Behind the dimly lit arena, past the gold-plated championship belt hoisted in the air, and further, beyond the success of a prominent professional wrestling family, lies tragedy, trauma, and a possible curse. Such is the story in A24’s The Iron Claw (2023), which explores the saga of the Von Erich family. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Von Erich men were at the top of the professional wrestling world, due in large part to their ever-so-disciplined father, Fritz Von Erich, who held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship in the early ’60s.

As time goes on, and the popularity of professional wrestling increases, the Von Erich boys—Kerry, David, Mike, and Kevin—face the arena head-on, regardless of whether it’s their desire or not. With their father as head coach, the boys are kept on a strict routine with a tight leash. Wrestling is everything for their father, and so it becomes everything for them, with any free time spent preparing for the next championship match.

The Von Erich family was no stranger to loss or grief thanks to the tragic passing of their first born, Jack, at the age of six. By the mid ’90s, however, the Von Erichs had experienced more tragedies than one could imagine with the deaths of David, Kerry, Mike, and Chris. (Chris Von Erich’s story is not covered in The Iron Claw as the director felt the “unyielding tragedy of the… story proved to be too heavy for the traditional screenplay structure.”)

I wonder if the Von Erichs’ history is more of a cautionary tale, a warning against what happens when we value some things more highly than we ought to.

Earlier in the film, surviving brother Kevin claims a “curse” is behind the specter of death that seems to loom over his family. I don’t necessarily believe that the Von Erichs’ horrific and painful tragedies were strictly due to a family curse—or any other specific reason for that matter. That feels tone-deaf to their grief. What’s more, providing a reason or purpose for one’s grief or loss is rarely helpful.

Rather than focusing on a mythical curse as the central driving force, I wonder if the Von Erichs’ history is more of a cautionary tale, a warning against what happens when we value some things more highly than we ought to. Saint Augustine would describe that as a “disorder of loves,” the idea that the things we love need to be placed in their rightful order. He frames it this way in On Christian Doctrine:

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.

For Fritz Von Erich, his main “love” was neither family nor community, but rather, the world of wrestling and a deep desire for success and notoriety. I would not go so far as to say that had Fritz correctly “ordered” his loves, then his family’s heartbreaking losses would not have happened. As noted earlier, I don’t find that helpful, true, or fair. If there was a world, however, where Fritz had re-shifted his gaze to the correct loves in his life, such as his family, then perhaps he would have seen those things that truly brought his children joy. Perhaps he would have seen how Mike’s face lit up while leading his band at a house show for his friends and family. Maybe he would have had more insight into Mike’s world rather than pushing him into a world of wrestling that he had no innate desire to be in. Perhaps Fritz would have been able to see the internal battles of addiction and mental anguish that his sons were facing before it all came to a head.

Saint Augustine also noted that “in order to discover the character of people, we only have to observe what they love.” This is a very simple idea, but quite revealing when reflected on. The common loves of today are not that far off from what Fritz Von Erich considered paramount.

We spend hours on our phone staring at our curated images, secretly hoping a certain number of likes will provide the affirmation we crave while forgetting that real connection happens offline. We count our calories so we can fit back into the jeans we wore in high school, forgetting that age is a real thing and beauty standards are forever fleeting. We lie to get ahead in our work and careers, leaving our integrity at our desk. We take time, money, and energy away from our friends, family, and communities and instead, spend them on the most futile and trivial things and expect them to fulfill the hollowness in our own souls. In all of these, our character becomes more obvious than we realize.

The idea of re-ordering our loves to focus on the things that matter and will outlive us can feel daunting. Maybe because that means exchanging our self-centered desires and longings for something greater. And usually the things that are greater are those very same things that reflect the love, goodness, and gifts of God. Philosopher and author James K.A. Smith put it this way in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit:

Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all—a vision encapsulated by the shorthand “the kingdom of God.

None of us are immune to the hurt and brokenness of life. And most of us are prone to order our loves in ways that serve our own agendas more so than anything else. This is something that will not be made right until glory. In the meantime, the Von Erichs’ story, with its grief and tragedy, is a powerful reminder to consider where we place our loves and to make sure that they are placed on the right and beautiful things of life.


5 Comments

  1. Incredibly insightful!

    Through out the film my heart went out to Von Erichs. There story is filled with so many highs and lows and event though it looked like they had success on the surface, they were struggling so deeply.

    Just subscribed to your Substack!

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