(Content Note for descriptions of child abuse and homophobia.)
Sirius shook his head and said, “She’s got the measure of Crouch better than you have, Ron. If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”—Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I can’t pick a single moment to denote as the first. The first moment a voice pitched higher, the first hand raised in the air, the first time I got welts on my skin, the first time I cried myself to sleep. My childhood blurs together like watercolors, one memory washing into the next. Some seem like they happened all in one day. Others are stretched thin over years, spanning two cities, two bedrooms, two locations haunted by the ghost of my pain and terror.
“But your parents got to choose to have you,” people told me. “Doesn’t that mean they love you more?”
I wish that is how it worked.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t necessarily a bad movie. It’s got a host of problems—the whitewashing of Harlem, the “forbidden” love story given to a white heterosexual couple—but this is J.K. Rowling. It’s par for the course these days. Her post–Deathly Hallows output has been a challenge to get through for fans. She used Pottermore to define characters who are frequently headcanoned as queer as being undeniably straight; she’s written stereotype–ridden and dangerous alternate histories involving the indigenous people of North America; it’s as if she cannot help but contradict or muddle up her fictional world.
Yet up to the point where Credence Barebone becomes a significant element of the plot, Fantastic Beasts was a thrilling film. I admit that I have a thing for characters discovering magic worlds hidden within their own, but watching Newt Scamander introduce the wizarding world to Jacob Kowalski reminded me of why I loved Harry Potter in the first place.
Newt showed Jacob kindness. Understanding. He recognized that Jacob wanted to be a successful baker, that his job at the cannery had been sucking the life out of him. And I’d be eager to argue that he purposely delayed obliviating him, all so he could get someone—anyone, really—to understand why magical creatures were important enough to deserve protection. Indeed, Fantastic Beasts aims to spread a message of tolerance and acceptance. The wizarding world does not understand most magical creatures, and their reaction towards them often creates the violent responses they claim are natural in these animals. Newt acts as a bridge of sorts between the two worlds, and it is his job to prove to other wizards that they grossly misunderstand their fellow magical beings.
He succeeds by the end of the film, and yet, the film itself does not succeed as a whole. There is a glaring flaw: Credence Barebone is not offered the same sympathy or understanding as is given to all of the fantastic beasts.
We meet him in a scene that shocked me, not because I’d never seen abuse depicted in film, but because the moment is so tonally jarring to everything before that. Credence cowers on the stairway as his adoptive mother, Mary Lou Barebone, stretches out her hand. I recognized the gesture in an instant: my mother used to do the same thing. Then I thought about Mary Lou, about how committed she was to the New Salem Philanthropic Society (the anti–witch society within this world), and I saw something striking and visceral. Here was a woman who believed so fiercely in her beliefs, so completely in the dichotomy of good and evil, that she would extend a hand and ask a child of hers to give over their belt so she could beat them.
Just a couple scenes later, I figured out the movie’s big twist once the concept of an Obscurus, a dark force borne of a wizard who suppressed their magical abilities, was uttered by Newt. It was so obvious to me because I saw myself in Credence. I saw a kid who could not control what he was born as, under the care of someone who believed that his very identity was an evil, wretched thing. I saw my own mother’s ferocious Christian beliefs in this fictional character, as well as the same willingness to try and abuse away my sexuality.
And then the movie switched right back to a whimsical discovery story; it’s jarring, as if another film lived inside of this one. Fantastic Beasts alternates between Newt and his newfound friends tracking down magical creatures, and the tensions surrounding the mysterious Obscurus that is not only destroying New York City, but killing people. All of this risks exposing the wizarding world to the No–Maj (or muggle) community. The path was clear to me: Newt would realize that Credence was the Obscurus and he would use his characteristic empathy to get others to understand that this magical “creature” deserved just as much respect and sympathy as all the other creatures under his care.
I wish that was how it went.
We are told to love our parents. In American society, family is often touted as the one bedrock of civility and peace, the framework under which all successful relationships are built. Family is important within the Harry Potter universe as well. We can see that in the love that James and Lily had for Harry; Lily’s love is what saved his life that fateful night in Godric’s Hollow. The Weasley family is held up as an example of love that exists despite difficult circumstances. Molly Weasley herself ends up being a mother figure for Harry, accepting him into the Weasley family upon their first meeting. There’s even the value of found–family within Harry Potter, too, and I’d argue that the large group of friends Harry makes—especially Ron and Hermione—count as a family.
Corruption exists within this world, too, and the Dursleys are a prime example. From the first chapter in the first book to the very end, their treatment of Harry is abysmal. They’re abusive, mean, cruel, and stand in direct contrast to the love we see throughout the series. I found it empowering to read Harry’s story through the lens of abuse because, for all its flaws, Harry still got to be the hero. He got to stand up to the Dursleys, to Dolores Umbridge, to Snape, to Voldemort, and we knew Harry deserved to be loved. To be respected. To be listened to.
Perhaps Rowling intended the same for Fantastic Beasts, but the text itself does not offer Credence the same respect or love that is given to every magical creature within this film. He is abused regularly by his mother, so much so that he suppresses his magic. Graves, the investigator within the Macusa (think the American wizarding world’s FBI, if you will), who tries to track down the Obscurus, viciously uses and abuses Credence as well. He pressures him to find the child giving off such powerful energy; later in the film, when Credence is clearly lying to protect himself, Graves strikes Credence across the face, and the cycle of abuse begins all over again, but this time with a different adult perpetrating it.
And yet, I still held out. I still believed that Rowling would use Newt to give this kid redemption and love. I still believed she would show us the redemptive, healing power of family. If she could vindicate Severus Snape, who abused children for years without any repercussions, then surely she could give some sympathy to an abused teenager who just wanted to be himself.
The climax of Fantastic Beasts is one of the more horrifying things I’ve ever seen. Credence transforms into a literal monster: a swirling mass of black magic and energy that rips apart New York City and tries to kill countless people. And when he is finally confronted by the three main characters of the film, when he is finally given sympathy from Newt and Graves, when he is close to some sort of relief from the relentless pain he has been in, he is murdered. A group of Macusa wizards lines up like a firing squad and rains magic down on him until he is gone. The film spends maybe ten seconds addressing the murder of a young wizard before, in a shocking viciousness, it completely forgets about him. His name is not mentioned by Seraphina Picquery, the president of Macusa; Newt does not offer him a final goodbye; no one says anything about him. He is the main conflict of the film, and not a single character reflects on the central problem they all just had to deal with.
In the end, Credence is a plot point. He exists to suffer so much that he creates the conflict for the story. He is then further abused on–screen by everyone he comes into contact with. (Except Newt, though they don’t even meet in any significant way until the final 20 minutes of the film.) The movie’s message –that dangerous creatures should still be understood and accepted—is not extended to him. If this film were a grand tragedy, I might understand. However, Fantastic Beasts instead gives the “saddest” moment to Jacob Kowalski and the wizard he fell in love with, who must obliviate him and wipe his memory after everything he went through.
Credence does not matter in these scenes. Instead, Rowling invokes the dreaded trope of abused characters turning into evil, and she never subverts it.
Abuse does not inherently give closure. Even if I were able to impart upon my mother the severe damage she exacted on me, I would not feel better. It would not repair the decades of scars in my brain and in my heart. They are ghosts that haunt me and probably will for a long time. Watching Fantastic Beasts dredged up these memories, and it made the final act of the film unwatchable and unforgivable. There’s so much talk toward the end about how Credence cannot control who he is, that he was born that way, that the world needed to accept him first before he could begin to heal. How could I not see my young queer self within that metaphor? How could I not see the societal power that was wielded against him? And in the end, that brilliant, scared, and intense light was snuffed out. Extinguished. Gone.
There’s a wisp of Credence’s Obscurus that floats up into the sky after his demise. People have latched on to this as a sign that he survived, that he’ll return in the next film, that all of this will be addressed. But how can Credence ever be given closure? His adoptive mother is dead by his hands; his sisters are terrified of him; his anger and rage and terror were responsible for a large–scale destruction of New York City. What possible sympathy could he be given at this point? How will he be allowed to heal in a society that is, according to this film, so terrified of exposure to No–Majs that they will do anything to conceal themselves?
It’s difficult for me to ignore how this very writing choice perpetuates a specific aspect of abuse: the elimination of hope. When you’re stuck in a cycle, hope is often literally inconceivable. You cannot imagine any way out of it. Harry himself is not offered a window of hope, a glimmer of possibility, until Hagrid reveals to him how long he’s been lied to by the Dursleys. That moment is, unsurprisingly, the first scene in the series that truly grabbed me as a first–time reader. Hagrid found a way to break that cycle, even if he didn’t fully understand the importance of it.
I just wanted Credence to be given hope. I don’t see that anywhere in this film, and it’s why I was so disappointed by it. It is vital that abuse narratives don’t work toward lengthening these cycles. As it stands, Fantastic Beasts betrays the very theme it sets out to celebrate, and it does so with a scared, abused kid who just needed one person to believe in him.
© 2017 by Mark Oshiro