Sling Blade is a film about a mentally retarded individual by the name of Karl, who murders his mother and her lover – Karl’s classmate – at the age of twelve. Subsequently, Karl is institutionalized. Upon release, Karl returns to his hometown where he befriends a young boy, Frank. The boy’s father had committed suicide, and his mother is dating Doyle, who abuses both Frank and his mother. Eventually, Karl is responsible for the murder of Doyle as well, as he must put an end to the abuse that he is witnessing in the lives of Frank and his mother.
The story of the film is atypical seeing that Karl is a mentally retarded individual who takes action against child abuse. Scientific research, on the other hand, has revealed that it is usually the mentally retarded individual who must suffer abuse simply because he cannot take care of himself.
As an example, Morse, Sahler, and Friedman studied twenty five children who had been abused, out of which forty two percent were mentally retarded. All except one of the mentally retarded children in the study had already been diagnosed as mentally retarded before they were abused. Hence, it is obvious that the abusers knew that the mentally retarded children are vulnerable to abuse.
According to Morse, Sahler, and Friedman, people who spend time with mentally retarded children are usually aware that these children are not always able to physically or verbally defend themselves. Moreover, these children are not always able to describe their abuse to others. Typically, they are also unable to differentiate between proper and improper verbal communication and/or physical contact, regardless of whether the physical contact is sexual or violent in nature.
Lastly, mentally retarded children are truly dependent on other people for all manners of assistance. This makes them more trusting toward their caretakers as well as others. Also according to the authors, passivity as well as compliance stem from the trust and dependency of the mentally retarded child. Those who abuse mentally retarded children are, therefore, taking undue advantage of the trust shown by these children.
Sandgrund, Gaines, and Green have also conducted a study on children. Out of one hundred and twenty children studied by the authors, sixty had been abused, thirty had been neglected, and another thirty had not been abused at all. The authors reported that twenty five percent of the abused children in their study had been diagnosed as mentally retarded.
Twenty percent of the neglected children had similarly been recognized as mentally retarded, while only three percent of the children who had never been abused were mentally retarded. The findings of this study reveal that mentally retarded children are quite likely to be abused. The fact that Karl of Sling Blade was never abused – rather, he had the intelligence to differentiate between proper and improper verbal communication and/or physical contact – shows that the film is about an unusual mentally retarded individual. Sandgrund, Gaines, and Green write that mentally retarded children are normally hesitant to report instances of abuse because they fear losing the essential relationships with their caretakers.
Furthermore, these children are not always believed if they manage to report abuse. Seeing that Karl was not afraid to lose his caretaker at the time he killed his mother reveals that this mentally retarded child was definitely not a typical one.
McFadden has also written about the abuse of mentally ill children, including those who are mentally retarded. Reporting a study conducted by the New York State Commission on Quality of Care for the Mentally Disabled, McFadden writes that abuse in institutions for mentally retarded children is higher than abuse in institutions for children who are mentally fit. Also according to the author:
In analyzing those cases, the commission found that abuse most often occurred in leisure- time areas, such as recreation rooms and sleeping quarters, where children congregate without structured activities. It also found that boys over 12 years of age and children who exhibited disturbing conduct were at the highest risk of abuse.
In 16 percent of the cases, the study said, a finding of abuse or neglect was made by the reporting facility. In another 18 percent, the facility found misconduct by an employee but no evidence of abuse. In 66 percent, some corrective action was taken and in nearly 20 percent disciplinary action was taken against at least one employee.
Most of those responsible for the abuse or neglect were not new employees. The study said 80 percent of them had worked at the facility at least one year and 50 percent had been employed more than three years (McFadden).
Karl was fortunate because his mother did not abuse him. He was not abused in an institution either. All the same, research evidence suggests that mentally retarded children are highly vulnerable to abuse. In unusual cases, perhaps mentally retarded individuals like Karl may be able to struggle against child abuse. Then again, they might have to take drastic actions such as those of Karl in order to end child abuse. After all, mentally retarded individuals are not considered credible if they simply manage to report abuse.
McFadden, Robert D. “Child Abuse High in New York Mental Centers.” New York Times. 1
Dec 1987. 17 Nov 2007.
Morse, C.W., O.Z. Sahler, and S.B. Friedman. “A Three-Year Follow-Up Study of Abused and
Neglected Children.” American Journal of Diseases of Children. Vol. 120 (1970): pp. 439-446.
Sandgrund, H., R. Gaines, and A. Green. “Child Abuse and Mental Retardation: A Problem of
Cause and Effect.” American Journal of Mental Deficiency. Vol. 79 (1974): pp. 327-330.
Sling Blade. Dir. Billy Bob Thorton. 1996.