I’ve always been torn between deciding which stance to take about child pathology: learned behavior or genetic link? I’ve always swayed toward learned behaviour. Wrong or right, this particular documentary confirms my suspicions. When I observe families trying to appease a dangerous, disruptive child, I see a family with few resources and good intentions in controlling the behavior. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, however, and people with few resources in a dysfunctional home, unknowingly victimize their child in a vicious cycle of hate and frustration. In the Frontline PBS documentary The Trouble with Evan, we witness the struggle 11-year-old Evan (surname isn’t revealed) has with Conduct Disorder. The family has willingly allowed Frontline to fix cameras in their home, in order to tape interactions with their troubled son. We watch Mike and Karen, Evan’s parents, heap verbal abuse on their son, telling him, ‘I would like to lock you up in a cage and let everybody look at you like you’re an animal’? “This family is so distraught, we are in such turmoil“, his mother, Karen, laments on camera as she berates her son. She is aware that she is on camera. These are not bad people. They are a family with severe emotional problems and no one to direct them onto a road other than that to hell. Some people probably would conclude that these are bad parents and the child should be removed from their care. However, these people are doing their best with their own demons from the parenting they experienced. Also, let’s not forget that all of the scenes Frontline shows in this documentary are negative and are taken out of context. We see the parents mistreating Evan but we don’t see what he may have done to precede it. We don’t see the abuse that “came into [their] lives” from Evan towards his parents. Perspective is a loud witness and we do not have the full story. One thing in Evan’s favor: he doesn’t abuse his sister. Frontline doesn’t show us tender moments between them, although I suspect there are many.
Frontline visits a Elora Youth Correctional Centre in Elora, Ontario. It is a lock-up for juveniles with serious behavior disorders. Mike and Karen attend parenting classes there. The young offenders housed within participate in a project called Portage which emphasizes rehabilitation. This is the end of the line for juveniles who are headed to prison if they cannot curb their behaviour. One juvenile offender says in a monotone voice, that when he was young, he had “a calloused ass” from all the beatings his father gave him with a belt buckle his father. Another youth recalls a beating his father gave him with a hockey stick for taking a popsicle without permission. Violent memories are usually associated with stepfathers. Not surprisingly, these mothers are also emotionally unbalanced: some of the teenagers have had 5 or 6 stepfathers. Sadness permeates the damaged group of fathers during group therapy. “It’s weird cause I love the guy,” one young man refers to his own abusive father and tries not to weep. He admits he had sworn to “his mother I’d never be like him. And I turned out to be worse.” Frontline asks the centre’s director, Peter Vanlis, about the early signs that indicate a child is headed for trouble. “Most of the problems we see are in or around adolescence…. and …when rebelliousness is no longer seeking for an identity but rather a destructive and denigrating type of event….when drugs replace other types of pleasure for the young person, when theft replaces the value of work…when a young person becomes very aggressive…the parent has ample warning that something is going wrong.“ Evan exhibits some of these aforementioned symptoms:
- pouring paint into a teacher’s coffee
- drinking beer on school property
Like the youths inside Elora, Evan has never known his biological father. Unlike some of the youths inside Elora, Evan has physically abused his own family. In return, Mike and Karen verbally abuse him, “I’m fucking sick and tired of these fucking games, Evan. I go running around all over the city for this fucking shit! Because of the fucking games that you play!” Moments later, Mike admits, “Like, I’m mad at myself right now for losing it, but I fucking go to the bank …you know, like I’ve been from one end of the city, ‘oh yeah it’s fine sir, no problem, we’ll accept the cheque…You’re fucking living on borrowed time, butthead, I’m telling you’“. “We think that kids forget [verbal abuse]. They’re up the next morning and they’re smiling, but kids never forget. And it hurts,” Robart comments later. “Their development’s sapped emotionally…in some ways they’re blocked from maturing properly.” The behaviours, parent and child’s, continue. Inside Elora, Mike learns he has to confront the painful memories of his own childhood if he is to change the relationship he has with Evan. “I was my dad’s pet. We weren’t close....it’s that he wanted me there. To me Evan’s spoiled…He gets whatever he wants usually.” In reply, Valis states,” most of these parents say we give them everything they want. Nannies, beautiful clothes. In most cases the kids just want a little bit of themselves…mom, dad, a little piece…That’s what parents couldn’t give.” Later at home, Evan asks Mike if he can watch the Super Bowl with him. Mike refuses. He will be watching the Super Bowl in a bar. “My dad’s like an old fart. If I had a dad who was 29 like my Mom, he’d be a lot more active. He’d say can we go play football? But my Dad just sits there.” Mike claims he wants to spend time with Evan but he’s often angry at his son, and he tells him he “just can’t.” Mike lives what he’s learned from his late father. When he was a boy his father forced him to work around the house and farm every day, rather than allowing his son time to play with his friends, since Mike would need to “know how to do this stuff yourself one day.” Now Evan complains that Mike spends too much time fixing the house to be with him. Frontline asks Evan about the roots of his anger. “I don’t like talking about my feelings or how I feel,” is all he says. When asked if his behaviour is the result of his feelings, he admits, “sometimes.”
When Evan gets in trouble at home, he is not allowed to say “the reason was…”, because, his mother insists, “there is no reason.” An intelligent, nice-looking boy, when asked to describe himself, Evan detaches himself from his behaviour, talking in the third person, and using the clinical term “bad choices“. David Jewell, the family social worker, is alarmed at Evan’s increasingly poor behavior. “He could start running away, perhaps getting into alcohol and drugs…perhaps truancy at school, perhaps more aggression.”
Jennifer is a youth at the Elora Correctional Centre. When asked if she worries that when she becomes a mother she will also injure her children, Jennifer reacts by turning her back on the camera. Later, however, she talks to Frontline about her history: “When I was 13 I used to babysit children, and when I got mad I used to beat them up, like my mother used to do to me.” Quite like Mike and his father before him. “Kids your age are the laziest, inconsiderate, thoughtless, fucking people I’ve ever met in my fucking life!” Mike screams at Evan, then hits him on the back of his head. “And don’t fucking laugh at me!” Karen yells at Mike not to hit Evan, but suddenly she screams at her son, “You want another one? [referring to Evan’s grin]. Stop that!” “I can’t help it!” Evan objects. “Yes you can!” Karen rants. She’s wrong of course. Evan, like Mike and Karen, is living what he’s learned… unless someone sees potential in helping rather than condemning this family. Another perspective on The Trouble with Evan can be found here.