Female agency as heroine in The Tale
This article was originally published in the Philosophical Salon of the Los Angeles Review of Books. The author served as a consultant to Jennifer Fox’s film “The Tale.” This piece joins other related pieces published on Public Seminar, including an interview with the filmmaker, a psychoanalytic approach to understanding childhood sexual abuse, and a variety of posts reflecting on #MeToo.
Jennifer Fox’s new film The Tale, a harrowing, largely autobiographical account of sexual abuse and her first fictional feature, has unsurprisingly prompted nearly every critic to invoke #MeToo. True, its adult protagonist, “Jennifer Fox” (Laura Dern) is an abuse survivor and ultimately her abuser’s public accuser. But this tale isn’t so simple, as Jennifer doesn’t believe she’s “Too” anything; nor is she a “Me,” but rather an “Us.” She shares this story with the thirteen year old Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse) she was when events unfolded in the 1970s.
Thirty-some years later, Jennifer both does and doesn’t remember what happened when her 40ish track coach Bill initiated her first sexual “relationship,” which neither child nor adult will acknowledge as rape. Jennifer has pushed her story aside and left it literally confined to a shoebox, until her mother discovers it. That discovery is the catalyst for adult Jennifer’s reckoning with 13-year-old Jenny.
It is in the telling and unraveling of this joint narrative that Fox’s film, in a highly original and courageous way, shatters the black and white victim/perpetrator dichotomy to which we’ve grown too inured. Both young and older Jennifer refuse the identity of victim. Instead, they frame the experience as a beautiful, even empowering, love story, one that Jenny has the means to invite and, finally, to end — “I decided [to stop seeing you],” Jenny tells Bill, and Bill is seemingly devastated.
Jenny’s decision, which assumes legitimate (if limited) power, removes her from the abusive situation but does not disabuse her of her romantic fantasy. Nor does Jennifer ever revisit, let alone reconsider, her involvement with Bill. Her self-image depends, in fact, on constructing the story as a romance, on willfully authoring her own tale — the Tale — in which she remains the prime agent, even the heroine. It is Fox’s commitment to Jenny’s unrelenting need to take ownership of her life — and to endow her story with meaning — that unsettles not only our #MeToo convictions but also our understanding of childhood sexual abuse.
Fox dares to tell certain uncomfortable truths with which we who practice psychoanalysis regularly contend. They begin with the reality and devastating repercussions of sexual abuse. But they also include the complexities of desire, the ways our drives do and don’t find a home in relationship, and how they are abetted or thwarted by the stories we tell ourselves. Our fantasies may not only self-deceive but also empower us; we may exploit even as we’re exploited. These truths lie between documentary fact and fictional fantasy, between memory and desire, between patriarchal privilege and women’s voices.
These dichotomies famously led Sigmund Freud into a theoretical bind, when he seemingly abandoned his “seduction theory” — the belief that his female patients’ suffering resulted from actual abusive experiences. History has indicted Freud for turning a deaf ear to the cries of truth-telling victims, and this indictment seems only more just in the wake of #MeToo. But neither Freud’s motivation nor his revised theory should be simply dismissed. By shifting focus away from what befalls us and toward our own desires and the stories we tell, Freud created a space for other compelling truths — and for women’s agency, not just their victimhood. They are the subjects as well as the objects of their stories.
Freud also recognized that stories are not purely mental but are conveyed physically — through speech of course, but also through the body’s signals and symptoms. Here again, The Tale speaks in a novel way to the unsettling and often contested questions of female agency by representing the body as well as the voice of a 13-year-old girl. Freud and Jenny agree that to own our stories is also to concede to what remains held out of mind, what is embodied, even if in dissociated symptoms. Any effort to retrieve memory or know truth is an encounter with the body’s speech: it doesn’t lie, but we must translate its messages, messages of desire as well as of trauma.
Such truth-seeking is an encounter with fantasies we’ve created, with the stories we’ve told ourselves, and so inevitably with memory itself. Freud used the term Nachträglichkeit (“afterwardsness”) to describe a certain imaginative encounter with past experience, the creation of novel links between then and now. The unique power of Fox’s film is the truth it tells about the afterwardsness of truth. It is neither historical fact, present memory, nor bodily testimony; it is also though never simply an aspect of subjectivity (desire, fantasy). Truth appears in stories that are both given and constructed, and the same story may be simultaneously one of victimhood and of personal agency.
Fox’s retelling both partakes in and counterbalances #MeToo, which has at times reduced women to victims, thus negating their power and agency. In claiming her voice and joining with other women, this accidentally exemplary one refuses the silence and compliance on which patriarchal rule relies. Though unintentional — the film was made long before the birth of #MeToo — this achievement is hardly random. Fox conveys a difficult truth to astonishing effect because it is so hard to acknowledge: that the story she told herself was for her as real as — perhaps more real than — the abuse itself, and that she also used her experience — chose to participate with Bill in some real way — to empower herself. That the fault line dividing her illusion from historical truth was actually not merely or simply an objective one. At the same time, the film also depicts—subtly, gradually, undeniably, painfully — an encounter with the limits of her (and our) agency, with what lies beyond the stories we tell — beyond our invention and omnipotent control.
In the film’s closing scene, captured in the ubiquitous press photo, Jennifer and Jenny sit side by side. Do they now trust each other? The adult seems to have collapsed into a blended state of exhilaration and exhaustion. The child, who earlier had protested vehemently against Jennifer’s confrontation of her abuser, which would upend her fantasy, seems receptive now, willing to really listen to her future self. It is the child who reaches out to the adult, and for at least one victorious moment she owns the voice of The Tale. Perhaps she represents a new movement, #MyTale, which would open the space for the interplay of private reverie, personal pride, and anguish, a space between pronouncement and indictment. #MyTale would admit and exploit the power conferred by telling, revising, and (re)claiming one’s story, even though our stories necessarily enact a collision of our agency with its limits.
My fantasy is that The Tale will continue to be told and retold, reworked in Jennifer Fox’s unfolding and courageous truth-telling project. Perhaps one day we will also discover who Bill “really” is. Not for the dead-end goal of indicting him, nor to solve the intriguing mystery of his biographical identity, but to uncover a necessary metaphor. The film leans in this direction as we witness Jennifer’s efforts to ask Bill and his enablers what motivated them to do what they did, a search for meaning that remains ominously unrequited. Perhaps none of us is ready or willing to know “Bill” in any three-dimensional sense. After all, he and the culture that (re)produces him — think of that other Bill (Cosby), or that Harvey, or Charlie, or Matt — has reduced him to a flat, unknowable caricature, possessing a false omnipotence, the antiheroic symbol of patriarchy. He is stripped of the power and agency of the feminine.
The Tale reveals the messy story of complicated female agency. It also points beyond mere stereotypes of victim and predator, toward a next and necessary step if the #MeToo movement is to advance. And it does so in a most improbable yet now obvious way: by opening a space between our (usually silenced and censored) tales of childhood abuse, and the tales by which we survive to tell the truth.
Jill Gentile, PhD, a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist, is a faculty member at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and the author of Feminine Law: Freud, Free Speech, and the Voice of Desire, with M. Macrone (Karnac Books, 2016). She is in independent practice in New York City and served as an advisor to “The Tale.”