- Jennifer Foxwriter and director who made the 2018 Emmy-nominated film The Tale, a narrative memoir about her own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse.
We speak with writer and filmmaker Jennifer Fox, whose 2018 movie The Tale dealt with childhood sexual abuse. She has now come forward to name her abuser. The film is a narrative memoir based in part on Fox’s own life experience about being abused by a coach as a young girl. While the main character is named Fox, the name of the abusive coach was fictionalized. Now Fox has revealed the man who abused her as Ted Nash, the legendary Olympic rower and coach who died in 2021. Nash took part in 11 Olympic teams as a rower or coach, and USRowing, the national governing body for the sport, is now investigating the allegations. Fox recently revealed Nash’s name to The New York Times and tells Democracy Now!, in her first broadcast interview since the story, that he began abusing her when she was 13. She says her inner voice told her she could not rest until she publicly named Nash. “It’s very important to bring this other story out to the world now and to show this other part of the man that people put on a pedestal and made into a god,” says Fox, who adds that more women may still come forward about Nash. “It’s a very important act to stand up to power in this way, for me and for others.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
In recent years, the #MeToo movement has inspired women around the world to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. In 2018, the filmmaker Jennifer Fox made a remarkable film titled The Tale about her personal reckoning with experiencing childhood sexual abuse. The film was a narrative memoir based in part on Fox’s own life experience about being abused by a coach as a 13-year-old. While the main character was named Jennifer Fox, the name of the abusive coach was fictionalized.
Now five years later, Jennifer Fox has revealed the man who abused her was Ted Nash, the legendary Olympic rower and rowing coach, who died at the age of 88 in 2021. Nash took part in 11 Olympic teams as a rower or coach. Fox said Nash began abusing her when she was 13 years old. Her recent revelation made the front page of The New York Times. The U.S. Rowing Federation has begun an investigation into Jennifer Fox’s claims.
In a minute, she’ll join us in her first radio/television interview since she made the disclosure to the Times, but first let’s turn to the trailer from The Tale.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the trailer for The Tale, starring Laura Dern and Common, a 2018 film by filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who’s joining us now here in New York in her first TV/radio interview since The New York Times exposé on the front page. Jennifer is a writer and director who made the Emmy-nominated film The Tale, as well as others, a narrative memoir about her own reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. She has just revealed the identity of her abuser, Ted Nash, the two-time Olympic medalist in rowing, nine-time Olympic coach.
Jennifer, this is extremely brave of you. Ted Nash is now dead. He died in 2021 at the age of 88. Can you take us on the journey from the 13-year-old to making this narrative film, where you are the protagonist in it — the person is named Jennifer Fox — but you didn’t name him, and then your decision, years after the film, to identify your abusers?
JENNIFER FOX: Yes. Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here with you, Amy.
The truth is, if you know filmmaking, I knew that if I wanted to make a film about what happened to me, I could never name Ted Nash, because he would immediately have put a lawsuit against me. So, in order to protect the film and get the story out, which I thought was more important than naming him at the time, I decided to disclose — to not disclose who he was in the film.
After I made the film, though, I then immediately started the process of trying to name him, and I went to many lawyers to see if we could prosecute him. The problem was, is that Ted Nash, although he was very famous, wasn’t worth any money, and so I couldn’t get a lawyer to take the case against him, because the way these lawyers make their living is by suing the institution that the coaches are part of in these sex abuse lawsuits. So, I was discouraged from suing Ted after The Tale, and naming him.
And the next idea was that maybe I would hire a private investigator to find out if there were other women. But the private investigators were so expensive, and I wasn’t able to afford them month to month.
So, at that point I decided, OK, I made the film — the most important thing is out there, which is the nature of child sexual abuse and memory — and I’m just going to have to go on and live my life.
What happened, though, when he died, he was so fêted all over America, and particularly in Philadelphia around the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a coach. More things were named after him, more regattas. And I got furious. I didn’t actually know what to do, until a young woman who was with me in 1975, Pamela Burdett, she called me on the phone and said, “Jennifer, I want to do something. I want to out him. Is it OK?” And I said, “Yes.” And she called the SafeSport organization, or wrote them. She soon got a letter that said they couldn’t touch it because he had died.
And at that point, it was up to me to decide what to do. And I kind of took counsel with myself, because a part of me, truthfully, just wants to move on. But the child part of me — and this is really true — said to myself, “You have to do something. I’m not going to rest until you do.” And so, I called SafeSport. They put me — told me to call USRowing. USRowing asked me to write a letter. And immediately, a wonderful woman, the head of USRowing, Amanda Kraus, called me and asked me to tell her more. And in that process, I decided to go to The New York Times to publicly out him. Amanda Kraus at USRowing went to her board, and they decided to launch an investigation, which is going on now. And that’s how we got to today.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jennifer Fox, you mentioned the nature of child sexual abuse and that that’s something that you wanted to talk about in the film, and, in fact, you do in a magnificent way in The Tale. You’ve drawn an analogy between the effects of childhood sexual abuse and that of being shot with a bullet that shatters inside you, saying —
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: — it takes decades to pull out those little pieces. And that, to some extent, explains why people who are sexually abused as children are only able to even come to know, much less to articulate, what happened to them, often decades later. If you could talk about that and how that sense is conveyed in your film, The Tale?
JENNIFER FOX: Yes. It’s a great question, because I think people out there who have not been abused don’t understand why now. This year is 50 years since I was abused by Ted Nash. That’s amazing even to myself. But in the film, what I talk about is the incredible power of the mind to protect the self against what happened to itself by changing the facts into something else.
And what I’d like to say, and I don’t want to compare these two because they’re equally horrific, but there’s a real difference between rape and sexual abuse, because rape is a clear violence that you see the attacker as someone bad, but sexual abuse is something insidious that an adult does to a child to slowly enter the child’s world and make the child think that they are kind, loving, and have the child’s best interest in mind, so that when the encroachment on the physical boundaries start happening, there’s a confusion set up. And that confusion remains in the cells, in the DNA of us, I hate to say, victims of child sexual abuse. It’s a very confusing act that takes decades to unpack in ourselves, and often the mind shuts down around it.
I do give the analogy, it’s like a bullet that explodes in you into a million pieces. And you can’t really figure out all the pieces. Often it does take decades, as it did with me. I mean, I only used the word “abuse” on myself and on what happened to me with Ted Nash in my mid-forties, making a film about women, and it came out to me, “Oh my god! I’m just like all those other women who had been abused.” And then, when I had made The Tale, it was really about the stories I had told myself to survive. I made myself a hero. I was the hero of my story. And even after making The Tale, I think, was the first time in my voice I felt, “OK, I’m ready to name him,” but I wasn’t able to. And now in naming him 50 years later, I’m shocked that I have even any power, because inside of me was this little girl who felt powerless against Ted Nash, who only now has been able to come out.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the most powerful features of your film, the fact that both artistically, formally, and in the dialogue itself, there’s so much that’s conveyed about the impossibility of a child, as she grows up, to fully recognize what’s happened to her, the fact of traumatic experience, which induces exactly what you were saying, a splitting off, a silencing, or what they call dissociation. Now, what’s amazing about the story that you’ve told is the role the making of the film itself played in bringing back to you memories, say, one of those — some of those millions of pieces of the bullet that came together in the making of the film. So, if you could talk about the relationship between that?
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: There’s therapeutic practice that often helps survivors of sexual — child sexual abuse, but then there’s also the act of creation, of artistic creation, and what that can enable. So, if you could talk about your own experience with that?
JENNIFER FOX: Sure. Yes. I mean, I’ve always used filmmaking to make sense of the world, whether it’s a personal story or an outer story, but The Tale was my grappling with the fact that I had told myself basically a fantasy story, that I was the hero of my abuse. After making The Tale, little did I know that I was about to discover a whole 'nother story, which was about the damage the abuse had done to me. And The Tale doesn't really show that. The Tale really ends with the character, Laura Dern, facing that she had been abused. And in real life, after making The Tale — it was a huge success, had a lot of impact, showed around the world, etc. — I was left with this other revelation that a part of me had been left behind at 13, and that part of me was the damaged part of me that I had never even seen or accepted. And suddenly, I had to reckon with this cutoff part. And that part was burnt and damaged in my own imagination. And many other things have come out in the last four years in my own mind.
In fact, ironically, someday I expect to make another work that is sort of a part two about this story, but in doing that, I think also that part of me basically said, “You have to do something. You have to stand up and name him.” The reason is, you know, when Ted died, he was so fêted and deified in the media. And I don’t doubt that Ted did good in his sport, but the reality is, this other story of the horror that he inflicted on me, and possibly many, many others, had never been told. And I think it’s very important to bring this other story out to the world now and to show this other part of the man that people put on a pedestal and made into a god. It’s a very important act to stand up to power in this way, for me and for others.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer, I want to go back to The Tale, to your film, to play a clip. For our audience, this is when Jennifer Fox, played by Laura Dern, as an adult, has an argument with her supportive fiancé, who’s 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 is a scene from The Tale, Laura playing you, Laura Dern, saying, “I am not a victim.” And they are also referring to another woman in this story, in your life. You call her in the film “Mrs. G.” You’ve identified her as Susie Buchanan, who died 10 years ago. People didn’t realize what this was about, because you were involved with running with her — and if you can tell that story of how at 13 you came to know her, and how she facilitated the grooming by Ted, who, though was a rowing legend, was involved with this running team.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes. Mrs. Buchanan was my riding coach, very esteemed British riding coach in our community. And myself and two other young women and a young man were invited to spend the summer at her house and advance our equestrian. We had a wonderful summer. But the first morning, actually, we started, she introduced us to Ted Nash as her running coach. She was a very good runner, as well. And every morning before riding, we would run with Ted. And he would pop by the farm, because he lived across a field from her. He would pop by the farm daily to watch us ride. We’d go out to ice cream, for ice cream at night, etc.
At the end of that summer, my father, by accident, couldn’t pick me up right away, and I stayed an extra night, when the other kids left. And Susie invited me to go out to dinner with her and Ted at a local diner. And they told me that they were having an affair. They brought me into their world. Susie was married to a lovely veterinarian and had two kids, but they were having an affair. And they invited me to join their inner-city running team, the Padukies, in the fall, and I should bring my horse back in the fall to keep it at Susie’s, and we would keep running and being together. I was very flattered. I adored these guys and looked up to them terribly. So, in the fall, I brought my horse back, and I would come every weekend, because it was quite far from my house, and I would stay at Susie’s house. And we continued to run together.
And then, very quickly, one time Susie was picking me up at my parents’ house to bring me to her house, and she said, “Would you want to stay at Ted’s house on the weekends? He’s jealous of our friendship. He wants to spend more time with you.” And I, myself, was totally enamored with Susie Buchanan. I mean, she was our god. All of our students wanted to be just — all the female students wanted to be just like her. And so, in trying to please her, not thinking anything of it, I was like, “OK.”
And so, that evening, after we rode at her house, she walked me across the field with my little suitcase to Ted Nash’s house and said, “Now, you know, we can’t tell your parents you’re staying at Ted’s house.” And I was, you know, being a very rebellious little kid at that time. It was the early '70s. And I was like, “Of course I can't tell my parents. They don’t understand anything.” And we won’t tell Dr. Buchanan — that’s her husband — that he won’t understand. I was like, “Of course not.” But I had no idea what I was walking into.
And to my shock, she literally — Ted was there at the door. He was waiting for us. And she literally left me at the door. And there I was, alone with Ted Nash, who I had never been alone with once, and — before, and I was like a nervous wreck. And he took me in his house and showed me where I was going to sleep, his children’s room — he was divorced, and he had children that came on the weekends; they weren’t there — and then showed me his Olympic medals — I had never been in his house — and then showed me a book of poetry we should read. And it progressed from there.
So, the thing was, it’s sort classic, at every point was like, “This is a man I trust. This is a god. This is my teacher.” It had nothing to do with a love affair in any way, shape or form. It was so planned by him that he had hidden a condom, which I had never seen, under his pillow. The living room was very cold. I was reading. And he said, “Oh, let’s go in the bedroom to read. It’s warmer in there. I forgot to make a fire.” And I was like, “OK, this is someone I trust.” Now, remember, I was 13, but I looked like I was 9. I was completely undeveloped, hadn’t had my period yet. It was pretty horrific, quite frankly. And all the time, as a child, you’re saying, “But I trust him. He’s a trusted adult. Mrs. Buchanan trusts him.” And this is how sexual abuse happens.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, in fact, Jennifer, what you’ve also pointed out in the past, over — which I don’t think most are aware of, that over 90% of cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is someone known to the child, and very often someone trusted by the child. And there is this other dynamic, which your film also demonstrates so well, which is also very common, namely that the child has a feeling, even in the midst of this relationship, that the child is being selected, is somehow especially loved by this person, whom the child trusts. So, could you talk a little bit, elaborate on the dynamics of that, which are extremely insidious and leave long-lasting effects, as your film shows?
JENNIFER FOX: So important you pointed that out. I mean, here I was, kind of ugly, you know, like I said, girl who was 13 who looked like a 9-year-old boy, with braces, by the way, terrible bucked teeth, and here, like, this legend, Ted Nash, and this riding teacher who I absolutely adored. I mean, if anything, I was in love with Susie Buchanan as a little girl. She was a woman like I had never met.
Anyway, the thing is, is that they singled me out. They made me feel special. I was invisible. I was invisible at home. I was part of a very large family, very chaotic, quiet. I was invisible at school. I wasn’t particularly anything — very smart, very — I obviously wasn’t pretty. The boys certainly didn’t notice me. I was shy. Here, these two incredible adults singled me out and said, “You are special.” I wrote poetry, and they used to have me read my poetry to them. And they were like, “You’re a good runner. You understand.” They used to call me deep. You know, so, all these things. And they were the first adults in my life — remember, it was the ’70s, but I was living in a world where adults were from the ’50s and treated you in a way that was very top-down, talking down to you. Here they talked to me like a person. I felt like, “Oh my god! This is amazing!”
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer, I want to go back to The Tale. And this is a scene between you — well, Laura Dern playing you — and your 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 Jennifer Fox’s mother. Jennifer, in this last minute we have together — then we’re going to do Part 2, and we’ll post it online at democracynow.org — if you can talk about your mom’s response? You wrote an essay about this when you were 15, and your teacher corrected your grammar — it’s quite amazing — and says, “If this is true, but I assume it isn’t.” If you’re hoping from this that other people come forward in the case of Ted Nash, and if names come down, for example, of the rowing wing of the University of Pennsylvania athletic center, named for Ted Nash?
JENNIFER FOX: Oh my god! What I’m hoping is that his name comes off everything. It’s disgusting that you have what is someone who has abused a child with his name plastered over everything as a god. I hope the truth pushes the University of Pennsylvania and everywhere to take his name down. That is my goal here.
AMY GOODMAN: And people — more people coming forward. You ended this, saying you wouldn’t see them again, when they wanted you to have a foursome. So that was another girl, as well, who was going to be involved.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And they canceled that because you said no — as a child.
JENNIFER FOX: Right. The plan was now, when Ted was sleeping with me, of the — right in our face, he was sleeping with Mrs. Buchanan. And this is really sad. They were also involving an 18- or 19-year-old college student named Robin Stryker, who’s quoted in the Times, a lovely young woman.
AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 15 seconds.
JENNIFER FOX: Yes. So, they were — we were having a threesome. They wanted to have a foursome, and I got sick and canceled it. My point is, is that Ted Nash most probably was sleeping with many other young women. I don’t know if they were as old as me, but they’re out there, and I hope they come forward to name him now.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue with Part 2. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. [Editor’s Note: Jennifer Fox has encouraged anyone with information regarding Ted Nash to email USRowingSafeSport@usrowing.org ]