I just recently received the latest issue of our newsletter, and in it there was a discussion of some recent films in which the issue of sexual abuse of boys was raised in some way. The reviewer had some criticisms of the films, and this reminded me of a far more famous film of a decade ago, “Sleepers”, famous of course because of the high-profile cast: Dustin Hoffmann, Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt.
This film had an enormous influence on me, and not just because it was, as I saw it, such a great film. It came out in 1996, right at the time when I was beginning to admit what had happened to me as a child and trying – badly – to cope with it. I have watched that film at least ten times, and each time it says something new to me. But at the same time I can see that my views of it have changed, and I thought I would share that with you and ask what others think. I think my post belongs here, rather than under books and films, because it is not "for" survivors but rather confronts us in certain ways.
In 1996 the film was mainly a shock to me. The scenes of abuse in the juvenile detention center were absolutely gut-wrenching, and I didn’t yet understand why. I was very nervous and almost felt like I was myself in danger. I couldn’t figure out why I was thinking “Oh no, here it comes”, things like that. So I was basically watching the film for its surface story line. Later I found myself thinking about the film a lot and waiting for opportunities to see it again. My reaction was distress at the situation that was setting these boys up for their fatal mistake, rage at what happened to them in detention, and then absolutely devilish glee at the brutal murder of Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon, the brutal paedophile guard) and the subsequent trial that was manipulated by Michael Sullivan, now a prosecutor, to win revenge for himself and his friends.
This year, however, I have seen the film twice, once after starting to come here to MS in May. I think the way I now regard the film shows how much I have matured in my understanding of survivors and CSA, and hence in my understanding of myself. I still feel for the four boys whose prank with the hot-dog cart is going to put them in such terrible danger. But I now see very clearly that what happened to them later in detention was in no way their fault. This is something that simply did not occur to me previously, not at all! I cried when Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra (author of the book), terrified on his first night in detention, is told by the guard to undress. It reminded me of the utter powerlessness, confusion, shame and fear I felt at age 11 when I was cornered alone by my grinning and eager abuser. And the scenes of abuse, well, I won’t go there if you don’t mind, except to say, again, the emotional recognition was intense. I also felt enormously for the inability of the boys to disclose what was happening to anyone, not even to their beloved Father Bobby.
So far so good. But now to the part where the boys have become adults. All four are messed up in some way, which did not surprise me. But two have become vicious criminals, and I immediately thought this was unfortunate: CSA causes lots of problems, but 50% of us don’t become drug-crazed killers with no life aside from violent street crime. I also objected to the way the victims gain satisfaction: murder and then utterly unprincipled perversion of the criminal justice system. I wasn’t feeling any pity for the paedophile guards, believe me! The problem is that the film sends out a lot of scrambled signals about what it means to be a “survivor” (more on this in a moment). First of all, the message is clearly that boyhood victims of CSA are permanently scarred and ruined. They don’t recover. “Shakes” and Michael return to their more or less meaningless lives and they recognize that taking their revenge has not helped them personally. There is no justice in the film: the guards are undone by devious plotting, lies and murder, and at no point in the film does society actually acknowledge that something needs to be done about CSA. All will continue as previously. The boys themselves are never vindicated or redeemed: as adults they continue to feel the same shame and worthlessness as before, and even their close friend Carol Martinez never comes within a thousand miles of saying anything like “This was not your fault”, “You are not alone”, and so on. In fact, the boys ARE alone! Two end the film dead, and the two others go their different ways as alone and tormented as when they got back together to take their revenge. In other words, there is no recovery, no healing. There are in fact no “survivors”, a word that never appears in the film. The fact that I noticed these points made me feel good about being me: I had picked up on all these issues because – hey, look at this! – I do believe that it wasn’t my fault, that I’m not alone, that I do have a chance to recover.
Beyond that, however, the film makes me think about how the public looks at CSA today. There are so many posts about this on the DB already – you guys know what I am talking about. I know that “Sleepers” was made a decade ago, when recognition of CSA among boys was just beginning to take hold. And if it is true that Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book refers to events from his own childhood, then of course we really are talking about a long time ago. But people continue to see the film NOW, and I doubt they will “get” the idea that the film does not accurately portray the way things are for survivors and what issues concern us. It’s a lose-lose situation, it seems to me. The film shows how horrific abuse is, but then fumbles the ball totally as soon as it moves to how the victims cope as adults. It is so like Hollywood – similar to films where the excellent point of the brutality and savagery of the westward expansion is blunted by endless episodes showing Native Americans as primitive buffoons. So I no longer see this film as a great one, but would continue to say it is very important.
Another point is who gets to see the film? The real-world answer now is of course anybody, because of videos, DVDs and Sky, but it is interesting to see how this film, “R” –rated in the USA, was certified in Europe. Only in France, where it was certified as acceptable for 12-year-olds, could a boy under 15 have seen it in the theatres.
Anyway, enough for now. Is this a record-length post for me?
Seriously, I wonder what others think or if they have had similar experiences or views.
Love to all,