There were several instances while watching The Tale where I needed to press pause. An Instagram refresh, fluffing my couch pillows, swapping the laundry from washer to dryer—I was fidgeting. There are some things I just can’t sit still with, and I’d put childhood sexual abuse near the top of that list.
The reason I kept watching, however (aside from knowing I needed to write this article) is because The Tale isn’t merely a recap of filmmaker Jennifer Fox’s experience with sexual assault at age 13. It’s a masterfully done exploration of memory—how it deceives us, but ultimately how it serves to protect us.
This is a story Fox has always wanted to tell, she tells me over the phone the day before the Creative Arts Emmys, for which the film was twice nominated. She explains how she tried to make the film in her twenties, but only with maturation, both as a woman and an artist, did she come to complete the project some 30 years later.
How Memory Deceives—And Protects
The film may very well have fallen flat had it followed Fox’s original screenplay, which she describes as a “simple regurgitation of the past.” Instead, we not only see the story of Fox as 13-year-old “Jenny” who is having an intimate relationship with a man in his forties, but also the reckoning of this relationship not as love but as sexual abuse, by an adult Fox (played by Laura Dern).
In Fox’s words, the film is “not just about the event, but also about how I told it to myself for 30 years. Then I had to invent a new language because how do you talk about your mind? How do you talk about the construction of self?”
Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse in a scene from The Tale
Fox successfully creates this new language, which I see that in the first scene in which I have to pause the film. I know the film is about childhood sexual assault, but when we first see Jenny, I’ll admit, I let out a little sigh of relief. She appears to be 16 or 17, a confident teenager with a bright, almost mischievous smile. This won’t be so bad, I think, foolishly.
The same scene is then reconstructed with a much younger Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse), a 13-year-old girl whose round, almost cherubic face makes my jaw drop. It’s brilliant and attention-grabbing, but it’s also true to Fox’s experience: she was in her forties before she used the term “sexually abused;” for decades she allowed herself to believe, as we hear Laura Dern’s character say, that she was “in a relationship” with a much older man.
I ask Jennifer if the jaw-dropping effect of replaying the scene with a much younger actress (and more accurate portrayal of Jenny) is intentional. “I would be lying if I said I was thinking about the audience at all,” she says.
Grooming: How Adults Build (And Take Advantage of) a Child’s Trust
Fox’s goal, it seems, was first to tell her own story as accurately as she knew how, and second to change an audience’s perception, a societal understanding of something we’d rather pretend doesn’t happen.
She tells me she intentionally spends a long time getting to the turning point, the sex scene between Jenny (a disclaimer tells us that an adult body double acted in this scene) and her much older coach, Bill (Jason Ritter). But it was important to show the grooming process in order to divulge the complex and manipulative nature of how and why adults sexually abuse children.
Fox explains, “my story is individual but there is an architecture to most sexual abuse and most have a grooming process where the adult makes the child feels special, loved, cared for, understood. I wanted the audience to go through that process of Jenny feeling like she was finally being seen and heard by these adults she adored and how they gained her trust over a long period of time.”
The piece most people don’t understand, she continues, is how “the child doesn’t know how to say no because they don’t want to hurt the trusted adult’s feelings.”
Fox explains that this thorough depiction is a lightbulb moment for many audiences, and it is for me. My preconceived ideas about childhood sexual assault are tested as I realize a) that in her 13-year-old experience, Jenny doesn’t see Bill as evil, and b) even more shockingly, Bill understand himself to be, either.
Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki
According to Fox, “Children are experts in trading, which is how adults train children. I remember thinking clearly as a 13-year-old, I’ll give him sex, which I don’t want or understand, because I’m going to get love back. Whatever the price is, I’ll pay it.”
The other adult involved in Jenny’s grooming is Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), Jenny’s equestrian coach who is also having an extramarital relationship with Bill. Fox says her mother would call Mrs. G a “procurer,” in that she procured Jenny for Bill. There’s a scene in which Bill and Mrs. G. take Jenny to dinner and tell her that the three of them are their own family, that they’ll never lie to each other. Understandably, Jenny feels valued and protected by these words, and even though she remains skeptical in the first instance in which Mrs. G. leaves Jenny alone for the night with Bill, she is so desperate to maintain their love, their family unit, that she stays. Once again, memory is a strange thing:
“My memory of [Mrs G.] is so positive. Even to this day, when I was going to meet her and I hadn’t seen her in 30 years, I was flush with love and joy. I loved her, despite the fact that my mother is right, she brought me to Bill, there’s no two ways about it,” Fox says.
She continues that the real Mrs. G. showed many signs of someone who has experienced abuse. “Something certainly happened to her and she was a survivor. This was a woman who wasn’t going down. But she wasn’t particularly self-reflective.” This last piece is important because self-reflection might have allowed the real Mrs. G. to give Fox answers when they met prior to the film. Instead, Fox created what she calls “fantasy interviews”: “key moments where, narratively, I couldn’t answer a question with reality, so I had to create a fantasy interview.”
Surviving Childhood Sexual Assault
I’m so inspired by Fox’s ability to create from a traumatic experience something that’s not only impactful, but also thought-provoking and inventive. It seems important to note again that it took over four decades for her to accomplish this—recovery isn’t a process which can be rushed.
“Memory can be protective in a good way and denial can also be helpful,” she says. “I understand that the mind works in protective ways and people need to take the time they can and face things when they can. There’s no right or wrong speed for facing these things.”
In addition to taking your time, exercise, therapeutic support, a good diet, and sleep, there’s something else Fox believes is helpful to surviving sexual assault: permission to acknowledge that you survived and how strong you are/were in getting through it.
Isabelle Nélisse and Jennifer Fox
She explains, “A lot of people have the tendency to sensationalize and retraumatize survivors with language…our narratives really do create our reality.” As a society, we must build language around compassion, rather than pity, so that we don’t diminish a survivor’s humanity with victimhood or shaming.
“Most survivors are invisible because they are surviving. They’re mothers, they’re in the workplace, in jobs. Most people survive and function with childhood sexual abuse; they’re not in a corner, crying. That doesn’t mean there’s not trauma.”
The Tale was hard to watch. Its content is difficult to think about. That’s why Fox’s message, her brilliant way of depicting memory and grooming and trust and shame and trauma, is so necessary. And hopefully the start to a larger conversation, and probably more work from Fox.
“I want this film to change the world and the dialogue and the understanding around childhood sexual abuse and I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”