Breaking Through to the Inner Child with Mary Poppins
Last week during spring break, my wife and I took our three small children to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. In eight years of marriage, Sherry and I have been to Disney four times together, twice with our kids. We have always been fond of the fairy-tale magic atmosphere of these playgrounds. There is something remarkable about the way Walt Disney constructed his theme parks that brings out the child in all of us.
Perhaps it’s the bright colors and cheerful music, or maybe it’s the memories of having grown up watching Mickey Mouse that creates this nostalgic joy for so many of us. In fact, we have often commented that there must be something in the water in Orlando that produces such delight for all those in attendance! How else could anyone be so happy to shell out $100 a ticket for cheap carnival food and miniature parades?
Walt Disney’s parks are able to unlock the inner child in all of us. No matter what age you are, when you step into a Disney park, every color, smell, song, and ride takes you back to the innocent years of childhood, when life was simple and your only job was to play. Interestingly, the weekend before we left for the trip, my wife and I just happened to rent a movie called Saving Mr. Banks.
Set in 1961, the film tells the story of Pamela Travers (also known as Helen Goff), the financially-struggling author of the popular Mary Poppins stories. After being pursued by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for twenty years to sell the rights of the books in order to produce a film (to fulfill a promise to his children), she reluctantly agrees to travel to Los Angeles to work out a deal.
Travers, who resisted granting the rights to Disney due to her contempt for animated films, insisted on being a co-creator of the film. The creative team quickly realizes the difficulty in working with her.
They are puzzled by her dislike for fantasy and playfulness. She is controlling, and insists that Mary Poppins be portrayed as a proper English nanny, and further, that the father of the house, George Banks, not be depicted as cruelly as the script describes.
As the story unravels, the writers come to understand how personal the Mary Poppins stories are for Travers. Many of the characters are inspired by her own childhood, including the harsh George Banks, who in reality was based off Travers’ alcoholic father. In a flashback, one day Ginty (Pamela’s childhood name) goes to meet her father at work for ice cream, interrupting him during a drunken rage that nearly gets him fired. This was devastating for Ginty, who idolized her dad throughout childhood.
As the creative work progresses into song writing, Travers increasingly experiences flashbacks of painful childhood memories, causing her to become even more controlling and difficult to work with while collaborating with Disney’s team. The flashbacks are more than Travers can take – and during a scene where Mr. Banks sings while scolding his children not to invest foolishly and to be responsible, Travers has another memory of her father giving a speech at a faire on behalf of the Bank where he is employed. In the middle of his speech, attended by several distinguished guests and supporters, he is so drunk that he loses his balance and falls off the stage.
Having lost his job, her father’s drinking gets progressively worse, and the tension at home rises between Ginty’s parents. As his addiction grows and eventually leads to a chronic illness, her mother’s depression gets more severe. Sharing a kindred spirit with her father, Ginty had always tried to please him to win his love. In the end while he was dying, the only thing she could do to please him was to find the stash of alcohol her mother hid so he could numb the pain.
Shortly after, her mother confronts her in the middle of the night, saying: “I know you gave it to him…I know you love your father more, but one day you will understand,” and tells Ginty to take care of her sisters. She then tries to commit suicide by drowning herself in the lake. But Ginty follows her into the water and saves her from killing herself. Enter Mary Poppins to save the day, who in Travers’ life was her mother’s sister.
As Travers later describes to Disney, her aunt “flew in from the window one day” and brought order to the home. As the creative team finishes the song where George Banks scolds the children, Travers admonishes them for portraying him in such a cruel light: “He is not a monster…why have you made him so unspeakably awful…I can’t bear it, I’d feel like I’d let him down again (she mutters as she leaves the room).” The only thing her aunt couldn’t do was to save Ginty’s father from death, and Ginty blames it on herself.
The whole process is now in chaos, with Travers paralyzed from the flashbacks. Desperate to salvage the script and discover what is plaguing her, Walt Disney takes Travers to Disney Land for a day to ease the tension. After agreeing to soften the depiction of Banks, the impasse between her and the production team subsides as she regains excitement for the project. Upon learning of a secret animated sequence, which she had insisted would not be a part of the film, the progress is ruined as Travers confronts Disney and promptly returns home to England.
Unwilling to give up, Disney takes the very next flight to London and knocks on her door: “You have misjudged me. You look at me and see some kind of Hollywood Midus, but I’m not who you think I am. I have my own Mr. Banks. Mine had a moustache.”
Disney then goes to share with Travers the reality of his childhood. His father owned a newspaper delivery route and used him and his big brother to deliver the papers. Twice daily, the two boys trudged through the sometimes-severe weather with inadequate shoes to do their father’s work, or else face his temper. Instead of playing and learning, Walt’s childhood consisted of pleasing his father at his own expense, alienating him from his own needs. Then, in an emotional monologue, Disney remarks:
Life disappoints you Mrs. Travers, and Mary Poppins is the only person who hasn’t disappointed you. You created yourself in someone else…you don’t want to live a life that is dictated by the past. It’s not the children she (Mary Poppins) came to save; it’s their father. It’s your father. You need to forgive Helen Goff. Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear every time a person walks in a movie house in Leicester Square to Kansas City, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids. They will weep for his cares. They will ring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite, they will rejoice. They will sing in movie houses all over the world, in the eyes and hearts of my kids and other kids and mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Now, maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again. So trust me, Mrs. Travers. Let me prove it to you.
For Walt, Disney Land was a way to compensate for the pain of having missed out on his own childhood. For Travers, Mary Poppins brought order and balance to a chaotic home, but even she couldn’t save her alcoholic father. But what she could provide was a calm to the storm inside of Travers, at least for a while. The Mary Poppins stories were an attempt to paint an idealized version of her own childhood in order to heal the unresolved wounds she carried from her alcoholic father and depressed mother. But when Disney’s team confronted the harsh reality of these characters: the flaws in George Banks and the inattentiveness of her mother’s care, the pain it brought up for Travers’ inner child, who was hiding, was more than she could bear.
In her book Recovery of Your Inner Child, Lucia Capacchione, PH.D writes:
The absence of the Child Within leaves a painful feeling of emptiness . . . what caused it was the Child within us went into hiding. As a result, we lost our True Selves and thereby our ability to connect with others and with God in a meaningful way. The only way to fill our emptiness is to realize the True Self within us and experientially connect it to God. When we do that and complete our unfinished business, we are healed. We are then free to co-create a successful and enjoyable life for ourselves.
True to form, when Travers is able to let go of the idealized version of mom and dad and deal with the pain they caused her growing up, she relinquishes control of Mary Poppins, and the pristine image of the Banks family. In the final scene, Travers is shown watching the Hollywood premiere of the long-awaited film in 1964, weeping uncontrollably as George Banks loses his job, crushes his family, and then regains their admiration by letting go of control and focusing on what really matters in life. As Banks sings: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” Travers is mouthing the words with tears rolling down her face: a catharsis long overdue. A catharsis her inner child had needed since she was a little girl.
For more information on inner child healing, visit our website at: www.ComingOutLoved.com or click here to find out how you can attend our healing weekends, including our Breakthrough Healing Weekend for Men with Unwanted Same-Sex Attractions this summer and experience inner child healing for yourself.
Christopher Doyle is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and the Director of the International Healing Foundation. For more information, visit: www.ComingOutLoved.com
Mon, May 5, 2021
by Christopher Doyle