An interview with filmmaker Jennifer Fox about narrative and re-membering
Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is a film about childhood sexual abuse. It is difficult. There’s no getting around that, and in fact so much of the point is to not get around it but to finally acknowledge what has always been there. But the film also offers the courage to do so, insofar as it is about narrative and agency, the many ways an individual can see their story, and how identity deepens when narrative expands. Two Jennifers, one young and one mature, are interwoven in The Tale. As we know from contemporary research on memory and neural plasticity, new experiences have the ability to act on old memories and transform but not obliterate them. Many identities exist side by side. Young Jennifer was always a strong survivor, and with time she could admit to the depth of pain she endured as well. In a nuanced, strong, interconnected, feminine voice, Fox compels us to be open to new ways of seeing. She sat down with me to talk about it more.
TS: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today and talk about your film which is incredible and incredibly moving.
Jennifer Fox: Oh thank you that’s what I like to hear, I’ll talk about it forever now!
TS: As a psychologist I’m hoping we can talk about psychological concerns raised in the film as well as mainstream social issues.
Jennifer Fox: Absolutely.
TS: Why did you take your very personal story into film?
Jennifer Fox: You know, that’s a really interesting question for me because I think it speaks to why human beings need to tell stories and why we need to make art. I think for me it’s storytelling. As seen in the film I wrote The Tale when I was 13. It’s really a way to make sense of the world and to choose from all the chaos that occurs in life, from multiple, many powerful stories, and actually begin to navigate and preference stories over each other and to create something cohesive and thoughtful out of chaos. So for me, I’m an artist and everything I do is working with themes I’m really interested in. Whether you as a viewer know it’s about me personally, it’s always personal, and yet it’s always something I want to give to the world. So if that’s self-in-other, or sometimes we say the personal is political, it’s something I’ve done all my life. This wasn’t different; it was a continuation of my life’s work as a filmmaker and a storyteller.
TS: Your work is always personal but to varying degrees.
Jennifer Fox: Well you may not know how personal it is as an audience. I’ve made films about other people and many of my films are not about me, but they’re about things that I’m grappling with or want to grapple with.
TS: Yes, and from your point of view. Point of view seems like something filmmakers and authors have become much more aware of as reality is always subjective, but we didn’t used to say this.
Jennifer Fox: Yeah, and you know, being a filmmaker you learn how subjective it is because you manipulate it. We are constantly — even when I was making documentaries — constantly crafting narrative out of stories. That crafting is, by itself, your personal subjective opinion. We are constantly reminded of the subjectivity of our storytelling in the making of true stories.
TS: Something that I was really hoping to talk with you about was narrative and agency, which I find to be two big themes in The Tale. I love Helene Cixous, who is a feminist professor of writing. One of the things she says is that women have to be able to write our stories fresh, free from the narratives of others, and that the feminine imaginary is a creative place where new worlds can be born. I feel like your work is a beautiful expression of that.
Jennifer Fox: Wow, beautiful. I appreciate the compliment. I think to make The Tale there was no exact model I could draw on before it, so I really had to throw out the book and allow myself to swim in the unknown of what really did happen — how did my mind encode it, how do I show that? Even along the way of writing it I made a lot of discoveries about myself. Though The Tale of course comes out of the female self, my female creative self, it also comes out of an older woman’s self because it takes a certain amount of maturity to be able to see things in certain ways. I couldn’t have done this when I was younger. It also takes a certain amount of artistic maturity to be able to throw away structures that we all adhere to, like classic three act structures. So I have a lot of knowledge about how to tell a story, how to write a screenplay, what typical western narrative looks like. And to write The Tale I had to say — I’m sure some of it did influence it, but I really had to say, ‘No. I’m just going to work on these units of memory and see what happens.’ And so there’s a lot of working outside of the box that The Tale represents. And I do think the fact that it’s a complex, nuanced, even messy story, it’s allowing the feminine to exist in the sense that the masculine often is about more clear cut answers and more black and white terms, and the feminine is more comfortable in the nuance and in the complexity of life. I think the film is very much about that. Now, I’m not saying that men and women don’t both have masculine and feminine in them. To be a filmmaker, to be a director, you need a lot of masculine, so I’m straddling both masculine and feminine in this work.
TS: That comes across, yes.
Jennifer Fox: But, the way of storytelling I definitely think is an expression of a female need to tell a story.
TS: What is the significance of the films name, The Tale?
Jennifer Fox: You know, it’s very simple, the stories we tell ourselves to survive. The story I wrote and handed in in English class didn’t actually have any title. In the film, I think we’re led to believe it was called The Tale. But it wasn’t. It’s simply for me that I wrote a story, and everything about what my child self is was to spin a story in order to create the woman that she wanted to be. And I think that we all are always telling ourselves tales, and it’s just very interesting to become aware of it as such. Because then we take ownership of the creative capacity of the mind to construct self.
TS: Yes, absolutely, and to see things from different points of view. It made me think of fairy tales that can be told in different cultures and in different periods in time which may tell the same story but sometimes you don’t even know it’s the same story because it’s from a different referent.
Jennifer Fox: Right. You know also, I feel that intuitively as a 13 year old — I spoke a lot with Carol Gilligan, later, I didn’t know her before I made the film but now I’m very happy to know her, she gave some language to me — that child self is very, very intuitively articulate and intuitively smart. I know that as a 13-year-old, intuitively I felt like I was walking a razor’s edge of losing myself and that I had to really proactively create the person I wanted to be, to have a life I wanted to have. Not just from this event but from everything I was told. I grew up in a time where children — little girls — could be stewardesses and teachers. So how do I create myself in a different model when there’s no one around me but teachers or stewardesses or nurses. So, she was actively trying to figure out how to get out of a mode that every woman prior to her in her family’s history had followed.
TS: I’m going to revise this next question, given what you just said. The film depicts that for decades you continued to think of this relationship between a 13-year-old and a 40-year-old man as a loving relationship. How would you say that the abusive context shaped your thinking? Now I’ll also ask you, how were you in the midst of it already a survivor with agency, shaping your own thinking?
Jennifer Fox: Well I think my 13-year-old self was making “choices.” She didn’t have experience to read things properly. But she chose to befriend these adults or was helpless to befriend them but she chose to keep it a secret that she was visiting Bill. She chose to stay over at his house, not knowing again his ulterior motives. This is where we come into problems, why children need to be protected but she chose these things and was acting with agency as teenagers want to do. The difficulty is that she couldn’t read the situation accurately as I can now as an adult. I’m sorry but I think I missed your question.
TS: How would you say that the abusive context shaped your narrative, your thinking?
Jennifer Fox: Shaped the narrative of me now, or me then?
Jennifer Fox: As a child I was totally aware, I never forgot what happened, it’s hard to explain, I didn’t really dwell on it or think about it. It was revolting, the sexual part of that relationship. But for me, as many children, I was very conscious that I was trading. ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that.’ ‘Ok I don’t want to do that, I feel very uncomfortable, but I know if I give you that, you will give me attention and make me feel special and love me.’ So that was the way I perceived it, it was a trade like all children are thought to make trades. If you are good I will give you a lollipop. We’re all pragmatically taught that way, so I was continuing in that line. How it affected me was not apparent to me. I went on and tried to have relationships and did have relationships. I don’t think I absorbed directly, ‘Oh, I’ve been hurt by this and therefore…’
TS: Yes. I think what I was perceiving was that the narrative you adopted as a child and kept for decades was that this was a loving relationship, this is what love and being special looks like, and that when you rediscovered the story and developed a new narrative about it, that’s what changed. Not that you had forgotten or didn’t have access to it. Is that accurate?
Jennifer Fox: Right. Because the sex was so bad, I would definitely say I knew this is not good sex and when I grew up I was looking to have better sex. What’s complicated, and I don’t think is articulated in the film because it’s so complex, is as a teenager it’s not that I saw the real Bill as a love interest or as a boyfriend. I saw him as an adult who was giving me wonderful attention. But that’s why the narrative of the young boy prior to the decision is so important. That boy and Jenny, his name is Lucas in the film, that’s a boyfriend. I didn’t see Bill as a boyfriend, I saw him as an adult that I was getting something else from. So I didn’t go and say now I want to have more relationships like that, I said, ‘Oh wow, now I have to learn to have love and now I have to learn to have pleasure which I did not feel with him.’ So I was aware of that, it’s just I didn’t really blame it, if that makes any sense. It was my right of passage, I didn’t look back and say you’re the fault, I just said I have to do better. Now as an adult, I see more of the damage that was wrecked by that event and I can name it more clearly that I was able to before. It’s very complicated right?
TS: Yes, and the interweaving of narrative. You’re relationship with your mother is one I want to ask you about too.
Jennifer Fox: Oh good. I love that relationship.
TS: That’s wonderful. She is depicted as a major impetus for looking at an old story in a new way. It seems to me like that relationship also went through major changes in the unfolding of your story, whether it’s her facing her shame or your not feeling attended to. I was wondering if the re-membering, the going back and putting the pieces back together in a different way, if that re-membering of one part of your narrative — the abuse — has also affected the re-membering of other parts of your life — like the relationship with your mother.
Jennifer Fox: Well the difficulty of the film is that it’s picking up when my mother and I had already been through significant changes as a mother-daughter. Not on this issue, but on what it was like being in our family, and my grandmother, and home, and my anger at her for not always being there. I also discovered my mother is hearing impaired and she never told us til I was in my 30’s so that had a huge impact on our childhood too. All these things like we did family therapy together, I’ve done my own therapy, and then I made a big film that she’s actually in, called Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman , and that helped us. So we’ve been through a lot of coming to terms and we’ve both changed. So the film is picking up at a point where we already were at a very solid ground in our relationship, and had been through a lot of the anger already. And what’s interesting about what the film is telling is it’s about a mother-daughter grappling emotionally with what happened and that not bringing up anger but maybe bringing them closer. I think it’s incredibly beautiful that my mother pushed me to tell this story publicly, and yet this story throws her under the bus. Actually, you know, it reveals her guilt in the story. But I feel like for me, that’s what real love is, I’ll do anything to help you even if it makes me look bad. And I feel like it’s really really beautiful. I learned a lot about mothering in that sense, I learned how much my mother is committed to mothering by her pushing me to make this film and then backing it. For her community this is really radical, not only is it that her daughter has been sexually abused, but it reveals that she also missed stopping it. So her heroism has gone way up in my eyes. And what it means to mother. Again she’s shown me how much she’s committed to mothering.
TS: That’s really beautifully said. And it makes me want to ask you about another complicated, perhaps failed at times, relationship. The way you talk about therapy. In the film adult Jennifer says if her partner knew her, he’d know that she’d never go to therapy to work through the unfolding of her childhood sexual abuse.
Jennifer Fox: You know I’m kind of sorry that ended up in the film that way, because it’s not the way I feel about therapy.
TS: Therapy is available to help individuals through sexual abuse and other difficulties. But, I don’t think you have to apologize per se, I wonder if there’s some limitation in how how you have been listened to, how perhaps therapy can even perpetuate existing narratives. I don’t know, I want to hear what you have to say in the first place without asking you to apologize for saying that.
Jennifer Fox: You know it was more about that moment of my working through it. I think it’s almost a knee jerk reaction, sometimes people rather than want to face the suffering, send their loved ones to therapy. Sometimes, and at this point of the narrative, the character — because she’s really a character at this point — really wants to grapple head on without anybody mitigating the experience or being in between the experience. That said, you know I’ve done a tremendous amount of therapy, and 90% of it nobody ever brought up this as being sexual abuse. Now the question is, is that because I never told it that way, and of course that is part of it. I also at one point was with a therapist who himself had questionable issues of abusiveness and did tell me that if I had sex at 13 with a 40-year-old man it was because I wanted it. Now, that’s clearly we all know the failure of that therapist, it’s not the failure of therapy, and I don’t personally blame therapy, I’ve done therapy at different times in my life and believe very much in it. All therapists aren’t created equal. This is always the problem, how do we help people find the therapy they need and the therapists they need and the modality they need, because not everybody responds to every modality. But as a general statement I absolutely believe in therapy. At that moment that the story is chronicling, I didn’t think that that was what I wanted to do.
TS: You needed the people in your personal life and you as an individual to be facing it first and foremost.
Jennifer Fox: Right, because it’s fiction, you don’t say, ‘gee, I’ve been in therapy for 40 years Martin, I don’t want to do it now,’ because that’s just leading the audience. However, I never realized until too late that it maybe sent the wrong message because it’s not what I intended. I would hate for people to look at that and say well I don’t need to do therapy because the character Jennifer said that.
TS: But maybe also we as therapists could bring our own perspectives into therapy more to call out situations for what they are.
Jennifer Fox: Maybe, I wouldn’t know, I’m not a therapist, but I feel that in a certain way therapists aren’t always listening accurately, they’re falling on old tropes instead. This is a very complex story and it is not a black and white story. Sexual abuse is horrible and at the same time a young girl can feel loved and feel special while somebody is at the same time abusing her. And if we can’t hold the and in our conversation, we have really a lot to learn because everything is in the and. It seems like people want to see still, even therapists, want to see the or. The film was about a child who thought she was acting on what she believed was her agency and was feeling positive things not just negative things.
TS: Yes. That’s what I find one of the very innovative things about The Tale, and ending with the young Jennifer and the mature Jennifer side by side.
Jennifer Fox: Exactly. The idea I was hoping to engage is that both exist, one doesn’t kill the other. What is successful in this narrative is the 13-year-old is brought back to life and remembered, and the adult also sees that there is another narrative that she never allowed herself to experience.
TS: I find it remarkable that your story has been unfolding for a while and then came out at Sundance when we were in the thick of the #MeToo movement. How do you understand our cultural moment with regard to women’s experiences of sexual assault being understood differently, and more place for women’s voices. How do you understand this cultural moment given your experience?
Jennifer Fox: I don’t know if I will answer what you mean, but for me I’m super excited because what we’re speaking of is something that goes back centuries, and women just live with it. It’s not new. It has its own permutations, in different forms that might look slightly different. But women have lived basically stomaching or tolerating sexual abuse, sexual assault, manipulation, thinking it’s what you have to do to get ahead, all those things, it’s age old. I think it’s just incredible that it seems like the cover has been lifted off this whole discussion. I can’t believe how incredible it is for the film to hit after the cover has come off, so that what the film is about can even be tolerated. The #MeToo movement is about the sexual assault of adults primarily. Now the bigger taboo is children. I think the fact that #MeToo has preceded the film allows the discussion around the film to actually happen in a way that it couldn’t have a year ago. I’m just grateful, and I hope it’s not a moment, I hope it’s a movement that we can keep building on. A lot of men come to me and say I had no clue, but most women understand it because if it’s not them, it’s their friend, it’s their mother, it’s their sister, it’s their co-worker. We live with this. It’s certainly no shock to us, it’s just part of our lives. People just think it’s something we tolerate. And now, there’s some potential to say we don’t have to tolerate it anymore, we can be active and say no, it’s not acceptable. Now the one thing I want to say about this since we’re talking about women and girls, that is one specific line. But childhood sexual abuse, boys are targeted not as badly as girls but to a degree that we don’t acknowledge even more. It’s not only a female issue.
TS: Absolutely. And in viewing your film as about the multiple narratives that are present and continue to evolve, I think it’s easy to see that this is about abuse relating across genders and socioeconomic classes, and about the way we are able to expand how we understand things. With a reckoning with history and also more and more agency as we mature.
Jennifer Fox: I hope the message too about class is loud and clear. It’s everywhere. I hope this message can be taken into other communities so that they can see nobody is exempt. Part of the shame in some communities is thinking if it’s our community, it’s because of poverty or because of race, but it’s absolutely beyond that.
TS: And everyone needs to tell their own stories.
Jennifer Fox: Exactly.
Tune in and watch THE TALE on HBO May 26th and host your own discussion circle with free materials by signing up here. The film will also be available on HBO GO and NOW and other HBO channels following the premiere. Follow the conversation online by using #TheTale.
Written by Tracy Sidesinger, PsyD. Dr. Sidesinger is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist practicing in New York City. Her work focuses on feminism, spirituality, and culture.