I spent most of my early-1990s adolescence in a group home called Campbell House on the north side of Chicago, after my mother abandoned me and my father grew too sick with multiple sclerosis to take care of me. It was a living arrangement that filled me with shame at the time, but eventually became a source of pride. After all, I was no garden-variety fuck-up with a bad childhood: I had the kind of Dickensian upbringing people write books about. Spending my teenage years surrounded by wards of the state and other children with nowhere else to go didn’t just indelibly mark me, it defined me. I was, and on some level will always remain, the kid from the group home.
As I got older, however, my group-home experience defined me less and less. It had to, otherwise I would end up like Billy Corgan, perpetually shadowboxing the demons of a childhood long passed. It was literally a lifetime ago; at 37, I’m now old enough to be the hopelessly inadequate, resented father of the belligerent young man I was when I entered the Campbell House at 14. My group-home experience will always be a big part of my identity, but it would be unhealthy and unproductive to linger on it.
As the experience itself faded away, I was able to contemplate the positive after-effects of growing up in a group home, like the generous college scholarship given to me by the organization that ran the home, and the memoir I was able to publish about my amusingly traumatic childhood and the escape I found in pop culture. I will always bear the scars of my youth, but as I advance into middle age, it sometimes feels like my adolescence happened to someone else, someone I used to be. In the decades after I left Campbell House, my mind transformed the ugly, writhing mass of painful memories of my group-home experience into a fuzzy, muted hurt that grows easier to deal with every year.
So the arrival of Short Term 12, a critically acclaimed 2013 drama about group-home life that’s now hitting home video, filled me with conflicting emotions. My worlds were colliding. I was curious and excited to see a revered movie about a subject close to me, but I also feared that the film would hit too close to home, that it would be too intense and instantly hurtle me back to a perilous realm of adolescent trauma. I feared that seeing the film would be a trigger.
I was right. Short Term 12 is a viscerally powerful, even overwhelming experience under any circumstances, but for me, it felt like I was reliving childhood trauma, that what was happening onscreen wasn’t happening to fictional characters played by actors, but to my teenaged self. I felt as if I was watching an alternate-universe version of my adolescence in which the emotions and dynamics are achingly familiar, even if everything has been finessed for maximum dramatic impact.
Brie Larson plays Grace, a group-home employee whose steely exterior and outer toughness just barely mask her deep inner hurt. Like the kids she mentors—and with whom she identifies more than they know—she can’t expose her vulnerability even to herself for fear of becoming a target. She’s so sensitive that revealing her feelings, even to a boyfriend who clearly worships her, would entail opening herself up to the kind of pain that has scarred her deeply. I knew that feeling well. At Campbell House, we all became hardened, more jaded, less compassionate versions of ourselves. Watching Short Term 12 made me realize that I began the process of forgetting well before I left the group home: Living there meant blocking out a lot of pain and anger, lest they become overwhelming.
Short Term 12 captures how kids in this situation learn to hide within themselves, how they learn to cover their inner light to survive the casual cruelty of teenagers whose innate sadism has been sharpened by years of verbal sparring with people with nothing better to do than try to infect others with their self-hatred and contempt for humanity. This is illustrated most poignantly in a scene where Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a gifted young black man with a thousand-yard stare, delivers an a blistering rap to veteran worker Mason (John Gallaher Jr.). All the ugliness and rage he’s been suppressing ooze out in this simultaneously impressive and horrifying display of untethered emotion. This is the trembling, vitriolic anger vibrating just under the surface of not just Marcus, but of many of the kids I grew up with, the anger we had to suppress to survive, to get by in society and not give in to the murderous rage we felt toward the world, our families, and ourselves. If we didn’t deaden ourselves to the injustices of the world and our specific situations, they would destroy us.
The film captures many other aspects of group-home life as well, depicting the casual strangeness of kids with nothing but time on their hands and energy to burn, but precious few productive, healthy outlets for doing either. The film opens with Mason telling a new hire a colorful story while Grace looks on. Then one of the children under their care runs out of the house, shirtless and screaming like a banshee. It isn’t established why he’s screaming or shirtless, but the rest of the film makes that unnecessary. The Campbell House was full of interpersonal dadaists who filled the interminable stretches of nothing to do and no one to do it with by acting crazy. It was a performance of sorts, a strange work of conceptual art that, at the very least, helped pass the time. Sometimes this exuberant, often nonsensical acting-out was designed to annoy adults. More often than not, it was simply about passing the time. (One of my fellow residents made a years-long habit of dry-humping walls and jumping out of first-story windows, when he wasn’t screaming nonsense noises for hours. He was easily the most entertaining person I lived with.)
Life in a group home is largely about passing the time. That was the bitter irony of both my situation and the one at the heart of Short Term 12: We were all in a terrible hurry to make it through what society told us were the best years of our lives, which we understood intuitively could not be any damned good if we were imprisoned in a group home. Life there was a lot like warfare: endless periods of boredom punctuated by intense moments of awfulness and terror, and even rarer moments of triumph. Short Term 12 understandably gravitates toward big, dramatic moments, but it’s just as assured in capturing the in-between moments where life occurs in all its strange, gray complexity.
The kids in Short Term 12 are cursed in their living circumstances and blessed to work with such kind, empathetic adults. Yet even under the best circumstances, living in a group home is fucking hard, something I had begun to forget before Short Term 12 reminded me. Those rare moments of human connection and solidarity can’t offset the feelings of worthlessness that come with ending up in a place for people who have nowhere else to go. Watching the film was painful for all the right reasons. It was also cathartic. There is value in forgetting, but Short Term 12 has helped me realize that there’s value in remembering as well, for yourself and for others. Sometimes, coming back into contact with the formative pain that shaped us can help us have more compassion for others, as well as for the tormented souls we used to be.