Tell Me Why and the Cycles of Family Trauma

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<i>Tell Me Why</i> and the Cycles of Family Trauma

As soon as I reached chapter three of Dontnod Entertainment’s newest title, Tell Me Why, I realized I made a grave error. I assumed I was exempt. But as chapter three begins and we see one of the game’s main characters dealing with the aftershock of reopening past wounds—too sick to eat, too anxious to sleep—I saw myself. And it was a lot to take in.

Tell Me Why follows the Ronan twins, Alyson and Tyler, as they reunite after being separated for nearly a decade. The reason for their separation? In an act of self-defense, Tyler killed his mother. Tyler was then sent away to Fireweed Residential Center, where he was allowed to explore his gender and grow up among other at-risk teens. Alyson was taken in by the local sheriff, where she lived an, all things considered, fairly normal life. 10 years later and the Ronans are finished with their degrees and ready to move to the big city, but first they must revisit their childhood home and get it ready to sell. Once there, they discover their closeness as twins allows them to revisit old memories. What ensues is a journey to discover exactly what happened the night of their mother’s death, as well as work through their shared trauma.

I was anxious to play Tell Me Why as soon as it was announced. I was excited to see more from Dontnod Entertainment, a studio that excels in emotionally driven narratives, as well as curious to see how gracefully they’d handle the representation they promised. Whenever I see a game strive to make others feel included, I always hope that it delivers to those it means so much to. I hope it becomes a place where they find comfort or validation. At the very least, I hope it feels honest—that they see a bit of themselves in it.

I went into Tell Me Why thinking it was a game that would move me, but was not created for me—and I was absolutely okay with that. I am not transgender, my fraction of Native American heritage was never a part of my life growing up, and what I presumed the game’s largest themes were, “found family” and community, aren’t ones I’m all that familiar with, as I’ve never felt a true sense of either. But games, like any art, should celebrate and tell the stories of all people. With empathy, we can find parts of ourselves in any story, but just as vital as this process of introspection is the understanding that absolutely nothing is solely ours to own and internalize.

All this to say, I went into this game unprepared. I placed so much emphasis on what I thought it was about in an attempt to keep this respectful distance between it and myself. I forgot that art is not merely something you admire or what you take away from it, but is the act of the burdens you carry colliding headfirst into a force trying to make sense of its own. What I took with me when I started Tell Me Why was a brain lit on fire by Borderline Personality Disorder and decades of familial trauma—not only mine, but my mother’s as well. What I was met with resonated with me more than I ever could have predicted. I was met with a story about a home filled with equal parts creativity and mental illness, the spitting image of my childhood, and a glimpse at my worst fear.

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I should begin with my mother and the bits and pieces of her story I feel permitted to tell. When my mother was 14, she thought she might marry Bono. U2 posters adorned her room, The Joshua Tree made a permanent home in her Walkman and her crush was all consuming. She also thought, perhaps just a bit more practically, she’d go to college, maybe study marine biology. However, when my mother was 14 she got pregnant with me, and all these plans changed.

For the first few months, she hid her growing belly beneath oversized Gap sweaters, exercised to the point of exhaustion and ate as little as she could—anything to stay small. Her younger sister, she told me, was the first to notice, teasing her for gaining weight before stating, quite plainly, she looked pregnant. When her parents found out, they moved the family out of California—too quickly for my father to even learn of my existence. My mother dropped out of school, left the only home she’d ever known, and gave birth all before her 15th birthday. Her life, both prior to my birth and after, has not been very gentle. It makes perfect sense that, at her worst, it made her the same way.

But at her best, she not only gave me life but filled my world with it. She was a child raising a child, yet in spite of that—and us being isolated and impoverished for much of my early childhood—she made everything enchanted. She made me fall in love with stories, games, music, and the arts. She sewed me princess dresses and hand wrote, with an ink pen, the Harry Potter themed invitations for my eighth birthday. She even burned the edges of the letters and crumpled them up, to give them a more “worn” look, before she tied them shut with ribbons.

She gave me my sisters and together we formed an impenetrable unit. It was us and her—four young women bound together, regardless of whatever school district I was now enrolled in or partner she was with. At times, it felt perfect. I can still close my eyes and picture how my little sister looked resting on my mother’s hip as she loudly sang Labyrinth’s “Magic Dance” to us while tidying up around the house. We were her “little goblins,” just as Tyler and Alyson were Mary-Ann’s. But the problem with lovely stories and pretty pictures, both in my life and in Tell Me Why, is they disguise a lot of anguish. Anguish that is undetectable as a child, but you’re forced to swallow as you grow, your throat growing tighter with each gulp.

Just like the Ronan twins, as I grew older I grew heavy with questions—questions about habits, recollections and all the scenes I stumbled into that I was too young to think much of. I think one question that surfaced the most, however, was “did I deserve that?” Having hardly any family (my mother’s side either estranged or deceased, my father’s entirely unknown), I tried my absolute hardest to defend my mother and all her actions. If I hadn’t been difficult, unlovable, or inconvenient, maybe things would have been different. Maybe it all wouldn’t have happened. Even now, as we go on month two of hardly any communication, I catch myself trying to defend her to myself, my equally discontent sisters, and to my therapist. But as I told her the last time we spoke, my voice shaking as I did, as sympathetic as I am to how incomprehensibly hard her life has been, her choosing to stay broken and angry broke us all.

And therein lies my greatest fear, amplified by Alyson Ronan throughout the entirety of chapter three: I’m scared I’ll end up the same way. A year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Since that diagnosis, I have been trying my god damn hardest to, for lack of a better word, “get better,” but progress isn’t linear, and each and every slip leaves me terrified. I want to be a good person, but oftentimes I feel like a mere fraction of one. I also want to be a good partner, and one day, an incredible mom.

Of course people are quick to reassure me I will be. I’ve always been told I’m great with kids, creative, kind, warm… But I also know I can be anxious, inconsolable, obsessive, and afraid. I can be all the things she was to me. I’ve hit the lowest of lows on many bathroom floors, and one of the many ideas that flits through my mind when this happens is how guilty I’d feel bringing someone into my life who can’t elect to leave when I get to be too much. I’m already stuck with me and this cycle of trauma, and if I can’t end it, at the very least I refuse to continue it.

Maybe Tell Me Why’s Michael summed it up best when he reassured Alyson that “families are fuck-up factories.” We all carry our various secrets and problems, weaknesses and wounds. But as I go through a period of my life where understanding and mitigating them is one of my core focuses, Tell Me Why hits harder than I ever expected or perhaps wanted it to. I don’t see myself in many parts of the game—parts I still love and recognize—but the shock of seeing so much of myself in both Alyson and Mary-Ann, in the game’s comforts and warnings, sticks with me. However, there is solace in knowing that how I feel is understood by others, and that a team of people, using bits and pieces of their own lives and pains, created a world I could see mine in—in knowing that there are other “little goblins” looking for answers, too.


Jessica Howard is an editorial intern at Paste and the managing editor at gaming site Uppercut. She enjoys loud music, hot coffee, and games with romanceable NPCs.

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