- Jennifer Foxdirector of The Tale, a narrative memoir about her own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. It premieres May 26 on HBO.
Part 2 of our conversation with filmmaker Jennifer Fox, director of the new movie “The Tale,” a narrative memoir about her own childhood sexual abuse. “The whole goal of the film is to be radically honest,” says Fox. “We make stories to make sense of chaos and trauma.” The movie premieres May 26 on HBO. To see Part 1 of the interview, click here.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, with Part 2 of our discussion about a remarkable new film that is coming out this weekend. As the #MeToo movement has inspired women and men around the world to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, harassment, assault, we turn to this new film that is a dramatic narrative film, a narrative memoir about a woman’s own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. And it is written and directed by the woman who experienced the abuse: Jennifer Fox. It’s premiering on May 26 on HBO. This, again, is the film’s trailer.
JENNIFER: [played by Laura Dern] The story you are about to see is true—as far as I know. When I a was a child, I was obsessed with changing myself. And I don’t even remember who I used to be.
NETTIE: [played by Ellen Burstyn] Jennifer, sweetheart, I found a story that you wrote in English class.
JENNIFER: Where did you find it?
NETTIE: What matters is what it says.
JENNY: [played by Isabelle Nélisse] I’ve met two very special people.
MRS. G: [played by Elizabeth Debicki] Bill is an excellent coach.
BILL: [played by Jason Ritter] Jenny, do you trust me?
JENNY: Mrs. G was the most beautiful woman I had ever met.
MRS. G: There are no bad horses, only bad riders.
JENNIFER: I need to talk about it with someone who was there.
Hello, Mrs. G.
OLDER MRS. G: [played by Frances Conroy] Let’s get you up in the saddle, see what you can do.
JENNIFER: Help me remember them. Why can’t I remember myself?
NETTIE: You were an unusual child.
BILL: Strong body, strong mind.
JENNY: Strong body, strong mind.
JENNIFER: I found some pictures from that summer.
MRS. G: You’re so special.
OLDER MRS. G: You know I have a lot of regrets.
MARTIN: [played by Common] You talked about the relationship, but this is a grown man.
JENNIFER: This was important to me.
Why are you so angry?
NETTIE: Why are you not angry?
BILL: You must push yourself beyond all boundaries.
MRS. G: Don’t tell anyone. It’s our secret.
JENNIFER: I just need to know what happened. I’m trying to figure out why.
OLDER BILL: [played by John Heard] You deceived yourself.
JENNIFER: Why are you telling this story, Jenny?
JENNY: It’s my life! Mine!
JENNIFER: You don’t know what’s about to happen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s the trailer for The Tale, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The film’s stars include Laura Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Ritter and Common. The film received rave reviews, with The Guardian calling it, quote, “a stunning sexual abuse drama” and “the mother of all #MeToo movies.”
We’re now joined by Jennifer Fox, the writer and director of The Tale, a narrative memoir about her own childhood sexual abuse. The film premieres May 26th on HBO.
Thank you so much, Jennifer, for staying for the second part of our interview.
JENNIFER FOX: Thank you.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Now, in the first part, we talked about some of the details of the film. But in an earlier interview, you had said that many things happened that aren’t in the film, because it’s almost like there was too much to say. Now, you don’t need to disclose what that “too much” was. But how did you determine what should be in the film and what should be excluded from the film, and whether it has anything to do with the fact that your mother, when she told people about the fact that you were making this film, that some said to her—criticized her, saying that you you would bring shame onto the family by making your own experience public?
JENNIFER FOX: Oh, it’s a great question. Nothing was left out of the film for the reason of trying to—trying to prevent people from knowing too much. I mean, the whole goal of the film is to be honest, radically honest, in fact. But, for me, you know, why do we make stories? We make stories to make sense of chaos and trauma. And that’s age-old. So, you’re always cutting down and shaping to get to some essential truth, and you hope you hit your mark. And so, you know, what I tried to do with The Tale is to get to the essence of what memory is about and how I constructed myself from this story as a 13-year-old.
AMY GOODMAN: And for people who didn’t see Part 1, just quickly summarize what The Tale is about in your life.
JENNIFER FOX: Sure. The Tale is about an adult woman, played by Laura Dern, who thinks she has a great life, and she does. She has a wonderful boyfriend, played by Common. She has a great job as a filmmaker. And her mother finds a story she wrote at 13, which is true. And the mother recognizes it is true, freaks out, calls her up and says, “You have to do something. You know, something bad happened to you that you’ve never really faced.” And Jennifer, played by Laura, says, “I remember it, but maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s something here I’ve missed.” And she goes on a journey to find out about the real story by meeting the real people now. And that brings up all sorts of memories and reframes of memories that she thought she really understood.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, that’s one of the amazing things about the film, is that you managed to show that memories emerge—traumatic memories only emerge very gradually, and a clearer picture emerges only after a certain amount of reflection. And you document that in the film. And that’s somehow demonstrating, you know, what you talked about earlier, the fact of dissociation or the splitting off of selves, that children can’t bear to experience the kind of trauma that childhood sexual abuse entails. So could you talk about how the making of the film itself allowed you to retrospectively both experience and feel this trauma and reveal more to you about what actually occurred and how you perceived?
JENNIFER FOX: Sure. You know, I just want to be clear: This is one story. Child sexual abuse trauma comes in many different varieties, so I don’t want to say my story is everyone’s story. In my case, I chose to—it’s not that I forgot any of the bad. I could recall it in a heartbeat. But I saw it as overwhelmingly positive that these people actually gave me importance and loved me at a moment—
AMY GOODMAN: These are your coaches, a woman, a man—
JENNIFER FOX: My coaches.
AMY GOODMAN: —the woman facilitating you as bait for the man.
JENNIFER FOX: Exactly. You and my mother would agree perfectly. I didn’t see it like that as a child. As an adult, I do see it like that, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: Following up on how you frame this dramatic narrative, that makes it so unusual, is all the different voices in the film, how you go back and forth. You have your child self talking to your older self. That’s Isabelle Nélisse talking to Laura Dern. You have Laura Dern talking to herself, remembering back your mother as a younger person, as an older person. Explain how you did this and why you switched all these voices.
JENNIFER FOX: Well, the whole goal of the film and in the writing of the film was to understand how the mind works. And the first thing that was really shocking as I was writing the script was to discover that I thought I was the same person now as I was at 13, and, in fact, at one moment, I realized, no, I’m not. I have changed. I am an adult now. And I don’t even know who that 13-year-old was. And that gave me the idea that, “Well, how am I going to know her? I am going to investigate her.” And so I created these fantasy scenes where the adult self, played by Laura Dern, actually talks to her younger self, played by Isabelle Nélisse.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, that’s the thing. So, in the film, you give a very uncommon account, although, of course, it’s the experience of, I would imagine, most people and not just those who survive child sexual abuse, but any kind of traumatic experience—
JENNIFER FOX: Exactly.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —that memory is a much more complicated thing than people generally understand. They say, “Oh, this happened to you, so, of course, you must remember that this happened to you.” But it’s not quite like that. And your film does such a brilliant job at showing the kind of snippets of images, of conversations, that emerge as you reflect on this. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
JENNIFER FOX: Sure. I mean, I was trying to represent the way the mind works. And we are all living in our minds in multiple times. You’re here now, but you’re also—have a flash of a memory in the past. You think about the future. All of this is happening simultaneously inside of you. And so, the film is trying to open up this inner world of the mind and show it as it’s playing, in real time. It’s really interesting. The other discovery was, “Oh, my god, that child I was created me now,” because she was so fierce, and she was so determined to survive and to be a winner and to be a hero, that she was like, “I’m going to take this as this. This is going to be my badge of honor, and I’m going to go out in the world and do great things, because I’m a hero.” And she literally created me, without me, as an adult, realizing, “Oh, I owe her everything.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in fact, you were heroic, because—I mean, in many different ways, but also, and most strikingly, that you put an end to it. I mean, you’re a 13-year-old girl. This man is almost 40 years old. And, in fact, you feel that he loves you and, indeed, that you love him.
JENNIFER FOX: Yeah. Yes, all of that is true. But also I think we have to remember that young girls—and boys, but I’m talking about girls now—have agency and thoughts and desires and feelings, that when we become adults, we tend to forget and squash and think, “Oh, no, I was just this little gray thing.” But, no, I thought I knew what I was doing. What I didn’t have was experience. And that’s why we need adults to protect children, not because they don’t know what they’re doing, but because they don’t have experience to read a situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to talk about how parents, how teachers can intervene. But I want to ask another question. When you decide to end this—and I don’t know if this is in fact in your real life, when you end this relationship—some might call it ongoing rape or sexual abuse with this man, this famous athlete, and you’re 13 years old, calling him—it’s after he has asked you to join a foursome—he, the other coach, Mrs. G., and another young woman, who’s also a child. She’s a teenager. She’s under 18. She’s like 17.
JENNIFER FOX: I think she was 18. Sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: She was 18 at that time.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: But the critical point in that is you realize there’s someone else then, you’re not the only one.
JENNIFER FOX: Oh, it’s a good point.
AMY GOODMAN: And you start to get physically sick. Explain that. And go beyond that. It’s not only her, Iris Rose, the two-flower name, but—and so often is the case with sexual predators, it turns out there are probably many, many, many other little girls that were his “special ones.”
JENNIFER FOX: You know, I just want to be clear: There are many different kinds of perpetrators, and there are also crimes of opportunity. And we don’t know how many children or even if there were other children that the real Bill preyed upon. What we do know is that he was sleeping with me, a college student and an adult woman at the same time. So, it could be that there were many other college students, because he had access to them because he was a college coach. So, let’s not clump—we can’t have a universal about what perpetrators do and look like. There are pedophiles that only sleep with children, and we know Bill is not that, as from evidence.
In terms of what happened to me, remember, 1973, the sexual revolution, people were having threesomes and foursomes and experimenting with sexuality. Anyhow, I was having what I called an affair with Bill, and he began to introduce this idea of we should all get together and have a foursome. And we were planned to have a weekend with Mrs. G and Iris Rose. And I can’t really say why. But it was all set up. I was supposed to go to school, and then Mrs. G would pick me up. And I woke up violently ill, what really was the trigger in my mind. So I woke up violently ill. My mother called them and said, “No, Jennifer can’t go to her track meet,” because that’s what she thought I was going to. And two hours later, I basically—I took a nap, and I was fine. And it was like this big red light went off in my head, like this is your body telling you that you can’t go forward. I don’t think I had a lot of like judgment about it. It was just like, “OK, I’ve hit the end of the line of this experiment, and it’s enough.” And so, later on that night, I called him up and said, “I don’t want to see you anymore.”
AMY GOODMAN: But do you think this awareness that he was having a relationship—you knew about Mrs. G. But there’s now another woman. It’s not just this special—special relationship. And also, interestingly, when you—when Laura Dern meets Iris Rose as an adult, when she tells her that she was with Bill as a young person, I wonder if it wasn’t only the shock of saying, “But you were so little,” when Iris Rose looked at her and said, “But you were only 13 then,” but also, “Oh, he had someone else. She, too,” that awareness that you were a part of this.
JENNIFER FOX: I do think, Amy, you’re right that this idea was so important to me that I was special, and it was really helping me a lot, because I felt like this invisible kid. I was the kid, you know, that no boy would look at. I was the kid that was bad at basketball. I was the kid—you know, I was, you know, the one nobody wanted to sit with in the lunchroom kind of thing. And, you know, many young girls experience these feelings. So here was this great man, and woman, who was giving me all this attention. And I do think, as the circle widened, it became like, “Whoa! I guess I’m not that special.” But I did know about them. He told me that he was having an affair with Mrs. G. And he told me that he was having an affair with Iris. So, I think it was something else. It was like I already was involved in this sexual activity that was over the top, more than I could tolerate. And now we were going to expand it beyond even that. You know, my body just shut down.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s the question about specialness, the fact that among the things that your memory repressed, or a repressed memory, was the absence of Iris, the other young woman. And I think that’s a very important point. Now, whether—you know, that was obviously not intentional or unintentional, however one interprets it, that child sexual abuse, in many cases—obviously, you’re right to say that the experience is not—your experience, or indeed anybody’s, is not universal, that often, as you’ve also said, 93 percent of instances in which children are abused, they’re abused by someone they know. And I think, in many cases, children feel that they’re being selected, that there is something special about them that warrants them receiving this kind of attention, whatever form that attention takes, and that they’re in need somehow of being made to feel that way and feeling loved, by often a person who’s idealized, older, adult.
JENNIFER FOX: Absolutely. I mean, you said it so well. I mean, this is what grooming is. I mean, you have an adult in the community, or even a family member, unfortunately, who begins to give someone special attention. And grooming is a slow ease into their world and consciousness, where the child feels taken care of, loved, better than, given special favors. And so, the adult eases into their world, where it becomes very hard for the child to say no at a certain point.
And again, I really, really have to take task with language. This is why I think “rape” is an inappropriate word, and it’s a confusing word, for this event. When we call it “child sexual abuse,” it’s because grooming is involved, and it isn’t the use of violence to get in with a child. It’s mental and psychological manipulation. So it’s like every step, they’re tiny little steps that can go on for a year, can go on for a week, can go on for a month. They get you into the child’s world, where no is just not a possibility.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the difference between unconscious memories and dissociated memories?
JENNIFER FOX: Well, I’m not a psychologist. Again, look, I’m a filmmaker and a person. But, for me, there is nothing in The Tale that’s shown that I didn’t remember from the get-go. Again, what I was doing is preferencing certain memories and not preferencing other memories. So—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But would you say that you were broken off from the affect of those memories—in other words, the emotions associated with those memories. You may have remembered them.
JENNIFER FOX: Absolutely, absolutely. So, I wasn’t feeling the trauma. I was feeling the love. I remembered—look, I hated every ounce of sexual advance from the first second. From the moment he touched me, my skin crawled. And I was very ticklish. I was a little girl. And I had to sit there like this just to tolerate it, and hold my breath. So, it’s not like I remember pleasure. I didn’t see him as my boyfriend. In fact, in the film, you see that I was very interested in this little boy. And my parents, in their sort of ordinary stupidity that parents can have, wouldn’t let me go out on a date with him, because they were trying to take care of me. They didn’t see this adult as being dangerous. That, I saw—I saw other children as boyfriends. I saw him as an adult giving me attention, that I was tolerating to get this other result, which was love.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jennifer Fox, who’s the writer and director of a remarkable new HBO film, a dramatic feature film, called The Tale. You’ve just released a website along with The Tale. And I’d like you to talk about what you think now, upon reflection, teachers—I mean, this whole thing is based on this essay you wrote called “The Tale,” and the teacher said, “You know, you’re so well adjusted, this couldn’t have happened to you.” It was your own essay.
JENNIFER FOX: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: What teachers can do to intervene, what parents can do?
JENNIFER FOX: Well, we did—we’re trying to create a huge outreach effort to help people use the film and to provide resources for people watching the film, if they need to call a hotline or if they need other information or support. It’s TheTaleMovie.com. You can also reach it through HBO.
What teachers and parents can do—you know, remember, I grew up—you know, I was born in 1959. My parents were '50s parents. You know, children are to be seen and not heard. So, this event took place in 1973. We were not—at that time, you know, children weren't talked to in a horizontal level. And, for me, I think the thing that I really wanted most of all as a child was for somebody to talk to me and listen to me and to take my thoughts seriously and not just say, “No, you can’t think like this,” or, “No, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” which is what the adult world always does.
So, what I would like to say to parents and teachers is, first, listen, hear, really communicate with a child. At the same time, give them boundaries, you know, that are responsible boundaries. And just try as much as possible to have an open channel of communication, which was not in my case. That said, you have to be very careful of who your children are with, you know. And as my mom would say—and she’s right—you know, who is the child staying overnight with? You know, even though she missed it, because she—these were “trusted adults,” and she thought I was staying at the home of a female coach. She had no idea that the female coach was allowing me to stay with the male coach. So, keep tabs on that, communication.
And then, on a whole 'nother level, you know, love your child. You know, give your child real support. I fell back into a family that loved me, that listened to me, that was trying to take care of me, that allowed me to go on with my life. I also don't believe that parents and educators should force kids to talk about things they’re not ready to talk about, because sometimes it takes years, and even decades, to be able to be ready to face trauma. And that is the soul saying, “I can’t take it yet.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s one of the crucial insights of, in fact, psychoanalysis, that you can only give an interpretation, say what’s happening, when you feel the person is ready to hear that interpretation. I’d like to go to one of the readings of child sexual abuse by a renowned psychoanalyst. You’ve written—you’ve said, in another context, to really take care of the soul, we have to allow the truth, in all its complexity, and honor the contradictions. Now, this renowned psychoanalyst, Leonard Shengold, wrote a book about child sexual abuse called Soul Murder, a term he says likely had its origins in the 19th century and was used by Scandinavian playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Ibsen defined the term as, quote, “the destruction of the love of life in another human being.” “The destruction of the love of life in another human being.” Could you comment on that?
JENNIFER FOX: Well, that’s a beautiful, beautiful saying. I think this is what’s—first of all, coming to the first point, I think so often the world and authorities want to look at child sexual abuse in black-and-white terms. And that squashes the truth. We can still say this is horrible, and acknowledge that a child can feel love, a child can feel special, while somebody is hurting them terribly. So what is child sexual abuse? Ultimately, it’s crossing a boundary that is actually what a child is not ready to handle at that moment. And that is a kind of murder. There’s a part of me that was murdered on that day, in those weeks and months that I had this relationship, that is very hard to reclaim, because, basically, my trust was broken. Here was someone I trusted to take care of me, who I loved, who basically used that trust to cross a boundary that was beyond tolerance for me at that moment.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I don’t know if you had this experience yourself, or indeed you’ve heard of others you spoke to having this experience, namely that those who survive sexual abuse, irrespective of their age, often go on to either themselves repeat the experience as perpetrators or, more commonly, to put themselves in situations where they’re more likely to experience similar kinds of abuse, in an attempt, at least unconsciously, to master the experience.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes. You know, those are things I’ve heard. And I think, again, the response to sexual abuse is everything, as well as you can’t even see it in a person’s life, it’s buried so far. And they function fine. They have families, jobs, etc. I think, for me, I did not experience those effects. I think when, at 45, I woke up and used the word “child sexual abuse,” I also realized this thing that we call reparation compulsion was something that I had been operating with from the time I was very young. And that’s where this innocent moment, which is supposed to be so wonderful and beautiful, when you first have sex, had been taken from me. And I found that when I went on to have sex, going forward, I was constantly trying to get that innocent moment back. And it was gone. And, in fact, it took me years and years to have pleasure as a woman. And it’s something I felt I had to fight for quite strongly, to reclaim my ability to enjoy sex.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, when we talk about sexual abuse or rape, rape doesn’t have to be violent in the sense that we know it. And you’re making that distinction. I mean, statutory rape can be a older person having sex with a younger person. By law, it’s rape.
JENNIFER FOX: I agree. I mean, I know that’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you think should happen in terms of issues of prosecution? As you said, in a moment, when you were younger, your parents would have gone for the prosecution against him.
JENNIFER FOX: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: You don’t want to reveal his name.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You say he’s older now. Not clear how many other people would be—as we’ve seen in the #MeToo movement with Harvey Weinstein, one person comes forward, another person comes forward, and it validates the experience that so many others have had. That might happen in your case, if you name the person, that people go, “Oh, my god! This happened to me! That is the guy who did that to me.”
JENNIFER FOX: Well, for me, again, making the film has a much bigger purpose than one person. If I thought he was still out there hurting people—he is literally too old to do that—I would probably try to do something now. The statute of limitations have way run out, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. For me, naming him now would only hurt this bigger movement of trying to get the film out and use it for other people’s—to help other people talk about abuse, see abuse, understand why women are coming to terms with abuse actually so late in life. It’s quite common that people wake up in middle age, like I did. However, I do hope the film can be very useful in changing statute of limitation laws and in children protection acts. This is because most people do wake up late, and usually the laws have run out. I come from a state where statute of limitation laws ran out when I was 30 on this case.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What was the state?
JENNIFER FOX: Pennsylvania.
AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, you’re about to do a Q&A in Sweden—
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —over Skype, because the film is coming out there. This is from the BBC just today: “Sweden has passed a new law saying that sex without consent is rape, even when there are no threats or force involved. The new law, due to come into effect on [July 1st], says a person must give clear consent, verbal or physical. Prosecutors will no longer need to prove violence or that the victim was in a vulnerable situation in order to establish rape.”
JENNIFER FOX: Yes. OK, other than my underage, if you looked at our situation, I gave consent.
AMY GOODMAN: But “other than your underage” is the key—
JENNIFER FOX: No, no, I understand—
AMY GOODMAN: —issue.
JENNIFER FOX: No, I understand—
AMY GOODMAN: That’s what statutory rape is. Yeah.
JENNIFER FOX: I mean, I absolutely understand that, legally, it’s statutory rape. What I’m talking about is using language to be more precise about process. That’s all.
AMY GOODMAN: So—go ahead.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can I just go back to a phrase that you used earlier, which I have not heard before, “reparation compulsion”? Because, of course, the word or the phrase—
JENNIFER FOX: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —that’s popular is “repetition compulsion,” which is, of course, Freudian and so on and gestures towards what I was asking earlier, that people tend to—not everybody, obviously—either repeat, themselves, experiences of sexual abuse, and not just sexual abuse, other forms of trauma, or put themselves in situations where they would be subject to similar forms of trauma. So, what is the origin of that term, “reparation compulsion”? Did you just come up with it now? And how is it that you had the wherewithal or the strength to start to repair the damage that was done because of your child sexual abuse?
JENNIFER FOX: You know, I don’t know where I heard the word “reparation compulsion.” But when I use—I first acknowledged, in my mid-forties, that it was sexual abuse, I read it. And we were talking about it, my girlfriends and I. So, it was something—you know, you’re literally trying to repair history by having sex with someone new that could be, you know, felt and seen differently. Unfortunately, that moment of innocence is never really regained. What you do find is that in a good relationship you have the kind of lightness and playfulness that makes you feel repaired again.
You know, I kind of reject a bit this idea of like one day you’re healed. We all deal with trauma. We deal with a lot of trauma. That’s human life. The idea that anybody escapes suffering is a fantasy that I’m really sad somehow the American market wants to purport. We are dealing with multiple traumas, from, you know, not having enough food to eat, war, on the big terms, family trauma, loss, you know, health issues, all sorts of things. We are all dealing with trauma, and we are all struggling to repair and heal ourselves all the time. So, I left this event, as well as the whole trajectory of my childhood, thinking, “OK, there are things I have to do to take care of myself, to heal myself.” And that’s a life’s work. That’s not something—you know, I’m doing it now. We’re doing it now in this conversation. This is a healing conversation. I’ll be doing it ’til I die, you know. And I also think that the goal is to become better and better as a human being.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Fox, can you talk about getting in touch with Bill, both you, personally, what that meant and how you show that in the film? Maybe there are two different ways of doing it.
JENNIFER FOX: Sure. Well, remember I not only got in touch with Bill, I got in touch with the real Mrs. G. So, who I met—Mrs. G, I met many times. And some of the scenes of the film are edited versions of what actually happened when I met her, because the film is based on a lot of transcripts. The real Bill, I called, originally, and we talked several times. But I found that, you know, not brutally, but he just was very expertly avoiding my desire to meet him. And this went on for like two years. And at the end of two years, I was like, “Oh, my god, this man is never going to meet me.” And I got so furious that I wrote the final scene, which was sort of based on some of the dialogue we had had together on the phone and my fantasy of what would happen if I met him. It was also based on me looking him up on the web and seeing that he’d been feted many times and gotten many awards. And so, I sort of constructed this file—
AMY GOODMAN: For coaching.
JENNIFER FOX: For coaching and his effect in the community and all the good things he had done. I mean, the irony is—and this is also where we have to see life more complexly—is people can do good things and bad things simultaneously. And that’s the hard thing to put together.
AMY GOODMAN: So, when Laura Dern, who plays you, when she confronts Bill, did this resolve things for you? Was it a kind of catharsis? And did Laura herself, the actress, riff off of the transcript when she was confronting him? Because here she is—and I just saw her in a video, before—
JENNIFER FOX: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —one of your premieres here in New York, talking about this #MeToo moment, and she’s deeply involved in films that—although this is the deepest one that goes to this issue right now. So, she addressed this issue.
JENNIFER FOX: I think what we’re calling the confrontation scene in the film is really driven more by “I want to know why. I want to know why me. What did you see in this little girl that looked like a 9-year-old boy? And what is in you that would drive you to desire that?” And so, the scene is a confrontation, but it also ends with a bit of frustration, because, frankly, Bill, played by John Heard, the late John Heard—
AMY GOODMAN: The old Bill.
JENNIFER FOX: The old—older Bill, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Not the one played by Jason Ritter.
JENNIFER FOX: Will never actually be able to cop and tell her why. And that’s really sad to me, because I would like to have this frank conversation with the real Bill, where he talks about his desire and his compulsion as honestly as I talk about, you know, what—my desire, when I was 13, to be seen and heard. Like, let’s talk about and understand why men, and sometimes women, hurt children. How and why does this happen? Because, for me, anything you can understand is helpful to prevention.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most useful correctives that you provide and that you just articulated again earlier is about the enduring experience or presence of a traumatic experience, the feeling of a traumatic experience, because it’s really remarkable that our language is totally suffused with the sense that things disappear, right? People say, “Oh, get over it.”
JENNIFER FOX: Right.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You know, “That was in the past, and you have to be—you know, that was then, this is now.”
JENNIFER FOX: Right.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: “You must be over it by now.” How do you understand that impulse and, despite people’s own experiences, the insistence that something is in the past and no longer relevant?
JENNIFER FOX: You know, I just don’t see life like that. I think we are made up of all of our experiences and that even those that we term “bad” create us. You know, even as an example, this event, which was very painful and positive for me—it had these two sides—also created this well of compassion in me for other women, you know, and has driven my work. You know, I’ve gone out in the field all over the world, Third World countries and First World countries, and talked, spoken to women from all different classes, all different cultures. And when we speak, I know something in them, and they know something in me that is similar. Now, maybe if I hadn’t had this suffering, I would be beyond that and would never understand. So everything that we go through makes us. And I think it’s very damaging to the mind to say, “That’s bad. I don’t want that.” Instead, let’s take all the good and bad, and make it part of us and use it to be better people.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Bill should have been jailed for what he did at the time, if your parents realized, if he was caught?
JENNIFER FOX: Of course I think Bill should have been jailed. The difficulty is what that would have done to me to have been dragged through a legal process, in which I was identified as a victim. And that victimhood, where I would have been forced to say or see myself as a victim, might have killed me more than the event itself.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you think now—if you do think he should have been jailed, how could you have been supported? You refer to yourself not as a victim, but as a survivor.
JENNIFER FOX: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: So, as a teenager, as a youth, how could you have been supported in that way, as a survivor? As, you know, you ended this. You called him out.
JENNIFER FOX: Absolutely. I think every adult that comes in contact with a child in this situation has to have a lot of training about language, and very careful training about language, very careful training about victimizing the victim and about pitying the victim. Pity is a horrible thing, is a horrible thing, that it’s very hard to regain your self-confidence when people are looking at you like “You poor thing.” So, being very responsible and sensitive to the child, I should be careful, while giving them sympathy, without pity, and, just every step of the way, going through the process responsibly. I recently was in Los Angeles, and I want to say it’s the Rape Crisis Center in Los Angeles, that was created really to protect the children, where there’s special rooms, there’s special training for all the facilitators, and it’s like a model institution. I was so impressed. I just think we have to be very careful.
The other thing is, what happens when that information gets into the school, and a child, who has to go back to school, has all their friends looking at them like, “What happened to you?” How do we take care of that environment? You know, being a teenager is so difficult and treacherous to navigate. We all know it. We’ve all been there. So, how do we make sure that’s done elegantly? And adults interfering in teenage life can often ruin a teenager’s life. It’s very complicated. I don’t have an answer. Obviously, I think men like Bill should be prosecuted. But let’s think much deeper about how we take care of the children going through this.
AMY GOODMAN: When you showed this film several times, you had psychologists in the wings. You would say, “Here’s Dr. Ken Feiner. Here’s Dr. Jill Gentile.”
JENNIFER FOX: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: “If anyone wants to talk to them after…” And people go up to them after. People in the Q&A speak to you and talk about their own sexual experiences, their own rape experiences, sexual abuse experiences, harassment experiences. How are you dealing with this, as a survivor yourself? There is so much that will be heaped on you. And what do you think is the role of psychologists in helping people navigate this?
JENNIFER FOX: You know, by telling the story, and this commitment to kind of what I would call radical honesty, which has been a commitment in my work even before this film, if you see Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, that was the first step to: OK, what does honesty do? How does honesty heal people? But with The Tale, for me, you know, it’s really my offering to the world, to say, “I can tell my story this complexly. You can, too. We can tolerate these tellings. And by telling our stories in this way, it helps heal.” So, I’m basically here to support and to provide witness to other people’s stories. When we were in Sundance, sometimes I say it was like a religious experience after the film, because people were standing up and testifying and talking. And, by the way, not just women, many, many men came up to me and said, “That is my story,” leading me to think that men and boys underreport far greater than even girls do.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: You talked about the importance of language several times in the course of the first part of this interview and then again. So, first, what do you think the word “survivor” conveys that the word “victim” does not? And does “survivor” contain within it the capacity or the presence of empathy, as against pity? And then, what you just said right now, that your film, and talking about your experience, as you have in the film and in all of these screenings of the film, that honesty can heal people. Do you think people are consciously dishonest about experiences they’ve had? And is honesty a choice?
JENNIFER FOX: I absolutely think honesty is a choice. And when I—”honesty” is a funny word, because you can think, “I thought I was being honest with myself when I thought this was a relationship, and I thought it was honest with myself when I realized it was sexual abuse.” So, honesty is what you can tolerate. And I personally wouldn’t push anybody to go further than they’re capable of at any given moment. Sometimes, you know, making slight interventions to help somebody flip a narrative can be useful, if they’re willing for you to enter their personal space. I think that, you know, what I can do, because I have been through this journey, is often offer this very complex narrative, so that other people can say, “Oh, wow! I can share and open up to my complex narrative, that is confusing, that is nuanced, that doesn’t fit this black-and-white telling that the world wants me to put it in.” And by doing that, it is healing. It is life-changing.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re working with groups like Planned Parenthood.
JENNIFER FOX: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what those kinds of organizations can do in helping convey the message of The Tale.
JENNIFER FOX: Planned Parenthood is one of our prime collaborators, as is Joyful Heart, It’s On Us. We have many, many organizations that are helping—the World Childhood Fund. We have many organizations that are—we’re working with to change and to use the film to start new dialogues. Each one has a different specialty. Planned Parenthood is great for giving parents tools to talk to their children, to talk about sexuality. Other organizations are great to help with child prevention, or what do you do if you know that your child might be hurt, being hurt. How do you help them heal? So each one provides a different resource. And you can find those resources on our website, TheTaleMovie.com.
What we’re hoping is that the film can be used as a tool, in the widest possible way, to change the conversation around child sexual abuse, so that we can help prevent it from happening, and, if it has happened to you, that it can start a wider, deeper conversation, so that healing can occur.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us. You are traveling around the world now with this film.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: It has worldwide distribution. It’s going to be seen in Sweden. Where else?
JENNIFER FOX: Right now, it’s going right to the U.K. As soon as it airs on HBO May 26, I fly to the U.K. for it to be shown in London, then Norway, then Denmark, then Germany, then Switzerland, then South Africa. But, meanwhile, because HBO is everywhere—it’s a fantastic network—it’s simultaneously being broadcast in Canada, in Asia. And HBO will roll it out in the next two months on television around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jennifer Fox, the writer and director of The Tale, a narrative memoir, a dramatic feature, that is about her own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. It premieres in the United States on May 26th, on Saturday, on HBO.
To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.