2019 Film Essays

There Is Another: Transgenerational Trauma and the Skywalker Legacy

Star Wars is one of the most successful and recognisable film franchises to ever exist. Its appeal spans generations, leading adults and children alike to a galaxy far, far away. It explores themes of morality and family, either by blood or by circumstance.

It is also a shining example of Transgenerational Trauma; a physiological phenomenon wherein, due to trauma that a parent or guardian has faced, symptoms are passed onto the next generation. The initial trauma can be personal or sociological in nature. Essentially, the way a caretaker nurtures their child reflects their own trauma, which leads to similar behaviors.

For this reason, Star Wars has successfully transcended generations.

Every Story Has a Beginning

Anakin Skywalker, hero of the republic, is born into slavery. He’s never free of masters — as a slave on Tatooine, in The Jedi Order and finally as Darth Vader. When Anakin first appears in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), he is a hopeful but wary child. It is clear that his life on Tatooine is less than ideal. He is mistreated, abused, and his gifts are taken advantage of, all of which seem to have an emotional impact. When one has been given little choice, despite being gifted, one becomes embittered. Anakin finally gets to leave his terrible life, with one terrible caveat — he’s torn from his mother. The loss of a parent — specifically at nine years old — can lead to trauma, specifically when the surrogate caretaker almost immediately disappears (Qui-Gon Jinn). One may drift listlessly from caretaker to caretaker without any sense of security, and without security, it is difficult to develop in healthy ways.

Anakin then finds himself in the care of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is cold and unaffected. Once again, Anakin is given little choice regarding his own life and gifts. The bitterness that was planted as a young boy on Tatooine grows into a vibrant tree of discontentment. Constantly told that he is too powerful but still good enough, Anakin seeks comfort in two of the only people who have shown him kindness: Sheev Palpatine, Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, and Padmé Amidala, the senator from Naboo.

Palpatine seems to constantly encourage Anakin, taking the guise of a kind uncle. Palpatine seems to have genuine affection for Anakin — he is kind to him, keeps secrets and believes in his growth. This is a troubling idea, that those who are active and engaged in someone’s life may be in fact be a negative influence. Palpatine is not disinterested in Anakin’s life, as he cares for him, albeit selfishly.

Anakin also enters a relationship with Padmé which must be kept hidden, thus compounding the idea that he is not worthy of the good things that are in his life. Padmé is Anakin’s senior by at least five years. She took care of him during the events of The Phantom Menace. One might suggest that in Padmé, Anakin seeks a replacement for his mother — specifically, after his mother is taken from him again by the Tusken Raiders during the events of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). He then slaughters all of the Tuskens in the camp in an unquellable rage, murdering not only those responsible for the death of his mother, but those who are bystanders as well. When confronted with the horror of his deeds, Anakin is filled with guilt and conflict, and this is why he falls. Anakin feels that he is unable to achieve the level of perceived goodness to which The Jedi adhere. He is torn between Light and Dark; the guilt and satisfaction of revenge. This event echoes through The Force, throughout all time and across The Galaxy. This is beginning of the trauma that will follow Anakin and his descendants for years to come.

War comes to The Galaxy, and in an attempt to save his loved ones, Anakin faces the loss of a limb in a fight with the Count Dooku. The loss of a limb reinforces Anakin’s feelings of helplessness — every event that he’s been through, up to this point, has reinforced his anxieties about loss, his belief that he is not strong enough as a person and that he is constantly doing the wrong thing. Anakin is faced by paralyzing anxiety when it comes to making any choices, due to his upbringing and lack of agency. Anakin seeks control, as he feels as though he has none.

At a loss, Anakin turns to the two people he feels as though he can trust, Padmé and Palpatine. By Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Anakin and Palpatine’s relationship has grown; they seem to see each other, they speak at length about their personal lives and even go to the opera together. It is at this point that Palpatine offers Anakin the opportunity to fight his trauma and anxieties by leaning into them — to accept his failure, fear and bitterness — by accepting underlying childhood beliefs that he is not good, not in control and may lose everything he loves. In Anakin’s attempts to control his life, he shatters it. Anakin breaks it apart, bit by bit, and attempts to rebuild it. Failing to do so, he is left with Palpatine and his self-loathing. Years pass, and now Darth Vader is left to rot in his trauma, reliving every mistake, letting it seep into him. However, there is a spark of hope that he may again make choices that are good.

Every Generation Has a Legend

Luke Skywalker, hero of the rebellion, is born into poverty. He feels as though he is trapped by the duties of family and that his guardians won’t let him fulfill his potential. Luke’s uncle, Owen Lars, feels as though if Luke were to leave, he would be repeating the same mistakes his father made. Owen’s actions repeat those of Anakin’s friends and masters in the Jedi Order — Luke’s uncle is afraid of his potential and therefore seeks to stifle it. When meeting Obi-Wan Kenobi, he then suggests that Luke’s innate talents are a thing to be celebrated not feared, and that he is capable of great things. It’s the first sign of encouragement that Luke receives. Over the events of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), Luke’s mentor figures are removed from him — first with his aunt and uncle, then with Kenobi. The elimination of these figures leaves Luke less grounded and more impulsive. These impulsive actions are rewarded at first but then begin to show negative effects; the same downfall his father faced years earlier.

Leia Organa, princess of Alderaan, is a more obvious case of Transgenerational Trauma, as she is literally tortured and abused by her father during the events of A New Hope. Vader’s actions in the past, and the trauma it caused, directly interfere with Leia’s life and the lives of her loved ones. She bears witness to the destruction of her entire planet, a loss that she carries with her for the rest of her life. This focuses her resolve and determination to ensure that no other losses like hers occur again. That resolve however is born of fear, fear of loss of control; a fear she will pass down to her son.

It is during Luke’s training on Dagobah that his anxieties are first realized. Luke is consumed with fear that he will become his father (even though he is unaware of his connection to Vader), that he will  use all he has learned for vengeance in a moment of weakness. Luke, too, has a need for control, evidenced by his desire to help his sister and his friends rather than wait and complete his training. At Luke’s core, he is also driven by the fear of loss.

Leia is driven by a similar fear. This is why the loss of Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is so impactful; Han is the last of her family left standing at that moment. Leia feels as though she may never see Luke again and is unaware of their link as siblings. Leia Organa, Princess of Alderaan, feels totally alone, and that is why she falls in love with a smuggler.

Luke has an opportunity to confront the man who has caused him trauma, even though he may not know it. During the ensuing combat, Anakin’s need for control once again causes devastation for his progeny. In a mirror of his own trauma, he dismembers Luke’s right hand, just as Count Dooku had years before. It may be argued that the subsequent revelation to Luke that Vader is in fact his father is more traumatic than the loss of a limb. Luke, from that point on, carries with him the knowledge of his legacy, along with the dread that such knowledge brings.

During Anakin and Luke’s duel, the latter has a moment of weakness. By raging against the man and machine, Luke repeats Vader’s own need for control and cuts his hand off. The difference is that Luke — more cognizant of the mistakes of the past — chooses not to strike his father down like Anakin did Dooku. It is only from dissociating Anakin from his current identity that Luke is able to steer him toward the light. Luke constantly reminds Anakin that he can change, and gives him hope. He breaks the cycle, and thus frees both Anakin and himself. This is why the choices Luke makes later wound him so deeply.

Later, Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, faces a trial of will again. This time, he falters. Luke, like his father before him, acts out fear of loss. Threatening his nephew Ben Solo at his Jedi temple, Luke falls back into the cycle of trauma, only to break it soon after. This time, however, he breaks the cycle not by forgiveness but through isolation. Luke runs from his family, his legacy and his mistakes. Rather than make the same mistakes the his father did, Luke instead chooses to take no actions. In his mind, he make no mistakes, though he will soon learn that inaction can be as just damaging.

Let the Past Die

Ben Solo, now christened as Kylo Ren, feared leader of The First Order, was born into privilege and legacy. That legacy,  both light and dark, defines him from the moment he appears. Out of the entire Skywalker line, Ben is traumatized by its legacy the most. From the start,  Ben is defined by his bloodline. He desperately attempts to redefine himself using the image of his grandfather, Anakin Skywalker. Ben feels a kinship with Anakin, but is this because of the darkness within, or because of the torture of betrayal? Ben, due to his own trauma at the hands of his masters both old and new, feels betrayed, alone and angry.

During Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Ben continues to emulate his grandfather and deify his bloodline. He constantly seeks guidance from the specter of Anakin, willing himself to be more like him, or at least his perception of him. Ben revels in his misfortune. He fully immerses himself in the negative choices of his predecessors, seeing this as the only way to accept himself and his legacy. Ben replicates the beats of Anakin’s life either consciously or instinctively — threatening those who are in his charge, destroying a peaceful center of The Galaxy and even killing multiple father figures, both his father Han Solo and his mentor Supreme Leader Snoke. Ben Solo, like Anakin before him, is full of fear — fear of Skywalker, his legacy and, most importantly, agency over his own life.

Ben, after the battle on Starkiller Base, is left wounded and conflicted about his place in The Galaxy. His assurance that he is owed something because of his lineage is put on trial by Supreme Leader Snoke, his kinship with Anakin is questioned and his identity is shattered. During Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), Ben confronts the notion that he might be able to make choices for himself, something his grandfather was never able to do until the end. Ben, like Anakin before him, believes himself unworthy of his place in The Galaxy and therefore lashes out and seeks to destroy it.

It is only when Ben is confronted by his past, in the form of Luke Skywalker’s projection during The Last Jedi, that he is finally able to accept the loss of his family and therefore his legacy. By seeing Luke, Ben is able to confront all his fear, loathing and love, and then let it go.

It is still unknown what role the Skywalker legacy will have in the final installment of the Star Wars series. Based on the title, however, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) will undoubtedly confront it. The Skywalker legacy is one of fear, loss and, ultimately, triumph. These themes are what make Star Wars not only relatable but uplifting. The Star Wars Saga has always been about family, biological or chosen, and how the choices of one’s family impact the choices one makes. This is true of the real world as well. We are shaped by our past, but we do not need to be defined by it. We can break cycles of trauma through guidance, hard work and, most importantly, hope. Star Wars is cyclical in nature, which makes it more satisfying than life events ever can be. By viewing a family over three generations, the audience can see patterns that the characters themselves cannot, and then see patterns in their own lives as well, hopefully.

Tristan Miller (@TristanJMiller1) is an actor, writer, podcaster, stand-up comedian and mental health activist. He has been featured on The Good Men project, Stigma Fighters, The Psych Show and has begun work on a one-man show called Manic Impressive. Tristan hosts, edits and produces three podcasts: Positive and Negative, TheAmateur Detective Club and Anime-Zing Podcast.

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