[The following contains spoilers from “Mindhunter” Season 1.]
On Netflix’s 1970s-era “Mindhunter,” Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) takes what he’s learned from serial killers and applies it to a man who had not yet committed a crime. Principal Wade (Marc Kudisch) may have turned the Shady Lane Elementary’s testing scores around, but a disturbing pattern has arisen in which he offers to tickle the students’ feet “as punishment” and then gives them some change afterwards. Or, as Debbie (Hannah Gross) puts it, “tickles for nickels.”
Although certain teachers and parents complain, nothing is done. A concerned teacher has Holden look into the situation, and when a disturbed Holden insists Wade stop the practice, the principal flat-out refuses. When the school board calls Holden though to get his assessment of the principal, he passive aggressively says, “I’m not not saying your principal will become a sexual deviant,” which clearly means he thinks he will be. Wade loses his job.
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As with the serial killers featured in “Mindhunter,” the curious case of the tickling authority figure is based on a real-life person that is featured in John E. Douglas’ book “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit.”
“It’s in the book,” Jonathan Groff confirms to IndieWire. “I think it was a town in Texas. It was more of a personal thing with John Douglas, it wasn’t something that he had sought out. But it was a story he’d heard about, this teacher who had been fired for something that was a grey area.”
Modern sensibilities would not tolerate a school official acting in such a way, especially in the face of parental outcry. “Yeah, I don’t think that you can touch a child now, even if it was just tickling, and get away with it,” said Groff. “I think it’s a very specific thing that happened in the story in the late ‘70s.”
Although corporal punishment isn’t outlawed in the United States, a majority of states have banned it in public schools. Regardless of the actual prohibition, it’s a practice that is increasingly frowned up, as the teachers and administrators are given the task of teaching kids academic skills but not stepping in in loco parentis as in the past. In the ‘70s, however, having a teacher spank a child was not uncommon, which is why tickling appears harmless if strange.
Holt McCallany, who plays Holden’s partner Bill Tench, said, “I went to Catholic school in Ireland in the ‘70s. We were regularly beaten. If you give a disrespectful response to a priest – BAM! Just in Ireland last week and I ran into one of the guys I went to high school with back then, and we were talking about the fact that everything’s changed. The school is coed now. It was all boys when I was there. They can’t touch you. it’s a different world. It’s constantly a challenge just to always remember that. We’re talking about a different time [on the show].”
It’s not clear why Wade didn’t just stop the disturbing practice, or whether he was indeed grooming the children for more illicit behavior later, but he lost his livelihood because of the decision to continue. Ford must live with the repercussions of his supposition that this could turn into worse behavior, and is faced directly with the consequences by Wade’s distraught wife.
“It’s one of my favorite aspects about the show, in regards to this particular storyline, is that it’s very easy to see all sides,” said Groff. “I remember in our rehearsals, it was very important for everybody to understand every side of each argument. I remember David [Fincher] saying that an argument is only interesting when both people are right. In that particular example of the foot tickler, you have a man’s life who is completely devastated and ruined, and I think it’s really heartbreaking, especially when the wife comes off the elevator. But then you also have the simple answer of ‘just stop doing it.’”
The themes of consent and an imbalance of power brought to mind former Weinstein Company co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and others now in the headlines for numerous allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape.
“Not to get too topical about this, but I did read an article related to Mr. Weinstein’s recent troubles,” said McCallany. “He tried tomake the excuse that he came of age at a time when these things were very different. He’s basically saying, ‘I’m a guy from the ‘70s, man.’ This is just how we always did it. It’s not a compelling explanation, but I think there’s truth in it, too. It was a different time.
“One of the things that I’m happiest about with the show when I watched it back, is that I believe we’re in the period and I think that was really important,” he continued. “I knew a lot of men, some of them in my own family, some of them that were role models of mine or guys that I grew up with who had that kind of mentality, that they were just of their own time and of their own generation. It’s a different worldview, and I wanted to give that to Bill Tench because I thought that that would be one of the things that would help in the relationship with Holden to form the contrast between these two guys and not allow myself to slip into a 2016 mentality.”
“Mindhunter” Season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix.