Growing up I would sit on the couch after dinner as a perky news anchor ran down the day’s news. A mug shot of a creepy looking middle aged man splashed across the television screen as he explained that so and so from a nearby suburb was arrested for trying to solicit children into his vehicle at a local park. I don’t remember the news anchor ever talking about how they became criminals. And I never thought to ask.
“That just makes me sick” My mom would say turning off the TV. Then she’d turn and point her finger at my nose and remind me of the “password” I was supposed to make any adult say before I agreed to get in their car.
And it wasn’t just the news. I remember watching Darth Vader blow up planets and cut off his own son’s arm with a red light-saber. His rhythmic mechanical breath was the sound of pure evil. In the theater I hid behind the popcorn as the sadistic octopus witch Ursala collected souls for fun and the skeletal Cruela DeVille snatched puppies for her fur coats.
I would smiling with relief as I watched these villian’s hauled off to jail or fall to their death. They were getting what they deserved. I never thought of Darth Vader as a little kid or Ursala as a misunderstood teenager. They were full grown evil. When I was a kid villains didn’t have backstories.
I was twenty five before I started to see the bigger picture.
After college I got a job at a foster care facility. It was a holding unit for kids whose parents who were in jail. Each night I’d watch a squad car pull up with a red eyed kid in the backseat and the officer walking them hand in hand into our unit. The child usually had a face worn out from crying and bulging backpack as if they were reluctantly being dropped off for a sleepover.
The cop would explain to us that child had been removed from the local crack houses or the parent was abusive. I’d help the kid get settled into their bed and when I got home I’d hear the news report detailing their parent’s arrest.
But there was one child I will never forget. He was a short brown haired boy who would spent hours building space ships out of Legos, flying them around the unit with a playfully mischievous grin. He was magnetically cute. When I got into work there a twenty something female co-worker standing over him in a way that made me think the child needed special attention.
“What’s his story?” I asked my supervisor who sat at a desk filling out the boy’s paperwork.
“He’s a level two sex offender.” She sighed.
“What?” I shout whispered at her in disbelief.
“I had the same reaction. It sounds ridiculous to label an 8 year old a sex offender. But before you get on your high horse I think you should watch him for a few hours.”
I stood next to my supervisor filling out paperwork as the boy flew his Lego ship across the room and landed it next to a 5 year old girl sitting on the ground, an assortment of markers rolling around her coloring book. He picked up a marker and sat coloring next to her for a few minutes. Then he put down the marker and grabbed at the little girl’s pink pants zipper. My colleague grabbed his wrist and pulled him to his feet. “You can’t do that.” She told him sternly. “I said you have to keep your hands to yourself.”
My supervisor looked up at me. “That’s what I’m saying. He’s been doing that all morning.” I watched my co-worker pick him up and put him on a chair in the corner. “He was molested so much that he doesn’t know how to appropriately interact with people. He can’t just play with other kids without trying to sexually abuse them.” The boy walked back to the Lego table and started making another space ship.
“What’s gonna happen to him?” I asked.
“He’ll be sent to a boy’s home and when he turns 18 he’ll be put on the sex offender registry and probably live in a group home or end up in jail.”
Now I serve as the Children’s Minister at an urban church. It’s a hub of community activity with a constant flow of kids going in and out of our building all week. So we get a letter from the county every time a registered sex offender moves into our neighborhood. And these letters come much more often that one might expect. And I always take a few minutes to studying the contours of the usually white male face. The black and white computer generated image showing the tired and sad eyes of a man who has ruined enough lives to be registered as a public threat.
There’s the old adage “hurt people, hurt people.” I look at their mug shots, the words “Registered Sex Offender” in bold at the top of the page and think about that boy flying spaceships around the room. I try and pull back their wrinkled tired faces and imagine them as a little kid, wearing a superhero T-shirt playing with Legos.
It took a long time for me to realize that villains came from somewhere. That they didn’t just appear. Six foot tall and full of criminal intent.
But a generation of children are being raised on sympathetic villains. If you watch children’s films with any frequency you will see the villain’s flashback has become a staple of 21st century children’s stories.
Voldemort isn’t just a snake faced murderer bent on destroying Harry Potter. Half way through the series we learn that Voldemort was once the young Tom Riddle in a cold loveless London orphanage. We watch him explain that his inability to control his magical powers has left him a social pariah. Two decades after Darth Vader became the voice of evil, we met a baby faced Anakin Skywalker. And watch a child slave wons a pod race for his freedom.
I get a little hope when I see the evil genius Gru from Despicable Me. As he plots to steal the moon there is a flashback to him as a little kid in a cardboard space suit
“Ma someday I’m going to go to the moon.” Young Gru says wide eyed as he watches the first space landing on TV. His cold mother looks up from her knitting, her eyes narrowed. “I’m afraid you too late son. NASA isn’t sending the monkey’s anymore.”
I hope seeing little Gru’s broken heart will put a little compassion into the hearts of our children.
And I see signs of early onset compassion. Once in a while I’ll hear a little girl tell me that “mean old Mr. ____” must have grown up without any toys. Or the old lady at the end of the block “needs a hug from a mommy.”
And every time I hear it I smile and hope they remember that every villain, even the real-life villains, have a back story.