Thursday, August 1, 2013

Children Do Not Always Tell the Truth

Yesterday, a friend and I saw the movie The Hunt starring Danish actor extraordinaire Mads Mikkelsen.  The movie opens with a group of macho guys doing stupid stuff and then hunting deer.  Mikkelsen's character, Lucas, bags a nice stag.  I was impressed with what a good shot he was.  But that's the end of deer hunting until the very end, when his group of friends gather to celebrate his son's rite of passage to manhood: his first deer hunt.  In between, Lucas' community has a hunt of a much different kind and Lucas is its prey.

***SPOILER ALERT!***If you plan to see this movie, be advised that I'll be discussing major plot points in this post.  If you don't want to know, skip the next few paragraphs.

At issue in this movie is if children always tell the truth about sexual abuse or not.  Klara, a cute Kindergartner where Lucas works and the daughter of Lucas' "best, best, best friend," is exposed to an explicit sexual picture of a penis by her much older brother and his friend.  It clearly has a painful effect on her right then, but at her tender age of 5, she is not equipped emotionally or psychologically to deal with it.  So, she withdraws.  Lucas is as important to her in her young life as her own father, and she knows about their close friendship.  She sees him everyday at Kindergarten.  She adores him and his spaniel, Fanny.  She doesn't lash out at her brother for hurting her with the sexual photo, she lashes out at Lucas.  She tells her teacher Grethe after school that Lucas had exposed himself to her.

Grethe is obligated to follow a procedure when a child reveals abuse.  She tells Lucas an accusation against him has been made by one of the children and sends him home.  It was not clear who Ule was, the man she calls in to question Klara further.  A psychologist?  He's not from the police.  They question Klara under the worst possible conditions: in Grethe's office during a recess outdoors so Klara has been denied a play time.  Did she know Ule before that day?  That's not clear either.  But the two adults put Klara in a very uncomfortable, unsafe position for a kid to actually tell the truth.  At first she says nothing.  Then the adults begin to tell her what she experienced and ask leading questions and she goes along with them in order to escape the pressure.  Amazingly, Klara does say several times throughout the movie that she "said a stupid thing.  Nothing happened," but no one listens to that.  From the questioning of Klara on, Grethe stands by her case against Lucas by claiming that children never lie about "these things."

The community turns against Lucas completely with only two exceptions: the woman he's begun dating and the godfather of his son.  The rest are on a witch hunt -- all these people with whom Lucas has grown up and lived, best friends, good friends, business owners, the police believe that Lucas had done the worst.  Eventually the police come for him and he's arraigned.  During the arraignment a detail comes out about the children's stories that exonerates Lucas, but still the community doesn't believe.  Children always tell the truth about abuse.

This movie is a deeply emotional one.  I found myself feeling anger and incredulity that Lucas' friends would turn against him like that -- people who have known him all their lives.  Lucas struggles to get people to listen and believe him, especially his "best, best, best friend" Theo, Klara's father.  It was heart-wrenching, and Mikkelsen kept his performance somewhat restrained -- no melodrama or hysterical over-acting here.  The audience knows the truth and they suffer right along with Lucas, while also seeing Klara's viewpoint.  She considers what she said "stupid," not a lie.  She witnesses, however, how the adults around her treat Lucas as a result, and knows that she has somehow caused it.

My friend thought this story was predictable up to a certain point of action when it veered in a much different direction.  Yes, we've seen this issue tackled before in movies and TV, about innocents wrongly accused as well as the guilty.  What this movie returns to over and over is the notion that children do not lie about sexual abuse.  But they do.  They may not understand that what they've said is a lie, but they do tell stories that are not true.  So the challenge for adults is how to tell the difference between the truth and the lie.  In the movie, an important detail in the story revealed the lie.  But that's not always the case.


Hollywood would not have made the same movie that director Thomas Vinterberg made of this story.  The Danish version is brutal, raw, in your face with the issues and forcing you to think about it with an ending that will take your breath away.  I highly recommend this movie.  I left the theater wondering what I would have done if a 5-year-old in my life confided to me that an adult had behaved inappropriately with him or her.  My first reaction is to lash out at the adult -- a response protective of the child.  But then my mind takes over and I know the first thing for the child is to reassure him/her that she's safe, that it's OK to tell me everything and I won't be angry with her, ask if she wants to talk about it more or ask gentle questions that do not lead, make assumptions or pressure the child.  Then we'd talk about what lying is, what the truth is, and the importance of the truth in life.  I'd listen and believe but question.  Why?  I know of at least one child in my life long ago who was not believed and the abuse continued for years.

What would you do? 

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