For more than three decades, filmmaker Jennifer Fox thought she was the luckiest.
That, as a smart, independent 13-year-old in the freewheeling ’70s, it was pure sophistication that her first “boyfriend” — the fellow who took her virginity — was an older man who found her beautiful and exceptionally talented. Still prepubescent, Fox memorialized the “relationship” in “The Tale,” an English-class assignment about the man, their introduction via an elegant riding instructor she called Mrs. G and the trio’s “magical” summer spent defying the conventions of love and freedom.
Still, the girl told everyone it was a work of fiction.
The man she labeled “Bill” was nearly 30 years older. Her track coach.
And Fox wasn’t lucky. She was abused.
Decades later, while making a documentary about female sexuality around the globe, a stunned Fox discovered that over half of the women she interviewed matter-of-factly recounted abuse in their sexual history. Warning bells sounded faintly in her head. And then her horrified mother found and sent her “The Tale.”
“It was a big shock for me to realize that something I called a relationship actually fell into the paradigm of child sexual abuse,” Fox admits. With her mom as her sounding board, Fox met with the major players under the guise of old times’ sake, scrambling home afterward to preserve conversations and impressions. And “The Tale” was reborn as her most important film to date, a complex and powerful recounting of stealth abuse and shocking denial that serves as a warning shot to all adults about the prevalence of child exploitation and how abusers — who, Fox notes, “never look like abusers, ever” — sway their victims and those around them.
And how, even many years later, abusers and their families still deal with the fallout.
“She became my work partner,” says Fox of her mother Nettie, played with equal parts anguished furor and protectiveness by Ellen Burstyn. “When I started to meet the real people to research the film, I would call my mother and that became part of the script. So, I really held on to the idea that this was a mother-daughter investigation, because I thought it was so beautiful that my mother, who had not stopped it when it was right in front of her, wanted me to face the truth at all cost.”
Emmy winner Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse (Mama, The Strain) each employ a rending blend of pain and pride as the older and younger Jennifers — the former trying to jive the truth with her own carefully crafted self-perception and the latter trying to process unchecked adult longings with a child’s mind.
“I looked like a 9-year-old boy when I was 13,” says Fox of purposefully selecting the round-cheeked, preteen Nélisse (whose part in heartbreaking intimate scenes was filmed solo in a wholly nonsexual manner). “We started with [actresses who were] 18, and then 16, and then 15, and then 13 — and, even at 13, the kids I was seeing felt either too mature or they were too business-like, and too cute and had had too many acting lessons. For me what was really important was to portray that pre-pubescent moment, and I realized you can’t act that. You have to be it.”
As Bill and Mrs. G, Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki lend necessary humanity to people who cannot or will not see their crime.
“I gave him all the original research material, letters that the real Bill had written, articles about him, letters from Mrs. G, the real ‘Tale,’ photos of me at the time and of the real Bill, and even audiotapes of the real Bill that I had from phone conversations with him in my research and he just steeped himself in that,” says Fox of Ritter’s commitment to his challenging role. “Then we just talked and talked and talked about it. I think Jason’s a miracle, and I’m just so grateful that he is a man who really felt like he had to do this role.”
As troubling as it may feel for the viewer to watch Ritter’s Bill methodically convince Jenny that she is worthy of and ready for a grown man’s love, those scenes are crucial in understanding both abuser and prey. Jenny, who grew up in a loving but chaotic home firmly ruled by her workaholic father, relishes the attention of adults who genuinely foster her talents and don’t dismiss her inquisitive mind, even if their intent is horrific.
“Why men abuse is a discussion nobody wants to have, and it’s a discussion that we have to have in this space as a society if we’re ever really gonna prevent it,” Fox explains. “I can only say that, in my story, it was clear to me that Bill had real feelings for me. As perverse as they were, and as narcissistic, as an adult, he still — in his own lexicon — had real feelings. This is something that nobody ever says.
“When I met the real Bill, once of my questions was, ‘Who are you? Tell me about yourself,’” Fox continues. “So, the script is really trying to balance the horror with the fact that he really did cry when I broke up with him, which means he was someone who also, within his own framework, really cared about me. The whole script is trying to investigate why and how this happened, and who this person was, and who Mrs. G was.”
Indeed, some of The Tale‘s most unnerving moments ask the viewer to accept, if not comprehend, that the very women who should have been most protective of Jenny, either turned a blind eye or actively participated in her abuse.
“We as society — and women, as well — want to talk about bad men,” Fox laments. “I think my life experience is a little different; that women often collude in these events, and without colluding women, these events with these men wouldn’t happen. That’s really why both my mother and Mrs. G are important. It’s also important, in terms of storytelling, to look at how these women colluded. How my grandmother (who witnesses an adult moment between her grandchild and Bill) colluded. I have no idea what my grandmother ever said to my parents, and my mother doesn’t remember.”
Still, Fox is adamant that what happened to her is not a sum-total reflection of her family’s intimacy or overall happiness, or that abuse outside the home automatically equates with abuse within it.
“We put way too much emphasis on being perfect, which is humanly impossible,” Fox says. “Things happen. People make mistakes. You can’t be everywhere at all times. You get confused — or you have a husband like my mother did, in a kind of ’50s marriage where my father had the power in the family dynamic and had no clue how sexual abuse worked, so he saw something different. The biggest takeaway is the trying. That’s what true parenting is. Bad things happen. The real story is how you deal with them and how you survive them, and how you keep dealing with them.”
And how you label both survivor and trauma, whether you are a survivor yourself or communicating with or about one.
“Being told that I was a victim and experiencing being a victim would have killed me quicker than anything that ever happened with the real Bill,” Fox says emphatically. “‘Victimhood’ as a word and as a concept just takes away all agency, and what I’m fighting for for kids is agency. I prefer the word ‘survivor.’ Not every person who’s been sexually abused uses that word, but for me, I’m a survivor. That child that created that story was a child who learned to survive. For people who go through trauma, the key is survival, not anything else.”
The Tale premieres May 26 at 10/9c on HBO.