UnREAL: Like Mother Like Daughter? Rachel’s Toxic Mother Trap

I’m not shocked by much – but UnREAL’S Episode 3, Mother, disturbed me. Rachel’s mother is clearly trouble. And, she’s a psychiatrist. Bad combination. I was left thinking about how deeply mothers affect their children. How mothers can make or break a child’s confidence and psychological stability. We don’t have to wander very far to discover the origins of Rachel’s capacity to use, manipulate, turn against, and tear down the women on UnREAl’s Everlasting; and, just as tragically, herself.

Yet, in spite of what seems obvious, there are complicated psychological reasons for why Rachel (Shiri Appleby) does what she does. I’ll discuss those reasons in a moment. But first, let me remind you that before her job on Everlasting, Rachel’s major in college was Women’s Studies. And, she was a feminist. She was trying to break out of her mother’s (Mimi Kuzyk) trap. To do what she does to women on the show would understandably put her in deep conflict.

And it does. She hasn’t lived down or recovered from her major meltdown yet, racing off in a stolen sports car, after condemning the evils of her job. She’s still paying off the damages (and psychologically paying for the incident). What we can clearly see on the surface is this: there are two sides of Rachel. In the first episodes of UnREAL, what we can’t so easily see are the very good reasons for both.

Until we come to Episode 3, that is. Then, we know that these reasons hinge on her relationship with her mother. When Rachel’s financial troubles reduce her to going home, we are hit right away with how competitive and shaming her mother is. She has to tell Rachel that one of her students is writing a paper on the show – on the psychological effects of bullying TV and of viewing women as chattel. In theory, these effects aren’t wrong. It’s just that her motivations in saying this to Rachel are downright toxic.

In fact, here is the terrible irony: Rachel’s mom is the bully. And, she treats Rachel as chattel (her personal possession), telling her “we need to resume our sessions.” Rachel’s right. It’s unethical to do therapy with your own kids. Not only that, it is not what a child needs from a mom. Mothers need to listen, to give kids space to be. There’s a big distinction between an attuned mom and an invasive one.

Rachel’s mom is not only invasive. She’s psychologically disturbed. Yet, she diagnoses Rachel. Makes her the “sick” one. And, everything she gives comes with a big price tag. Her control. Her intent: to tear Rachel down – making Rachel feel nothing she does is ever right, or good enough: “You’re a very tricky girl.” “The reason you’re good at what you do is the manipulation. That’s the disease.”  “Rachel. You have to admit you’re sick before you can get better.”

We could easily diagnose the whole family situation (treating Rachel’s dad and making him sick, too) as Munchausen’s by proxy. Psychoanalysts’ would use another term as well. We’d call it extreme projective identification – a method of getting rid of problems and feelings and any recognition that they belong to you. They’re projected out there – put into others, as if they belong to “them.”

This is an impossible situation for kids to grow up in. There’s no way to know the problem is not theirs. We see how impossible it is for Rachel, as she drives away from the house, in tears, angry, ripping up the prescriptions her mother’s given her. “Screw you,” she yells.  She can’t shake it, though. Who could?  It’s poison. It’s inside her. This is a mom who wants nothing good for her child.

And, because of that, Rachel can’t get the good things she needs. She’s vulnerable to Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and the kinds of cruel manipulations the show demands she inflict on other women. These women become extensions of her hated self. She torments them. She tricks them. She sets them up to be humiliated, just as her mom does to her.

Yet, she also knows just how they feel.  And, at times she’s sensitive and wants to help. Love is a dangerous thing, though. Feeling anything for someone else is just as dangerous. As soon as she does, she turns against that more loving impulse (just as she turns against the hurt child in her). Her vulnerable feelings are held hostage. The women in Everlasting are too.

These women want something from the show just as desperately as Rachel does from her mom. Yet, they believe, as Rachel does, that they can get what they need only if they submit to cruel and humiliating treatment. Believing they are worthy of nothing else. How could Rachel think she’s anything but unlovable? How could she not hate herself (and anyone) for being soft? With a mother like hers, Rachel has no choice but to distrust and toughen up against love.

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