The Prince of Tides: The Tragedy of Silence

27 July, 2020
The Prince of Tides is a movie about one of the painful consequences of child sexual abuse. The silence of those who are supposed to protect them often cause more harm than the abuse itself.
 

Today, we decided to talk about The Prince of Tides, an oldie but a goodie that is, unfortunately, still relevant today. Sexual abuse and sexual assault are extremely traumatizing for the victims. And while gender does play a role in how it affects the victim, age is a bigger determining factor.

When children suffer from sexual abuse or assault, it’s much more serious. First, because, at that age, they haven’t yet developed the tools that allow them to manage the situation. Secondly (and possibly worse), they aren’t in charge of their lives. The decisions that they make when something like this happens are completely out of their control.

Unfortunately, the adults responsible for their protection and well being often have no idea how to deal with this kind of situation either. They make decisions based on the priorities, values, beliefs, fears, or circumstances that directly affect the adult, not what’s best for the child. In a tragically high percentage of cases, the decision is to ignore, cover-up, or hide the situation. And we aren’t simply talking about not disclosing the information to people outside the family. We’re talking about the responsible adults in the situation, who pretend as if nothing happened.

Many times, it isn’t even a conscious decision. It’s a defense mechanism that’s harmful to everyone involved, especially the victim. This is what The Prince of Tides is about. The horrible silences that happen when people try to hide sexual assault. This coping strategy often damages children even more than the abuse itself.

 

The Prince of Tides

Barbara Streisand produced and directed this brilliant movie in 1991. She also played one of the main characters. The film is based on a book of the same name by Pat Conroy. The author gave the book to Streisand because he wanted her to be the one to bring the story to the big screen.

Barbara Streisand has always been committed to social causes and fighting against injustice, so she was the perfect woman for the job. The Prince of Tides is a masterful portrayal of a difficult and often taboo issue.

The movie tells the story of Tom Wingo, brilliantly acted by Nick Nolte. Tom and his siblings are victims of sexual assault in their childhood. Their family situation was complex and they grew up in a dysfunctional environment marked by domestic violence. The situation reaches a breaking point when strangers break into the house and rape the children.

Their mother decides to hide her children’s sexual assault and forces them to act as if nothing happened. The children grow up carrying this secret and trying to live with it the best way they know how. But the silence surrounding the assault creates deep-seated trauma and cruelly complicates their lives.

Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides.
 

The long-term consequences

Now an adult, Tom also has to deal with an unstable marriage and his twin sister’s repeated suicide attempts.

He travels to New York to help his sister’s psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Barbara Streisand) after her most recent suicide attempt. They’re trying to understand why Savannah has tried to take her own life so many times. Savannah has repressed the memories from the sexual assault, so she doesn’t even have a full understanding of her trauma.

This process takes Tom back to his own childhood trauma. He starts psychotherapy with Dr. Lowenstein (who has her own family conflicts) to try and help his sister remember.

A scene from The Prince of Tides.

When past trauma holds you back

The Prince of Tides shows a parent’s reaction to child abuse that is, unfortunately, normalized in our society. In the movie, Tom Wingo’s mother is probably just following the pattern of trauma and secret-keeping that defined her marriage to her violent and aggressive husband. The problem, in this case, is that her silence extended to her children’s brutal sexual assault.

Sexual assault causes psychological damage that carries itself into adulthood. Studies have shown the extent to which abuse and assault continue to plague people their entire lives.

 

If you add the silence of those who are responsible for the children’s protection, the situation gets even muddier. Hiding sexual assault isn’t the way to cope with it either. It’s absolutely essential that, as a society, we start to accept the fact that neither time nor silence can cure this kind of trauma. People who have been victims of sexual assault need to talk about what happened to them.

Fortunately, in recent years, more people are starting movements and programs to educate about and provide solutions to child sexual abuse problems. As individuals, however, we have a responsibility to be aware of the issue and never turn away from a child who needs help. Silence is like an impenetrable barrier that gets in the way of a child’s possibilities to develop and move on with their life. That’s an issue we should all care deeply about.