Rob Ford Provokes Unplanned Family Therapy En Masse

Gigawatts of digital ink have been spilt over the tragi-comedy of my Mayor, Rob Ford. Lots of exposure for the disease of addiction, ironic homages to his manipulative brilliance and stewardship of “Dark Politics” and even a twisted love poem from Toronto’s own villainelle, Lynn Crosbie.

And kudos to Shawn Whitney, who reminds us that Ford’s behavioral monstrosity is both a microcosm and a mask for his public service horror-show. His self-abuse and belligerence play a foul harmony to his agenda of greed, class stratification, privatization, anti-environmentalism, and slashing public services from libraries to urban farms to mental health support. More shameful than his antics, perhaps, is how we have all allowed them to distract from the venality of his public campaign, which scads of button-down, crack-free and teetotaling supporters continue to rally behind. Whether slash-and-burn libertarians smoke crack matters far less than the fact that they line up to slash and burn the drug recovery programmes they wouldn’t personally need because they can afford to go to swanky rehab clinics in the Caribbean, thank you very much.

So there’s a big stinking pile of Trying to Figure Ford Out: such is our obsession with train wrecks — and abusers. Who is he? What will he do next? Where is his shame? How low will he go? But the darker story is subjective. What are we going through as we watch him?

It’s paralysis, on several levels. Firstly, there’s our tenuous relationship to the meaning of facts. We’re stunned that we can’t legally remove a sitting mayor who has confessed to binge-drinking, binge-drinking and driving, and buying, possessing and using illegal substances. He even has the gall to brag about admitting to some criminal offences. When he gets bored of bragging the truth, he pivots to his general bragging list of lying points. Lying about past behaviour, treatment intentions, bloviating on CNN that he’s “built subways” and “saved a billion dollars” and that he’s the “best father around.” His hamster wheel of confessions and lies degrades the very possibility of “facts”. We feel like a collective Ron Suskind being gaslighted by Karl Rove for living in a “reality-based community”. In the post-facts world, nobody seems to know what to do when the very pretense of dignity goes up in pipe smoke, to dissolve into the spectacle of infotainment.

But many are paralyzed on a more primal level. We can see it if we close attention to how we feel as we’re watching it unfold. Glued to our radios and newsfeeds, poring over police documents scarred with black censorship boxes, a hundred thousand grim conversations over breakfast in the murmurs that emotional hostages use: What do you think will happen today? And then at the water cooler: Did you see the press conference? How many people are walking around, teeth on edge, feeling the chaos of Ford? Not his policies, but his hung-over, hyperglycaemic, congested, pinched, asthmatic, volatile, high-blood-pressured, acid-refluxing flesh? We’re not just watching something. We’re living something. We’re working something out.

As a therapist, I can see that so many are being retraumatized daily. By what? By the rage and violence that many of us remember from family life, from stories of addiction and enabling, from the schoolyards and locker rooms and dark alleyways of our vulnerability. We were bullied by older kids, bigger kids, angry kids, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. We know how it never stops until the bully is stopped or the addict surrenders – and so we can’t stop watching, waiting for the violence to be contained, because when it stops, a childlike trembling part of us will finally feel safe for a while.

We see that Ford only makes eye contact while menacing or sexually harassing. We see in his scarlet sweating face the pulsing arteries of accusation and veins of self-hatred. We watch the non-crack-smoking councilors sit tense and exhausted in the steel cage of the Council floor. We hear Ford blend apologies with excuses and excuses with attacks. If by some miracle he isn’t lying about not having had alcohol in three weeks, he’s a classic dry drunk.

It boils down to this: “Rob Ford is a nightmare” is not a metaphor. For many who feel viscerally ill at the sight of him hopped up and threatening to kill some “motherf$%&er” in somebody’s living room, or explaining how cyclists deserve to be hit by cars, or bumrushing elected officials in City Council chambers, it is literally true. You can toss it off as rhetoric or politics or minimize it into “personal issues” only to the extent that you are untraumatized, or at least think you are. Of course, minimizing his violence is itself a trauma response. So is enabling it.

Pundits have struggled to pigeonhole Ford’s demographic, and while the pollsters are finally homing in on the less-educated and the underserved, “Ford nation” remains both privileged and not, urban and not, white and not. It’s not taxes or transit or hating bicycles or gay people or “liberal elites” that binds it together. It’s the general alienation of late capitalist culture felt by everyone disconnected and disempowered, amplified by unresolved familial or cultural violence that must be normalized for survival. Ford Nation is congealed by the bitter cynicism that believes that the most government should do is to save it a few bucks on car registrations and pay the garbage workers less, and otherwise City Hall can go to hell. To keep our scraps, we enable cruelty.

Ford’s wife Renata might be in the solitary confinement of the direct enabler, in which she must take on the logic of the addict in order to survive: share his excuses, pardon his bad days, call the police for help when the violence at home is intolerable but then give conflicting testimony to throw prosecutors off, be grateful that it hasn’t been worse (at least lately), and desperately upsell the sunny side. But the spousal excuse of “He’s a good provider” elides with the libertarian excuse of “He saves me money” – and they’re both coming from the same place: a world in which violence and fear and inequality are just the facts of life in the long shadow of the abuser. Here, your primary task, affected through a tango of appeasement and avoidance, is to not lose any more than the abuser threatens to take. As in the family, so in the city.

Short of the court trials of tyrants, has there ever been a comparable spectacle in which millions are dragged into a public intervention and are forced to collectively resurrect their memories, or confront their present horrors in such detail? It’s an extraordinary moment that nobody asked for.

Perhaps we’re making the best of it. Children are asking questions when they come home from school. There are so many long pauses. People are sharing what they’ve learned from their own sorrows. Maybe some of us are feeling a little more like siblings to each other, wondering when dad will just get help or leave, already.

Former alcoholics and drug addicts — hats off to them — are phoning in to CBC radio, remembering the same rage and powerlessness that Ford is denying. They slowly describe their impossible recoveries that came only after incalculable losses. And they help us understand what might be going on when we read in the police report that Rob Ford would call his staffers late at night from his father’s grave, weeping into his cell phone. They know that abuse is intergenerational. They know how hard it is to stop it. They know that Rob Ford has children. Their names are Stephanie and Douglas.


  • Whoa. I’ve been wondering about how it’s going for you all ‘up north’ with this. Good article, and I think the last sentence is exactly the correct end note for the reader. I didn’t realize you were a therapist! The continent needs more like you.

  • Your piece popped up in my feed via yoga blogger Roseanne Harvey.

    I wish to thank you for writing it although I’m at a lack for words to articulate my response. I think the intergenerational aspect of addiction is key and its consequences can be subtle and far reaching. While I am lucky to have never experienced this violence firsthand, addiction is still not a topic that can be discussed in my family, at least not without provoking very conflicted feelings. Noticing this at home, I’ve come to be sensitive to these patterns elsewhere-and it’s everywhere. The possibility of a more constructive dialogue might emerge is encouraging, thank you for providing an example from which to start.

  • Thank you for this much needed post.

    I wonder if enabling is inherent in Canadian culture, somehow. On the surface, we’re polite and nice. We avoid confrontation. But in our minds, we’re quietly writing letters-to-the-editor about so-and-so. It’s an ideal environment for sociopaths (and the mafia, as I’ve been reading this week).

    Also wondering if Toronto represents a safe spot for those who escaped everyday abuse in another place — those who see Toronto, the city, as home. The past is being stirred up AND the present is under fire. It’s an incredibly challenging time for some.

    I’ve learned that opportunities for healing don’t like to be ignored : ) So hang in there, everyone.

  • This is a fabulously and well written article from a therapist, who I am sure hears these stories every day of his career. And he is so right, it definitely dredges up past experiences, and retraumatizes many, in particular those who are still learning to recover from their own traumas. I have hope that Rob Ford and family and his related connections who believe they are supporting him, while actually enabling him will find a new path, as the current one has a high probably of ending in a way that none of us who care about fellow human beings ever want to see. His story is too close to our own, and we see in him ourselves, and the potential for us to be in that same place and in away, he has become the public image for us to hope that he can find a new way. Whether it is finding “Jesus” as he says, or finding his true self and place in the world, to love himself and others and to understand the relationship between humans, I do sincerely with him the ability to find a way out of the depths that he now finds himself in. It will be a massive challenge for the council, the media and all of us to forgive and forget when we are unsure of what is coming next. Violent behaviour to self or others does not produce a “safe” environment and only in a safe environment can we truly learn to succeed, to overcome the challenges of life and to live to the greatest potential that we are all capable of. Thanks for such a wonderfully analytical and powerful summary of this. Your patients of your therapy are blessed to have you and I appreciate you taking the opportunity to bring your powerful insights to all of us.

  • Thanks for this great piece analyzing the wreck of a world consumed with this news. What continues to floor me about this whole ridiculous saga is the fact that Rob Ford story omnipresence has become normal or god given. His story – from literally since before he was elected has been given wildly disproportionate play. For years now the press has provided us with daily updates of buffoonery.

    On the one hand, it seems necessary for the news to report that our city, at least formally, has a governing mayor who one should not even trust to water their plants if they were away on vacation, on the other hand – think of all of the stories of our city that have not been told.

    Rob Ford is a violent male patriarch millionaire and the attention that has been sent his way is disproportionate to any other problem affecting our city. What about Rexdale, violence against women, increasing poverty, immigrant detention in Harperized jails… the slow demise of Rob Ford is also enabling our media to tell the same damn George Bush-OJ Simpson-etc. etc. in a priviledged way over all other important news. So, our media is also enabler – enabling the perpetuation of priviledge over legitimate democracy for all. Enabling upon enabling, as Harper shrinks Canadas government into an oil state – all anybody is hearing about is Rob Ford.

    Thanks for this important piece – and yes, may some family benefit, and heal – if only by a tremendously alchemical drive – from this literal corporate shit show.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.