Page four, Cinematic Depictions

A Brother's Kiss (1997) is the story of two boys growing up poor in New York City. Sons of a promiscuous though loving single mother, they are chronically exposed to the sounds of her lovemaking with various men. There is an early scene in which the older brother (aged about 15) leads the younger one (aged about 10) into Central Park at night, where they are waylaid by a policeman who rapes the younger boy. The rape is interrupted after penetration when the rapist is attacked and knifed by the older brother. As a result of this incident, the older boy is sent to reform school. There is never any direct discussion of the effect of the rape or the overstimulation by the mother as the boys grow up and deal with the various harshness of their environment. The younger boy, however, who grows up to be a policeman, is portrayed as sexually constricted in a highly sexualized neighborhood and familial milieu.

Sleepers (1996) is a gritty portrayal of the aftermath of torture, beatings, and sexual abuse in a boys' detention center. It is described by its writer, Lorenzo Carcaterra, as true and autobiographical, although New York State authorities deny its veracity. Set in the late 1960s, the movie tells the story of four boys of about 13 from the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City, a poor working-class neighborhood where crime and domestic violence are rampant. The boys are involved in petty crimes, but one of these crimes inadvertently results in a man being critically injured. The boys are sentenced to a juvenile detention center. They are not hardened when they go to the reform school, and indeed are relatively innocent, despite their exposure to and participation in crime. They are certainly unaware of what may lie ahead of them when they arrive at the center, frightened and chastened. Once there, they are soon brutalized and raped anally and orally by vicious guards. These events occur over a period of months and are portrayed in powerful detail.

Before the first of them is released from the center, this conversation takes place among the boys about their experiences:

"I don't want anyone to know. . . ."

"I can't think of anyone who needs to hear about it. Either they won't believe it or they won't give a shit."

"I don't think we should talk about it once it's over, you know?"

"We have no choice but to live with it. And talking makes living with it harder. So we might as well not talk about it. The truth stays with us."

The rest of the movie is set about ten years later, and is a tale of the boys' revenge against the guards, whom they manage to murder or implicate in crimes. In a dramatic scene, one of the former guards breaks down in tears on the witness stand, confessing his role in the rape and torture of young boys at the reform school.

In this latter part of the movie, we see the young men suffering flashbacks of the original victimizations, and other posttraumatic effects of their brutalizations are described, such as not sleeping unless there is a light on. There is a celebratory scene at the end where the four are reunited, and we hear one of them say, "It's time for quiet. I just want to shut my eyes and not see the places I've been. I'm weary. Maybe I'll get lucky and forget I was even there."

The movie has a coda in which we learn the fates of the young men. Two die violent deaths before the age of 30, one is a nonpracticing attorney in dire psychological straits, and the fourth is the narrator, who says in a voiceover, "I am the only one who can speak for them and the children we were."

In these three movies involving the rape of boys, the scenarios are different, but the boys have common reactions and aftereffects. All the boys keep silent about their abuse, and the effect of their silence in each case is chilling and spreads far beyond the specific betrayal situation. The man in Prince of Tides is filled with unexpressed rage, and in his adult life has come to a crashing halt. The boy in A Brother's Kiss reacts to his rape and the general sexual overstimulation of his environment by becoming interpersonally constricted and isolated. The men in Sleepers are failures of one sort or another, suffer from PTSD, and, with perhaps the exception of the narrator, give up any semblance of having satisfying lives in order to get vengeance on their rapists.

By contrast, in the creepily offbeat and disturbing Blue Velvet (1986), a movie in which a woman comes close to raping a young man at knife point after forcing him to strip, the scene is frightening but erotic. The young man whispers how much he likes what the woman is doing to him, and his sexual involvement with her becomes a willing one. She is portrayed as weak, pitiful, and terrified, while he saves her life and solves the mystery at the heart of the movie's plot.

Institutionalized Sexual Abuse

The Boys of St. Vincent (1994) is a two-part movie depicting long-term, brutal sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of boys in an orphanage. It is based on true events in a Newfoundland Catholic home for boys and their aftermath. It addresses several diverse themes related to the sexual abuse of boys, and conveys much of the complexity of boys' reactions to it. In addition, its unusual portrayal of the chief abuser, particularly in Part II, shows him as a complicated individual whose behavior, while appalling, becomes understandable, though not forgiveable.

In Part I, we see the boys' abuse in horrifyingly graphic detail. Brother Lavin, the Superintendent of the Home, is spellbinding and charismatic, but terrifying. He frequently summons Kevin, his "special boy," to his office. There, he holds, caresses, kisses, and otherwise molests Kevin while murmuring how much he loves him. In these moments he sometimes says he is Kevin's dead mother. But if Kevin displeases him, Brother Lavin explodes in physically abusive rage. When this happens, we see Kevin's hands and body go limp.

The involvement between the Superintendent and Kevin is not isolated at the orphanage, where many boys are abused in various ways by at least some of the Brothers. These boys have nowhere else to go, but to some extent they are able to bolster one another's spirits in spite of their situation. The brand of Catholicism being taught at St. Vincent by the Brothers, molesters or not, demands unswerving loyalty to the orphanage and obedience to orders from authority figures. There is an explicit message that those who do not obey will go to hell. Independent thinking is not allowed, and classroom scenes often involve rote repetition of the definitions and rules of Catholicism.

Political overtones are also suggested. St. Vincent is in the midst of a fund-raising drive to raise money for a new athletic arena; there are scenes with high Church officials who are clear they will not stand for any besmirching of the orphanage's name, particularly at such a time. The power of the Church to influence lay authorities is also chillingly conveyed. We see this with politicians and police, as well as with the Church's own social worker, who is not allowed to see the boys.

When Kevin runs away from St. Vincent, he is picked up by the police. Brother Lavin, on being told Kevin protested violently about being returned to the orphanage, comments smoothly that boys like this will do anything for attention. When the two are alone, there is an initial moment of tenderness until Kevin firmly says the superintendent is not his mother, that his mother is dead. Brother Lavin then throws him across the room and beats him mercilessly with a belt buckle, carrying him senseless up to his dormitory late that night. The next day, Kevin cannot get out of bed, and Brother Lavin tenderly tells him he can stay in bed that day, and that everything he has done to Kevin is for Kevin's own good. We see Brother Lavin shift swiftly back and forth from states of viciousness to states of tenderness. He seems not fully to recognize his own actions or his occasional near-breaks with reality.

In the rest of Part I, Kevin is broken. He is far more careful about his protests; he is more depressed, less lively, and more guarded and suspicious.

We also see another boy, Steven, being visited and molested at night by a different Brother. When Steven's brother Brian, who is six years older, learns these molestations are happening "again," he protests to Brother Lavin loudly and threateningly. He is punished by having ten belt lashes on each hand.
When the situation is reported to the police by a janitor, an investigation commences. The boys' stories are conveyed both through flat recitations by the boys in the police station and brief, viscerally evocative flashbacks to the abuse being described in these recitations. Steven, however, unlike the others, denies he has been abused, showing a bravado and empty showmanship that superficially protects him from experiencing the effects of his trauma. The chief detective promises to visit Kevin, and Kevin is assured by him and other authorities that the abuse will stop.

But instead the investigation is stopped. A high official on the police force demands that the boys' statements be rewritten because they are "pornographic" and so that criminal investigations will not proceed. Instead, the Brothers involved will be placed elsewhere, where they will be counseled. The chief detective makes a pointed comment about the boys not being offered counseling; he is told sharply that his own job is on the line if he does not do as he is told.

At the end of Part I, Brother Lavin has allowed Brian to leave the orphanage, warning him that if he tells what he knows Steven, his younger brother, will pay the consequences. Brian promises Steven that he will return to get him out of St. Vincent. Two abusing Brothers confess and are removed from the home, but Brother Lavin continues to deny any wrongdoing. He stays at his post until he is discovered by a nonoffending Brother kissing Kevin passionately. This follows a harrowing scene in which he chases Kevin in homicidal fury and Kevin saves himself by calling the Superintendent "Mom." Brother Lavin and the two other Brothers are replaced at St. Vincent by men equally vicious and demanding, and in a brief scene we see one of them molesting a boy in his bed at night.

Part II takes place fifteen years later. In a complex intercutting of narratives, we follow the stories of Kevin, Steven, Brian, and Peter Lavin, no longer a member of his order but now a husband and father of two boys living in Montreal. The now retired detective brings criminal charges against Lavin based on the fifteen-year-old affidavits by the boys. Kevin is aghast and enraged that he is being subpoenaed to testify, and says he will not appear in court. When he confronts the detective for not having fulfilled his promise to visit, he learns the detective was told by a Brother that Kevin was now living with an uncle. In fact, Kevin stayed in the orphanage until he was 16. Steven is brought in to testify from Toronto, where he is a cocaine addict living on welfare. He is reunited for the first time with his brother Brian, who is now married and the father of two. At their reunion, Brian tells Steven that as an adult he tried to find him. Steven protests that it is all "water under the bridge" but it is clear that underneath his old bravado he is deeply wounded by his brother's failure to come back and get him out of the orphanage. Steven and Brian talk about their inability to forgive. Steven says he can never forgive his victimization. Brian says he couldn't at first, and had turned away from religion, but has since discovered that if he can't forgive, then he must live with his rage.

We witness several legal investigations simultaneously in crosscut: Lavin's trial, the trial of the Brother who molested Steven, and the administrative investigation into the coverup of the boys' testimony. Cynical assessments of the trials come in the form of a call-in radio show whose host dryly comments on what has been said in the trials. In particular, she ridicules the inability of any official to remember anything blameworthy about anyone involved in the coverup who is still living. Steven is ambushed on the witness stand by a defense lawyer; he is revealed as an occasional male prostitute who himself abused younger boys in the years before he left St. Vincent. Shattered, he dies of an overdose of drugs just as his abuser is convicted.

Kevin is initially stonily silent about his abuse and prone to erupt in fury if pressed to talk about it. He is building himself a house in a lonely country area, and spends his time installing insulation there, perhaps a symbolic representation of the isolation and insulation he has needed to survive. He stops seeing his girl friend when she gets too curious after he physically attacks another former St. Vincent orphan who reminds him that he was Lavin's "special boy." The girl friend says she doesn't care what Lavin did to Kevin, but that she does care about what the abuse and the silence are doing to him now. Kevin refuses even to go meet with Steven until Steven's death changes Kevin's mind about testifying against Lavin. Devastated, he attends Steven's funeral, and, against Brian's advice, decides to appear in court.

Meanwhile, Lavin's seemingly happy family life is shattered when he is arrested at home. His wife is at first supportive of Lavin, totally disbelieving the charges against him. As time goes on, we gradually see her begin to doubt him, decide to stand by him anyway, then turn away from him forever when she realizes the full extent of his crimes. At first, he denies all wrongdoing, and is furious when he is dismissed from his job. In these scenes we see flashes of the rage that were so common in Part I of the movie. Imperious, self-righteous, and arrogant, he maintains that the boys are lying ingrates.

Lavin does agree to see a psychiatrist to get support for his contention that he is not a child molester. In extraordinary scenes with this psychiatrist, we begin to see Lavin's inner life. Lavin describes his own early abuse and abandonment, and his experiences in three foster homes before going to St. Vincent himself at age 9. At first, he claims these experiences only made him strong, not soft like boys who grew up with families. Later, however, he talks about the fear of sex and love that led him to join a religious brotherhood, confessing that he never felt safe until he married his wife. He describes his joy in raising children in a way he himself never experienced. When Lavin talks about how much he loved Kevin, he breaks down sobbing. The psychiatrist tells him to try to meet the little boy inside himself. The implication is clear that when "loving" Kevin Lavin was trying to give love to his own little-boy self while simultaneously despising that same vulnerable, needy child.

The night before his trial, Lavin's wife asks him to tell her what she will hear in court, but Lavin totally ignores her as he ceaselessly and feverishly recites the Hail Mary. In the final scenes of the movie, Kevin appears on the stand and in a whisper confirms the abuse he had described fifteen years earlier. Intercut are scenes of Kevin's first molestation. In an initially joyful swimming pool sequence, we see how Lavin turned a lonely boy's Easter without visitors into a wonderful special event by taking him swimming. We then see how this marvelous moment veered into violation. Kevin remembers this along with flashes of later molestations and brutal beatings.

In the last scene, Lavin's wife confronts him about the enormity of what he has done, and asks how he felt hearing how he had affected Kevin's life. He shows no remorse, but instead claims he himself was victimized. He says he was betrayed by Kevin, whom he had truly loved. She contemptuously dismisses this "love," then asks if he has ever touched their boys. He enigmatically replies that she should ask them, since they are "her" children. She leaves him, emphasizing that indeed the children will never again be his. Lavin's face is softer and thoughtful in this scene than in earlier parts of the movie. After she leaves, he looks into the distance, then suddenly pounds the table violently once, then again and again, much as he had raged in the early part of the film. Then he looks away again, cupping his face as the film ends.

The Boys of St. Vincent is a harrowing film that tellingly reveals both the facts of the boys' sexual victimizations and the later impact on them. When we see the boys as adults, one or another of them reveals common aftereffects of childhood sexual trauma: dissociation, isolation, addiction, prostitution, ragefulness, suicidality, denial, and the likelihood of becoming abusive himself. We also repeatedly see the callousness and denial of institutions in relation to sexual abuse, and the inability even of those adults who believe abuse has taken place to stop it.

Father-son incest

I have already noted that, among the the films I have examined, only Primal Fear (1996) and The Celebration (1998) even mention male-male incest, in both cases father-son incest that is alluded to but not portrayed. In The Celebration, a Danish film, the childhood paternal abuse of a son and daughter is publicly announced by the son when as an adult he is attending his father's sixtieth birthday party, a large weekend-long celebration at a chateau. The extent of the father's transgressions is revealed bit by bit in successive revelations. We see that the son has been severely damaged by his boyhood abuse, and has been incapable of intimate relatedness throughout his life. His sister, who has committed suicide, was also deeply damaged. The father denies the incest through most of the movie, and this denial is conveyed and reinforced in the reactions of those who hear the accusations. The partygoers are momentarily shocked by each disclosure, but then continue to celebrate the birthday in a nearly surrealistic manner that serves as a dramatic enactment of the chronic denial often seen in incestuous families.

The handling (or mishandling) of the themes of paternal incest as well as dissociative identity disorder in Primal Fear are instructive. In it, a criminal lawyer defends a young man accused of savagely stabbing and murdering a revered Catholic bishop. The young man, a soft-spoken and stammering altar boy, claims he loved the bishop, who had saved him when he was a runaway, and had no ill feelings toward him of any kind. He admits to being there when the bishop was murdered, but says someone else was also present whom he could not see clearly. The young man is observed by a psychologist, and as time goes on it becomes clear that he experiences periods when he "loses time" in an apparent fugue state. Childhood abuse by the young man's father is hinted at as a cause for the fugue states but is not specifically described in the movie.

What seems to be a second personality emerges: abrasive, fearless, and angry. The man's lawyer comes to believe that this second personality committed the savage murder, which was committed because the bishop made pornographic videotapes that included the young man, his girl friend, and several other young men. Too late to enter a plea of insanity, the lawyer instead tricks the prosecutor into drawing out this second personality while cross-examining the defendant. As this second personality, he physically attacks the prosecutor in front of the jury. The trial is stopped and the young man is remanded for treatment. In a coda, he tells his lawyer that he had faked the multiplicity, that the soft-spoken "personality" had always been a put-on.


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