Those of us in the mental health field, and in particular those of us who work in the area of trauma are too familiar with the sequalae of sexual trauma as well as the grooming behaviors that go into it. We have heard many narratives and personal stories of painful encounters between adults seeking sexual gratification from children, sometimes their own children. Each narrative is individual, but the effects on the psyche of the survivor follow a predictable pattern: emotional disconnection, fear of intimacy, promiscuity, inability to trust others — particularly those who want to get close, and a tendency to dissociate parts or the entire history of sexual abuse.
In The Tale, Jennifer Fox captures all of the above and goes further. Here we have her personal story: a story she wrote about when she was 13 years old for her English class essay, and then dissociated and rewrote in her memory. What was in effect a betrayal by both the woman she loved as a glamorous version of a mother, Mrs. G, and her running coach Bill, who sexually abuses her, turns into a story of Bill as an older boyfriend, whom she does not talk about in order not to freak people out. Memory provides a translation of lived experience that allows Jennifer to move on, not as anyone’s victim but as the hero of her own story.
And a hero she is.
It is Jenny that tells both Mrs. G and Bill she will no longer continue a relationship with either of them, after finding out that they have been planning a foursome involving her and another young woman.
It is Jenny who writes her story as an essay and turns it in to her English teacher.
It is Jennifer who dialogues with her young self (Jenny) in order to find out the truth and reconnect with her memories and her experience.
It is Jennifer who confronts Bill when she is an adult.
And it is Jennifer Fox who brings us this moving and difficult tale of survival, disturbingly shot with sexual scenes (we are advised that all sexual scenes were filmed using an adult stand in). Incredibly difficult to watch and upsetting in its sexual and emotional exploits — it is Jennifer Fox’s courage to film it in this way which finally communicates the truth about sexual abuse in all of its painful, unnerving, ominous and alarming detail.
One of the hallmarks of sexual abuse is that speaking of it disturbs everyone and that many not only do not want to hear about it, and want it not to be true, even when confronted with evidence of its truth, people also often “forget” about it. It is as if a cultural dissociation descends over many, working its powerful mix of narcotic anesthesia over the horror and reality of sexual abuse.
Fox begins her tale by telling us that it is “true as far as I know,” and so, we are immediately brought into the land of memory, that personal area of our brain that records everything that happens to us — sometimes revealing it to us with clarity, other times through a haze, sometimes hiding it from our conscious knowing, sometimes ushering in unexpected flashbacks brought on by a song, a smell, a summer day. Memory is the repository of all of our experience and yet, it changes with the coloratura of emotions, feelings, sensations, and time. Memory is also subject to dissociative waves that isolate knowledge because of its traumatic impact on the psyche. Memory is individual, and not based solely on language but on our experience of events and of the impact of those events on our psyche. In this sense, memory shapes our nervous system and the neurons in our brain, thus the power of physical memories — the body never forgets; it remembers everything. It is the mind that alters experience and blurs memory in an effort to survive.
“Funny how you live with people in your mind,” a young Jennifer tells us. Indeed, what we do with people and things is turn them into our personal, internal individuals imbued with the attributes we want or need them to have. Thus, Mrs. G, Jenny’s British horseback riding teacher, appears to her beautiful and dazzling, disciplined to a fault and a person to emulate, to be like. For Jenny, Mrs. G becomes the model for femaleness and provides the focused attention her own overburdened mother is unable to give. Jenny falls in love with Mrs. G the way a young girl falls in love with an ideal self. She wants to please Mrs. G by becoming a version of her, a version that Mrs. G can love and approve of. And it is Mrs. G that introduces Jenny to Bill, the running coach who is also Mrs. G’s lover. Together, Mrs. G and Bill begin to groom Jenny for their sexual exploits, under the cover of being the only ones who understand and love her: “we will form our own family,” they tell her. Young Jennifer might think it is “funny” how she lived with this duo in her mind, but in telling us her story we understand immediately that it is Mrs. G and Bill that purposefully shape how Jenny lives with them in her mind. The adult Ms. Fox depicts these grooming behaviors with precision, young Jenny is only aware of her idealization of Mrs. G and Bill retrospectively, as is always the case.
Pedophiles and their child victims are involved in what psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi termed a “confusion of tongues”: where the adult seeks sex and the child seeks affection. These two remain intertwined for the survivor of abuse, who must then do difficult psychic work in order to untangle sex as the means of gaining affection. Jenny the child was seeking attention, affection and to be special to Mrs. G. Since Mrs. G loved Bill, Jenny began to trust and depend on him too. The attention and specialness was the key, and Jenny thrived on it. Yet, sex is a different story. And Jennifer (the child and the adult) knows this. The physicality of sex involves bodies that are tangled up in a transgressive act, no matter how consensual and pleasurable it is for the adults involved. The child seeks affection: cuddling, hugging, playing, and most importantly, a safe space to experiment with coming of age and adult attention. Sex, and the physical demands it entails, pushes through a boundary that moves affection and even love into something else, something not entirely known or safe — a mixture of aggression, lust, passion and even surprise. Children cannot manage the ‘something else’ that sex entails, either physically or emotionally, because they are unprepared for it. It constitutes an assault on their body as well as their psyche. There is a whole lot of flirtation, play, dating and experimentation with peers that must come beforehand. Thus, young Jenny’s body revolts, it makes her physically sick and helps her step away from Mrs. G and Bill forever. “My body told me what my mind refused to accept,” she tells us as she saves herself.
In The Tale we live through Jennifer’s experience, as a child and as an adult. We see her struggle with her partner. We hear of her promiscuity. She tells us of her shame at her excitement, physical and emotional. What is it like to get turned on when you do not want to? Well, it divides the psyche from the body. So that physical experience remains dissociated from what it feels like emotionally. The mind then has to work hard to narrate a different “tale”: he loved me, Jennifer tells herself, so did Mrs. G, she was probably abused herself. All of this she tells herself so she can survive on her own.
“I failed you,” Jennifer’s mother tells her adult daughter while she is in search of her memories. “I failed to do the one thing that a parent should do: protect you.” No one wants to know about the realities of sexual abuse, and this often includes parents who may find it difficult to believe that it has happened to their child, even when they suspect something is not right. Jennifer Fox has given us The Tale so that none of us can ever doubt its continued existence. She is in fact not a victim, she is a survivor, and she is also a hero, and her film a courageous narrative.
Tune in and watch THE TALE on HBO May 26th and host your own discussion circle with free materials by signing up here. The film will also be available on HBO GO and NOW and other HBO channels following the premiere. Follow the conversation online by using #TheTale.