By Elizabeth Toohey.
R. Kelly; the backlash against Gillette; the abduction of 13-year-old Jayme Closs, held captive for three months; Larry Nassar’s abuse of upwards of 300 gymnasts entrusted to his care; the president of Michigan State’s claim that Nassar’s victims were enjoying the attention. And that’s just this week. Never has the culture of sexual abuse been so spotlighted in our country, and never has the role of men as perpetrators and complicity of bystanders been so called into question.
All this is a very good thing. Or at least, it could be if it rouses more adults to believe children exposed to sexual abuse and find ways to protect them from it. In the meantime, the world will continue to feel like some twisted version of The Hunger Games.
The documentary The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness (at IFC Center January 23-29) reflects this culture of abuse we swim in, but it’s also about more than that. In it, documentarian Ben Niles follows the extraordinarily talented Brown siblings, first made famous as a family of piano prodigies and concert performers, but then for suffering sexual abuse at the hands of their father and manager. Beyond exposing the damage patriarch Keith inflicted on his three daughters (his two sons were spared), Nils traces the spiritual journey of the siblings, especially the sisters, and in so doing, the film depicts what it means to sort through the darkest, most difficult moments of the past, to find the strength to face what was painful, and to salvage what was good.
It’s also about the power of music to express the complexity of our deepest, most inchoate feelings, to communicate, and ultimately, to heal.
While the damage adults can inflict on children is writ large, it’s overshadowed by the unique bond and intimacy through which the sisters and brothers support each other. I’m a sucker for aspirational stories about siblings, sniffling my way each week through This is Us (a response that mystifies my only-child husband), but it would be hard for any viewer not to be moved by the way the Brown siblings support each other and work through their moments of tension to a place of understanding and trust. That old phrase, the ties that bind, is a double-edged sword – binding can restrain or fetter, but bonds can also be a covenant or adhesive that offers unity and strength. The intimacy shared by the Brown siblings is a bond in the best sense, manifest through their emotional honestly and loyalty, and in the music they share, which one describes as transcending the worst parts of their childhood.
There’s a wonderful scene of the siblings at a recording session: they grow heated and clash over the tempo at which to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Resolving that conflict, and the particular approach that serves as their solution, becomes a metaphor at the heart of the film.
Desirae, Deondra, Melody, Gregory, and Ryan were raised by their Mormon parents to be prodigies. Home-schooling, meant to allow more time for practice, also served to isolate them from any sense of what was normal or an outlet by which the girls might disclose their abuse. All attended Julliard – a first for five siblings – and then went on tour, enduring a grueling schedule arranged by their father, Keith Brown, who was, by then, their manager. They played in 130 concerts in the first year they performed. The film begins with clips from The Today Show, and others like it, showing how the family became celebrities, with clips from home-videos taken by their father. When Keith Brown finally emerges from behind the camera, looking like he’s just stepped off the set of The Waltons, and tells his audience, “this is the cameraman you never see,” it’s deeply unsettling. This is not the domineering, cranky, sexually abusive father of A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley’s revision of King Lear, but a “white-collar,” “charming” abuser, as Deondra puts it. An interview with their mother Lisa is also interspliced quite effectively throughout. Lisa’s complicity and denial is truly horrific, and its unnerving to watch as she all but unravels before the camera, taking a call from her husband in prison, but the whole time never verbally acknowledging the abuse. But I also found myself thinking about the effects of her being socialized into financial dependence and needing to stand by her man on a certain generation and culture of women.
The siblings at first tried to deal with their father’s abuse within the family, hoping that he would take accountability. He didn’t deny their experience, but told them, “You have nothing to do with my repentance process.” (While Niles doesn’t focus on the religious context of this Mormon family, there’s much that could be said on the way the theology of sin and repentance in patriarchal Christianity can mask a host of evils.) Then Keith Brown started managing the music careers of other teenaged girls. It was the daughters’ desire to protect those girls that led the five to prosecute their father, though still they were still committed to keeping the proceedings quiet. Spoiler alert – Keith was a coward to the end, driving off a cliff with Lisa days after he was charged. The accident and his bizarrely miraculous survival brought his conviction into the public eye: had he died, his daughters’ accusations would have been forever clouded by uncertainty.
The sisters each emerge as heroic in their own way. Deondra is the leader, but also the most damaged by the abuse. Not only does she have her own trauma to contend with, but she is haunted by survivor’s guilt as the eldest who feels she should have done more to protect her younger sisters. She suffered so much stress that it led to her losing sight in one of her eyes, after years of migraines. By contrast, Desirae, the middle-child nearly invisible through much of the film, suddenly emerges as a powerhouse near the end when she finds her voice politically, founding The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse with Deondra’s support and advocating for a bill to reform statute of limitation laws in all 50 states, with the support of Kirsten Gillibrand.
Melody’s journey is the most interior. The youngest of the three, she intends that the documentary put to rest any questions and end her appearance in the public eye. Melody inspires the film’s title when she recalls finding a stack of cards her parents had given her as a child and asking herself, increasingly frenetically, Trash or keep? Trash or keep? It is the question she is forced to ask of all her childhood memories and one that drives the film.
As for the brothers, men would do well to look closely at Gregory Brown, who stands out as an ally and model of a man who is accountable and supportive, but never patronizing.
By contrast, when Desirae is advocating for the overturning of statute of limitation legislation around child sex abuse, we see a heavyset older white man, a legistator, argue in favor of the statute of limitations – which states perpetrators of sexual assault can only be prosecuted if they are accused within a certain number of years after the crime, that varies from state to state – because, what if “I” were to be accused for something years ago that I didn’t even remember like, he claims, when he saw a father pat his daughter’s bottom as she rounded third base in a little-league game? Couldn’t they just carry signs of protest around the perpetrators house, he asks?
In the background of a shot of Desirae and Deondra looking stricken, we see other men scroll through their phones with an air of palpable indifference. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18. When ignorance is willful, it is, simply, evil.
As crazy-making as this moment is, the work Desirae and Deondra have accomplished, creating a real possibility of overturning the statutes’ legislation, gives the film a note of hope and purpose that extends beyond the sisters’ individual catharsis. At its center and more powerful still is the Browns’ individual and collective journeys through the cathartic and healing power of music, which make the film, in the end, a remarkably hopeful story.
Elizabeth Toohey is a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays have appeared in Film International and Terror in Global Narrative: Representations of 9/11 in the Age of Late-Late Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.