Possible lessons may be drawn from an awful movie

Joe Nathan Column — Would you find a movie entertaining in which a father repeatedly struck and screamed at his six-year -old daughter?  Probably not.

But, incredibly, and unfortunately, a recent movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is getting some positive reviews, though it includes the scenes I’ve just described.

Because the impact of child abuse can be so strong and long lasting and the response of some movie critics has been bizarre, it’s important to discuss.

Amy Russell

Amy Russell is the National Child Protection Training Center deputy director.

First, here are comments from an interview with Amy Russell, deputy director for the National Child Protection Training Center.  Ms. Russell is based in Winona.  She has a master’s degree in counseling and graduated with high honors from the State University of New York, Buffalo, law school.  So she is a trained counselor and an attorney.  She has been hired by UNICEF, has served as an expert witness in various court cases, and has interviewed over a thousand children.

Ms. Russell has not seen the movie. After I described several scenes in it, she had many concerns.  Continuing to strike and scream at a child “can produce short-term and long-term impacts.”  Short term, “it can result in youngsters blaming themselves.”

Long term, “more than 25 studies show it can result in both physical and mental health problems.”  For example, people who have been abused are more likely to “have heart attacks, cancer, liver disease and depression.”

I’ve looked at several reviews, neither of which mentioned that the father repeatedly strikes and screams at his daughter.  Ms. Russell told me that a victim of child abuse who went to the movie without knowing what was going to happen “could relive” her/his own trauma.  It could produce additional problems for such a person.”

Though I don’t have Russell’s experience, when I was a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, I worked with several students who were victims of physical and/or mental abuse.  My conclusions were similar about the short-term impact.  No youngster deserves to be repeatedly hit.  Yet, these youngsters wondered what they had done to deserve this.

I remember one young man who was reluctant to speak at all, because he was so scared that someone would hit him again.

Russell reminded me how important it is for others to intervene, if they see abuse taking place.  “Neighbors and educators can be very helpful in providing better role models and encouragement.”  (In the movie, the neighbors also are dysfunctional, constantly getting drunk and not responding when the father hits the daughter.)

Russell also explained the importance of having programs where young people can develop resiliency and a better view of themselves.  “We urgently need after-school programs so youngsters who do well in areas like music or theater can get some positive responses. That’s why I’m concerned about cuts in these areas.”

Yes, the movie has some scenes that are beautifully shot in Louisiana bayous.  The six-year-old girl who is battered seems resilient. Critics seem to love that.

Russell pointed out that she might withdraw (as this youngster does) and have huge long-term problems.  You’d never know that from the movie.  On balance, it’s awful.

Thanks to Ms. Russell and others like her, we’re learning how to deal with child abuse.  Hopefully, we can reduce it.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org

  • John Miller

    Thanks for this, Joe! At the very least, entertainment such as this inures us to the very real and lasting damage that trauma from abuse can create. We fall into a new normal, in which the reprehensible is just another thing that “happens.”

  • Scott Sands

    It doesn’t take much abuse to destroy a child’s desire to learn.

  • http://HometownSource.com Julie Febres

    I can only think of one thing worse than a movie like this, and that is the actual abuse. A film or live theatre can also leave an imprint; and to someone who has been abused it can be as if they are reliving a bad scene, ugly abuse – either physical or verbal. There are also people who cannot watch violent movies. Some people love scary movies, war pictures, etc., while other people cannot watch them. It is as real to some people as an actual event. Children are too vulnerable, not always able to select what they watch. Children may or may not ougrow aversion to ugliness and violence.
    As a high school Spanish teacher I recall a film about the babies who were kidnapped by the air force in Argentina and adopted by military families; while their mothers were either killed in prison after having given birth, or dropped into the ocean from planes, so their stories would not be told. (Numerous articles can be found about it in the New York Times in the 1970’s.) None of that was actually shown in the film; but there was one scene where a top official, who had one of these babies, nearly crushed his wife’s hand in a door for hinting that their 5 year old might be from one of those women. I talked with other teachers and they advised I not show the film to my classes, even though it was true political history. It was too disturbing, even for adults.
    The mind is a powerful thing. It turns against us at times – confusing us in our old age, causing emotions to bring out our worst behaviors at times – anger, jealousy, hatred, wars, etc. It can traumatize us – as with PTSD. Or it can work as beautifully as a well-tuned piano or antique clock. Great research is done with it in the fields of medicine, space. It is a bad thing to waste!
    Furthermore, there is no accounting for when the mind can recall bad things. I learned there is such a thing as physical memory. Our minds can return in time to bad moments, the memories triggered by our surroundings. I met a lady geophysicist in Texas who flew to
    Minnesota to see her sister in the psych ward, who had a flashback of being abused by a husband and wife when she went to babysit their children. My friend, once on the return plane to Texas, had a flashback of the same events when a man next to her simply asked her why she had flown to MN. She also ended up in the psych ward – for months.
    The mind is also very creative, and it can get us into trouble against our will. As a parent I did not want my children exposed to ideas and things that could cause any conflict in their views of what is right and wrong. Even adults are drawn to cults, just as younger people are to gangs. There are enough choices to make in life and enough challenges for young people, that we do not need to add problems to their lives!
    There is no amount of therapy that can permanently remove the harm that physical and verbal abuse leave on a person, and I feel the same way about violence on the screen. For that reason I am opposed to violence and brutality in film or other media for children. Games are attractive to children, and make violence seem like fun. As adults we are bombarded with horror and brutality daily in the news. So there is no escape for adults, but we could try to spare our children from being overly exposed to these things. We should not lie to them, but we can explain that we are opposed to violence.
    In conclusion, we should beware of what our children are watching at home, at neighbors’ homes and in school, and we should be available to discuss things with them. Parents and
    older persons should set good examples for children as well.

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