The film “This Boy’s Life” recounts the biographical story of author Tobias Wolff, who wrote the book on which the movie was based. The book, like the film, offers a look at several years in the life of Wolff during his teenage years. Wolff’s mother, who seemed to bounce from one abusive relationship to another, is portrayed in the film as a victim, but also as a woman who demonstrates a fair amount of independence and self-reliance, both traits that were somewhat unusual in the average woman in the 1950s. Wolff’s story has a happy ending, and his portrayal of the manner in which he and his mother eventually overcame the abuse heaped upon them by Wolff’s stepfather is certainly heartwarming in the classic sense of a Hollywood film (Russell, 2009). The performances in “This Boy’s Life” by Leonardo DiCaprio as young Toby, Ellen Barkin as Toby’s mother, and Robert DeNiro as the abusive stepfather are all solid and believable, and the film does a competent job of demonstrating how “normal” child abuse can sometimes seem. At the same time, however, the film falls a bit short in portraying just how damaging child abuse can be for its victims over the course of a lifetime. Tobias Wolff may have really surmounted the challenges of his childhood in the manner shown in the film, but the reality for many victims of child abuse is that the damage can last a lifetime, leading to serious and significant problems for adult survivors.
The film begins with a view of young Toby and his mother Caroline on a cross-country drive. It soon becomes clear to the viewer that the two are fleeing an abusive relationship in which Caroline had been involved. During the course of their conversation, Toby asserts to Caroline that she “sure has crappy taste in boyfriends,” making it clear that we are seeing a glimpse into the lives of these two that are marked by a pattern of behavior. Despite this, Toby –speaking to the viewer in a narrative voice- paints a largely flattering portrayal of Caroline, and seems to be taking on a significant measure of responsibility for the problems the two are facing, and have faced in the past.
This perspective as offered by Toby is not unusual for children who suffer at the hands of abusers. Many victims of child abuse blame themselves for the abuse; if only they had behaved better, or done better in school, or done what they were told, the abuse would not have happened (Lew, 2004). At several points throughout the film, Toby announces to others –or to the audience when speaking as the narrator- that he wants to “be better,” to bring up his grades in school, and to otherwise improve himself in ways that will please his mother (and, perhaps, make it less likely that he will be the target of abuse in the future). In some ways, the film comes up a bit short in this regard, as it fails to make it clear whether Toby really is the awful kid he believes himself to be, or whether he is speaking as the victim of child abuse who has internalized the blame for his situation.
Early in the film, Toby and Caroline settle into a new town, and Caroline soon falls into her familiar patterns. Not long after arriving, Caroline’s boyfriend, Roy, shows up in town making it clear that he has tracked her down after she left him. Roy quickly shows signs of behaving in ways that are borderline-abusive. Although his behavior would not have been labeled as such (or even recognized as such) in the 1950s, Roy stalks Caroline, often parking outside her place of employment and even her apartment for hours on end in an effort to keep tabs on her. When they are alone, Roy practically forces himself on Caroline, despite the fact that she is clearly not interested. In the very next scene the viewer sees a shot of young Toby sitting in his room, listening to the sounds of Caroline and Roy having sex in the next room. Despite Wolff’s –and Toby’s- mostly-positive portrayal of Caroline, it is clear that she is quick to fall back into her familiar patterns of behavior. This is not out of character for the wife or girlfriend of an abuser; these patterns have a tendency to be repeated by abusers and victims, and breaking their cycles is often the greatest challenge that victims face Horton and Cruise, 2001).
Not long after we are introduced to Roy, we see Caroline and Toby making a hasty departure from town; Toby notes that Caroline has a habit of running away from her problems. After arriving in Seattle, Caroline soon starts dating a man named Dwight (Robert DeNiro). It is in this section of the film that viewers see many of the typical patterns manifested in abusive relationships. Dwight begins to discuss the possibility of marriage with Caroline after only a few dates; this tendency to move quickly is not unusual for abusers (Alaggia and Millington, 2008). Over the next few months, Dwight begins to involve Caroline and Toby in activities in the town of Concrete, a small, isolated region far from the city. Before long, Dwight and Caroline have married, and Dwight has moved the entire family to Concrete; it is also common for abusers to take steps to isolate their victims from family and friends, thereby assuring that their victims will be forced to rely on their abusers for emotional support and, sometimes, almost all human interaction (Lew).
Although Dwight appears charming at first, his true nature begins to show as he succeeds in establishing his new family life in Concrete. Dwight becomes both verbally and physically abusive towards Toby, and over time he attempts to exert control over the life of Caroline. Her portrayal in the film as someone who is strong and independent helps to convince the viewer that her efforts to stand up for herself and be her own person are in keeping with her personality and relationship history. Where her patterns with Dwight seem to break from her past, however, is in the fact that she does not quickly leave Dwight and run away from the relationship as she seems to have done in previous bad situations.
In the end, it is Toby who decides to stand up to Dwight. When Toby receives word that he has been granted a scholarship to a private school, Dwight is clearly displeased, and begins insulting Toby. As is the case with much of his behavior, this display aligns well with what researchers know about abusers. Fearing that his control over Toby is at risk if Toby leaves for school, Dwight uses a flimsy excuse to begin an argument that quickly escalates into a physical altercation. Caroline intervenes, attacking Dwight to keep him off her son. Caroline and Toby decide in that moment to leave Dwight, and the film soon concludes, leaving viewers with a sense that everything will work out well for the pair.
This happy ending, unfortunately, does not always happen in real life. All too often the victims of abusers are seriously injured or even killed, and children who are abused often grow up to repeat the patterns of abuse they learned in childhood. Tobias Wolff may have overcome the problems he faced in childhood, but his story is more likely the exception rather than the rule (Wolff, 1990). Despite the film’s somewhat implausible ending, it does offer a well-told, and well-acted, story of a young boy who overcomes the status of victim, and grows up to share his story with the world.
Alaggia, R., & Millington, G. (2008). Male Child Sexual Abuse: A Phenomenology of Betrayal. Clinical Social Work Journal , 36(3), 265-275.
Horton, C. B., & Cruise, T. K. (2001). Child abuse and neglect: The school’s response. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Lew, M. (2004). Victims No LongerThe Classic Guide for Men Recovering Sexual Child Abuse. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Russell, W. B. (2009). Teaching social issues with film. Charlotte, NC: IAP.
Wolff, T. (1990). This boy’s life: A memoir. New York, NY: Perennial Library.