The Tale, 2018
Director: Jennifer Fox
Writer: Jennifer Fox
Stars: Laura Dern, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Ritter, John Heard
Kimberly and Jane give Jennifer Fox’s memoir film, The Tale, huge love for bringing an accomplished woman’s story of her early teen seduction by an older man out into the open to add to a powerful cultural awakening.
Synopsis: Jennifer has it all, with a loving boyfriend and a great career as a journalist and professor. But when her mother discovers a story – “The Tale” – that Jennifer wrote when she was 13, detailing a special relationship Jennifer had with two adult coaches, sexual in nature, Jennifer returns to the Carolina horse farm where the events transpired to try to reconcile her version of events with the truth.
This Tale begins with Jennifer, a forty-something-year-old woman. Her mother shares an old short story with her that she has recently found in which Jennifer related a tale of herself as a thirteen-year-old girl and the summer she spent with her “older boyfriend” otherwise known as her coach. We are led through this docudrama initially through the story of a thirteen-year-old enamored with her first love before the 40-year-old steps in to reconcile the truth that she had been genuinely abused. The story unlocked an old place in my own heart. I have sexual abuse trauma too, and what this film triggered for me was the idea that what we remember versus what really happened to us, can sometimes be two totally different things. At the time I was in this same place as Jennifer, before the realization that I had been abused, I recalled my babysitter, the one who victimized my sister and I, in my memory bank, as the girl who lived next door and was our surrogate mother. At the time, all my memories of her were tinged with love and adoration. We thought she was the coolest thing on the planet, our nanny and our trusted friend. I remember crying the day my parents told her they were divorcing and we were moving as if I was losing a person who meant the world to me. This film is so extraordinary in its presentation of this young girl’s relationship with her male coach as something that had always lived in her heart as one that was special and that those young girl’s feelings are presented front and center, not from a place of victimhood, but the onset of a journey that adult Jennifer has yet to fully explore.
I think it’s particularly striking that Jennifer Fox, one of our brilliant emerging filmmakers, is giving us her actual experience of being sexually compromised as a girl in The Tale. Her self-portrait in movie form is a gift and very powerful. And, of course, her #metoo cinematic storytelling could simply not have been done before. No one would’ve believed it as a true story. Fox did a really great job of developing a way to tell her story so that we grasp the authenticity of both her thirteen-year-old and her forty-year-old perspectives. In the course of telling her story, she empathetically draws us through photos and dramatizations of herself as a very lonely child longing for love. We gain precious insight into a young teen who feels neglected and is very susceptible to being sought out as special, who so wants to feel desirable to an adult. As a girl, she clearly thinks of her coach as her older boyfriend and sees herself as an equal partner to him. So much so that when he presses her to bring another adult, a female coach, into their sexual relationship she refuses him and ends the relationship. It isn’t until after her mother finds and gives Jennifer a story she wrote as a teen about her experience that a now grown up Jennifer revisits her memories. And then, in these reawakened memories, Jennifer finds buried hints and clues that the union may not have been as good for her as she remembers. In particular, she remembers throwing up in the bathroom after having sex with her ‘older boyfriend’ that she had simply put out of her mind. The new memories don’t quite fit with the narrative she’s told herself that she was old enough for a sexual relationship at thirteen.
Yes, it is interesting how our memories cloak themselves in ways to protect us somehow, sometimes. I mean, she wrote this story that detailed her real experience, and somehow those memories have stayed locked in that rendition all of these years as she grows and moves away from it. The shift in perspective between what happened for her as a young girl and the way she comes to see it as an adult would not have occurred had her mother not stepped in to say, “Hey, this is wrong.” It’s interesting how the narratives of our lives can become frozen when not intentionally revisited.
Indeed, and I’d like to talk about an important aspect of Jennifer’s story. Once Jennifer starts to go back into her early life, she is very clear that she needs to figure out what happened to her on her own. Her willfulness is her strength. This is often something that girls lose as they grow older but she, somehow, held on to it. She refuses to buy into her mother and her boyfriend seeing her as a victim. She doesn’t confuse their view of her as a victim with her own need to know the truth. She refuses to let her boyfriend, her mother or her friends influence her motivation. She keeps repeating “I have to figure this out myself.” In her memory, this was a real relationship that she called off, and, in her mind, it’s left as that. At the time of writing the story, we see her as a girl (in re-enactment) holding it and being very pleased with herself. She felt powerful getting away with telling her story and convincing everyone it was fiction. A powerful feeling she carries into being an adult. She does differentiate herself from others who might not have been able to say no. By forcing herself to go back and explore her memories alone, she embarks on a personal journey of discovery that is all her own. When she looks at pictures of herself at thirteen, she’s shocked into a realization of how young she was. She begins to realize with her adult mind what happened and understand she was a small girl, not the woman-child she remembers being. This realization really woke her up and her story of awakening is, I believe, The Tale. Just amazing.
I also remember distinctly looking at my own pictures from the years I was abused and having this tender realization of, “What? Wait a minute here.”
I have to admit. I had a similar experience of looking at photos of myself when I was 9, 11, 13. I felt so much older than my years. Knew way too much; grew up too fast. I would’ve liked a little more childhood. That said, I found her mother’s reaction to Jennifer’s short story self-serving, more about herself than Jennifer. “How I have failed you. I didn’t protect you. I want to be the one who is saving you now.” She was even critical of Jennifer’s initial resistance to label herself as a victim. I thought, perhaps, she had lost her relationship with her daughter and, not knowing why, now felt like she’d found an answer.
I, at first, saw it differently. I felt the mother could have recoiled from her discovery and let it lay on a shelf because she could’ve let her own guilt and regret at not being there for her daughter all those years ago get the best of her. I felt she put that away in order to help her daughter heal.
Hmmm. Interesting. And I get your point. But I think the point Jennifer is making is a woman needs to think for herself and figure out how she’s going to integrate her own girlhood with her own womanhood. Even Laura Dern, who plays Jennifer, said in an interview that she had a hard time going back and representing the girl’s point of view at thirteen because, while playing Jennifer as 40-year-old, all she wanted to do was say, “Look, you’ve suffered terrible abuse.” But she had to let go of her own perspective and identify with the young girl looking for love away from a loveless home and go into that space, non-jaded by her adult maturity. Jennifer, somehow, knew she really needed to figure it out for herself without conveniently labeling it as abuse. She had to make the connections and observe how everything in her life now had been affected by that experience. She is a woman who has a hard time maintaining intimacy in her relationships, e.g., trusting and fully opening up to her boyfriend. She fancies herself a modern woman with a great career, and any sense of coldness is more about living up to an image of being a smart, in control, and contemporary woman. This is her wound to discover and she has to do it alone.
Yes, she had been living with a constructed “front.”
She was, following her reasoning, having trouble letting anyone get close because she reacted in a faux grown-up way to being taken advantage of as a child. She got tough. Her new awareness of being seduced is calling for a new integration of a vulnerability she didn’t even know she had, has.
The body and the subconscious always know.
She had been tricked into thinking this person had loved her when he had really been using her.
It was horrifying to me when she went back to see the female coach who had been privy to her abuse. As an old woman now, the female coach stands in her kitchen where Jennifer has come to visit her, and says, “Do you think you were the only one? There were others.” She tells her she wasn’t special at all.
Even as an adult she was still thinking that! That encounter helped wake Jennifer up because she was still preserving, in her forty-year-old mind, the idea that she had been the only one. The female coach plays a key role in breaking down old adaptive thinking and helping Jennifer come to grips with what actually happened, the theft of her innocence by a sexual predator.
Yes, then we start to see those great scenes of Jennifer as an adult sitting next to Jennifer as the child. Those juxtapositions really start to strike the chord for healing to ensue. I have never seen this subject handled like this before. We typically see the punitive or judgmental views of these experiences, but in this film, it is all about the very raw journey of a girl having this experience. It’s a perfect depiction of that emotional terrain that rings true.
Yes, it’s rare to see how a girl feels and experiences what is going on as opposed to outsiders looking in and interpreting. It is hopefully something unusual that becomes usual as we culturally open up to hearing first-person stories. I completely identified Jennifer’s fierce sense of independence as a child. But in a more general sense, I think the film brings out the truth that girls are simply not supported in a healthy way when they start to experience very real, albeit fledgling erotic feelings. They are left to navigate on their own. Society’s focus is almost totally on behavior. They sort of get blamed for everything. The cultural propaganda says young girls are supposed to be empathetic, put others’ needs before their own. This expectation has traditionally cut girls off from being able to fully embody or experience their sexual awakenings. In our last issue, we talked about Girls and Sex in which Peggy Orenstein interviewed girls putting their own needs aside to deal with the boy’s pressing sexual hormones. It’s not a surprise that girls, sometimes, seek outlets in the wrong directions. They’re making a silent journey through one of the most important developmental phases of life without a map. But in this film, Jennifer takes the reins by going back to honor that little girl. That’s what mattered to her. As an adult wanting justice, she didn’t want to ruin her coach’s life or vilify him. She wanted to know the truth and when she found it, she wanted to confront him with that truth – he made her sick – and that was her reward.
I felt like it was my story and my journey told authentically.
Told authentically, yeah.
I was thinking, while also figuring this all out for myself over the years, that we sometimes put victims (albeit out of compassion or pity) into this role of being permanently broken, as being people who are going to somehow fail due to their trauma. In my teens, I too eschewed intimacy because I was going to be the one in control and no one could ever hurt me. I had to finesse that when I started to heal, but I think that a fierce sense of independence was a friend along the way.
We are very much on the same page with that. I remember when I discovered that Persephone became Queen of the Underworld after Hades abducted her. Not simply a victim of patriarchal abduction, a young woman reigns over knowledge of the circle of life and death, regeneration. A girl, as she matures, is destined to become the embodiment of renewal. It’s a big story. Hades cannot have his way with her after all. I liked thinking about that.
I think resilience is more of a natural human response to trauma than not.
That’s a really important part of this film and it also confirms the female spirit as one with ever glowing embers.
This story is not new but I feel with this film, we are beginning to accept it in our popular culture.
Yes, it didn’t take an old route but a new route.
Remembering who that little girl was inside of us all, and looking at it from an adult perspective with empathy, that can do wonders when dealing with the young girls growing up in our midst, our daughters, our sisters, our burgeoning females.
I’d like to see society stop trying to control or stifle that time when a girl blooms into a woman. I’d like to see a deeper understanding of a girl’s transition to womanhood and actively protect the flow from girl to a woman so a girl can grow into herself in a natural, healthy way. By the way, I have one more thing I’d like to add to our conversation, a question really. What do you (and our readers, of course) make of that last scene where the adult Jennifer sits next to the teen Jennifer? Now that she knows what happened and her true teen self is alive in her psyche, what’s she to do? She seems a bit befuddled with her new knowledge. Is she being left with a freshly opened wound to heal? With the invisible being made visible, what’s her path now? Perhaps making the movie is Jennifer Fox’s way of showing us her pride in having healed a hidden wound? I’d like to think so. But it does leave a question. And the new story is yet to be told.