“Why didn’t you ever tell me?!”
It’s a line from a book, or a movie, or a television show, spoken by a man to his old lover. Their paths have crossed years after their relationship was over, and he discovers that this woman is the mother of his child. A grown-up, or substantially grown-up child he never knew.
I got to thinking about this plot element while I was watching Star Trek II: the Wrath of Kahn the other day. It’s interesting, because of all the themes explored in that movie–vengeance, mid-life crises, life and death, sacrifice–the theme that spoke to me is the unknown child theme.
I had seen this theme recently in something else I had watched, but while scratching my head trying to remember what it was, I realized this theme pops up in a lot of stuff I’ve seen, or a theme very similar to it:
• ST: TNG: Worf’s old lover K’Elar (humma humma) shows up with their son, Alexander.
• ST: TNG: There’s an episode where an alien boy makes Riker think he has woken up 15 years later with amnesia and has a son he can’t remember.
• Queer as Folk: Entertainer Danny Devore swings into town and Michael Novotony discovers Danny is his real father. Debbie Novotony confesses as much to Danny.
• “Made in America”: A white father believes he is the sperm donor father of a half-black daughter. Sadly, in the end, it turns out that he is not.
• “Three Men and a Baby”: mother leaves the baby daughter she can’t handle on the father’s doorstep. It’s a baby, not a grown child, but the theme is similar.
• “Soap Dish”: An middle-aged actor gets a job on his old soap and starts romancing a girl he assumes is the 20-something niece of his old flame. But the girl turns out to be his daughter.
• “Billy’s Boy”: One of the sequels to “The Front Runner” by Patricia Nell Warren, in which Harlan Brown discovers that the child he thought was sired by his dead lover Billy, was actually sired by himself. A little mix-up with the tubes of frozen sperm.
• “Eye of the Daemon” by Camille-Bacon Smith: a daemon from another realm discovers years after the fact that he has sired a half-daemon, half-human son. Daemons generally have no paternal feelings and consider humans little more than bugs.
• The Dead Zone: the series: Johnny Smith wakes up after six years in a coma to discover his ex-fiancée is raising the son he sired the night of his accident with another man and the son doesn’t know who his real father is.
• “The Emerald Forest”: A father loses his son in the Brazilian rain forest, and when they are accidentally reunited 10 years later, the son is a very different person with no memory of the culture he was raised in and only vague memories of his parents.
• Star Man: the series: OK, this series didn’t last long, but it dealt with an alien getting to know the half-human son he sired 15-16 years earlier.
• Rainman: Similar theme, only dealing with a brother a man never knew he had instead of a child. But the brother is so child-like, the struggles to bond are similar.
What most of these books, TV series and movies deal with is the father’s struggle to bond with and relate to a child he barely knows, who already has all their personality quirks in tact. The father is usually motivated by the fact that he always wanted a child but never had one (so he thought), and this gives him that opportunity.
Or maybe he didn’t want a child, but he has one all the same, and he learns to take responsibility for it, and as a result, struggles and grows. It’s all about the growth of love.
In the case of the Wrath of Kahn, Jim Kirk runs into old flame Carol Marcus and her son David, a son Kirk knows about, but hasn’t seen in a long, long time. David doesn’t know Kirk is his father.
David Marcus hates him, has a prejudice against the military and thinks Kirk is a warmonger. Then he gets to know him and realizes this isn’t true. There is a moment at the end of the movie where they finally bond. They go their separate ways, but now David has a father and Kirk has a son. And it means something to them. They know they will meet again and again and be glad of it.
They don’t meet again, though, at least not in person. But they have bonded enough that when David is killed, Kirk is moved to great hurt and anger.
In the end, sadly, David Marcus is a mere plot device–a son from a relationship we never heard about until this movie came along–written in only so the son can die and Kirk can hate Klingons the rest of his Star Trek movie life for “the death of his boy”.
Which kind of pisses me off, in a way–bringing in something as important as a parent-child relationship just to give a cheap boost of character growth to your main character. Creating love and a bond only to snatch it away. Not exploring where that relationship may have gone over the years.
But I have to wonder, given my reaction, why this theme means so much to me. Nothing like this personal scenario has ever happened to me. I come from an intact, “typical” family. The kind of family you’ve known from birth and love and care about and spend time with and need sometimes to keep your distance from when things get too claustrophobic.
So I can only assume this is not about my actual family, but the family I never had. Not my relationship with my parents, but the relationship with the child I never had. Sort of a fantasy child, who shows up out of the blue (almost) fully grown, personality in tact but not sadly not influenced by me. And yet my child all the same, deep into the blood and bones and DNA.
Of course, the chances of this happening to me as a woman are pretty much zero. Only in the bizarre world of the X-Files does Agent Scully discover her eggs have been harvested against her will and she has a daughter she never knew.
But it’s not just about my childlessness. Because another element in this theme that fascinates me is the influence this reunion and discovery has on child’s identity. One of the things that the privilege of being raised by your biological parents in a loving relationship affords you is a quality of certainty about your identity. As you look at your own face and see your parent’s faces looking back at you, as you see them in your personality traits or the traits of your lovers, you know who you are. At least partially. You know where you come from.
Knowing who your real parents are gives your identity roots. And it has an affect on you, for good or ill. On Queer As Folk, Michael is chagrined to find out his real father isn’t a strapping masculine war hero, but a drag queen. In Star Man: the Series, a teen-aged boy discovers that he is part alien. What does that do to his perception of himself? It’s got to be mind-blowing. And disturbing.
This theme has influenced me enough that it’s shown up in stories I’ve written. I started a story about a girl who discovers she is half-alien, but not until she is in her early 20’s. I made it as “hard science fiction” as possible, in an effort not to make it some metaphor for the human condition, but a genuine philosophical and psychological exploration of identity.
Gotta finish that story some day.