In 1973, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox wrote a story for her eighth-grade English class that alluded to a young girl's intimate relationship with a middle-aged man and woman. At the time, Fox's teacher assumed the story was fiction.
"The Tale," as it was called, was based on Fox's own experiences with her male running coach and female horseback riding coach — which Fox considered normal at the time: "I wrote at 13 with no concept of abuse at all," she says. "It was a love story; it was a relationship."
Fox's initial interpretation of the story lasted for decades. Then, when she was in her 40s, she reread "The Tale" and had a completely different understanding of what had happened to her.
"When I looked at it with my adult eyes, there was abuse all over it," she says.
Now Fox is revisiting the abuse she experienced in a fictional memoir film for HBO, which has been nominated for two Emmy Awards. The film, also called The Tale, goes back and forth in time, telling the story from the perspective of the 13-year-old Fox as well as from her 40-something self, played by Laura Dern.
Fox hopes her film will change the way people understand child sexual abuse. "We never talk about how a child can love his or her abuser," she says. "That's a piece of the story that has not been included in any of the tellings, and if we don't understand that, we don't understand how abuse happens."
On her teacher's reaction to reading "The Tale"
Let's go back: 1973, affluent, white suburbs ... a good private school ... and this kid who's kind of dark and bright sends in a story — a very complex story — and what [the teacher] wrote on the back, I remember very clearly, she wrote, "If this is true, it's a travesty. But since you're so well-adjusted it can't be true." ...
So obviously she questioned it and quickly said, "Can't be possible." Now, in 1973 that is how someone would react. Just as my mother ... also had suspicions and thought, "How is this possible? I'm overreacting." That was 1973. Now today, in 2018, we know differently, and no teacher would react like that. I don't blame my teacher at all, and I don't blame my mother.
On whether writing "The Tale" was a cry for help
I think as adults we think always anything like this is a cry for help, but honestly, when I dig into my own self and go back, I think that I was doing what I've done all my life ... using storytelling to try to make sense of something I didn't understand.
I don't think I wanted the adults to find out. ... I thought I would be made to be a victim, and would be psychoanalyzed, whatever, and I knew that the adults would get it wrong. I can't really articulate it more than that, but adults come in with these big boots thinking they're going to fix something and they make a mess. ...
I don't think I wrote this story as a cry for help. I think I wrote it as a young artist trying to figure out and put into order as art does a story that was very complicated for me.
On why she kept the abuse a secret for so long
Why don't children speak and why didn't I speak? There was this profound inner code that this was our secret — and I loved [the two coaches]. I know that's amazing to say and I didn't want to hurt them and the world wouldn't understand. And I carried that code till my 40s.
On why she refers to herself as a "survivor" rather than a "victim"
I think the word "victim" scares me more than the event itself. It's ... hard to find words, but by putting the word "victim" on a child — or even an adult — you take away agency. And even though technically, I had little agency, because I was too young, ... the false ... belief that you have agency is what keeps us alive and keeps us actually surviving and going beyond trauma. So when you make a child a victim you destroy the thread that they have to get out of suffering. ...
I want to say that every survivor should use the language that works for them, but for me, I really use the word "survivor" because that's what happened. ... It doesn't mean there isn't damage. It doesn't mean there isn't hurt. It doesn't mean there aren't things that I was traumatized about. But let's preference the story of the muscle and the strength — and not preference the story of the weakness.
On why she doesn't use the word "rape" to describe the abuse
Technically it is statutory rape, but I think when we use that word, we deny all the manipulation that goes on for sexual abuse to happen. It was not an experience of violence, and that's why a lot of survivors of sexual abuse will kind of get their ire up when you use the word "rape." It takes away all the coercion and manipulation that goes on with sexual abuse, and we need to really understand that as different from rape. ...
I think it behooves us to understand the delusions that predators have in order to be able to stop it, in order to be able to change that people act like this. These are delusions, just like I deluded myself that it was love for 30 years. You know, we have to begin to really understand the psychology of it in order to change it.
On why it's so hard to prosecute child sexual abuse
What happens ... is that there is a slow manipulation into the child's world by the adult in which the adult is showering love and attention on the child and making them feel special. And that's why it's often — if you talk to any prosecutor — hard for children to prosecute their abusers because they feel such a complicated feeling of love and appreciation and respect, and often, that person may seem to the child to be the only adult that loves them.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jennifer Fox, says in 1973, when she was 13, flat-chested with braces, she was her running coach's lover. At least, that's the story she told herself when she was 13. The coach was in his 40s. It wasn't until Fox was in her 40s that she was able to reframe the story and accept it for what it was - child sexual abuse. Fox is a documentary filmmaker, but her HBO film "The Tale" is what she describes as a fictional memoir. It goes back and forth in time, showing her as a 13-year-old telling the story the way she saw it at the time, then shifting to when she's in her 40s, trying to understand what really happened, why it happened and how it's affected her life. The film is nominated for an Emmy for outstanding television movie. Laura Dern is nominated for her portrayal of the adult Jennifer Fox. Note to parents, this conversation might not be appropriate for young children.
The beginning of Fox's film echoes what happened in Fox's life, when she was in her 40s, and her mother found a story Fox had written for her eighth-grade English class called "The Tale." That story, which Fox told her teacher was fiction, didn't get into sexual details, but it alluded to her relationship with her running coach and with the woman who was her riding coach who also abused her. In the film, we hear this excerpt of the story in the alternating voices of the younger and older Jennifer Fox.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TALE")
LAURA DERN: (As Jennifer) I'd like to begin the story by telling you something so beautiful.
ISABELLE NELISSE: (As Jenny at 13) I've met two very special people whom I've come to love dearly. Imagine a woman who is married and a man who is divorced sharing their lives in close friendship, loving each other with all their souls, yet not being close with their bodies. Get this - I'm part of them both. I'm lucky enough to be able to share in their love. When I'm away from them, the earth seems to shake and tremble.
DERN: (As Jennifer) And often, I'm afraid I'll fall off of it.
GROSS: Jennifer Fox, congratulations on the film and the Emmy nominations, and welcome to FRESH AIR.
JENNIFER FOX: Thank you.
GROSS: Let's start by talking a little bit more about the story that you wrote when you were 13. You kind of rediscovered the story after your mother found it and sent it to you. What surprised you most about what you wrote when you were 13?
FOX: I think what was so incredible was that at 45 or 46, when I found the story again and my mother sent it to me, was here was this story that I wrote at 13 with no concept of abuse at all. It was a love story. It was a relationship. But when I looked at it with my adult eyes, there was abuse all over it. The story is very hidden, so it never says anything sexual happened, but it implies it. At the end of the story - and this isn't in the film - I say, you know, there's nothing to do now. The only thing I have lost is my trust and how to go forward from here. And so here I was, a 13-year-old, realizing I'd been through this event that had somehow destroyed an inner mechanism, and yet I was taking ownership of it.
GROSS: Yeah. 'Cause in the movie, anyways, you end the story by saying - and I'm paraphrasing here - I thought he was so strong, but the only thing strong about him was his words.
FOX: That's also straight from "The Tale." I wrote that in "The Tale." So, I mean...
GROSS: You were a good writer at age 13.
FOX: Yeah (laughter). I mean, in "The Tale," I remember writing and I remember feeling so disenchanted with these two adults who in the beginning treated me as an equal, and as time went on, they ended up behaving just like every adult. They talked down to me. They didn't listen to me. They thought better, you know, that they were more powerful than me. So I - there was a growing disenchantment even within the relationship that led to me, quote, "breaking up" with them.
GROSS: What was your teacher's reaction when she read this essay, and between the lines, you could tell that you were being sexually abused?
FOX: Well, clearly, she didn't read that interpretation. You know, let's go back - 1973, affluent white suburbs. I mean, a good private school, Germantown Friends School. And this kid who's kind of dark and bright, you know, sends in a story, a very complex story. And what she wrote on the back I remember very clearly. She wrote, if this is true, it's a travesty. But since you're so well-adjusted, it can't be true. And then she went on to give me some advice about protecting my inner light. So obviously, she questioned it and quickly said, can't be possible.
Now, in 1973, that is how someone would react. Just as my mother, who Ellen Burstyn is playing in the film, also had suspicions and thought, you know, how is this possible? I'm overreacting. Now, today in 2018, we know differently. And no teacher would react like that. I don't blame my teacher at all, and I don't blame my mother.
GROSS: I kind of think that people didn't really have the language to ask a child about this.
FOX: Look. In 1973, in my family, children will be seen and not heard. People didn't talk to kids back then in the same way they do now. It was all vertical. It was all the adults talking down. And so if you're not having a horizontal conversation with a child, how can you investigate what's really going on?
GROSS: Could we just get briefly back to your 13-year-old self? Why did you decide to write that story? Did you want to be discovered? Did you want somebody to say to you, oh, my God, you were violated? We have to do something about this. You should have been protected. This man and this woman who violated you, they need to be punished. They need to be prevented from doing it to another girl.
FOX: Well, that's a great question. First of all, I had no concept as a 13-year-old of others, and that's a classic response...
GROSS: That this might - that they might have done this to others?
FOX: ...Of a child who's being abused because part of what the person or people - the perpetrators - are manipulating is the feeling that you're special, you're loved. You're the only one. I thought I was the only one. I thought I was the light of this man's eyes. And he expressed things like that, so I never thought of protecting someone at 13 or others. Now, as an adult, we can talk about that.
GROSS: You thought you were the one? You were the special one, singled out by these two smart adults who were your coaches.
FOX: Yes. And also, I was so hungry for that kind of attention. I was...
GROSS: Your parents had five children, three of them were younger than you.
FOX: My parents had five kids. They were overwhelmed. They had a lot on their plate. Also, I was a 13-year-old girl that looked like a 9-year-old boy. I had no breasts, no hips. No boy was looking at me. I was rather ugly, frankly. And I was a silent kind of dark, quiet kid. I just wasn't getting the attention. These people poured attention on me, made me feel special. Now, if we extrapolate, that's also classic. That's the kid that gets preyed upon.
GROSS: OK. Let's hear an example of that kind of special treatment that your running coach and your riding coach gave to you. And your riding coach is played by Elizabeth Debicki. And your running coach is played by Jason Ritter. And Isabelle Nelisse portrays the 13-year-old you. And in this scene, you're telling them both that you feel invisible at home. And they're in the process of trying to get you under their spell and convincing you that they're special so they can set you up as their sexual prey. So Jason Ritter speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TALE")
JASON RITTER: (As Bill) Your parents are just afraid of the world. They're just afraid of living, being free. They cannot accept that you are becoming a woman. They can't see you the way that we can.
NELISSE: (As Jenny at 13) They're such hypocrites. I hate them.
ELIZABETH DEBICKI: (As Mrs. G) You shouldn't hate them, Jenny. You should pity them.
RITTER: (As Bill) They're just not brave like you are. You're not afraid of life, right, Jenny? You're not afraid of living. How about this? We will form our own family based on complete honesty and love - hiding nothing, revealing everything, just the truth.
NELISSE: (As Jenny at 13) And we'll never lie to each other...
RITTER: (As Bill) Never.
NELISSE: (As Jenny at 13) ...Like the rest of the world does?
RITTER: (As Bill) That's exactly right.
GROSS: That's a scene from Jennifer Fox's film "The Tale" on HBO. It hurts me just listening to that. And is that pretty much what they said to you?
FOX: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: So, you know, the way the running coach is praising the 13-year-old version of you for, like, being brave and, you know - it's basically saying, like, if you don't go along with our plan, you're not embracing life. If you want to embrace life, follow us.
FOX: Well, it's also - you know, they were basically telling me I was deep and smart and could see things and had qualities that others didn't have. And they were bringing me into this very, very special world of adults. Most adults didn't even listen to me. So it was a very magical moment that - ironically, later on, when I told one of the women that was there for real at the time, she actually expressed a kind of jealousy. Oh, they picked you. Why did they pick you? Even now she could see that that was special and magical. We all wanted to be their favorite. And I was like, wow. How did I get so lucky?
GROSS: Did you - were you also seduced by the idea of, like, we're nonconformists?
FOX: Oh, absolutely.
GROSS: We're going to break the rules.
FOX: Absolutely. Now, remember the times. It was 1973, again. But here I was growing up a young girl who grew up in a world where women were supposed to be teachers. You could be an airline stewardess. My mother was a...
GROSS: ...Teacher, nurse.
FOX: Teacher, nurse, secretary, airline stewardess - but most of all...
GROSS: Working in your husband's business...
GROSS: ...That's the other one.
FOX: Most of all, you should be a stay-at-home mom. And from very young - also, frankly, secretly pushed by my mom - I never wanted that. I wanted to be somebody, and I wanted to do something out of the box. I think, when I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist. And then I wanted to travel and write. And I wanted to be a lawyer. Anyhow, here were people that were saying the box is no good. And I already knew the box was no good. You know, marriage, homemaking looked terrible to me. So they were confirming what I already knew. And I know, as an adult, people are saying, well, how could a 13-year-old feel like that? We forget how smart we are when kids - as kids. So here I was. They were telling me of a world that I wanted and believed in. The structures are bad. It was 1973. Marriage is bad.
GROSS: Smash monogamy.
FOX: Smash monogamy. You can do anything. I didn't even know what monogamy was. But whatever it was, I agreed because I wanted out of the box of being a woman even at 13, and I was getting out of that box.
GROSS: And of being in a family where people were bickering all the time.
FOX: Yes, as they are in most families. To be fair to my family, it was a very loving family. But it was overwhelmed. And everybody was on edge.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Fox. And she wrote and directed a film that she describes as a fictional memoir about being sexually abused by her running coach and her riding coach when she was 13 and how the story she told herself then is very different than the story she tells herself now about it. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS SONG, "PEACOCKS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Fox. She wrote and directed an HBO movie called "The Tale." She describes it as a fictional memoir. It's based on the story of her life when she was 13 and she was sexually abused by her running coach and her riding coach. But the movie goes back and forth in time between the 13-year-old version of herself and the 40-something version of herself played by Laura Dern and how the 40-something version of herself has to keep rethinking, what does the story mean? Are my memories accurate? And the film is nominated for a couple of Emmys - outstanding TV movie. And Laura Dern is nominated for best actress in a leading role.
So the essay that you wrote when you were 13, looking back on that as an adult now, do you think it was a cry for help in any way?
FOX: You know, it's funny. I've been asked that before. And I think, as adults, we think always anything like this is a cry for help. But honestly, when I dig into my own self and go back, I think that I was doing what I've done all my life in using storytelling to try to make sense of something I didn't understand. I don't think I wanted the adults to find out. Frankly, I was terrified that the adults who I saw as bumbling and people that would make messes of things would actually find out about this and force me to do something that I didn't want to do.
GROSS: Like what?
FOX: They would go ballistic. They would press charges. They would do all sorts of things.
GROSS: Were you afraid that you would be punished?
FOX: Punished - no. I always knew I first would be believed. But I thought I would be made to be a victim and would be psychoanalyzed, whatever. And I knew that the adults would get it wrong. I can't really articulate it more than that. But adults come in with these big boots thinking they're going to fix something, and they make a mess, even more so in 1973.
GROSS: Looking back on it now, do you think you were a victim even though you didn't see yourself or were unwilling to acknowledge that you were a victim then?
FOX: I think the word victim scares me more than the event itself.
FOX: It's almost again hard to find words, but by putting the word victim on a child or even an adult, you take away agency. And even though, technically, I had little agency because I was too young, the false even belief that you have agency is what keeps us alive and keeps us actually surviving and going beyond trauma. So when you make a child a victim, you destroy the thread that they have to get out of suffering. Sorry for this very archaic way - I don't have words for it - but, of course, technically, I was a victim. I don't use the word victim myself anymore. I use the word survivor because survivor is what I feel like. I got in. I got out. I survived. I...
GROSS: As a positive version as opposed to - survivor is positive. Like, you survived. Victim is, like, you were taken advantage of. That has a more of a negative connotation to it.
FOX: Victim takes away any kind of legs I had, any kind of mind any kind of thoughts. It flattens me. I know, again, I'm using very ineloquent words. But what I'm trying to get at is that, as adults, we often basically victimize the survivor by telling them they were victimized. So what I like to do, at least for myself - and I want to say that every survivor should use the language that works for them. But for me, I really use the word survivor because that's what happened. And, frankly, most people who have had sexual abuse happen are survivors. Most people survive. It doesn't mean there isn't damage. It doesn't mean there isn't a hurt. It doesn't mean there aren't things that I was traumatized about. But let's preference the story of the muscle and the strength and not preference the story of the weakness.
GROSS: So technically what happened to you wasn't an example of pedophilia because you were slightly too old to officially be designated as a victim of pedophilia. But you, as you say, you were still flat-chested. You hadn't started developing. You hadn't started menstruating yet.
Do you have any comprehension of why a man in his 40s would choose to take advantage of a 13-year-old girl like yourself who was small for her age, very young looking for your age? I mean, obviously, you were able to be exploited because you were young and naive and wanting, like, adult attention and adult love. So there's that. But that doesn't explain the sexual nature of it.
FOX: You know, just to be fair, I'm a filmmaker. And, of course, this is my experience. But I'm not a psychologist. And I'm not an expert on child sexual abuse. I can only talk out of sort of an experiential feeling that my suspicion with both the real Bill and the real Mrs. G is that I suspected both of them had been abused, frankly, themselves for different reasons in their life. And we know, as it says in the film, that the real Mrs. G had been put up and put in a children's home very young.
GROSS: And Mrs. G was the riding coach.
FOX: Yes, exactly. And, you know, was taken from her family. And she called it not, you know, it wasn't an orphanage. It was a work home. And I imagine, you know - she was from England. I imagine the horror of that. And the woman I knew as a 13-year-old was incredibly sexual and sexy and flirtatious with everybody. And I just, you know, go forward from that and think - I bet you she was abused, that her boundaries were really blown. And we know that she was having an affair with this man. She was married.
And then in terms of him, I also suspect some kind of abuse. However, we have to be clear that not all predators are serial predators. Sometimes people abuse out of opportunity. They call it crimes of opportunity. And it could be in his case that he just had this amazing opportunity to have access to a 13-year-old because of his closeness with Mrs. G and so therefore was able to have me over his house on the weekend secretly. I mean, that's a hard thing to do as an adult. So it could be that he actually really only preyed on other college students that he worked with or coached and that I was a rare opportunity for him.
GROSS: My guest is Jennifer Fox. She wrote and directed the film "The Tale," which is now available on HBO on demand on HBO Go. It's nominated for an Emmy for outstanding TV movie. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARIEL MARX'S "I'D LIKE TO BEGIN THIS STORY BY TELLING YOU SOMETHING SO BEAUTIFUL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jennifer Fox. She wrote and directed the new movie "The Tale," which debuted on HBO in May and is now available on demand. She describes the film as a fictional memoir based on her experiences when she was 13 and was sexually abused by her running coach who was in his 40s. At the time, she thought the relationship was based on mutual love. It was only in her 40s that she realized, no, this was child sexual abuse. The film alternates between telling the story from her 13-year-old perspective and from her adult perspective. "The Tale" is nominated for an Emmy for outstanding television movie. Laura Dern is nominated for her portrayal of the adult Jennifer Fox. A reminder to parents - this interview may not be appropriate for young children.
In the film, and this is probably what happened in real life, you threw up each time you were raped.
FOX: I wouldn't use the word rape, Terry.
GROSS: OK. Why not?
FOX: I think it's a really important conversation to have. Technically, it is statutory rape. But I think when we use that word, we deny all the manipulation that goes on to - for sexual abuse to happen.
GROSS: Because you were psychologically manipulated but weren't physically forced.
FOX: It was not an experience of violence. And that's why a lot of survivors of sexual abuse will kind of get their ire up when you use the word rape. It takes away all the coercion and manipulation that goes on with sexual abuse. And we need to really understand that as different from rape.
GROSS: OK. So in trying to understand it - so you throw up each time he has or tries to have intercourse with you.
GROSS: So obviously you find it an experience that makes you retch.
GROSS: Yet it took a while before you cut off the relationship with him.
GROSS: Your mother asks you in the movie, did you like it? I'm going to ask you - did you get anything out of that? I mean, there was - there's this sense of, like, being loved. I know, like, a lot of young girls, they love the hugging and the kissing and the embracing and really don't want and aren't ready for anything more sexual than that. He coerced you into having a relationship more sexual than that. So I'm trying to ask this in the most nice way. Like, what were the parts that you thought, like, this is nice, this is boosting my self-esteem, this is making me feel a sense of closeness and the parts that were, like, this is making me throw up?
FOX: I think if we back up, we have to understand that, as a kid, I was very smart, and I had been trained like all children in the art of exchange. If you do this for me, I'll give you that. And kids are basically - I think we destroy souls of children by making them like good dogs of jumping through hoops. Behave and I'll give you a lollipop. So basically, for me, in the big picture, the sexuality, which was horrible from beginning to end for me - and it's not for all kids that are sexually abused, but for me, it was not comfortable, not pleasurable. I did throw up. It was simply, OK, I can do this because what I'm getting back is attention and love.
I didn't even know what sex was. I'd never been kissed by a boy. But when he began touching me in any way, my body froze. I was incredibly ticklish. The only way not to squirm away was to tense down on everything and hold my breath. That was my experience of any kind of advance that went on. Now, if we look at it from his point of view, this is the delusion of a perpetrator. Why didn't he see that? You know, why didn't he see this kid freezing up?
GROSS: Well, I'm sure he didn't care.
FOX: I don't think it's care. I think it's narcissism. I think he thought he cared. He thought - maybe he thought - and he - as the Bill - Jason Ritter playing Bill says, he thought he was introducing me to sex in a nicer way than any young boy would.
GROSS: That's what he told you.
FOX: No, that's what he thought. I believe that.
GROSS: Do you think you're being too generous...
GROSS: ...To him?
FOX: I think we - this is me. I think it behooves us to understand the delusions that predators have in order to be able to stop it, in order to be able to change that people act like this. These are delusions, just like I deluded myself that it was love for 30 years. You know, we have to begin to really understand the psychology of it in order to change it.
GROSS: Did he make you pledge to keep all this a secret?
FOX: Not overtly in that way. It was implicit. It was all implicit. I don't think it's in the film, but when the real Mrs. G brought me to him the first time, she was like - you know, she asked me - I think she said something like, you know, Bill would like to spend nights with you or - not nights, but have you overnight. He would like to have time with you like I have time with you. He thinks it's not fair that I get all the time with you. But you know we can't tell your parents. Actually, that is in the film. And you know we can't tell Dr. G that you are - I'm taking you to Bill. And I got that. You know, those adults were always not to be trusted - my parents, the teachers - so...
GROSS: They don't get it.
FOX: They don't get it. This is our special secret. It's not that I was stupid, but I didn't have experience, so I couldn't read it. I didn't know that she was taking me to give me to him to be abused. I didn't know there was sex on the horizon. I had no experience. That's why adults need to protect children.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Fox, and she wrote and directed a film that she describes as a fictional memoir about being sexually abused by her running coach and her riding coach when she was 13 and how the story she told herself then is very different than the story she tells herself now about it. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Fox. She wrote and directed an HBO movie called "The Tale." She describes it as a fictional memoir. It's based on the story of her life when she was 13, and she was sexually abused by her running coach and her riding coach. But the movie goes back and forth in time between the 13-year-old version of herself and the 40-something version of herself played by Laura Dern. The film is nominated for a couple of Emmys - outstanding TV movie and Laura Dern is nominated for best actress in a leading role.
What was the turning point for you in deciding to cut off the relationship with the running coach who was abusing you?
FOX: Well, I wasn't conscious that I was going to break up with them. There was no pre-thought. There was, as you mentioned earlier, growing disillusionment with them, and they were planning a foursome. And I was supposed to lie to my parents, which I had, that I was going away for a track meet and everything was packed. And Mrs. G was going to pick me up at school and take me to a hotel where I was going to meet Bill, Mrs. G and another girl. And I woke up that morning violently ill, like with a horrible stomach flu out of the blue. And I was, like, shocked, but I was really sick. So I went down to the, you know, kitchen to my mom who was making breakfast for the other kids and said, I'm really sick. She said, OK, we have to call it up. You'll just - can't go to school. You can't go to this track meet. I crawled back in bed, fell asleep.
And I think it was two hours later, I woke up. I was totally fine, and it was just totally fine in a way that I had never experienced - to be that sick and that fine. And I just literally, like, walked, you know, to the mirror in my house, I remember, and looked in the mirror and said, I can't do this anymore to myself. There was no words attached to why. There was no, oh, this is abuse. None of that. I just - this is it. I'm finished. And that evening, you know, I went into the living room in the dark - you know, very dim lit living room and called Bill - the real Bill. And he was devastated. You know, he was trying to figure out any way to keep the relationship going. And then I called Mrs. G, and her reaction was quite different. It was very clear that she knew the edge they had stepped over and was scared to me.
GROSS: I wonder if he was scared, too, if part of the hurt that he was expressing to you - you know, oh, you're breaking my heart, all that kind of, you know - I can't live without you - those kinds of lines that he was telling you - if part of that was kind of code for, you'd better not tell anybody because if you break up with me - if you're disillusioned with me, maybe you're going to tell your parents; maybe they'll go to the police; maybe I'll lose my job. Do you think there was this kind of, like, fear underlying that?
FOX: I never got the sense of that. I mean, we can't ask him, but I never got the sense. And he even tried to see me after that and sent me letters, and I never got the sense that...
GROSS: How can you be sure that it was true sentiment and not fear about being discovered?
FOX: Oh, I think you can be because one of the characteristics of predators like this is that they feel above the law. He was not that worried, frankly. I think he was such a big man. Remember, again, 1973 - he was a man above the law. He had, you know, major international awards, major international coaching, major international university. You know, this was not his fear as I see it.
GROSS: Did you ever track them down afterwards?
FOX: Yes. "The Tale" - the script is based on real conversations and meetings with them that I had. My mother was really my partner in this journey to find the real people. And the real Mrs. G I met several times, and the scenes in the film are based on those meetings. The real Bill wouldn't meet me, but talked to me on the phone many times over the course of several years.
GROSS: What did he have to say when you confronted him?
FOX: Well, I did - finally, he did meet me, and frankly, I never confronted him. That scene - as many of the scenes are kind of combinations of fact and fantasy, but the scene of confrontation in the film is not a real scene.
GROSS: But did you say to him, what you did was child abuse?
GROSS: Why not?
FOX: I'm an interviewer and a researcher, and I was really struggling to keep the door open with him. And, for me, I was much more curious why. Why?
GROSS: So as an interviewer, I want to know what questions you asked him.
FOX: You know, I was investigating, at that moment, like, what his relationship with Mrs. G was. What happened? Because they had clearly broken up since that time. So I learned a lot about that. What was his childhood like? And the more I learned about his childhood, the more I suspected that he had been abused as well. So I was trying to put together these pieces and not alienate him 'cause if the words had at all come out of my mouth, that man would've cut off the phone, never talked to me. The man would've gotten up and left the restaurant.
GROSS: Did he know you were making a movie?
GROSS: I think he might've hung up if he did (laughter).
FOX: Oh, of course he would.
GROSS: Yeah. Do you feel any moral responsibility to out him?
FOX: You know, I think if we had rolled back and I had - one thing you didn't say is I never used the word child sexual abuse on myself till I was 45. So the first time I ever used that word, I was 45 years old.
GROSS: How long ago was that?
FOX: I'm 58 now (laughter).
FOX: So by that time, the real Bill was, even then, already an old man. But by the time I actually wrote the script, he was in his 80s. So we're looking way out of the statute of limitations. And also we're looking at a man who no longer is capable of being a predator.
GROSS: But I'll add one thing, that there still might be women who are afraid to come forward who have never told their stories to anyone.
GROSS: And if you came out and spoke your truth and named him, it might help them understand their own stories and speak their truths.
FOX: I think that's a great point, but I had a larger goal. I could turn this story into a huge fiction film that goes on HBO and around the world and millions and millions will see it. And we can change the way people talk about child sexual abuse. We can change the complexity of understanding. Now, if he had known about it, he could've stopped me from making this film in a heartbeat.
FOX: Oh, legal proceedings, defamation.
FOX: So the problem was make the film or out him. And I chose to make the film because I think it's the best use of my energy, frankly - because there are no witnesses. It's my word against his. Nobody else was in the room with me when these things occurred. So there's no proof. There's no prosecution right now. Yes, maybe there's healing, and I think that's a beautiful point you are making - for other women to realize I'm not alone. And maybe that will still happen because he won't be on this planet forever and very - you know, he has a clock on him like everybody. And he will die, and maybe, at that point, I can name who it was. And then maybe we can have that healing.
GROSS: I'll say - I mean, I think it's a terrific film. I'm really glad you made it (laughter). Is there anything we haven't talked about that you really want people to know to change their comprehension about men who are predators of children...
GROSS: ...And what it's like for the child who is exploited by the predator?
FOX: I think that something you said to me when we walked in off radio, which is beautiful, which is it's so amazing that we never talk about how a child can love his or her abuser. And that's a piece of the story that has not been included in any of the tellings. And if we don't understand that, we don't understand how abuse happens because what happens and why it isn't rape - although legally it is - why we call it child sexual abuse is that there is a slow manipulation into the child's world by the adult in which the adult is showering love and attention on the child and making them feel special. And that's why it's often - if you talk to any prosecutor - hard for children to prosecute their abusers because they feel so - such a complicated feeling of love and appreciation and respect. And often that person may seem to the child to be the only adult that loves them.
And we also - and I really want to emphasize this - have to take the greatest care when working with children in helping them prosecute their abusers because I think as adults we don't understand that when we talk to kids, we're also creating horror. When you go to a child and say to them, you poor victim, you are destroying their inner structure that's keeping them alive. Instead, we should be basically propping up the parts of them that have gotten them through this ordeal by talking about survival skills and instinct and strength.
GROSS: I think of your courage in calling up the person you've named Bill, your running coach, and saying, like, I'm done.
FOX: I had a skill to get out of there. For a lot of reasons, I think about why I was so strong. People have asked me that. Frankly, I grew up in a very good family. That's another thing we don't talk about. Bad things happen to kids from good families. My parents cared about me. They loved me. They were doing everything they could to support me, including having me ride a horse, including putting me in a good school, including feeding me good food.
GROSS: You told me they were afraid to let you go to sleepovers because bad things can happen there.
FOX: My mother was an overprotective mom. I couldn't - all my friends had birthday parties - overnights. I wasn't allowed to go because something bad could happen.
GROSS: That's part of the reason maybe why you loved the adventure that these two abusers were taking you on.
FOX: So here is a family that was doing their best and gave me a lot of skills. And yet, there were holes because they trusted a revered adult, which is - you know, when you think of the current cases - the gymnasts' case - adults were trusting revered adults and not seeing manipulation and coercion. And yet, my family always gave me very strong skills to deal with trauma and survival. Part of that is because I had a lot of experience that I failed and got up from as a kid, which you have to let a child do as a parent, and also the stories they told me.
I remember my dad, you know, night after night telling me of, you know, my Jewish roots and how we had survived the pogroms and how we had survived the Holocaust, that we were survivors. What does that do to a child? It tells them that they are strong, that they come from good stock and that they will persevere and prevail. These are the kind of stories that actually help kids to be survivors, help them to be resilient. These are the kind of stories we have to preference with children.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Fox. She wrote and directed "The Tale." It's on HBO. It's nominated for a couple of Emmys for outstanding TV movie and for best actress in a leading role. That's for Laura Dern, who plays the adult Jennifer Fox. We're going to be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jennifer Fox. And she wrote and directed the film "The Tale," which is based on her own experience when she was 13 being sexually abused by her running coach, a man, and her riding coach, a woman.
So the casting is terrific in your movie, and I'm sure the most difficult part was casting the 13-year-old version of you because, I mean, you don't want to expose a 13-year-old actress to what you were exposed to. So what kind of conversations did you have with her and with her parents...
GROSS: ...When you knew that you wanted to choose her to play the part?
FOX: Yeah, this is the biggest thing, Terry, is, here, we want to really show a film that shows at least what seems like child sexual abuse on camera. It's not. I'll explain, but her mother Pauline Belhumeur - the mother of Isabelle Nelisse - was on set with her. A child psychologist was on set. A Screen Actors Guild representative was on set, you know, as well as 120 other people were on set taking care of her. Oh, and she had a studio teacher watching her. And when you work with a child actress, everything's on mic, so anything I would say would be heard.
GROSS: Oh, really?
FOX: Oh, yeah. So anyway, all of this is to say she was very well-protected. What is seen as, quote, unquote, "physical or sex scenes" in the film are totally film magic. Isabelle is never in contact with Jason Ritter, who's playing Bill, at all. Isabelle is standing in front of what is a vertical bed. Her hair is sprayed out to look like she's laying down.
GROSS: So she's really standing up.
FOX: The camera is way back on a long lens. I'm sort of off-the-camera eye. And we had rehearsed just totally nonsexual cues, like act like a bee stung you. Act like you're being chased by a dog. And, you know, act like you're eating something sour. And she was just rolling through expressions in a close up - a medium close up. And then we cut that with shots of Jason Ritter with a body-double working with an adult. And so she never was involved in anything sexual, one. Even the words Jason Ritter says to her as Bill were never said to her on set because the words, as we know, are quite horrific. So he only says those to the body double. He made up something very, you know, innocuous to say to her. Now, again, she's not stupid. She knows what the film's about. But, in fact, on set, she's very taken care of.
GROSS: So I want to mention something you said to me off mic, and you said it's strange for you now to have become kind of a poster girl for child abuse when you'd never thought of yourself as being abused when it was actually happening. Tell me more.
FOX: Yeah, it's the most ironic thing. And sometimes I'm standing in front of audiences going, how did this happen? But now that I've come out with my story, I am able to use it in a way to say to other people the pain is tolerable, you know, that these events are things that we can talk about that are not too difficult to bear. And I can stand here as a witness to the suffering that is out there and say, let's find a way to stop it. I think that, sadly, as human beings, we tend to make these things in such black and white - you know, the evil perpetrator, the innocent child. And I think horror is much more ordinary than that. I've lived this ordinary life where an ordinarily bad thing happened to me. I was sexually abused. Now let's look at that and unpack it and share it, and I can help you with that because I have.
GROSS: Well, Jennifer, thank you for being so candid with us.
GROSS: Thank you for making the movie, and I wish you good luck.
FOX: Thank you. It's been a wonderful interview.
GROSS: Jennifer Fox wrote and directed the film "The Tale," which you can see on HBO on demand and HBO Go. It's nominated for an Emmy for outstanding TV movie, and Laura Dern is nominated for her portrayal of the adult version of Jennifer Fox. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the Trump administration has radicalized ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. My guest will be Franklin Foer. His new article "How ICE Went Rogue" is the cover story of the new edition of The Atlantic. The article is also about the booming industry of private detention centers for immigrants rounded up by ICE. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "TROCANDO EM MIUDOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.