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Mad Men: Don Draper's Struggle With Estrangement


There are hundreds of writers currently penning articles about Mad Men, the hit AMC TV series. Over the seasons, it has uniquely threaded together commentary from disparate disciplines - interior designers, psychotherapists and business strategists alike.

As the founder of a charity dealing with family estrangement, I feel its my turn. And why not? The show is an incredible piece of work, and the incisive writing on the issue of estrangement deserves some attention.

Don Draper, the cool and aloof protagonist, was long estranged from his family - raised in poverty, shame and illegitimacy in the midst of a whorehouse. He walked away from his roots and their subsequent complications. And after changing his name, and forging a new identity, he set up shop in New York as a creative in the ad business.

But as the final series rolled on, life appeared to be spiralling out of control for Don: the glue holding him to his illustrious job, his children and the city seemed to be fast drying up. His emotional distance from people seemed more visible.

His ad agency was then absorbed by a larger multi-national - straightjacketing him into a more rigid working environment. And this was the crunch: because it was always work and its veneer of normality that saved Don from himself.

With all dissolving, he felt he had no option but to get on the road and scour the vast American landscape for something else to cling to, a new peg to hang his identity.

It's a strategy I've rolled with - many times in my life.

I have absolutely felt that the answers were in other places. The idea of starting again has felt so appealing as a prescription to soothe the dull ache of failed intimacy.

And Don's reticence to reconcile his past and present for intimate partners and friends was also strikingly well-written. He could never quite trust them. And when one takes on a completely new name, history and identity, it fragments you and others. It distances those people who, if given the right chance, may never judge your past as you judge it yourself.

Psychologists working in the area of family estrangement promote the idea of creating positive new narratives. And the idea of re-invention is useful for those of us leaving behind a painful past. But can one really move on as a completely new person, progress and forget the reality one used to inhabit? And more importantly can you forget those people we once called family?

Like Don, we may never cease to be jerked into a flashbacks of this other life, and reminded of the people our re-invented 'self' is peddling hard to deny. After a long time spent running, I feel it's crucial to embrace the past and be proud of its purpose in personal growth.

Thus the transformation I wanted for Don, in the final episode, was for him to become an honest man. I wanted him to change his name back, and for him to own his roots. But actually what I got was something different, but just as important. He broke through the cynicism and found a sense of unity and connection with the 'world family' through shared experience and eastern thought.

His 'satori' moment, on a cliff in California, reminded me of something that I woke up to when I ran away from life many years ago.

True identity is not unequivocally defined by closeness to blood relations, but by a more essential belief in your position in the world and humanity. We are a world family. All we have to do is believe it to access it, and trust ourselves and others around us.

It is that very sense of vital security that has so often soothed my loneliness and longing for a family in the darker hours. And I am so glad that Don Draper, one of my favourite ever characters, eventually found the skills to access this same belonging.

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