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The relationship between parents and children is not always a pleasant affair. For some there can exists a strain and distance that neither the parents or the children want. When this lack of connection exists, it often continues into the children’s adult years, sometimes with the grown offsprings cutting off contact from their parents. East of Eden looks at such a troubled relationship and does so with an insight that few films have had. On the surface matters seem pretty black and white and, as one watches this film, it can be easy to take sides. This is especially true if one has unresolved issues from a turbulent relationship with one’s parents or one’s adolescent children. But, if one observes carefully, one can see that the reality is much more complex. The father and his two sons have been touched by an ugly incident that occurred a long time ago. The boys had no idea that anything occurred although the event had a deep influence on their lives. This actually is something rather common: Children can be profoundly influence by something that happened before they were born or when they were too young to remember because the events had a strong impact on their parents and, indirectly in this way, an impact on them.

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Photo Credit:  The James Dean Memorial Gallery

How shall we describe Cal, the lonely teenage protagonist of this film? Alienated, sensitive, troubled, sullen, insecure, moody, vulnerable. These are words that are often used by families to describe certain members who don’t seem to fit in with their kin, and this is Cal. Such individuals are often seen as the "black sheep." They are often rebellious and a frustration to their parents. Their brothers and sisters, on the other hand, are often identified as solid, likable individuals who seem so unlike their troubled siblings and are people with whom one can feel proud to be related. This seems to fit Cal’s twin brother, Aaron, to a "t."

Cal appears to be an anomaly to his brother and widowed father. This is often the case in families in which one child seems so different from the others. As we get to know Cal and learn more about his family we begin to realize that his difficulties are an expression of some serious issues in his family. He is not the aberration that he appears but the most striking expression of the family’s troubles. This too is often the case with families.

People like Cal are probably at risk of developing into troubled individuals in part because of certain pre-dispositions with which they come into the world. There are some psychologists who would dispute this but most of my peers, I think, would agree. Most parents find that if they have two or more children, one is likely to be more strong willed or temperamental than the others. These are certainly qualities that Cal exhibits. These qualities in themselves are not an inherited problem but provide a challenge for the parents because these individuals are more demanding than their easier-going siblings. It takes more than predispositions to create a troubled individual like Cal, though. One must also be born into a family that has some limits or weaknesses. East of Eden allows us to see how a blatant but also an invisible circumstance affects not just Cal but his brother thereby influencing the persons they became.

Adam, the father, is well-liked and appears to be a sensitive and devoted man, if somewhat rigid. The sheriff says that he "has more kindness and conscious than any man I’ve ever known." Aaron appears to be very much like his father. From the beginning of the film we can see that there is something wrong with Cal. Some find him scary. Aaron, on the other hand, is confident, affectionate, and a great support to his father. Two boys could not seem to be more unalike.

We do not know what these boys were like as children. We can only guess by what is said. Adam, the father says of Cal that he "never understood that boy" and that he was "bad." Adam keeps forgiving Cal, but one also can see that he doesn’t really believe that the boy will change. Aaron was his "good boy," the one he could count on. Here we see a pattern that, once set in place, can be hard to break.

East of Eden
gives witness to a difficult truth: The cause of harm to someone like Cal can be subtle, often occurring without the source of the harm being aware of how he is impacting his family. Adam is a beaten man who has been troubled and depressed from the time his children were born. Typical of depressed parents, he was emotionally unavailable to his boys, especially Cal. This is not because he is insensitive or unloving but because his depression incapacitated him. This had a subtle but profound impact on his children, each who found his own way of dealing with the vacancy in their lives.

The source of Adam’s hollow existence is not only something about which no one talks but also about which Adam lies to his boys. In keeping his secrets, and covering them with acceptable stories, he keeps up a wall between himself and the boys and creates a situation that is always at risk of falling in on him. This concerns the incident that happened years ago related to their mother.

East of Eden
reveals how each boy deals with the truth once they encounter it. The film also shows a phenomena often seen in families with a troubled member: Once the person begins to come around, as Cal does, another family member, in this case Aaron, often undermines the change and begins to exhibit a troubled quality that was not evident before.

East of Eden
does not have a happy ending although there is some healing for Cal who finally finds peace with his father. The ending of this film is of such an ambiguous quality that it is truer to real life than most films. It also gives one pause to reflect on why things happened as they did to Adam and his sons.

Although it was made in 1955, East of Eden has a power and impact that has not been diminished by the years. In fact, if I had not remembered seeing this film when I was in junior high school, I would guess that it had been made years later. East of Eden was the first (and is the least known) of the three films which starred James Dean. His portrayal of Cal stands out to this day. (For information about James Dean, visit The James Dean Memorial Gallery)

Not rated by M.P.A.A.

Currently unavailable on video
The booklet Understanding Victimization can be an aid for those who struggle burdensome issues as Adam and his boys did. You might also find the booklet helpful to read after seeing East of Eden. For only $3.00 plus shipping and handling you can have this booklet mailed to you within two days! Check out this booklet NOW! Also available for $3.50 is A Practical Guide For Parents of Adolescents.  Check this booklet out NOW!
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Copyright 2003, 1998  Claremont Behavioral Studies Institute
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Background photo
Copyright 1990 Warner Bros.


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Last modified: 18 March, 2009