Saturday, September 17, 2011

How Buffy and Joss Whedon Helped Me Understand My Mother

When I turned 21, I got my ears pierced.  Most of my friends had pierced theirs in high school or even grade school.  When I came home, my mother – who was 42 years older than me and grew up in a different time – frowned and said, “Only cheap women pierce their ears.” 

For much of my life, I believed the difficulties my mother and I had relating to one another were due to the over forty-year age difference between us.  Most of my friends had grandparents who were my parents’ ages.  Now I feel like our disconnect was less that the world changed so much during the those forty-plus years, and more my difficulty seeing my mother as a anyone other than a mother, and my mother’s trouble seeing me as anyone other than her daughter.
Joss Whedon helped me with that, and I will always be grateful to him.  First, his shows revolve around the family we choose being as important and as nurturing, if not more so, than the family to whom we belong by birth.  Buffy, Giles, Willow, Xander, all choose to bond and be there for one another literally to the death.  Same for Angel’s friends and the crew of Serenity.  Giles is more of a father to Buffy than her father was, at least during the time period that we see her.
I found this reassuring.  Our culture still tends to equate family values with only one type of family – mom, dad, children.  Joss’s shows told me I am not the only one who sometimes feels out of place within my given family, who might rather be with my friends than at the relatives’ Thanksgiving Day.  (“That’s nice that you opened your own law firm, dear.  Did you hear Susie married a millionaire?  Maybe someday you’ll meet someone like him.”)  So instead of trying get my parents to be different types of people, and vice versa, why not seek out the support and friendship I hoped for through other friends and mentors? 
At the same time, Joss helped me appreciate the family I had.  I was in my late twenties when Buffy came on the air, probably closer to the age of Joyce – Buffy’s mother – than to Buffy.  Sometimes Joyce had no idea what was going on in Buffy’s life or heart.  And sometimes Joyce said exactly the wrong thing to Buffy (for instance, that Buffy’s thing, whatever it was, got her kicked out of school, or that she wanted a normal daughter and what she got was a slayer).  Yet, I felt certain Joyce loved Buffy with all her heart.

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Even Giles works against Buffy at times.  In Season 7, he keeps Buffy busy training while another of Buffy’s supposed allies is trying to kill her one-time lover and strongest ally Spike.  In another episode of the same season, Giles joins with Buffy’s other friends in undermining her role as leader and banishing her from her own home.  Buffy makes her own mistakes through the show, including taking Giles for granted and pushing him to the edges of her life, and ignoring his (good) advice.  Nonetheless, they love each other.
At the end of Season 2, Joyce tells Buffy if she walks out the door, not to come back.  Buffy leaves because she needs to save the world.  And Buffy takes Joyce at her word, boarding a bus out of town and not returning for many months.  On her return, to justify running away, Buffy says that Joyce told her not to come back.  And Joyce says, “Well, guess what, Mom’s not perfect.  I handled it badly.” 
That moment resonated with me.  My mother and I had a falling out when I was in my twenties, mainly over my religious views, or lack thereof, that lasted years.  I couldn’t understand how my mother’s religious views could be more important to her than me.  Perhaps she felt the same about me.
A decade later and about twelve years before my mother died, I watched Joyce and Buffy and it hit me that my mother, like Joyce and like me, was a person, not just a mother.  A women with her own fears, doubts, issues and flaws.  Someone who might say or do something out of anger or fear or self-doubt and regret it later.
I explore these themes in my own writing.  How parents and children react to one other when their convictions and their missions in life conflict.  What happens when we just can’t accept what someone we love says or the path that person takes, no matter how much we want to support that person.
Joss Whedon didn’t give me the answers to how to handle these types of conflicts, or provide the perfect recipe for family relationships.  But he did give me characters I admire who meant to act for the best and sometimes didn’t, who didn’t want to hurt one another and sometimes did, and who loved one another and were good people for all of that.
So, Joss, if I knew you, I would say thank you.  Thank you for helping me feel that choosing my circle of family meant just as much as anyone else’s traditional family.  And for helping see my mom, before her death, as a whole person, not solely my mother.  And, finally, for helping me realize that just because someone who loves me is not perfect or cannot always meet me half way – and just because I disappoint someone by who I am or what I do – does not mean the love is any less.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her emaillist.


  1. Really great read! I feel that I understand my mother better because of Buffy but I just wish that she understood me.

  2. This is a very insightful post. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  3. This was a very insightful blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  4. Great post Lisa! Very insightful.

  5. Lovely, touching article. I'd like to say thanks to Joss Whedon too!

  6. Thanks so much for the comments! I'm glad I'm not alone in finding Joss' shows (especially Buffy) help me sort through personal relationships and deal with larger issues. And I remain particularly fond of Joyce.