Warning: This review contains graphic content.
A new HBO film premiering this weekend vividly depicts sexual abuse of a young athlete by her coach, bringing more understanding to an issue that has been burgeoning in sports for the past year.
"The Tale," starring Laura Dern, is directed by Jennifer Fox, whose younger self is the story's protagonist, Jenny. The film depicts how Fox came to terms with her own story -- her Tale -- of child sexual abuse at the hand of her running coach, "Bill," whom she met at horse-riding camp. It's also a story about how the realization of abuse came to her only later in life, after she interviewed countless women with different backgrounds who had stories similar to hers, and it's about how painful that realization can be.
In the opening scenes, the viewer is brought directly into the protagonist's first dilemma -- that she wasn't as mature as she thought she was. She saw herself as an adult when she was as young as 13, partly because her messy family situation taught her that she needed to be. She thought that, as long as someone saw her as "special," it was true, especially if that someone was a coach or teacher.
This last theme continues throughout the film and is common among victims of child sexual abuse. When authority figures, in the form of coaches, teachers, trainers, directors, conductors, etc., provide any kind of validation, victims tend to cherish and overvalue it, leaving open the pathway to abuse.
It's part of a process known as "grooming," and it is depicted vividly in "The Tale." Grooming can take many forms, but as shown in the film, it often involves gaining trust to the point of secrecy based on a long series of emotional manipulations that make the abused sacrifice himself or herself in order to continue the "relationship."
The rampant abuse allegations in USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming have recently brought hundreds of faces to this issue, including notable Olympians McKayla Maroney and Jordyn Wieber. In January, Wieber, during her victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing for former national team doctor and convicted sexual predator Larry Nassar, described her own experience of being "groomed." Nassar started treating her when she was 8 years old.
"I was treated by Larry for any and all of my injuries from ages 8 till I was 18, and it wasn't long before he had gained my trust. He became a safe person of sorts and, to my teenage self, he appeared to be the good guy in an environment that was intense and restricting. He would try to advise me on how to deal with the stresses of training or my coaches. He would bring us food and coffee at the Olympics when we were too afraid to eat too much in front of our coaches. I didn't know that these were all grooming techniques that he used to manipulate me and brainwash me into trusting him.
"I am angry with myself for not recognizing the abuse, and that's something I'm struggling with today," Wieber added.
"The closer the rapport, the harder it is to say no," Fox said. "Grooming is about getting closer and closer and getting more and more inside the child's head and heart so that they don't want to hurt the other person's feelings. ... But it's incrementally coming up on you, so that by that time there was a real boundary crossed, you've already said yes so many times, the odds are you're going to keep saying yes."
Fox is very careful to point out that she doesn't speak for all survivors of child sexual abuse; these are her words, describing her experiences alone.
In the film, Bill takes advantage of young Jenny's tumultuous home life to provide her with the attention and approval she doesn't get from her parents, who are often preoccupied with her younger siblings or their marital issues. Although Jenny is a mediocre rider, Bill builds up her confidence by encouraging her running talent. He takes her to dinners, he reads his own poetry to her, he simply pays attention to her. Over time, those small gestures escalate incrementally into rape.
For years, Jenny doesn't understand that what she went through constitutes abuse; she truly believed she had a loving relationship with this grown man.
Decades later, Jenny's mom finds a story she wrote for class when she was a child. Jenny rereads her story and, through adult eyes, slowly and painfully realizes what actually happened to her. While young Jenny wrote the tale as a love story, adult Jenny gradually realizes that her story is one of manipulation and abuse.
The film then depicts Fox tracking down other survivors to talk about the years after their abuse and assault, when they try to recapture their sexuality as their own. That can come in many forms, from abstinence to promiscuity. A very candid scene in the film shows survivors Fox has interviewed describing their struggle to achieve orgasm after being assaulted.
Like many people in the audience at the film's screening last month, I too, was triggered by the graphic scenes in which young Jenny is raped by her coach. But perhaps even more powerful were the following scenes, of feeling sick immediately after or of having to cope with the years -- sometimes decades -- of reconciliation. I myself was not the victim of a long grooming process, nor was I a child when I was assaulted. But as a 17-year-old freshman in college, I was very much not yet an adult -- even though, like Jenny, I thought myself to be.
"If we don't understand the complexity of how this happens, we will never be able to prevent it." Jennifer Fox, director, "The Tale"
My reaction to "The Tale" was unexpected. It's too real, and I mean that in a good way. If I was triggered by viewing this film, I was also validated by the fact that I wasn't alone. That was made clear in the talk that ensued after the closing credits at the screening, when Fox, along with her fellow panelists, seeing the stunned looks on our faces, opened the discussion by asking the audience for their reactions. One by one, people stood and told their own stories of abuse, and while old wounds might have been reopened, it went a long way toward healing them.
In fact, learning that she wasn't alone was the reason Fox made the film in the first place. During the course of interviewing women for her docuseries "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman," which ran from 2006 to 2008, she said she came across many who had a story of abuse or assault. "What really floored me was the paragons were so similar ... when it came to child sexual abuse, it was like, 'Oh my god, that's me. That's my story.' And I didn't know anybody else had a story like that," she said.
"I was 45, and I was like, that sounds just like my relationship that I had that I always called a 'relationship.'"
At the end of the day, it's not Fox's responsibility to heal the world, to fix the problems of child sexual abuse or sexual abuse in sports, let alone sexual assault at large. Toward that end, "The Tale" is endorsed by the Equality League, a nonprofit founded by Mara Gubuan that is dedicated to advancing gender equality through sports and that this year gained a major victory with the passage of the Safe Sport Act, the first comprehensive list of guidelines protecting young athletes from sexual abuse.
Looking back, however, some of the bad guys continue to win. "Bill" ended up having a storied career as a coach, highly decorated in awards and accolades. College baseball star Luke Heimlich, who was convicted of molesting a 6-year-old niece when he was 15, is landing cover stories and second chances. A $500 million settlement to the 332 victims of Larry Nassar might sound like a lot, but in the end, it does little to ensure that any one of them will feel whole again or that future generations will be safe.
"If we don't understand the complexity of how this happens, we will never be able to prevent it," Fox said. "And also we can't really help survivors heal because our true stories of survivors don't fit black and white models."
It might have been decades in the making, but Fox has shown incredible resilience and courage in telling her story to the world -- and uncovering and dealing with her own trauma.
"I think it's been an excellent process. You know, I'd like to say as artists, we make films both for ourselves and the world, and if we help ourselves, if we're a good artist, we also help the world," Fox said. "So I think that this process has taken me around a lot more levels of understanding what happened and also facing the dark side, which is the part that I had never been able to face and kept from myself."