Last week the film adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel “IT” premiered in theaters with record-breaking results. Audiences flocked to their local cinemas to watch a film about a supernatural clown named Pennywise who terrorizes and devours the unsuspecting children of the small fictional town of Derry.
Unfortunately, most of the people buying tickets to a piece of escapist fiction (and a good old-fashioned scary monster movie) probably aren’t looking for the harsh truths buried in the story, truths that affect us in our society every day.
Pennywise is the ultimate allegory for a child predator. He wears the perpetual smile and the clown costume to lure in his victims and disarm them. When Pennywise is talking to his first on-camera victim (little Georgie) we watch him try multiple angles to overcome Georgie’s distrust. Pennywise alternates between being funny, lonely, perturbed, and sympathetic just to lure the child within arm’s reach. What finally works? He offers the paper boat that Georgie’s brother Bill painstakingly made, using Georgie’s love for his sibling to make the child do something he was initially too afraid to do.
Pennywise is a shapeshifter, he takes the forms of whatever nightmare most terrifies his victims, because (as we learn throughout the story) he feeds more on the fear than the flesh of his victims. Not all of his victims die immediately, either. Many of them he toys with over days and weeks, constantly turning their lives into surreal dreamscapes filled with horrific visions. Those suffering his attention are faced with a terrible choice: to tell someone else and risk being called either crazy or a liar (not to mention possibly making Pennywise angry for revealing his secrets,) or to suffer silently and hope to somehow escape his attacks.
We learn in “IT” that the former approach is almost worthless. Adults in the town of Derry have been lulled into a sort of stupor. Televisions are perpetually tuned to a bizarre children’s show that encourages children to explore the local sewers (Pennywise uses these to traverse the town.) Adults facing the obvious fruits of his attack, such as the horrifying blood baptism of poor Beverly, seem to be unable to even see Pennywise’s handiwork.
The heroes of the film (who are already social outcasts for a number of reasons) weigh their options with cynicism. Maybe if they just endure, Pennywise will eat his fill of other children and they will survive. Maybe if they run away he will forget about them.
Eventually their unofficial leader, Bill (whose little brother Georgie Pennywise has already killed) falls prey to the most powerful lure that a child predator can use: “if we leave now, how many other children will he get? We have to stay.” Survivor’s guilt is a bitch.
Everything described above, while part of a fictional story about the town of Derry and a supernatural clown, is the daily reality for millions of children. Let me say that again so it sinks in: every day you walk past children who are experiencing the hell you saw in the movie “IT.”
Victims of abuse are lured by their predators, who statistics tell us are overwhelmingly friends of or members of their families. Child predators use a number of shifting strategies to disarm children and make them feel complicit in their own abuse. Abusers will often shift from a playful (even childlike) tone when dealing with their victims, to lonely, to angry, to violent. This emotional shapeshifting is meant to keep the victim constantly questioning, to keep them from predicting what might happen next, to put them on the emotional defensive in every encounter.
Child abuse victims are often kept silent with their own love. Child predators will often overtly threaten the child’s siblings, friends, or family members to ensure silence. Daring approaches often include threats to tell others about the abuse (which remember, the child feels somehow complicit in due to the emotional manipulation they’ve experienced) in order to ruin the child’s life. Threats to kill parents and schoolmates and even random passers by are used to make the victim feel responsible for whatever violence his own “Pennywise” is capable of. Survivor’s guilt is wielded expertly to guarantee silence.
Victims of sexual abuse often face the horrible choice to tell someone in their life (and risk being considered weak, or sexually promiscuous, or being accused of seeking attention or being called a liar,) or to live with the trauma and silently try to cope with conditions like PTSD on their own. Nightmares, mood swings, addictive disorders, and sexual disfunction arise from burying that trauma deep within the psyche over the years, and those children often grow up to be adults who perpetually pay the price for having been victimized.
If you’re still reading, you might be asking yourself “what can I do?” At least I hope you have the compassion and basic humanity needed to inspire that question. Here are some steps you can take to help fight against the Pennywise in your neighborhood.
- Clean out the sewers- There’s a very pragmatic reason that Pennywise uses the sewers beneath Derry to conduct his terrible deeds: no one wants to look in sewers. The darkness is his most useful tool in keeping his victims confused and off guard. Likewise, our society has placed such a stigma on all discussion of consensual sexuality that there is a shroud obfuscating frank discussion of sexual predation. Our social and legal vocabularies for rape and molestation are confused and intertwined with terminology that should be reserved for informed consensual sexual behavior, and sexual predators can use that confusion to make victims feel that they have broken some societal taboo. The truth is that Pennywise didn’t invite Georgie Denbrough to share a fancy meal, Pennywise CONSUMED Georgie as a meal. Likewise, victims of sexual abuse are not being invited to participate in sexual activity, they are being CONSUMED by their attackers. This distinction is so incredibly important to discussing the nature of abuse, and empowering victims to speak openly about their pain and to seek healing. As long as the victim of sexual abuse can be blamed or “slut shamed,” creatures like Pennywise will have a veil of darkness from which to confuse and ambush their victims.
- Open your eyes- In Stephen King’s original novel we learn that the residents of Derry have an unspoken arrangement with Pennywise. They cannot see because they have no wish to see his victimization of these children. The very existence of their sleepy town depends on ignoring (and sometimes helping) the abuse Pennywise enacts on their children. Public health experts list a number of telltale signs we can use to identify victims of sexual abuse. These range from the obvious such as wounds and bruises, to the more subtle such as: moodiness, depression, weight gain, fear of relatives or family members, changes in school performance, loss of self confidence, frequent absences from school, attempts to run away from home, suicidal ideation or behavior, social withdrawal, loss of enthusiasm for hobbies or activities, indifference, and so on (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/child-abuse/basics/symptoms/con-20033789) Parents of abused children often provide poor supervision, show too little concern for the child’s well being, deny the existence of the above symptoms in their child, hold children to inappropriate “adult” standards of behavior, use harsh physical discipline on their children, limit the child’s contact with peers or qualified adults, and they tend to offer conflicting or unconvincing explanations for issues in their home life. I know that many of these symptoms seem like “normal” issues found in children and adolescents, but taken as a whole these elements often paint a very complete picture of the hell a child is experiencing in their life. If you see a number of these exhibited by a young person in your life, it’s time to stop ignoring them and take a stand. Call your local child welfare office, 911, or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (800-422-4453.)
- Be ready to believe in monsters- Children who are expertly hiding the symptoms listed above are doing so because they are afraid. Most often victims are afraid that if they reveal the abuse, their predator (who is statistically likely to be a member of their social circle or immediate family) will be able to socially ostracize them. Fear of asking for help from the adults comes from societal indications that you will not be believed, or that you will be blamed. Children will not be safe until we are ready to start believing victims of abuse by default, rather than putting the victim on trial and making them “prove” their abuse in the public eye. Every time a politician or celebrity is accused of sexual predation, news outlets and public figures rush to accuse the victim of “seeking attention,” and people like Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and Michael Jackson have an endless army of fans and apologists willing to suggest that the victim was a willing participant in the abuse rather than face the concept that these famous people might be sexual predators. Children learn from these incidents that it is best to say nothing and avoid the onslaught of accusation.
Lastly, I’d like to speak directly to those of you in my audience who have fought with Pennywise in your own life, and there are far more of you than you realize. Statistics of reported abuse put the numbers at roughly one in six or one in four, but those are only the victims who manage to overcome the stigma and report their abuse. Actual numbers may be much much higher, which means that there are so many of us walking around this world with the trauma of our battles with this demon.
- You are not responsible- Pennywise didn’t choose you because you are a bad person, or because your flaws made you more susceptible to abuse. Rather, your strength and resilience is what has kept you alive all of these years. If anything, you have looked into the red eyes of this demon, and lived to walk away, and that is amazing. But just because you lived doesn’t mean you are responsible for anyone else he attacks, or that your silent suffering enabled further abuse in the world. The only one responsible for Pennywise’s actions is Pennywise himself. You did not make him act, and you could not make him stop by yourself.
- You need a “losers club.”- The kids in the film survive by banding together. They believe one another, support one another, defend each other. This is essentially what group therapy is for. It’s a place to find other heroic people fighting the same monsters, and to support them on their bad days and for them to support you. Pennywise’s main goal through much of the story is to isolate and conquer his victims alone. He’s easier to defeat if you have a strong support system backing you up.
- “He thrusts his fists against the posts…”- Bill Denbrough, the hero in the story, has a speech impediment that he combats with a tongue twister exercise. This exercise becomes his mantra of strength and power in those dark moments alone against Pennywise. We all need those words and phrases of power to rely on when our support system isn’t nearby. Find your source of power, whether it be found in art, or music, or film, or exercise, and know when to turn to it. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is a life affirming action in the face of all this personal darkness, and yet sometimes those life affirmations are the only thing that make the battle worth fighting.
- Some days will be better than others- In the novel, the “losers club” children have to reunite as adults to fight Pennywise again, because his evil is cyclical. In reality sometimes a sound or a smell or a film can bring your good day crashing down and put Pennywise in your life again. We have begun to term these events as “triggers,” things we can see or hear that might bring back a very vivid trauma. Some triggers are very obvious (the movie “IT” was a trigger for me) but others are sometimes more subtle. No one who has suffered abuse should be expected to be able to just “get rid” of all those triggers, nor is having triggers a weakness. Instead, it’s a sign of your strength. Your mind has categorized certain elements as the opening salvo in an attack, and your being “triggered” is your psyche’s way of preparing to fight back. You are a warrior, and will always be a warrior. So rather than trying to rid yourself of those defenses, the best thing you can do is use the techniques and resources that professional therapists can teach you to know how to be at peace. They can help you find ways to reclaim the good, even from really bad days, and begin to take back from Pennywise what he took from you. It’s not easy, and some days it feels incredibly unfair to have to work so hard just to feel “normal.” But those “normal" happy moments can be so beautiful, they make the continued battle worthwhile.
Remember, like the kids in “IT” you are a hero, and you have the chance to help others. Pennywise is the fictionalization of a real evil that exists in our society. We can band together and fight him if we are willing to be open and honest and believe in one another. Love and compassion destroy his ability to victimize those around us. Reaching out for help and support helps us take back from the evil clown who attacked us when we were vulnerable.
As long as your story continues, the battle against Pennywise isn’t lost. As long as we stick together he cannot defeat us.