Like thousands of other girls in my generation, Anne Shirley, as portrayed by Megan Follows, embodied the young girl I wanted to be, and for an awkward teacher’s pet as myself, her story became my oasis.
I was Anne….
To this day, I still prefer the movie over the series of books, which is rare for a bibliophile such as myself. So, when I heard there was a new Anne series available on Netflix, I had decided I would not watch – nobody could capture the essence of “my Anne,” or display such a beautiful portrayal of imagination helping to conquer all!
After reading a harsh critique of the series, I began wondering if there was more to the story than the feel-good of the series in the 1980s. Embedded deep within the comment thread of an article, I found a more sympathetic review and my fate was sealed – I knew I would have to binge-watch this series to form my own opinion.
Given the more favorable review, I decided to watch this series, not as an “Anne devotee,” but rather as an adult… who has worked extensively, and lived with, children whose pasts are like Anne’s – children who are survivors of abuse and neglect… I had to put on my social worker hat.
When I watched, and subsequently read Anne of Green Gables as a child, I got her – the imagination, the social awkwardness, the difficulty fitting in with peers… shoot – I still get her! The tragic story of the orphan, while not overlooked, was an underlying theme that was largely undeveloped. Instead, it was more of a fact stated several times – that she came most recently from an orphan asylum, and had been orphaned at the age of three months.
The Netflix series, “Anne with an E,” however, develops that story.
And it is uncomfortable.
But, I assert it is an uncomfortable necessity. This series comes with a rating for older children – PG13; and, I would say that is an accurate rating. I would go so far as to not allow my thirteen year old to watch it without me, either, and I would tack on an extra “trigger warning” for victims of abuse.
Because, like it or not, what we didn’t understand as children in love with Anne, is that Anne Shirley was a victim of abuse and neglect. When fate placed her on the woodpile of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s local train station, Anne had eleven years of abuse and neglect to overcome. And, “Anne with an E” doesn’t gloss over that.
Having come from an orphan asylum, her experiences as envisioned by the producers of the Netflix series are brought to light, and directly mimic bullying, aggressive, abusive behavior that sadly occurs occasionally in today’s modern group homes. There always seems to be the weakest link in a group home pecking order, and Anne, the starry eyed dreamer that she is, will always be a target – whether she was in a group home in the 1800s, or today.
On page 55 in Trauma through a Child’s Eyes, by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline, the authors inform readers,
School-aged children, like preschoolers and teens, exhibit variations of the common symptoms of trauma that were described at length earlier in this chapter: hyperarousal, dissociation, contraction, and shutdown (or freeze), accompanied by feelings of helplessness. This age group (roughly from five to eleven years old) likewise is susceptible to re-living the event, having sleep disturbances, suffering from somatic complaints, and exhibiting inconsistent behavior punctuated with new fears and aggression. They are particularly susceptible to worry, with graphic “worst case scenario” thinking that is far more imaginative than plausible…
This older group has more resources available, including more highly developed language and reasoning skills, as well as more advanced moral consciousness and altruism. Additionally, because the children are of school age, they have more demands and responsibilities placed upon them to concentrate and learn. Because of these factors, for many children who have experienced trauma, the signs and symptoms may surface (or become more pronounced) at school due to the additional pressures of academic achievement and socialization.
Seen through this view, Anne suddenly becomes more heroic than ever. The producers of the Netflix series show parts of her history of abuse through flashbacks and her memories which intrude at the most inconvenient times. This series displays her hypersensitivity to certain instances, and tackles her fear of abandonment by showing how she thirsts for, and longs for a “kindred spirit,” and quite frankly attempts to develop friendships quicker than most other children her age. This series digs into her history of neglect, honing in on how she uses her imagination to cope. Her “friend” Katie Maurice becomes not just an imaginary glass friend, but a haunting realization that any child placed under such significant stressors in a young life, would require some way of dissociating from the pain and trauma they are experiencing.
No, “Anne with an E,” is not the Anne Shirley we knew and loved.
Yet, she is all the more heroic when we, as adults, are forced to recognize, and sit uncomfortably at times in our seats, and watch what was all too common an experience for an orphan in LM Montgomery’s day… and, even still occurs far more frequently than we would like to admit today.
Even the (admittedly) drawn out sequence of the “pet mouse” scene (episode three for those wanting to skip) made it apparent to me, as a professional having worked with similar children, the social awkwardness of a child today, who has been prematurely exposed to sexual activity. It displayed how these young victims have a tendency to take stories a little too far for polite company, and sets them even further apart from their peers. And, regardless of “the times” back then, the Netflix portrayal of the instructor grooming Prissy Andrews, his pupil, is just that – grooming behavior. Even in LM Montgomery’s time, it was considered inappropriate, hence the reason the instructor gets transferred.
It’s an uncomfortable truth.
Finally, “Anne with an E,” deviates wildly from the Gilbert Blythe script we know and love from LM Montgomery. Who can forget the incensed Anne, slamming her slate over Gil’s head, ranting how she was not carrots, and vowing to never speak to him again?! If you’ve seen the movies, that scene is forever seared in your imagination, along with the “You go, Anne,” elation the scene invokes! And, because of that, I wonder if producers removed the storyline almost entirely – because nobody can fill the Jonathan Crombie “Gilbert Blythe” shoes… ever.
Also, by removing that part of the storyline, the producers were able to continue developing Anne’s internal, personal struggle and story, focusing on her uncomfortable, foreign road to most of us, leading up to presenting the well-adjusted, well-rounded woman she becomes.
So, no, this Anne is not the one I remember.
She is far more bruised, wounded, and complex…
She has larger hurdles to overcome than I ever imagined as a young girl. Because, as a young girl, I wasn’t thinking of Anne as being a victim of child abuse and neglect.
But, I am no longer a young girl, and instead, a seasoned adult with opened eyes.
The Anne in this Netflix series is deeper and richer than I remember. This depth in her character makes her heroism and beauty shine all the more bright. And, I for one, am hoping this series returns – to continue building the person who rises above all the tragedy in her life, and becomes an inspirational role model we know Anne becomes. I also encourage every adult to watch this series, especially if you are unfamiliar with abuse and neglect, and how it can impact young children so pervasively.
Ultimately, and most likely unwittingly, the producers of “Anne with an E” are setting the stage to prove Levine and Kline’s assertion on page 6, “…to help the child resolve a trauma, there needs to be a safe adult available.” By making her past more tangible, it opens our eyes to the horrible ramifications of abuse and neglect; and, it highlights the power of safe adults who are able to help a child through their trauma.
Which leads me to ask – how can we be safe adults to our collective children, if we aren’t willing to occasionally sit uncomfortably as we face the ugly reality of the effects of physical and sexual abuse, and neglect, on children?