When I was a child, one of my favorite movies was The Adventures of Huck Finn, starring Elijah Wood. I was only eight years old when the film came out, so I watched it before I’d ever read the book. I developed a kid-crush on the blue-eyed protagonist of the story, who was quick-witted and cocky despite being abused and disadvantaged.
As a teenager, when I was finally able to enjoy Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I once again found the lead character strongly relateable. At this point in time, I did not yet fully understand that I was a child abuse victim. I thought that all men were angry, that all fathers beat their daughters, and I dearly wished I had been born a boy. Boys, I thought, could run away. Boys could go to college, get jobs, and own their own houses. Girls could too, technically, but my dad didn’t believe that I could, so I didn’t believe that I could either.
I was taught that all men viewed me as, “a piece of meat,” and that, “there’s no practical need for women to have educations. Just marry a rich man.” Even as a child, I knew this was horrible advice, but how does someone who is young and inexperienced question – let alone defy – their own father?
I wonder whether Elijah Wood or Mark Twain ever dreamed what a profound impact their character would have on a frightened and depressed little girl. Huckleberry was hope. Huckleberry had the courage to run away. Huckleberry stood up to villains and evil societal norms. Huckleberry helped slaves escape captivity.
But Huckleberry Had It So Much Worse
On the one hand, I related very strongly with the character of Huck. Even Jim, the runaway slave, embodied a yearning I had to be free from dirty secrets and cruel rage. However, I inadvertently used the severity of Huckleberry’s abuse, and the terror of Ron Perlman‘s portrayal of Pap Finn, to minimize my own suffering. My dad wasn’t a raging alcoholic, would most likely never have kidnapped me, and provided a nice home for me to live in. Thus, I naively concluded, my dad was not abusive. However, Perlman’s performance introduced me to the idea that not all fathers were good, and not all dads are socially accepted.
Despite the fact that he beat me, threw me, exposed himself to me, and expressed sexually attraction to me, my dad wasn’t quite as theatrically villainous as Pap Finn. I used this as an excuse to make believe that everything was OK. To some this may sound like abuse enabling. I suppose it might have been had I not been a child and the victim. On the contrary, this is how I managed to emotionally survive 20 years of domestic violence and sexual abuse. My denial was a self-defense mechanism. Facing the truth without any advocates or hope of salvation was out of the question for a young girl who hardly understood what was even happening.
While I inadvertently used the more disturbing aspects of the book and film to minimize my situation, I also used Huckleberry’s courage as inspiration to survive. When I was about twelve, I even packed myself a sandwich and climbed out a bathroom window to go have a midnight snack in the woods behind our house.
Huckleberry was the kid who could be braver than most adults. He was the child who did what was right even when grown ups were negligent and evil. He gave me hope. He taught me that even a young and weak person can be unfathomably strong and brave.
The Huckleberry Finn Effect
Just as little Huck railed against slavery in a time when slavery was a common way of life, so Elijah Wood spoke out against child abuse in an industry where sexual perversion has been normalized.
“You all grew up with Savile,” Elijah said in a 2016 interview during a trip to England. He was referencing Jimmy Savile, the deceased British entertainment mogul and serial child rapist. “Jesus, it must have been devastating. Clearly something major was going on in Hollywood. It was all organized. There are a lot of vipers in this industry, people who only have their own interests in mind. There is a darkness in the underbelly – if you can imagine it, it’s probably happened.”
By 2016, I had already largely come to terms with the idea that I had been abused as a child. In fact, I was already toying with the idea of writing a book about abuse. While Elijah’s revelations about the entertainment industry were not shocking to me, they did help untangle a very specific lie in my head. Suddenly, I realized that I was far from the only child abuse survivor. I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t alone. What I’d endured was horrifically common. You would think that a thousand news stories would have revealed this to me long before. However, for some reason, hearing these words from the mouth of the guy that played Huckleberry Finn made the truth strike home.
All this came to mind just this week, when Elijah’s Lord Of The Rings co-star, Sean Astin, released a letter expressing his support of Corey Feldman and other abuse survivors.
Thankfully, while Elijah has played several abused characters, he was never abused himself. His mother was a shrewd manager, and didn’t allow her son to be made vulnerable.
“She was far more concerned with raising me to be a good human than facilitating my career,” Elijah said of his mom. “If you’re innocent you have very little knowledge of the world and you want to succeed. People with parasitic interests will see you as their prey.”
While I have never met Elijah Wood, or Mark Twain for that matter, their characters and words have played an interesting role in my life. They have given me hope, camaraderie, and a sense of normalcy in a world where “normal” is the true fiction. Thankfully, I am no longer the little girl who wants to run away. I am now the shrewd mother who is determined to do my part to fight abuse and empower victims.
“Just because an idea is popular, like slavery, don’t make it right.” — The Widow Douglas