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September 21, 2015
Visiting Your Inner Child: What Back to the Future Means to Me
By Robert J. Peterson
Back to the Future is one of the most beautiful depictions of the concept of “inner child” from the world of mental health and therapy.
No one’s ever going to mistake me for an expert on any field of mental health, but I nevertheless count myself a big fan of interacting with your inner child. We all carry wounds from childhood, because being a kid is hard, and it’s basically impossible to weather our early years with a perfect track record. We’re going to experience humiliation, setbacks, and sorrow—and that’s OK. Happily, most of us soldier on past those hard times and emerge into adulthood in relatively good shape.
Though as we see in Back to the Future, sometimes we don’t. In the movie series’ original timeline/universe, George McFly never stood up to Biff, and that cowardice haunted him into adulthood. He not only grew up into a simpering weakling, but he also never had the wherewithal to remove Biff from his life. Lorraine never shook her drinking habit (or George, for that matter). Even kind, old Doc Brown never amounted to much; diehard fans will note how Doc Brown lives on the ruins of his estate—all that’s left is his garage, where he sleeps and does his work.
It’s a pessimistic view of the world. I feel like the conventional wisdom surrounding bullies and nerds is that bullies often go on to become losers, while the geeks inherit the earth. There have been some studies disputing this worldview, though I don’t think there’s been enough to fully refute it. All the same, sometimes victims go on being victims and bullies go on to great success without ever being punished or otherwise made to countenance their bad behavior.
And the screenwriters of Back to the Future understand that sad truth.
Back to the Future is known for its high comedy and cheerful, Capraesque themes (and ending), but damn—its opening scenes are dark. Don’t get me wrong; they’re funny, but dark. Side note: One criticism levied against the first movie is that it equates material wealth with happiness. That’s a legit gripe, and it also makes me queasy that the filmmakers show us how David’s (Marty’s brother, played by Marc McClure) life is “improved” by upgrading him from a job at Burger King to an office job.
That said, the opening scenes still work for me because the McFly’s seem like losers less because of their poverty and more because they’re just so sad. No one really smiles in the opening scenes. (Well, except for George, who wears a perpetual rictus-grin in the presence of Biff and cackles at reruns of The Honeymooners.) The McFlys seem sad, depressed, and most of all—tired.
But when a child voyages to the past to interact with their inner children, he revitalizes their lives.
OK, let me pause and make a concession: Back to the Future’s isn’t a literal representation of inner child, because Marty doesn’t go back in time to speak with a younger version of himself; he interacts with younger versions of his parents and Doc, his surrogate dad. If you’re looking for a more literal—though no less effective—portrayal of inner child in pop-culture, look no further than Stephen King’s It, which follows six childhood friends as they return to their hometown. (Side note: I love It. It’s ostensibly about a battle with an ancient evil, but for me, it’s really about going back in time to heal your inner child.)
Pivoting back to BTTF, let’s look at how Marty’s presence in the past helps his parents. Even though his parents are losers, they managed to raise a pretty good kid. Marty’s forthright and brave, and even though he has a short fuse—an element in the second and third movies I’ve never really bought—he cares deeply about his friends and shows an admirable capacity for empathy when dealing with his weirdo dad back in the day. Witness Marty’s reaction at timestamp :47 in this clip:
Think back to a hard time you had in your life, and think about how good it would feel if your future self appeared and said, “Hey, kid, hang in there. I know it sucks now, but you’ve got a great future ahead of you.” Marty essentially gets to do that with his family, especially his dad—but he also has an immeasurably positive effect on the life of Doc Brown. It’s worth noting that after meeting Marty, Doc Brown eventually became the kind of guy who would open Marty’s letter about the future, dismissing the potential hazards to the spacetime continuum with the words, “What the hell.” He’s happier, more relaxed, more comfortable in his own skin, I’d submit.
I can’t find a good clip of it online, but I’d recommend watching the scene right before Doc leaves for the future. He’s slung across the front seat of the DeLorean, calm and cool.
“How far do you think you’ll go?” Marty asks.
“About thirty years. Nice round number.”
Back to the Future argues a simple thesis: That sometimes, we all need help, and that’s OK. Marty stumbles his way into the past, but when he gets there, his fundamental good-heartedness informs his every move. He basically begs Doc Brown to let him help him, and he invests an incredible amount of emotional energy in his hapless father. In the process, he really gets to know his parents, and what a special gift that is.
Let’s hope that we could all be so selfless if we found ourselves in the past.
About Robert J. Peterson
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books, a small imprint for sci-fi and fantasy. He's also the author of the novels THE ODDS and OMEGABALL.