgeous animation, appealing characters, and engaging story, but that story also gets at something many people will find profoundly relatable: the pain and confusion of intergenerational trauma.

That's because although Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), the family matriarch, tells a polished tale about the miracle that led the Madrigals to the village where they currently reside, what she doesn't emphasize is the traumatic reason they ended up there in the first place.

Armed soldiers attacked Alma and her husband Pedro's home village, forcing the couple to flee from the violence with their baby triplets. When the attackers chased them, Pedro tried to hold them off and was killed right in front of his wife. It was then that the candle Alma held magically defended her and led her to their new village.

So although Abuela focuses on the miracle that kept her and the triplets alive, that magic arose from deep pain, a pain so deep that it's impacted each member of the Madrigal clan, even if they don't know exactly how or why.

This trauma lurking in the background makes Encanto's multigenerational story the perfect lens through which to understand and explore intergenerational trauma, including what it is, how people cope with it, and what can be done to heal.

"The Family Madrigal": What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Intergenerational trauma, which is also referred to as transgenerational trauma or multigenerational trauma, is when the effects of a trauma are passed from one generation to the next. As marriage and family therapist Janay Holland, PhD, MFT puts it "what happens to one person in the [family] system affects the whole system."

For example, in Encanto, Abuela Alma was traumatized when she was violently displaced from her home and lost her husband. And although the third generation of the family, including the movie's protagonist, 15-year-old Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), didn't directly experience that trauma, they are still impacted by it because Abuela Alma has passed down a set of expectations and ways of coping with problems that dictate and constrain the way the family members respond to problems in their own lives. This has caused them to experience mental health issues such as anxiety, perfectionism, and fear of rejection.

Ling Lam, PhD, Lecturer in Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University notes that the roots of intergenerational trauma fall into three categories:

  • Group level traumas, such as genocide, war, forced displacement, or racial or gender discrimination.
  • Interpersonal level traumas, such as intimate partner violence or child abuse or neglect
  • Personal level traumas, such as substance abuse or a life-changing accident.

"We Don't Talk About Bruno": How Is Intergenerational Trauma Different From Other Kinds of Trauma?

Of course, in addition to intergenerational trauma, people often experience personal traumatic events, so it can be difficult to distinguish one kind of trauma from another. As Lam explains, "There are many rivers that flow into the reservoir of trauma."

Yet, both Lam and Holland say that tracing a family's patterns of behavior can help uncover intergenerational trauma. For example, a history of substance abuse in generation after generation may speak to intergenerational trauma. And in Encanto, it can be seen in the way Mirabel puts a positive spin on the fact that she was denied a magical gift, as it mirrors the way Abuela puts a positive spin on what led the Madrigals to their village, even though internally both characters are grieving the losses they've suffered.

Ling Lam, PhD

There are many rivers that flow into the reservoir of trauma.

— Ling Lam, PhD

To uncover intergenerational trauma in his therapy practice, Lam has the individual or family he is working with create a coherent narrative that encompasses the whole family system, at least as much as possible. This reveals family patterns and repeated dynamics across generations that help contextualize how one generation has impacted the next.

"Surface Pressure": How People Cope With Intergenerational Trauma

Lam outlines four ways that people respond to trauma, whether it's intergenerational or another kind. Many of these trauma responses are reflected in Encanto.

Self-blame

Self-blame is reflected in feelings of shame or unworthiness. Someone feeling self-blame may believe it's not possible for anyone to love them or that they're not good enough.

In Encanto, this is something Mirabel's sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) expresses in the song "Surface Pressure." Luisa's power is super-strength and she takes on any task the community throws at her. However, the weight of doing so much has resulted in her experiencing anxiety.

Nonetheless she still does everything requested of her because, as she says in the song, "I'm pretty sure I'm worthless if I can't be of service." In other words, her identity is so tied to her ability to help the community that she would blame herself if she could no longer do so.

Denial

Denial happens when an individual refuses to acknowledge the traumas of the past, instead claiming that everything is fine and the past is safely in the past.

In Encanto, both Abuela and Mirabel demonstrate denial by refusing to acknowledge their personal traumatic experiences. In fact, when Mirabel insists to the village children that even without a gift she's as special as the rest of her family, one of the kids responds, "Maybe your gift is being in denial."

It's a funny line, but it also points to the fact that Mirabel has pushed her trauma into the shadows, and while this helps her maintain a sense of hope to some degree, it also prevents her from resolving her trauma.

Attack others

This happens when people direct the feelings brought up by trauma outwards by expressing anger towards others. Sometimes these individuals can become emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive.

In Encanto, Abuela's interactions with Mirabel can be seen as examples of this. By dismissing Mirabel because she lacks a gift, Abuela subtly isolates Mirabel and communicates that she is not as important or valuable as the other family members.

Then, as the movie goes on it becomes clear that Abuela feels that Mirabel's lack of a gift makes her a danger to the magical perfection the family usually projects. This eventually leads her to verbally attack Mirabel for every negative thing that’s ever happened to the family.

In this case, the magic that Abuela is trying so hard to protect could be seen as a metaphor for the idea that the facade of a happy, loving family may be disrupted if one family member sheds light on something in the family system that is problematic, such as the negative impacts of poverty, an inability to ask for help when it's needed, or a pattern of mental health issues like anxiety or depression.

Withdrawal

Withdrawal happens when an individual retreats from life because they don't feel safe. They may no longer be willing to go to social functions or may even feel unsafe going to the grocery store, but either way their desire to avoid being hurt limits their lives.

In Encanto, this can be seen through Bruno's reaction to his circumstances. Although we know from the song "We Don't Talk About Bruno" that his family and community disliked him because his gift led him to tell truths they didn't want to hear, for Bruno this experience was highly traumatic and made him feel like he didn't fit into the family.

So when he saw a vision of Mirabel that indicated she could be responsible for breaking the magic that powers the Madrigals, he disappeared. While the family believed he abandoned them, in reality he has been living in the walls of the Madrigals' house, withdrawing from life for fear of what his vision could mean both for Mirabel and himself.

Holland cautions that, although these responses may be psychologically unhealthy, they should be understood as coping mechanisms that individuals who have experienced trauma employ so they can keep moving forward with their lives.

"What Else Can I Do?": What Can Be Done To Heal Intergenerational Trauma?

Encanto's Madrigal family heals their intergenerational trauma by repairing their home and finally acknowledging and discussing their problems. Unfortunately, real life is not as simple as a movie, and the path to healing, in reality, isn't quite as straightforward.

The first step for anyone experiencing mental health issues that they believe are related to intergenerational trauma is to see a therapist or mental health counselor.

Of course, since intergenerational trauma impacts the family as a whole, it can be especially helpful to seek out therapy with as many members of the family as possible as it can present a fuller picture of the issues that have manifested themselves across generations.

Janay Holland, PhD, MFT

What happens to one person in the [family] system affects the whole system.

— Janay Holland, PhD, MFT

Holland and Lam agree that this can lead to healing throughout the family system; however even if the whole family isn't willing to come to therapy, an individual can still heal from intergenerational trauma by attending therapy on their own.

Lam and Holland agree that although talk therapy can be helpful, it's not the only thing that will enable someone to heal. "People can talk about what happened in a way that's dissociated," Lam observes, "but they are not feeling the experiences. [As a result,] talking itself is insufficient." Lam emphasizes the value of a holistic approach to healing that can include cognitive therapy, self-compassion work, yoga, and mindfulness meditation.

Meanwhile, Holland points out that even if an individual isn't aware of the roots of the intergenerational trauma they're experiencing, bringing about change can happen by reframing and refocusing events and responses that an individual can control.

Moreover, even if only one member of a family seeks out therapy, Lam and Holland reveal that it can still have a positive impact on the family in general because when one individual starts to change it forces the family to adjust around them. "When I start working with an individual, they start changing… and their family starts to see that and [get] curious…," Holland explains. "…the coping mechanisms that my client is using [are] spread then to the family…"

In Encanto, Mirabel's insistence on seeking out Bruno and talking about the cracks in the family eventually cause the rest of the Madrigals to examine their own issues. This enables them to deal with the impact of intergenerational trauma and move forward as a happier, more accepting, and more functional family system.

While the path may not be as smooth in real life, the ability to talk about intergenerational trauma and work toward change can bring about healing in both the individual and the family as a whole.  

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