When I first heard that there was a new television show about a licensed marriage and family therapist, I thought to myself “oh boy.” Thanks to Tyler Perry, I assume that therapists and LMFTs like myself will be portrayed in a negative light in Black sitcoms and movies. I immediately think of Patricia from Why Did I Get Married, who was seen as “Perfect Patty.” Since she’s a therapist, she thought she knew how to perfectly handle the loss of her child on her own, without communicating with her partner about what’s going on and in the sequel goes through a shocking and nasty divorce. If you’ve seen Temptation, which is also by Tyler Perry, you meet Judith who is a marriage counselor reflecting on her past choices of cheating on her caring, stable, although a smidge boring, husband that she’d known and been with for most of her life. By choosing to leave her husband for someone else, she ends up abused, alone, and living with HIV. So you can understand why I was a little hesitant to start a new show about a Black woman as an LMFT, navigating her father being released from prison after 17 years and her own relationship drama. But I was pleasantly surprised after watching Unprisoned on Hulu with Kerry Washington and Delroy Lindo. It tackled a lot of topics in the Black community and had some great takeaways.
1. Therapists are not perfect, they’re human too
Paige, a licensed marriage and family therapist and single mom, is the main character whose life gets turned around when her father, Edwin, is released from prison after 17 years. She is extremely truthful with her followers about her own life and shares her day to day experiences and emotions on IG Live often in the show. Is that realistic for therapists to do? Not so much. But I appreciate that she shows just because she’s a therapist, doesn’t mean she has it all together. She is still learning about herself, and healing from her past traumas just like everyone else. I also appreciate her authenticity because I think that it is important to connect with clients and followers in a real way, instead of the detached and expert stance therapists are often taught to take when we are getting our degrees. We are cautioned against self-disclosure, and while I think Paige disclosed a bit too much, it showed to be more helpful and relatable to others. In her work, she helps clients deal with forgiveness and their own trauma, but she had difficulties doing the same. Which is a reminder that just because you know better, doesn’t mean you automatically do better. While logic can tell you one thing, it is hard to listen when your emotions or past experiences are telling you another. I was frustrated that she couldn’t see that her parents did the best they could when she was in the same role doing her best for her son, but I was reminded of how often that happens. How often our minds may tell us one thing, but our inner child and past hurts makes it hard to listen. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Listen to your Inner Child
While Paige is the main character in the show, there is also a smaller version of her played by Jordyn McIntosh. I loved how the show provided a literal and visual representation of her inner child. She was the embodiment of what adult Paige was really thinking and feeling. How she heals her inner child is by recognizing that she never gave her attention or took care of her once she became an adult. By simply validating her inner child’s pain, she finally feels seen and begins to heal. Paige is not the only inner child that makes an appearance. Her Dad’s inner child shows up too, reminding us that our parents were once children as well. They have their own traumas and inner child wounds that they haven’t healed from. Depending on their generation and upbringing, they may not even be aware of them. As Paige witnesses her dad’s inner child, it allows her to see him and his pain better, which creates some compassion.
3. The Presence of Black Dads Matter
As soon as Delroy Lindo’s character, Edwin, is out of prison he has an immeasurable impact on his daughter. His absence was obviously felt, and impacted her in a negative way. But once he’s back in her life, I noticed a huge shift in her as well. He dropped gems throughout the entire series and calls out her relationship issues. In addition to his wisdom, he reminds her of her worth, not to accept anything less, and to express herself. She felt seen in ways she had been missing when he wasn’t there. He also has a positive impact on Finn (Paige’s son) and since Finn doesn’t have a relationship with his father, it is obvious how much of a difference having a positive male role model was for him. He was brought out of his shell more, and seemed to connect with Edwin easily, as though he has been waiting for this sort of relationship his whole life. Obviously, Paige loves him and does all she can. But I think there is a difference between a mother’s love and a father’s love. And the absence of either can be felt. So Edwin’s return is righting wrongs for Paige, as well as her son.
4. Parent and Partner are just one letter off
One of Paige’s main phrases she uses when speaking to her followers is that parent and partner are just one letter off. How you got parented is how you get partnered. That really stuck out to me and reminded me of how our adult attachment styles stem from the attachment styles with our caregivers. Whatever we see modeled for us by our parents, we begin to see as normal. Similar to what Paige’s love interest in the show tells Edwin, by abandoning her as a child and never receiving love from her dad, she wasn’t able to accept love from others or notice when someone is trying to give her what she’s been yearning for. This is not to say that if you have a difficult relationship with your parent(s), then you’re doomed to have difficulty in your romantic relationships. It just means there may be some wounds to heal and messages to unlearn. For most people, when a parent doesn’t show up the way we want or expect it’s easy to internalize and wonder what is wrong with us. We begin to think that if our parents can’t love or care about us, then who can we expect to do so? So this is a reminder that how you were parented is not a reflection of you or what you deserve.
5. Systemic Racism Impacts our Mental Health
The premise of the show is a man being released from prison after 17 years and adjusting back to life. As well as how his release impacts him and those he loves. When being released, prisoners are given parole officers to basically keep surveillance over them and make sure they do not return to what led to their sentence. But when there’s a system created to make it difficult to return back to being a productive member of society, how are you expected to overcome that? Edwin is unable to get a good job, because the first job he gets he is let go of before even starting due to having a record. The second job he gets is dehumanizing, and he quits. He can’t pick up a job as an Uber driver since he doesn’t have a license, and he can’t get his license without a birth certificate, and he can’t get his birth certificate without a license. So even though he wants a better life for himself, he isn’t given many opportunities to do so. There is another episode that really highlights the impact of generational trauma titled Nigresence, named after the theory by William Cross on racial identity development in Black Americans. During that episode the family travels back to the South to attempt to get Edwin’s birth certificate. We are reminded that segregation wasn’t that long ago, despite pictures we see making it seem that way. In this episode we also learn of the stressors and ordeals Eddie faced as a child, and how it impacted his upbringing. Yet he didn’t speak on what he experienced. Signifying the prevalence of older Black ancestors not always sharing stories of their history. But you can’t heal what you don’t reveal.