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A Wrinkle in Time Calls Out an Invisible Evil That Real Children Deal With, and It Hits Hard

Storm Reid as Meg Murry in A Winkle in Time

Raise your hand if you cried while watching A Wrinkle In Time. Now, think about what made you cry the most: Meg in the principal’s office, Meg panicking with the Happy Medium, Meg losing Charles Wallace to the man with red eyes, Meg being reunited with her father, or Meg delivering a heartfelt speech about how much she loves her little brother while the IT strikes blow after blow using Charles Wallace’s little body?

There are so many tear-jerking moments in this Ava Duvernay-directed film, adapted from the first book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet series. It is a powerfully acted, beautifully shot, emotionally rich movie made for kids, starring kids, dealing with problems that real kids face—even if tessering to alternate universes isn’t (yet) possible.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so moving. The film doesn’t shy away from dark subjects, and as an audience member, that can definitely keep the tears—and the awful, wrenching chest pains—coming.

For example: unlike lots of kids’ movies, A Wrinkle In Time deals explicitly with child abuse. Even more amazing is that the film labels child abuse as an act of evil, by showing Calvin’s dad verbally abusing him over a less-than-A+ grade when Mrs. Whatsit explains how the IT infects humanity with its darkness. Calvin hints at emotional abuse from his dad when he tells Meg that he knows what it’s like to be mocked constantly, but she actually sees it during this sequence. Calvin’s discomfort, when she looks at him, is palpable.

And it hurts.

The version of this sequence in In L’Engle’s novel instead reveals that Calvin’s mom physically abuses her children by smacking them with a wooden spoon. Shifting the narrative for the movie, to show how a popular boy like Calvin can be suffering from emotional wounds, is a good change, and it hits on important conversations about mental health and academic pressure that we don’t confront nearly often enough.

Physical abuse is far more easy to recognize than emotional abuse, which is often referred to as “invisible”, because it doesn’t leave physical marks. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but they can, and they do.

According to an article from Psychology Today, published in 2016, in a study of some 2,000 adults in their sixties, participants recalled “bad” events or emotionally scarring moments more viscerally than “good” events, even when a significant amount of time had passed since the trauma occurred. Furthermore, the brains of children who experience emotional abuse develop differently than the brains of children born into supportive, loving homes.

Children who live in a constant state of stress—i.e. environments in which they are constantly belittled or pressured to be “better”—often end up with stress-related illnesses, like Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, or other mental health problems.

Parents aren’t the only ones who put undue pressure on their children, especially when it comes to school. In A Wrinkle In Time, we see that when Meg is also belittled for her academic performance, not by her parents, but by the principal of her school. These conversations, often framed as “tough love” (especially in movies), can have the same negative consequences as parents emotionally abusing their kids.

Students are taught to trust educators to provide them a safe space in which to learn. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for educators to violate that trust. Take, for example, the case of a teacher openly insulting a student, humiliating her in front of her peers. A bit of Google searching turns up a number of cases just like that one. It’s not an isolated incident.

A viral tweet from user @ohcutebyler shows that nearly 300,000 users can relate to sacrificing their mental health for a grade, or being made to feel sad or stupid because of an academic authority figure:

For Meg Murry, school becomes a viper pit after her father disappears, and it’s obvious that none of the authority figures at her school are interested in helping her deal with that. Instead, her principal would rather demean her for grieving over her missing father and blame her for how she’s treated by her peers.

Unlike Calvin, whose academic pressure comes from home, Meg has no such experience with her parents, who encourage her academic curiosity in an open, loving way. Even after Meg’s father disappears, there’s no question that he loves his family (although his decision to leave Charles Wallace behind when the IT possesses him is one that may leave your mouth tasting of ash—but that’s another essay for another time).

Like emotional abuse, heavy academic pressure on children leads to anxiety disorders, stress-related illness, depression, and maladaptive coping mechanisms. The documentary film Race to Nowhere chronicles the lives of students in the U.S. who have been pushed to their breaking point by parents, educators, and peers to get good grades and do well in school, only to be pushed into higher education or the workforce with no more inspiration or drive to give.

Seeing as how the current student loan debt in the US is over $1.48 trillion, spread out over 44 million borrowers, it’s easy to see how succeeding in school can feel fruitless once money comes into play.

Regardless, academic success shouldn’t be something that triggers stress disorders in children. Parents shouldn’t belittle their children or push them so hard that they feel unsafe bringing home grades that are less than perfect 100s. Seeing this reality presented on the big screen in A Wrinkle In Time was shocking, not only because of how hard it hit home, but because of how little we see this issue explored in popular media.

(image: Atsushi Nishijima / Disney)

Samantha Puc is a freelance writer, editor, and social media manager whose work has appeared all over the web; she collects it at her portfolio site, The Verbal Thing. Samantha lives in Rhode Island with her spouse and three cats. She likes Shakespeare, space babes, bikes, and dismantling the patriarchy. She also likes vegan food. For more, follow her on Twitter.

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Samantha Puc (she/they) is a fat, disabled, lesbian writer and editor who has been working in digital and print media since 2010. Their work focuses primarily on LGBTQ+ and fat representation in pop culture and their writing has been featured on Refinery29, Bitch Media, them., and elsewhere. Samantha is the co-creator of Fatventure Mag and she contributed to the award-winning Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives. They are an original cast member of Death2Divinity, and they are currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction at The New School. When Samantha is not working or writing, she loves spending time with her cats, reading, and perfecting her grilled cheese recipe.