Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
District 9 is a science fiction film first released in 2009. Set in an apartheid-style setting in South Africa, it follows company man Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) as he experiences firsthand the oppression suffered by the aliens who have been stranded on Earth for over twenty years. Rated R for language and gore, it’s hardly a family film, but family is at the core of the story.
Because of Wikus and Tania’s love for each other, I saw a character worth rooting for.Both the lead characters—Wikus and the alien Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope)—are shaped by family. The movie introduces us to each of them in the context of their families, as Wikus talks about his wife, and Christopher praises his son. Throughout the film, they are primarily motivated by the love for their family, enduring incredible hardships and facing down impossible odds.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes about the difference between love and being “in love” (108-12). Being “in love,” is an emotional high. It’s a thrill that eventually you come down from, and it cannot last through trials. Love, on the other hand, is a constant choice to weather anything that comes your way, regardless of the way you feel.
I’ll admit, there comes a point when I don’t really know if I have anything to say about family, at least in a context like this. I could comment on the sacrifices one makes for family, but my experiences would seem trivial in comparison. I came from a good home, with good parents, and my good brothers married good women. There has never been a time when I have been forced to choose drastically between family and survival or between two family members. I have no struggles comparable to those of the characters in this movie. “Happy families are all alike,” as Leo Tolstoy writes, but “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
So what could someone from a good family possibly say about the mess of District 9?
District 9 came out the same year my eldest brother married his wife. Though I don’t hold a single romantic bone in my body, I cried at the wedding, a blubbering mess of a bridesmaid in front of the congregation. This had been the first time I’d seen romance blooming between two people; it would shape my view of marriage for the rest of my life, and it certainly shaped my first viewing of District 9.
In the movie, Wikus starts off as a corporate goon, a coward, and a bully. He flatters and demeans with the same smile, throwing around the weight of his newfound authority. He takes advantage of the language barrier between himself and the aliens to override their rights, and when that fails to work, he shouts and threatens to get what he wants. He has a smug demeanor that one would not mind seeing smacked from his face.
But somehow, I kept coming back to root for Wikus, kept wanting to see him survive the dangers that were snapping at his heels, thanks to a scene very early on in the movie. Here, his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) reminisces over the time they had together, guarding his memory jealousy against those who would speak against him. Through her eyes, I saw a doting husband and a faithful wife; an echo of the love that made me burst into tears as my brother and his wife said their vows.
When Tania describes how Wikus gave of himself for her, I am reminded of a time I ran an errand with my second brother and his wife to a clothing store. There, my sister-in-law found a type of jacket that she had been wanting for a long time, but the price was exorbitant. She didn’t have enough of the “fun money” she had budgeted for herself for the month, but my brother did. I watched them lightly argue back and forth, each of them wanting the other to have the funds, and for all my lack of romantic understandings, my heart still swelled at their banter.
These are the small gestures that speak of a good family. These are the small gestures that can see us through trials. A simple, “You are doing a good job,” from a parent as you fight to make a difficult decision can set your resolve to do the right thing. A single metal flower on Tania’s doorstep is enough to see her through the three years she has to wait before Wikus returns.
This commitment alone, however, could not keep my goodwill for the entire movie. After all, committing horrendous acts for the sake of being with a loved one is what results in a despicable figure like Darth Vader. Something has to change in Wikus.
Before the explosive third act of the film kicks into gear, District 9 slows for a quiet moment between the alien Christopher Johnson and his son. Christopher has recently learned that he cannot take his son away from the oppression of Earth and sits down to talk it over. Though clearly heartbroken, Christopher does his best to put on a good face, trying to paint the future as bright.
In this moment, Wikus becomes a spectator like us, a witness to this intimate moment between father and son. Just the movie asked me to relate to Wikus because of his wife, Wikus is asked to relate to Christopher because of his son.
This Christmas, I was witness to a similar moment, in which my usually-active baby niece settled in the arms of her other aunt and rested her head against my sister-in-law’s shoulder. It was a simple gesture, a small moment that passed quickly, but it spoke of so much trust that I again began crying. I knew how much my in-law loved our niece, and to see the seed of the love returned is a connection I want protected.
For Wikus, witnessing such a moment changes him. For the first time, he speaks honestly to the alien, physically brings himself down to Christopher’s level to meet his eyes, and empathizes with him. Later, in the climax of the film, Wikus again gathers his courage to face the mercenaries hunting him down, not for his and Tania’s sake, but for Christopher’s, saving the alien from execution because, “I’m gonna get you to your boy!”
Because of Wikus and Tania’s love for each other, I saw a character worth rooting for. Because of Christopher’s love for his son, Wikus saw a person worth fighting for.
The love of a good family is recognizable. When Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another,” he may not have been talking about the love of a biological family, but he frequently used familial terms to paint a picture of what love is. Jesus called God our “heavenly Father” (Matthew 7:11) and instructed us to address God as “Father” in our prayers (Matthew 6:9). Paul would later compare a marriage to the relationship between the church and Christ in Ephesians 5. Family, a good family, is a demonstration of what love should look like.
This love is something that will stand in sharp contrast to the circumstances we inhabit, whether it is the mess of changing a diaper or of a body rapidly transforming into an alien. It’s shown through the smallest gestures: a thoughtful gift or words of shelter from a bleak outlook. And the love of a good family inspires powerful responses, be it breaking into tears before a large gathering or charging through a war zone in a giant alien mech. The love of good families is all alike, but every good family shows it in their own way.
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