Jennifer Fox’s mother was cleaning out a closet when she stumbled on it: a Grade 7 writing assignment of her daughter’s titled The Tale. The short story described a troubling relationship between a young girl and two adults – a “broken dream,” the 13-year-old author wrote.
A teacher had graded the assignment an A, but added a caveat: “If what you talk about here were accurate, I would say you had been taken advantage of by older people, but clearly, you have a fine, full set of emotions blossoming into womanhood.”
It’s the start of a painful unearthing of the past for Fox, whose new HBO film The Tale, starring Laura Dern, is a fearless reckoning with childhood sexual abuse. Fox, who wrote, directed and co-produced the film, was abused in 1973 at an equestrian camp where her riding coach, Mrs. G, groomed her for sexual assault by her running coach, Bill.
For years, Fox had remembered it as a “relationship” between a highly mature teenager and two eccentric adults. Her mother’s discovery was a nuclear bomb that forced Fox to reconsider the story she’d been telling herself for decades.
The film – a fictionalized memoir featuring transcripts of real conversations with Fox’s predatory coaches – is a contemplative and clear-eyed look at child sexual abuse, the way trauma twists memory and survivors’ “fever to move forward,” as Dern has described it. The Tale arrives with a robust outreach campaign online to help victims, families and educators. The Globe spoke with Fox by phone from London.
Why do sexual abuse survivors convince themselves of alternate versions of the past?
For myself, the means to survive was to split off the intolerable and go forward. Truth is only valuable when you can handle it. It felt like this could come into my consciousness when I was strong enough to face it. Memory has a protective function.
In the film, your adult self imagines she went through this as a tall, developed teenager. But then she looks through a family photo album and realizes that in reality, she looked more like a 9 year old. How did this re-frame your sense of the past?
I’m not sure I literally saw myself as older – it’s that I felt older. I hadn’t had my period yet. When I realized I was before all that, it was a real surprise to me, even though inside, I felt capable of dealing with the world. A voice, I had. A point of view, I had. Thoughts and desires, I had. What I didn’t have was experience, or the capacity to read the complexity of the adults around me.
Something we don’t accept very readily is that victims can love their abusers, as you did. What do people need to grasp about these dynamics?
It is complex, nuanced and messy. It doesn’t fit into a neat box of victim/child, adult/monster. The child is looking for things in the adult and the adult is fulfilling needs that the child has emotionally. That is what grooming is: making the child feel special, loved – that they’re being heard. If we don’t see all the needs that are being met by the perpetrator, then we can’t help our children get those needs met in other ways.
My 13-year-old self, I felt invisible, like nobody was listening to me. I was very undeveloped; no boy would look at me. Here were adults giving me all this attention. It was really valuable.
During the filming of the sexual assault scenes in bed, you used a body double instead of the 13-year-old actress, Isabelle Nélisse. Even so, the sexual dialogue is graphic and difficult to listen to. Why is it necessary to put the audience through this?
The dialogue was burned into my memory. It was important to explore who is this man who would see a little girl who looks like a 9-year-old boy as a love interest? In Bill’s eyes, he believes he’s taking care of her, like he’s better than all the young boys. It doesn’t absolve him at all. The narcissism, delusion and denial are huge. But it does let us get inside him a tiny bit to understand the psyche of that predator. If we don’t understand how somebody thinks when they do something abhorrent, how can we ever begin to understand what it looks like, and prevent it?
In your life, there were so many adult enablers: the teacher who read and graded your confessional essay but didn’t sound the alarm. Your grandmother, who saw your coach kissing you. Your mother, who allowed Bill, this 40-year-old running coach she had never met before, to pick you up from the family home in his car, even though her antennae were going off like crazy.
There’s a real inability to see. It was the 70s. Sexual abuse didn’t happen in the nice, white, Jewish suburbs. These were esteemed coaches in the community. It takes a while to realize something is really wrong. If we compare it to the USA Gymnastics’ Larry Nassar case, here’s a doctor manipulating your children and some of the parents were in the room and didn’t even realize it. This is what grooming is: The predator grooms the child, the family and the community.
The big problem is that kids have to have space to grow up. That inherently has dangers in it.
In adulthood, neither you nor Dern’s character appreciate being called a victim. You prefer survivor. What’s the distinction for you?
When I realized in my mid-40s that this relationship was sexual abuse, the word “victim” was abhorrent to me. If I’d been forced to see myself as a victim, that would have destroyed me more than the events themselves. What I clung to was the concept that I made choices, and I had agency. For me, being a “victim” takes away agency and without agency, we’re a puddle on the floor crying. I can be a survivor and there is damage, simultaneously.
The rapper Common portrays your character’s fiancé, Martin. He’s desperate to help but she lashes out and pushes him away. How did the sexual abuse bleed into your romantic relationships later in life?
I think it did affect my sexuality, but how is not always clear to me. There is something called “reparation compulsion.” You’re trying to repair by having another relationship and by having sex. You’re always trying to get it right or get it back. The only thing you can do is grow enough to have a good relationship.
Common is based on my then-boyfriend, now husband Martin. What does it mean to have a man who doesn’t walk out on you when you have that meltdown? Our lives depend on people who don’t give up on us. It is really important to me that the man Common is playing, Martin, is a good man. And an unusual man: just because she is having meltdowns, it doesn’t mean he’s being emasculated. It means she’s in trouble. He’s big enough to allow her to go through that and show up, again and again. Martin doesn’t save Jennifer, Jennifer saves herself.
It’s important in the world of fiction to start changing the stories: Women can save themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed.