A new documentary called “The Wolfpack” explores the life of a reclusive Manhattan family of nine and just what happens when a patriarch exercises an almost criminal amount of control over his family. Despite living in a city of 8.1 million people, the Angulo children were taught not to speak or even look at strangers and were not allowed to leave their apartment for 14 years. It sounds unimaginable because it’s so unreasonable.
I watched “The Wolfpack” and found myself nodding at the screen again and again. I related to their lifestyle.
The Angulo children were taught that it’s too scary out there. In the documentary their father, Oscar Angulo, calls New York City “a piece of prison.” He says he didn’t want them to endure the “social pressure.” The kids were homeschooled by their mother.
With a great deal of resentment, his six sons decided they weren’t going to live this way anymore. They started going outside, going to see things they’d never seen before in a city that belongs to them. New York has been their only home all these years. I lived there for eight years. A native New Orleanian, I used the subway, saw the East River and visited Coney Island before any of the Angulo kids.
These six imaginative, soft-spoken brothers and their little sister retreat into movies because that’s really the only connection they have to a social world. Highly creative, they have rich internal worlds. They make movies, artwork and music. But they all talk about the same thing: living with a great deal of fear. When you grow up locked away from the world, you don’t feel socially competent and it leads to anxiety. You want what everyone else has but don’t have the tools to unlock it.
I lived in a very isolated area growing up and I wasn’t able to do many of the things that my peers were doing. I didn’t have a car, wasn’t given many adult responsibilities, and wasn’t allowed to go to places without an adult chaperone. I wasn’t allowed to participate in sports or clubs. I wasn’t allowed to date or go to school dances.
When you don’t often meet new people, it’s hard to make friends. It’s easier just to associate with the family. With a stagnant flow of information, reality seems to be whatever that small group says. If my a family member came home and said the whole world appeared to be wrapped up in wearing bonnets and drawing pictures of Saturn, you might believe them.
People aren’t meant to be controlled. They want to make their own mistakes. The more you deny them something, the more curious they become.
As I wrote in an earlier post, the thing the overbearing parent fears the most — abandonment — is exactly what they force their children to do. As soon as possible, they will get themselves free. But it’s harder for people who grew up this way. There’s the learned helplessness the parent used to keep them under their thumb that tells them they won’t make it on their own. There’s the years of unsharpened social skills that make the world seem inaccessible. There is endless work to be done in order to feel comfortable in their own skin.
I believe the Angulo children will be fine largely because they have each other. They did have a social life with six other siblings, they’ve honed creative ways to express themselves and they support each other.
To someone in a similar situation, I would say, look outward. There is support and acceptance out there. You can be part of the world, learn new ideas and perspectives and lead a perfectly normal life. We’re not products of our isolation and our minds are open.
Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures.