Trigger Warning: Mention of Child Sexual Abuse, Sexual Assault
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” is a famous line by John Didion that Jennifer, The Tale’s protagonist, quotes to her film students during a lecture in the movie.
Many times, our conscious is the sole audience to our traumas; we confide in it and, in turn, it devises several coping mechanisms for us to survive. These mechanisms often involve a mental reframing of old narratives and repression of unpleasant memories. That is what partly happens in Jennifer’s case too, which makes The Tale at once a powerful and devastating cinematic experience.
The Tale is a 2018 American Drama film written and directed by Jennifer Fox that narrates Fox’s own experience with childhood sexual abuse. It was distributed by HBO Films which starred Laura Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabelle Nélisse, Common, Frances Conroy and John Heard. In India, the movie is currently available on Hotstar.
The movie opens with a voice-over that informs you that, “the story you are about to see is true, as far as I know.” Immediately afterwards, we get the first glimpse of our protagonist, Jennifer Fox, played by the talented and acclaimed actress, Laura Dern. The present-day Jennifer is a successful documentary filmmaker in her 50s who’s confident enough to not be intimidated by the caution warnings of unsafe surroundings, or the gaze of multitudes of strangers when she goes to interview people in remote areas and, in the first scene, in what seems to be a rural Indian location.
The opening scene shows a crowd celebrating their first victory in an unnamed struggle they have been part of for long and Jennifer filming their joy in her camera. It foreshadows Jennifer’s own struggle with her traumatic past, of unravelling the truth about it and her eventual victory in terms of facing and accepting her repressed self and reconciling her version of events with the truth.
Jennifer’s present comprises her great career as a professor and filmmaker that involves a good deal of traveling and engaging with people, and her romantic relationship with a loving black man. However, a few agitated voicemails from her mother upsets her seemingly normal life as she is forced to gradually come face-to-face with her childhood experience of sexual abuse through anecdotes, flashbacks, photographs, fragments of information from people who knew her then and faint memories of the period. As she uncovers the truth about her adolescent past, she realizes that she has been exhibiting symptoms of child sexual abuse all her life manifesting often in her romantic relationships with men.
The movie is an attempt at storytelling of a very personal nature; it is a medium and form of expression for the director to convey her own ‘Me Too’ tale that contains the most sensitive subject and details. Therefore, it is quite ingenious of Fox to employ the plot device of a story/essay that a 13-year old Jennifer (Jenny) writes for her English class, retelling her experiences with much pride in the guise of fiction writing, and that Jennifer’s mother stumbles upon decades later which sets the events of the film in motion.
The story penned down by little Jenny is every parent’s worst nightmare come true. It mentions real people, real places and real incidents from her past and so there is no mistaking it for mere fiction. The story reveals that 13-year old Jenny was sexually groomed by two adult coaches during and after her intensive horse-riding training. It was followed by her statutory rape by the male coach who told her that they were in an unconventional relationship and, therefore, only “making love.”
It is unsettling that even the adult, mature Jennifer initially dismisses her mother’s fears by saying that the latter is upset about the “relationship” only because her “boyfriend” was “older.” However, as she delves deeper into her memories and inspects the material available, she is forced to re-examine her past relationship with the much older man whom she had believed to be her “first boyfriend” at an age when she was not old enough to give consent or understand abuse.
The movie plays with the documentary film genre by making its central character, the professional documentarian, investigate her own life, unearth and record facts of her own history by directly or indirectly interviewing persons, googling information and combining available data. There are scenes when we see the characters in their past versions look directly into the camera and talk about their actions, motives, feelings in retrospect, even judge the adult Jennifer as she questions them and her own younger self. The Tale skillfully blurs the lines between staged drama and documentary by using stylised aesthetics of a movie and components of a documentary.
The movie is important in terms of awareness too because it gives you unequivocal insight into the process of sexual grooming that often precedes child abuse. Sexual grooming is a preparatory process in which a perpetrator builds an emotional rapport with the child and gradually gains their trust and affection with the intent of sexual abuse. This tactic is employed to make sure that the child cannot recognize the sexually abusive nature of the act, does not complain about it to other adults and let the abuser have their way with them.
It helps the perpetrator to isolate the victim to carry out their acts of abuse and to control and conceal the relationship. It is often done by adults who work or live close to the child—neighbours, trainers, tutors, caretakers, drivers, friends and colleagues of parents, etc., but it is also executed over the internet as numerous cases of online sexual grooming have been recorded in the past two decades.
In the movie The Tale, Jenny’s coaches, Mrs. G and Bill, start her sexual grooming by telling her about their so-called secret love affair which is extra-marital. They tell her that they don’t want to keep any secrets from her. It makes Jenny feel important and happy as she notes in her story, “How did they know that they could trust me with their secret? That I would never break their confidence…I would never tell my parents, or the other adults. It was like an unspoken oath. And I felt proud of it.”
Telling an adult secret is a classic way of gaining a child’s confidence while at the same time preparing them to safeguard the future secret of their own abuse. It is also a way of making lonely and introverted children like Jenny feel that they can be part of the adult world which presents for them countless possibilities of friendship, freedom, action and excitement.
Mrs. G and Bill tell Jenny everything that a child of her age would love to hear about herself: that she’s “special” and unlike the other kids, that she is a “deep soul,” that she is talented and far too mature for her age, that they respect her and see her as their equal, etc. In addition, Jenny adores them because they are physically strong and attractive; they do not fight with each other and are not “miserable” like her parents as she mentions during one of their early conversations. They are gentle, coaxing, and welcome Jenny to their adult club of ‘misfits.’ They espouse social nonconformity and values of autonomy, endurance, resilience etc. Mrs. G tells the training girls that enduring pain makes you better.
An adult viewer can see the sham through their sophisticated, amiable personas, but how could a young child like Jenny?
The Tale is a powerful statement to the protestors of the #MeToo movement who demand that survivors of sexual harassment and assault provide sound evidence to authenticate their stories. Fox dramatises how the stories of sexual abuse and violence are easily lost in time and space; they are forgotten by the perpetrators and buried by the survivors. Time inflicts epistemic violence on facts and memories. The stories of abuse and injustice cannot always be proved, but they can be known and told. If it were possible, many survivors themselves would wish to permanently delete the traumatic memories of having their bodies violated. But recounting and sharing those stories is also an act of power, sometimes of coming to terms with your past and moving on.
The #MeToo movement gained momentum in 2017 and exposed many predatory men in influential and respectable positions. The release of The Tale in 2018 was definitely a timely addendum to the much needed conversation around sexual harassment. The last scene is especially powerful when Jennifer goes to an awards ceremony to confront Bill, now a wealthy and honoured sports star. She tells him that she hated every minute of their “sex” in front of his flummoxed wife and the other attendees.
This moment could very well be a catalyst for another ‘#MeToo’ thread where more women who were coached and groomed by Bill in their adolescent years would come forward and join Jennifer’s voice (the viewer hopes that they do). But The Tale is neither a courtroom drama nor a story of legal reckoning and served justice. It is about an investigation into and an acceptance of one’s horrifying past. It is a rare, intense and thought-provoking film that joins an important ongoing conversation around the prevalence of sexual harassment in women’s lives.
The Tale is as much about memory as it is about sexual abuse. A distraught Jennifer pleads to her mother: “Can you just let me sit with my own memories?” The movie dramatises the potency of memory, its sheer ability to coat truths, play tricks, destroy details and invent better narratives. Memory is elusive and unreliable. It fades with time and just when you think it’s erased, it resurfaces again. Sometimes, memory drags you to difficult paths of uncomfortable revelations and epiphanies from where there is no coming back. I am reminded of a conversation between a soldier and an officer in Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North in which one remarks, “Memory is the true justice, sir,” and the other adds, “…or the creator of new horrors.“
Featured Image Source: Variety