That Kid: My Experience With The Babadook
I am going to warn you: this is personal, and by the end of this, it won’t be pretty.
I’ve written before about how Jennifer Kent’s 2014 film The Babadook has always struck me as a film that seeks to personify issues of maternity. The film itself is pretty hit or miss with audiences. Some praise the film’s take on grief and maternal pressure to be perfect, the performance of Essie Davis as stressed-out mother Amelia, and the reliance upon psychological horror over gore. Others, however, choose to focus on something else. That something is the character Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a child who screams, has tantrums, can’t interact socially, and generally makes life difficult for his mother. These people aren’t nice in their criticism of Samuel. I’ve heard on more than one occasion, “I wish I could hit that kid.” Other statements have included, “He’s so annoying!” and “Why doesn’t she do us a favor and kill him already?” I’ve seen the meme that’s meant to be a joke, of Amelia screaming, “Why can’t you be normal?” at her child screaming in the backseat of her car. I’ve met more people than I care to admit that laugh off this character because they can’t fathom his behavior. One went so far as to say, “This is why I don’t want kids” and then make some comments I won’t repeat here concerning how they wished annoying children could be punched.
The thing is, I can’t hate on Samuel, because Samuel bears more than a passing resemblance to one of my children. Here’s my story.
Around the time one of my kids turned two, there were patterns of behavior that I noticed as being a bit extreme. Extended tantrums, an inability to calm down, an exaggerated temper – that’s the clean summary. This wasn’t like how the other kids were, though. Her language skills seemed a little behind in comparison to the other kids. Chairs were thrown when she was angry. Violent, screaming meltdowns occurred over the tiniest of things, from running out of juice to being told no for a snack before dinner. Screaming fits would start, but then she wouldn’t be able to stop, ending with a scared, hyperventilating child trying to catch her breath. Extreme affection was shown in an instant, with an obstinate refusal to cease hugging despite being told it was too tight. Night saw us run down a specific routine to go to bed from which there could be no deviation. There’s so much more I’m forgetting, too. I can say that it never let up. It was beyond exhausting, and at every turn, it felt like we were doing something wrong. The worst part was the blame that was placed, the cold stares and the high-and-mighty advice. “Everything is fine,” I heard from most people. “You just need to be firmer with her. Give her a crack on the ass and she’ll stop.” Still, something kept nagging at me that something was off. Her daycare center noticed too, and started keeping a journal: behaviors, reactions, stimuli, detailed descriptions of incidents, speech patterns, foods consumed. Gently, I was approached by a fantastic teacher in her classroom, who suggested that we get her evaluated for various disorders, including autism. Evaluation took quite a bit of time, bouncing around from hearing and speech centers until finally we landed at a pediatric neurology place. I remember praying quietly that she didn’t have autism. I didn’t want that life for her. I didn’t want the stigma, as it was long enough ago that it wasn’t as accepted. I kept hoping I would hear that I simply sucked at being a parent, and that all we needed were some changes on my part to make things better. On the day the diagnosis came down, I sat in a room with my child and the nurse practitioner who had evaluated her. The woman lowered her tone and looked at me sadly. “Your daughter has oppositional defiant disorder. I’m so sorry.”
I’d had experience with a child that had oppositional defiant disorder, also known as ODD, in college. It’s not a good thing by a long shot. ODD is a disorder in which a child displays hostile and aggressive behavior toward adults and peers, including instances of extreme anger, an inability to express emotions properly, vindictive behavior, purposeful attempts to annoy others and an inability to take accountability for one’s actions. You can read more about it here. It’s often comorbid with disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, and anxiety. If left untreated, ODD progresses into conduct disorder (CD), which can get nasty in short order – that’s the one where animals get tortured, lying starts, and the concept of the conscience goes out the window. Growing up with nurses, I heard it described at one point as “PMM” – potential mass murderer (note: it was the 80s, when sensitivity to mental and behavioral disorder was not in high supply).
Out of everything she could have had, she had a combination of ODD, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the end. Want to know what that looks like? Watch The Babadook. Those moments of extreme reaction? Check. Samuel screaming and being unable to sleep? Lived it – her body refused to let her sleep for some time. Tried changing a routine or rearranging furniture? Forget it – panic attacks. Living in an imaginative world where she’d defend us from monsters, much like Samuel did with his booby traps, became common. Then there was the impact on the parents. Having to leave work for the umpteenth time because of a phone call. The judgment of the other mothers hurt so badly to watch because I was often the one sitting in that chair, hearing stories about spare time and trivial incidents of wanting an extra trip to Disneyworld when my kid couldn’t handle simple interactions. It felt powerless and isolating, yet there it was on the screen, right in front of me, staring back and down, speaking what I was too beaten down to say. The nights and afternoons of screaming, the insistence that I stop what I was doing rightnow to see what she was doing, the people who pulled away and said it’d go away if I was a better mother – that was my life, every day, no vacation. The scene in which Amelia wanders around the mall, enjoying the ice cream cone in a few moments of blessed solitude, hit hard – that easily could have been me. It was also me when Amelia checked her phone to find multiple panicked messages from a babysitter that couldn’t handle the child. As a result, we couldn’t have playdates due to the meltdowns, which made getting her to interact with proper social modeling difficult. All the while, there were the quiet prayers to myself: am I crazy? Am I the reason she’s like this? Why did this happen? Why can’t we be normal, like everyone else?
I didn’t wait for those prayers to be answered, nor did I stick my head in the sand. I buckled down. I got her to see a therapist. When we went as far as that therapist could take us with cognitive behavioral therapy (which wasn’t very far, as I kept hearing, “You’re really doing everything right”), I found a new one. When that one openly mocked her diagnosis in front of her, we left the office and didn’t look back. At that point, she started picking up on the fact that she was different. “Why do people hate me?” she asked one day. Having to explain to your child that some people don’t understand how others are is a heartbreaking thing I hope you never endure, especially with someone that little. From there, we worked on her behavior. I fought to get her into special education programs through the local school district. I worked with teachers to ensure that she was getting the most out of her education, and that we were on the same page so that she could make progress. I worked closely with doctors to make sure I was doing things properly, from age-appropriate discipline techniques to food additives she shouldn’t have. I continued in my refusal to adhere to a no-spanking policy, which doctors praised as helping her establish that harm doesn’t fix a problem. When behavioral therapy wasn’t enough, we tried medication under the stipulation that I didn’t want her to be a zombie – I wanted her to be able to the sweet kid I knew was in there. The right dose was found (and it was like someone installed the brakes on her impulsivity – she was still her, but with brakes!), her behavioral work continued, and close contact was kept with teachers and her medical team. About two years later, she was re-evaluated by the same nurse practitioner that had initially diagnosed her. She couldn’t believe her progress. “Erin, this is a different child,” she told me, incredulous. Everyone was stunned: this kid was forming friendships, and though she still struggled with a reading lag, she was learning how to express herself. In fact, because of what she’d gone through, she’d hand you how she was feeling on a silver platter in a way other kids couldn’t. Nothing was thrown or broken out of spite; instead, I’d hear, “I’m mad at you and I need to sit on my bed!” followed by a hug once she’d cooled down. She was declared resolved.
There’s an unbelievable amount of pride that I helped pull my kid out of that ODD diagnosis. There’s immense pride at the person she’s growing into, who is kind, sweet, imaginative and articulate. Looking at her now, I’ve had healthcare professionals say, “I can’t believe this kid ever had any of these problems. She’s phenomenal.” I’ve been told by people I should write a book about the experience, because it could help others who are currently struggling. Having lived it, though… it’s a tough place to which I’d have to return. Even writing this has been draining. And if you’re currently going through this… message me. We can talk. I won’t judge; you’ve most likely had more than enough judgment from people who think that a kid who doesn’t look sick could possibly have anything going on with them. I’ve had it easy compared to what some have gone through with other disorders. I openly admit that. It doesn’t make it any less hellish. I wouldn’t trade my kid for the world, but goddamn did it take quite a ride to get her to where she is now.
So what’s my point? Every single time that I hear someone scoff that they hate Samuel and either want to see him harmed or dead, I bristle. There’s a lot I’ve learned not to take personally, but this is one thing I cannot let pass. It’s too big a part of who I am and what my child and I went through. I am all for differing viewpoints. I’m fine if you don’t want kids; I’m fine if you don’t like a movie. But the moment you start sneering that a kid with an obvious behavioral disorder needs to be harmed or killed because it’s not convenient for you to have to be anywhere in the vicinity of a child with a behavioral disorder? No. Game over. I stopped listening to a podcast I ardently supported after listening in growing horror to the hosts express downright nasty sentiments concerning this character. I dropped out of a film/podcast group on Facebook after a snarky Babadook meme was shared on Mother’s Day of all days, with many of the members openly joking about the realities of parenthood and how funny the meme was. I can assure you, to someone who has had to help someone catch her breath after a fit – or someone who has a child with a different behavioral or sensory disorder, who cannot control their reactions – this is not in the least amusing. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that they had no idea what it was like to want so badly for someone to be like the other kids, to not have to watch them struggle, to not have to deal with the reality that you get blamed for a disorder your child has. I wanted to shout that they had no idea how isolating it is. I wanted them to realize how exhausting, both mentally and physically, that day-to-day existence can be. Instead, I chose to coldly walk away. My silence is often a kindness, which some don’t deserve. If you have this attitude toward a kid like that: fuck you. Seriously. Go fuck yourself. I’d supply the dildo and lube, but those cost money you’re obviously not worth. Kindly go find the nearest piece of sandpaper and get creative. You might think you’re being witty, but you’re crapping on people who have had to live through things you can’t imagine. You wouldn’t last 20 minutes with someone who wasn’t a perfect angel. You have no idea what that hell is like, so go have a giant glass of sit the fuck down while the big kids deal with larger problems.
Some of us, meanwhile, have had to endure that. Some of us are still enduring it; some will never stop enduring it. That’s a real horror story right there at times. It’s not the fear of blood and guts; it’s looking inside and wondering why this is happening, and how it can stop. This isn’t a horror movie to me – this is so close to what I went through that it reduces me to tears when I watch it, because while it didn’t get that bad for me, but it easily could have. My heart bleeds when I see it. To anyone that has a Samuel: you’re not alone. You’re so very brave, and if anyone ever judges you for it, remember this: you’re better than they are. They wouldn’t last 20 minutes in this movie.
Phenomenal post, Erin. Thank you for sharing this, and I’m kind of in awe of your parenting. We’d all be far better off if more of us had the self-awareness and control to say something like, “I’m mad at you and I need to sit on my bed.”
My hat’s off to you, your daughter, and your family for the patience and determination that it took to get where you are.
Thank you, Dan. The road to get here was extraordinarily difficult, but worthwhile. That being said, I carry some scars from that period of life, and always will. This film makes me sob because it’s like watching my kid.