Exploring the Darker Side of Found Family

I love a good found family story. I know I’m not alone; it’s a popular and beloved trope for a reason. At this time of year in particular, when there is so much pressure to do family stuff, regardless of how one might feel about family, stories about families of choice can be especially appealing.

It doesn’t have to be about yearning or loss or escapism either. (I actually like my family just fine, even when my sisters wrongly and outrageously insist that their cats are cuter than my cats.) No matter what our individual circumstances are, there is rich emotional drama to be mined from stories about people who find and care for and keep each other regardless of how the whims of the universe threw them together. Comfort and support, trust and understanding, familiarity and fondness—these are the things a family of choice is made of, and spending time with them in fiction can be delightful.

But—there’s always a but—if you are like me, and there lives inside you still the child who spent more time giving your Barbies safety-scissor buzz-cuts and shoebox funerals than you ever spent making them play house, sometimes you look at those warm, squishy, soft, soothing scenarios with a wild glint in your eye, and you think, “Sure, okay, but what if it goes horribly wrong?”

So let’s talk about the spider people of Mount Natagumo.

It feels just a little bit silly to introduce the anime Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, based on the manga by Koyoharu Gotouge, which is only a few years old but already one of the bestselling manga series and most-watched anime series of all time. I expect some readers will be familiar with the story, but for those who need some intro: Demon Slayer tells the story of a precious cutie-pie of a teenager named Tanjiro Kamado, who comes back one day to his home in rural Taisho-era Japan to find that his entire family has been brutally murdered by a demon—except for his sister, Nezuko, who has survived the attack but transformed into a demon herself. A demon slayer named Tomioka Giyu shows up to finish Nezuko off, but when she demonstrates that she will still fiercely protect her brother, he decides to recruit Tanjiro instead. Tanjiro agrees, because learning as much as he can about demons is his only chance at saving his sister.

What follows thereafter is a panoply of Shonen tropes: training montages, battle contests, special weapons, mismatched allies becoming friends, so many magical fights, and of course an ever-escalating battle of good versus evil. The building blocks are familiar, sure, but it’s all so well done that it’s hard to mind. The characters are delightful; the action is exciting; the monsters are creative and scary.

My personal favorites among these monsters (so far!) show up about halfway through the first season, when Tanjiro and his fellow beginner demon slayers, the cowardly Zenitsu and the raised-by-wild-boars Inosuke, are sent into the mountains to help hunt some demons. What they find when they arrive, however, is a situation well beyond their ability to resolve; a dozen or so more experienced demon slayers already present have all been either killed or overpowered. The demons have an army of spiders they can deploy to string up their victims like puppets, then force them to slaughter each other. All of which is, yes, delightfully dark and perfectly horrifying, but where it gets really creepy is when we see these demons interacting with each other.

We meet Mother, who is clearly more terrified of the other demons than she is of the demon slayers. We meet Father, who seems to have no thoughts in his mind except thunderous rage toward the people attacking his family. We meet the Son, who plays with his prey like toys, and the Daughter, who wants to stay out of her family’s troubles.

And we meet Rui, who is both the younger brother and the family founder, a demon who has internalized the family-of-choice trope so deeply that his entire existence is built around collecting a family for himself. He offers other demons a shared home, mutual protection, and increased power, and in exchange they engage in a skin-crawlingly off-kilter performance of family life. They even sit down to dinner together before empty plates in a dusty dining room, pretending to share a meal as humans would, when in fact humans are the only food they need. Everybody has a role to play, and deviation from that role results in punishment or death.

Is that a family? Well, on the one hand, lolwtf no, because homicidal hostage situations do not become families just because some participants get the names Mother and Father. But on the other hand, it’s not like there aren’t real families in the world that are held together through fear and cruelty rather than love and warmth. It is unfortunately all too common; the label family alone does not guarantee love and support. The reason fictional families of choice are so popular is because we love stories in which characters get plucked from the bad kind of family and placed in the good kind, regardless of where lines of blood relationships and legal obligations happen to be drawn.

Rui’s desire for family is absolutely earnest. It’s not a lie to gain power, the way it is with cult leaders (both real world and fictional) who work so hard to convince their followers that their bond is lovingly familial rather than abusively coercive. It’s not a trick or a con. It’s not even gaslighting, because Rui genuinely believes he can make a family in this way. He knows he had a human family once, before he became a demon at a very young age, and he knows what families are supposed to be. He really, truly wants a family. It’s telling that he doesn’t cast himself as the father or eldest brother; he gives himself parents and older siblings, because he still sees himself as a kid. He doesn’t know enough about how loving, non-toxic families work to do that in a healthy and functional way… he is a child who lost his family in a deeply traumatic experience and has coped with it, uh, badly.

It doesn’t help that his only role model for demonic family building is head honcho demon Muzan, the patriarch of all demonkind, whose idea of a family gathering is to get a bunch of his demon kids together and murder them one by one while lecturing them about how it’s their fault for disappointing him. Demons have their own natural family structure, but it’s a really, really shitty one, so it’s no wonder that at least one of them would go out looking for a better option.

Rui is set up as a direct narrative foil to Tanjiro, a kid who also lost his family in a deeply traumatic experience, but has coped with it rather differently. Part of this is due to the fact that Tanjiro and Nezuko’s family was a loving, healthy one—not easy or free from pain, as they were very poor and their father passed away, but still a good family by any measure. And part it is due to Tanjiro’s related protagonist superpower: his absolutely inexhaustible well of compassion and kindness.

We see it in all the usual ways, such as when he is befriending fellow demon slayers who have no real concept of friendship or family, or understanding and working alongside even those people who keep telling him they are going to kill his sister. Tanjiro and Nezuko basically get dumped from one lovely family into a complex and challenging interlocking web of much more troubled found families, and what helps them navigate it is the fact that Tanjiro’s empathy is boundless—even when he is angry, annoyed, scared, or hurt. (He is such a good boy, but he is also a warrior.) And where it really shines is when we see how his compassion isn’t only reserved for allies in demon slaying or victims of demons. He has plenty to share in his dealings with the demons themselves.

After his battle with Rui—which Tanjiro was losing badly, until a couple of more experienced and more powerful demon slayers showed up to save him—Tanjiro’s response to Rui’s death isn’t triumph or satisfaction, even though Rui was seconds away from slicing him and Nezuko to pieces with demonic spider webs. It is, instead, incredible sadness, that this is what should become of a lonely kid who wanted only to love and be loved, but didn’t know how to find that again once it has been lost. He can look at somebody who was literally seconds from destroying him and recognize that not only are there tragedies and traumas in their own past, not only do they have their own pain, not only do they have their own reasons that go beyond wanton cruelty, but that it never had to be that way in the first place.

In good stories, with good characters, giving a villain or antagonist a tragic or traumatic backstory won’t serve to excuse their choices, but to instead provide valuable context for why they make those choices. Trauma can disrupt our abilities to cope with difficult situations and make good choices. People are complicated, but one simple thing about all of us is that pain and suffering fuck us up. A found family story can be an exploration of how the path a character actively chooses for their future can heal what fucked them up in the past.

The key element here is the choice in a family of choice. And it is important to remember that sometimes people make terrible choices. It happens in real life, so characters should have that potential in fiction as well. Sometimes a craving for connection and family leads to loving groups of charming and quirky friends laughing around the dinner table—but sometimes it leads to the Manson family.

This is why I think that explorations of how such choices can go wrong are just as interesting and compelling as those that go right and end happily. Every emotional combination of people, however or whyever they are bound together, has a potential for darkness as well. We don’t always call it found family or family of choice when it goes wrong—that term tends to be reserved for the positive—but I think we should. The demonic spider people in Demon Slayer are one very deliberate example, but we don’t have to look very far to find more across all genres of fiction. Consider, for example, the groups of fucked-up young people in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Tana French’s The Likeness, the whole whatever-the-hell-it-is that’s going on with Abigail Hobbs and her new murder dads in Hannibal,  quite a lot of the character relationships on the nobody-is-okay The 100, every time Professor X and Magneto make their kids fight instead of inviting them to a big gay wedding, those SoCal vampires in The Lost Boys, any number of cults and crime families and roving bands of post-apocalyptic warriors…. There are examples of people banding together as family in ways that aren’t completely warm and aren’t always comforting and aren’t unerringly wholesome all over the place, once you start to look.

Whether those kinds of stories appeal to you is, of course, entirely a matter of personal preference. I love all kinds of found family stories, but I admit I am less enthralled by those that make it all seem a bit too easy, a bit too free of tension or pitfalls. I like it when the characters have to work for it, and there is a real risk that they might, at some point, make the wrong choice. Those are the families of choice that I find most engaging and—perhaps paradoxically—the most comforting.

I always find myself thinking about a conversation from the very excellent Homicide: Life on the Street (cast your minds back to the dark ages of the mid-’90s), when Bayliss makes some comment about how other squads of detectives have social gatherings and comraderies that make them seem like family, and how their own squad isn’t like a family at all. And Pembleton’s response is, “Yes, we are. But we’re like a real family. Opinionated, argumentative, holding grudges, challenging each other. We push each other to be better than we are. That kind of thing doesn’t happen at barbecues or ball games.”

Rui the sad demon spider boy tried to build a family of choice by putting on the performance of one—assigning specific roles, sitting down to dinner together, living together, even fighting against enemies together—and he didn’t know what was missing until it was too late. He may be a monster, but his personal tragedy lies in what’s missing, in the gaps that are what might have been, in knowing that he wanted something but not understanding, truly, what it required.

So as we barrel headlong into the holiday season, go ahead and share your favorite fiction about families of choice, whether they are wholesome or toxic or complicated, or anywhere in between. Somebody out there will appreciate them, whatever they may be.

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults. Her most recent novel is the science fiction thriller Dead Space. Her short fiction has appeared in ClarkesworldF&SFAsimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines.

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