As the #MeToo movement has inspired women around the world to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault, we turn to a remarkable new film that is a narrative memoir about a woman’s own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. It is directed by the woman who experienced the abuse: Jennifer Fox. It premieres May 26 on HBO. “The Tale” 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 “a stunning sexual abuse drama” and “the mother of all #MeToo movies.” We speak with Jennifer Fox, the writer and director of “The Tale,” in New York City.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: As the #MeToo movement has inspired women around the world to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault, we turn now to a remarkable new film that is a narrative memoir about a woman’s own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. It’s directed by the woman who experienced the abuse: Jennifer Fox. It premieres May 26th on HBO. This 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: I only 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.
AMY GOODMAN: The Tale premiered 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 a “stunning sexual abuse drama” and “the mother of all #MeToo movies.”
We’re joined now by Jennifer Fox, director of The Tale. This is a narrative memoir about her own childhood sexual abuse. It premieres May 26th on HBO.
This is just an astounding film, Jennifer. And the fact that—I mean, it’s so unusual, because it’s a narrative, dramatic film, played by actors, but, for example, Laura Dern, the star, is playing you, Jennifer Fox, and you bravely use your own name in it. Talk about the making of this film.
JENNIFER FOX: Well, I decided to keep my name in it, precisely to be able to stand up and say this is a true story. So, for everybody who says sexual abuse doesn’t look like this, or memory doesn’t function like this, I can say, “No, this is true, because it happened to me.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, the film originated, as the film shows, with a story that you had written as a child, shortly following the traumatic episodes that you then document. And the teacher who read your story at the time that it was written, quote, on the back of it, when you received it as a child, “If this is true, it’s a travesty. But since you are so well adjusted, it can’t be true.” So could you talk about the response that you received then and how you reflected on that so many years later when you went back to this episode?
JENNIFER FOX: Well, I think, even as a child, I was writing a story in order to make sense of an event that was very complicated, very nuanced and confusing to me. However, I didn’t see it as traumatic as a child. For me, it was my “first relationship.” And here was a story I wrote. I mean, it was 1973. And frankly, to be fair to the teacher and everyone around me, they simply weren’t looking for child sexual abuse back then.
AMY GOODMAN: So tell us your story.
JENNIFER FOX: What happened was, you know, I was a precocious kid, but very young-looking. I looked like—I was 13, but I probably looked like a 9-year-old boy—no breasts, no hips, nothing. And I was a rider, and I went to my teacher’s home for the summer. And we had like a riding camp. And there, she introduced me to her coach, who was named Bill, very famous athlete. And I became his student, as well. In the fall, things progressed, and I began to stay at his house overnight on the weekends.
AMY GOODMAN: There is this chilling moment in the film—it happens early on—when you—well, Laura Dern, she’s playing you—
JENNIFER FOX: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —is flipping through an old photo album, and she lands on a picture of herself, of yourself, at 13. Her mother corrects her. She says, “That’s you at 15. Here you are at 13.” And the difference is unbelievable. You say, “I was so little.” And in the film, you start with an older actress, and you switch then to a child. Explain.
JENNIFER FOX: Well, the film is very much about memory and the stories we tell ourselves to survive. And so, what I was really looking at is how we all, as teenagers, think we can tolerate anything, and we’re strong, we’re tough. We think we’re more mature. And as a filmmaker, I was trying to show that I thought I was capable of handling anything, but, in fact, I was a little kid.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, one of the many things, the truly exceptional qualities of this film, is that it documents in cinematic form what’s almost impossible to document, and that is the coming into being of unconscious memories. The quote, as you’ve said yourself, “the unraveling of denial.” How did the making of the film itself allow this unraveling of denial to take place, and your recognition, because you always recalled the event, but you didn’t recall it as traumatic? How did that occur to you? How did that recognition come to you?
JENNIFER FOX: Well, frankly, my whole life, up until I was 45, I called this a “relationship.” And it wasn’t until I was making a film about women around the world, a documentary, that I began to see and hear stories that sounded just like this relationship I had, except for they were sexual abuse. So it had a paradigm that I recognized, and suddenly there was a light in my head that just went, “Oh, my god, I have only been telling myself one half of the story, and the other half of the story is actually quite darker.” But when I was younger, I couldn’t tolerate that memory. So, it’s not that I forgot it. I just preferenced the good. And I think memory is very, very protective. And we have to allow it to be so, because sometimes, in fact, you need to protect yourself from trauma that’s intolerable.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to a clip from your film, The Tale. This is a scene between Jennifer Fox, played by Laura Dern, and her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn.
JENNIFER: [played by Laura Dern] Oh, oh. Hey.
NETTIE: [played by Ellen Burstyn] Good morning.
JENNIFER: Thanks, Mom. Oh, my god, I fell asleep.
NETTIE: Well, that’s a good look for you.
JENNIFER: Trashed. Oh, my god, I’m just locked in. I can’t—I can’t turn it off right now. Do you think Bill and Mrs. G paid extra attention to me because Dad was like a big developer back then?
NETTIE: No. It didn’t have anything to do with it. It was because you were an unusual child, and you knew how to talk to adults.
JENNIFER: I was thinking about the first time that you met him, you know, when he came here to pick me up.
NETTIE: Oh, I’ll never forget that day. You kidding? All my antennae went off.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ellen Burstyn playing your mom, saying, “All my antennae went off.” So explain what happened when this Bill came to pick you up. And this, of course, also goes to the awareness of mothers, fathers, parents, family members. What happened on that day?
JENNIFER FOX: Well, this was already in the fall, after I had known he and Mrs. B all summer. And we had set up that he was going to take me out to an event with his college students. And he brought my mom flowers and my dad a gift. And she just—she had never met him, actually. And she just, inside herself, was like, “What’s going on here? This is what happens when boys are courting girls.”
AMY GOODMAN: They bring gifts to their parents.
JENNIFER FOX: Exactly. And yet, she was so taken aback that she didn’t stop me from leaving the house with him. And, in fact, we went on this “date.” But she did tell my father. And my father still didn’t really get what was going on. And he was like, “You’re being hysterical. This is a great man. You should be happy that he’s giving all this attention to your daughter.” Now, remember, again, it was 1973, and parents were not thinking, you know, child sexual abuse. So it took a while for it to trickle down in my family. But, meanwhile, the affair was going on.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to be very clear here. You say your father said, “This is a great man.” He’s a famous guy.
JENNIFER FOX: He’s very famous.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And also—
AMY GOODMAN: This athlete.
JENNIFER FOX: This athlete, yeah, and a coach.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And he’s almost 40 years old, and you’re 13.
AMY GOODMAN: He has a wing named after him at a university?
JENNIFER FOX: Yes, he does.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you have so bravely named yourself, which puts you in a vulnerable position. You’ve chosen not to out him.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
JENNIFER FOX: Well, for me, this whole film and story is not about getting a person, who, by the way, is old and at the end of his life, so it wouldn’t mean much. It’s really about changing the conversation about child sexual abuse and memory, and showing just how complicated and messy and nuanced it is, and taking it out of this taboo box that we’ve had it in, where the perpetrator is evil and the child is this lily-white child. Instead, perpetrators are, you know, esteemed people in the community. They seem like nice men. They’re not visible. And kids often actually can feel love for someone who hurts them. And that’s what makes it so complicated.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go back to something that you were saying earlier, that trauma is intolerable, so, in other words, one can only bear what one can bear—
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —which is why one puts a different kind of spin on the story. You also spoke about a documentary on women that you were working on that somehow gave you a kind of epiphany. So, when you were speaking to these women, did you get a sense that they had a similar experience—in other words, they also had repressed the worst part of their memories about sexual abuse?
JENNIFER FOX: Everyone was different. I mean, some of them were highly, highly traumatized, and it really shadowed their entire life. And other people were like me, and you would never know, and they were highly functioning. So, I mean, abuse affects everyone differently, and they deal with it differently. But, frankly, there are many, many women—and men—walking around that you would never know have a history of child sexual abuse, because most of us are not crying in the corner.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you grow up, and in this film, The Tale, Laura Dern, filmmaker herself, showing these films, looking at women who are talking about sexual abuse, is also coming to terms with her mother finding this essay, and it’s bringing so much in her, and you’re investigating back what actually took place. And you have a partner. That partner is played by Common. This is a clip from The Tale, when Jennifer Fox, played by Laura Dern, has an argument with her supportive fiancé, yes, played by Common.
JENNIFER: [played by Laura Dern] This was important to me, and I’m trying to figure out why, OK? These people were important to me.
MARTIN: [played by Common] People—who are these people? Like, I saw a letter from a woman. Who was that?
JENNIFER: That was my riding teacher. She introduced him to me, you know? And she was there that summer. That’s why I went to see her.
MARTIN: But you—
JENNIFER: I’m trying to figure it out.
MARTIN: Why do you want to find them, when you’re the victim? Look, I’m not saying that to—
JENNIFER: OK, I am not a victim. I don’t need you or anybody to call me a victim, OK? Because you don’t have a [bleep] clue about my life. So we need to stop this now.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s from this astounding film called The Tale, that is going to play on HBO starting this weekend. Now I want to turn to a Q&A after a recent screening of the film. This is Common, the actor, reflecting on his role.
COMMON: One thing I liked about Martin, he wasn’t like just backing down and just like—you couldn’t just kick him over. But he cared, but he tried to, you know, give her everything, give, you know, Jennifer everything that he could that he thought could be healing towards her and supporting towards her. And I thought it was important to see a man in that way, because, you know, obviously, the other side of men that we see in the film is not good. You know, and so—and it’s something when you have somebody going through something in your life, you know, whether it is something as traumatic as this or something even less, you just try to figure out how can you support them, how you can be the best.
And then, like one thing that Martin said, which goes back to like what I’m saying about learning more and more, it’s like, at a certain point he said, “Man, have you seen a therapist?” You know, because we can’t—as loved ones, we can’t always do all—like, we can’t give them all the healing that they may need. They may need professional. Most of us do. And I think, you know, that discussion is something that I was grateful like that Martin put that out there, but now, even more, especially, you know, coming from the communities of color. We don’t talk about mental wellness as much. We don’t talk about therapy. And a lot of men don’t do it, either. So, the fact that we had that aspect in the character, I really loved. And, you know, I just loved that he was a loving human being and trying to support, and didn’t know everything, but he tried to give it his all.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Common raising two points about this film. One is to show there is another kind of man, outside of the sexual abuser, you might say “rapist.” You’ve chosen not to say “rapist” at this point. You were 13, he was 40. And the other is the issue of therapy. And he’s talking about in communities of color.
JENNIFER FOX: I mean, two things. First of all, language matters. I just want to point out the word “rapist” versus “sexual abuse.” Sexual abuse has a very specific paradigm, that takes time, that is about the manipulation of an adult and a child. It is not using violence to get the end means. And that’s why don’t use the word “rape.” And I think we have to be very specific with language here.
In terms of the good man, I think we really do need men like Martin, who actually represents my true boyfriend, now husband, who can tolerate a woman going through something very, very difficult, and not fly off the handle and not leave her. And that’s the character Common is playing.
In the film, Jennifer, Laura Dern, played by—playing me, says, you know, “I don’t want to do therapy.” That is just at the moment. In fact, she’s using this investigation to try to figure out something in her life, like how and why this happened. She always remembered it. But why me? In reality, I’ve done a lot of therapy, and I believe in therapy and think it’s really helpful for many, many things, to help support your life. So I’m a big believer in therapy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, the film is really a testament not only, and most obviously, to your courage, but also your remarkable ingenuity and artistry in envisioning and creating the experience of the past living alongside the present, as you do with your adult self speaking with your child self. One of the things that you said earlier is that you were trying to give in this film, which you did very successfully, a more complex understanding of child sexual abuse, both because the child often feels love and attachment for her abuser and also that perpetrators can’t simply be viewed as these horrible, obviously identifiable, terrible men. Now, given that, it’s even more striking that you, as a 13-year-old, made the decision to stop seeing this person, and you told him explicitly. That’s a highly extraordinary and unusual decision for the victim or survivor of child sexual abuse to do. How did you do that?
JENNIFER FOX: You know, frankly, in retrospect, despite the fact that I felt invisible in my family and there was lots of chaos—I’m one of five kids—I come from a very loving family with a lot of support. And probably it’s that I had so much support and ego strength to be able to say, “OK, this has gone too far. I’m going to say no.” And I also knew, after I broke up with him and during it, that if I wiggled my little finger, my parents would have prosecuted. It’s actually—the irony of it is, I was denying to my parents and lying through my teeth that anything was going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we end, I want to go to a point in the film you make in the film, with a kind of warning or statement on the film, that says that at no point was there a child in a sexual interaction with the actor—
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —even with—between Bill and your child self. Explain how you filmed this. Isabelle Nélisse was the young actress.
JENNIFER FOX: Sure. I mean, there was enormous amount of precautions to make sure she was not traumatized by the experience. And, in fact, Bill, played by—amazingly, by Jason Ritter, who’s an extraordinary actor, was working with a body double who was 22. And Isabelle was—we filmed, you know, days after, standing up behind a bed, on a vertical bed, and her hair splayed out with hairspray. And basically, I was just rolling through nonsexual cues with her, like act like a bee stung you, act like you’re being chased by a dog, act like you’re eating something sour. And she was just talking to me. And that was intercut, with film magic, with shots of Jason looking at the body double.
AMY GOODMAN: Her mother in the room at the time.
JENNIFER FOX: Her mother, a therapist, a Screen Actors Guild representative, the whole cast and rest of the crew watching and listening to us.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, one of the—very briefly, before we end—that the gift that you’ve given to your audiences is to know the past is important, but it’s not necessarily defining.
JENNIFER FOX: Absolutely. I mean, the thing is, we all live with past and present. It’s what you make of it. And it’s how you see the events that happen to you and how you choose to survive.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org. Jennifer Fox is writer and director of The Tale, a narrative memoir about her own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. It premieres on HBO on Saturday, on May 26.
That does it for our show. A happy birthday to Mike DiFilippo and a belated birthday to Denis Moynihan.