Emotional Incest

A.C. Gleason
7 min readJul 27, 2018


Pixar’s opening short animations have become one of the best and most unique of contemporary film traditions. But possibly the weirdest and darkest one so far is Bao attached to The Incredibles 2. The Thrillist summarizes it pretty well:

“Director Domee Shi knows her Pixar short Bao, which screens before Incredibles 2, goes to some dark places. The little film tells the story of a dumpling that awakens, screaming like a baby just before its creator, an older Chinese woman, is about to sink her teeth into it. From there, the meat-filled creature becomes her surrogate child. It ages and gets surly — like most young adults do. When it is about to leave home, with a girlfriend in tow, the mother gets frustrated and swallows it whole. Bizarre, right?”

But it turns out it was only a nightmare. The lady’s real son comes home and they make up. The family becomes reunited and its a happy ending. Clearly it’s a parable of sorts. But the darkest aspect of this little story seems to have gone mostly unnoticed. Because it actually depicts a particular form of incest, one that is relatively unknown.

There are two kinds of incest. The “normal” kind is usually called sexual or overt. This is where a parent-child relationship becomes explicitly sexual. This is contrasted with the other kind: emotional or covert incest. This form is much subtler and harder to explain. But Bao does a pretty good job of showing the basic essence of it.

When the mother literally eats her tiny surrogate child it isn’t just the culmination of her frustrations with a stubborn teenager. It represents more than that. Throughout the “nightmare” her husband is completely absent. He essentially plays no role in her life. She has become alone and when this little “child” comes into existence it becomes her entire life. She has essentially created a spousal relationship to it. And when the “child” joins itself to a woman she deems unworthy she becomes so enraged that she literally eats the little guy. And that is ultimately what incest is: the consumption of your children.

In the book Silently Seduced: When Parents make their children Partners Psychologist Kenneth Adams writes:

“There is nothing loving or caring about a close parent-child relationship when it services the needs and feelings of the parent rather than the child. “Feeling close” with your parents, particularly the opposite-sex parent, is not the source of comfort the image suggests. It is a relationship in which the individual, both as a child and later as an adult, feels silently seduced by the parent. Feelings of appreciation and gratitude do not prevail in these “close” relationships. Instead, they are a source of confusing, progressive rage.”

Any number of things can bring this on. It can literally be a generational family tradition where spouses never really become joined to each other and instead marry their children, and then their children do the same thing, etc. And the horrible cycle goes on and on. In fact it can even happen between grandparents and grandchildren. But marital dysfunction is always at the heart of this kind of abuse. Adam’s continues:

“Covert incest occurs when a child becomes the object of a parent’s affection, love, passion, and preoccupation. The parent, motivated by the loneliness and emptiness created by a chronically troubled marriage or relationship, makes the child a surrogate partner. The boundary between caring love and incestuous love is crossed when the relationship with the child exists to meet the needs of the parent rather than those of the child. As the deterioration in the marriage progresses, the dependency on the child grows, and the opposite-sex parent’s response to the child becomes increasingly characterized by desperation, jealousy, and a disregard for personal boundaries. The child becomes an object to be manipulated and used so the parent can avoid the pain and reality of a troubled marriage.”

The point is that the child is being used to fill an emotional place that should only belong to a spouse. In overt incest its easy to see how sexual dysfunction works in this regard. Its much harder to see how emotional incest accomplishes essentially the same thing.

Its important to clarify what emotional incest does not mean. It doesn’t mean being honest with your children. It doesn’t mean spending quality time with your children with or without your spouse. It certainly does not mean doting on, caring for, or loving your children. Those things are done for the sake of the child. Those things are normal. Father’s taking daughters out on dates is normal. How else is a girl supposed to learn how she should be treated by men? Mother’s helping their sons face and process their emotions is normal. It goes beyond healthy active parenting, and it’s not easy to spot.

This form of abuse is really a disposition of the soul not a specific activity. Like most sins it starts with our internal life. The question is really why does a parent want to say or do this particular thing with their child?

Lets say that on Friday nights “Bill” goes out drinking after work. His wife “Betty” hates it because Bill’s ritual makes her feel threatened. But she never actually tells Bill that she feels this way. Instead every Friday night she rents a romcom and makes her son watch it with her. That in itself is pretty innocent. But after the movie Betty always takes her son for a walk. The entire walk is spent with her son listening to how awful his father Bill is. How he never does anything romantic. There’s usually a rehearsal of the dumber things Bill has done over the years. This weekly cycle goes on for years.

Bill and Betty seem relatively happy. Their marriage appears to be normal. But for some reason Bill never does anything with their son. They don’t watch sports together or go fishing. Nothing. No one ever mentions this in front of Bill. Instead Betty adds it to her accusatory list and their son gets to hear about it every week after the romcom. And Betty isn’t wrong, Bill should be doing things with their son. Most of her criticisms are probably legitimate. The problem is that she refuses to burden Bill with them. Maybe she’s sickly and feels guilty that he has to work a horrible job to provide for the family. But that is marriage. Dealing with each other’s problems together.

And Bill doesn’t need to know that his son gets a weekly shrew lecture to know something is wrong. He can sense that Betty is actually married to their son. That’s the person she has a real relationship with. She may be opening her legs for Bill but she opens her heart to their son.

So this covert contract that all three are engaged in makes a poor marriage functional. But when the son leaves what happens? Maybe divorce. Maybe the son never leaves because he’s married to mom. The point is that the real victim of a marriage like that is not the parents but the child. Their son has been continually abused for years.

Listening to a mother complain about her husband may not seem like abuse. But it is. The son in this story was robbed of his childhood. He probably felt like it was his responsibility to take care of his mother’s emotional needs. And it most certainly was not. The mother was being cowardly and selfish. She should have told Bill how she felt but she refused and told herself that it was loving or something equally stupid. And Bill also was being cowardly and selfish. His basic sexual needs were met so he let it go. But deep down he knew what was going on. He knew he was failing as a Father and more importantly a husband.

Process addictions (ritualistic action based like cutting or sex) are usually developed at some point to cope with the abuse. Substance addictions (drug and chemical based) are less likely because victims of covert incest tend to be codependents. That means they usually desire to control the way others perceive them and the perception of self control is often the very thing that substances take away. Internet pornography is the perfect venue because its free and easy to access. The trail is easy to cover. And there’s no “real people” involved.

Contrasted with illicit affairs which can literally be life threatening and real life promiscuity leads to disease. Porn has the illusion of control. But all addictions eventually lead to death if they go unaddressed.

Now for the good news. How to prevent this kind of incest from infecting your family. Shockingly to some there is great wisdom on this subject in the Bible. Genesis 2:24 “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Your spouse is more important than your children. Your spouse is more important than your parents. When you get married you create a new kind of bond. You are supposed to become one. Spiritually and physically. If you’re the victim of covert incest you need to strongly separate from your parents and deeply unite to your spouse. It will be better for your parents too, because it will force them to deal with their bad marriage. And focusing on your spouse is also the perfect way to protect your children from this kind of abuse. If you take care of yourself and your spouse then the opportunity for this abuse disappears.

In order to care for your spouse you will need to cultivate some same sex friendships. Women and men are very different and both need space to express their sexuality with true peers where there is both ease of understanding and a lack of judgment.

And single parents need to prioritize their actual peer group friendships. Children should not be a source for comfort. You should not be asking your children if you’re doing a good job. They have no idea. Children are stupid and selfish. They are going to say whatever they think will benefit them most and displeasing a parent rarely benefits them in the short term. Single parents most of all need to seek out self care and good friends. Parenthood is extremely difficult and single parenthood even moreso. Single parents need even more friendship support, especially if they’re trying to recover from emotional incest themselves.

If you’re struggling with any of these issues know that others have been there and have made it. But you need to tell someone. If you suspect you’ve been an abuser in this regard or the abused tell someone. Change cannot happen alone. It requires courage, it requires reaching out. It’s embarrassing and painful but it could save your life or the life of someone you love.