No Action Too Small: Depictions of Abuse in The Book of Henry

“I think when someone hurts someone else, it is our business”

Note: This blog post contains spoilers for the 2017 movie, The Book of Henry.

Nowadays, the media is an omnipresent source of information and entertainment that can shape and shift peoples’ understandings of the world around them. This influx of constant information being disseminated can make it difficult to distinguish meaningful from non-meaningful content. As an avid Netflix-er and television fanatic, I can say that I have come to gain a nuanced eye for picking apart various media pieces. Today, I will be discussing, The Book of Henry, a film which brings several important conversation topics to the forefront.

The movie is centered around eleven-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Martell), a young boy who is wise beyond his years. He is intellectually well above others in his class, so much so that he is responsible for taking care of family taxes and maintaining financial stability on his mother's behalf. He lives with his mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), and brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), in a middle-class home. In their neighbouring home lives Henry’s classmate, Christina Sickleman (Maddie Ziegler), and her step-father, Chief-of-Police, Glenn (Dean Norris). The premise of the movie is based on Henry witnessing Christina being physically and sexually abused by her step-father. When he reports what he sees to social services and nothing is done, Henry decides to take matters into his own hands and concocts a detailed written plan to help Christina. Unfortunately, Henry suddenly passes away due to illness, and Susan is left with a mission to fulfill Henry’s wishes and help Christina out of her dire situation. Before I spoil the entire movie (Yes, there is a happy ending), I recommend you watch it for yourself! Don’t forget the tissues, this one is definitely a tear-jerker.

Trailer for The Book of Henry (2017)

Some overarching themes that specifically stood out to me are the following: The idea that abuse is classless, the presence of a power imbalance, and the existing social work hypocrisies.

Abuse Knows No Boundaries

A common stereotype that is held by many around the world is that abuse is prevalent solely in lower-class, marginalized, and oppressed groups of people. However, the silencing and underreporting of other cases of abuse is the primary reason that so many of these cases go unaccounted for and therefore, are swept under the rug. Despite there being a higher risk factor for abuse in individuals of a lower socioeconomic class, there is a need for greater research and resources to be directed towards all members of society in relation to abuse. As accredited psychologist, Dr. Kate Harkness, states in her interview with Starts With Youth (Check that out on April 17th!), “The people that I have worked with have been of all socioeconomic (SES) groups, so this isn't just something that low SES groups need to worry about; it’s something that we see across the spectrum of people in Canada.” The Book of Henry does a good job of portraying this: the abuse Christina endures occurs in a middle-high class neighbourhood. I think this oftentimes hidden factor of abuse is overlooked, and the movie allows audiences to critically examine and re-form this existing stereotype.

Power Imbalance

Currently, one-quarter of all police-reported violent crimes are domestic violence-related, with 68% being female victims (Statistics Canada, 2015). The power imbalance between Glenn Sickleman, a middle-aged man, who also happens to be Chief-of-Police (Ironic, isn’t it?), and Christina Sickleman, an 11-year-old girl, is multilayered and replicates a society-wide power imbalance relating to age, gender, and social status. Glenn’s overpowering nature over Christina makes her his target and presents the oppression that embodies present-day societal ideals of power. A 2018 study reported that “Police-reported, family-related sexual offences are nearly five times higher for female children and youth than their male counterparts” (Family Violence in Canada, 2018). These statistics suggest that the most vulnerable populations are young females.

Social Work Hypocrisies

In The Book of Henry, Henry contacts a social worker and describes the abuse he witnessed from his window. Yet, no progress is made, and nothing is done to help the victim. After Henry’s death, Susan also calls to report the abuse and the following actions are taken: the social worker comes to the door and speaks to Glenn, then asks to see Christina. Christina is brought outside, alongside Glenn and the social worker, given a quick physical examination, and then sent back inside. While, yes, this is a movie, all too often are cases like this one overlooked and swept under the rug. Having the victim stand next to the perpetrator as they are questioned by the social worker is not conducive to a safe environment for open conversation since the victim fears retaliation. Unfortunately, infamous cases like the one portrayed in the movie can end up with the death of the child - Cases like Gabriel Fernandez, Noah Cuatro, and Anthony Avalos, just to name a few. This calls for action within the social work system, to ensure that protocol is followed and each case is thoroughly examined.

I want to conclude this post with a quote that Henry says in the movie to his mother. It beautifully, yet simply, captures the importance of building a strong community of support that looks out for one another. He says, “I think when someone hurts someone else, it is our business”. Just some food for thought from an eleven-year-olds’ eyes.

Written by: Daphna