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The beginning of Fox's film echoes what happened in Fox's life, when she was in her 40s, and her mother found a story Fox had written for her eighth-grade English class called "The Tale." That story, which Fox told her teacher was fiction, didn't get into sexual details, but it alluded to her relationship with her running coach and with the woman who was her riding coach who also abused her. GROSS: That's a scene from Jennifer Fox's film "The Tale" on HBO. Isabelle is standing in front of what is a vertical bed. And she was just rolling through expressions in a close up - a medium close up. And sometimes I'm standing in front of audiences going, how did this happen?
In the film, we hear this excerpt of the story in the alternating voices of the younger and older Jennifer Fox. Her hair is sprayed out to look like she's laying down. And then we cut that with shots of Jason Ritter with a body-double working with an adult. GROSS: So I want to mention something you said to me off mic, and you said it's strange for you now to have become kind of a poster girl for child abuse when you'd never thought of yourself as being abused when it was actually happening. But now that I've come out with my story, I am able to use it in a way to say to other people the pain is tolerable, you know, that these events are things that we can talk about that are not too difficult to bear.
DERN: (As Jennifer) And often, I'm afraid I'll fall off of it. GROSS: Well, Jennifer, thank you for being so candid with us. GROSS: Thank you for making the movie, and I wish you good luck. It's nominated for an Emmy for outstanding TV movie, and Laura Dern is nominated for her portrayal of the adult version of Jennifer Fox.
GROSS: Jennifer Fox, congratulations on the film and the Emmy nominations, and welcome to FRESH AIR. GROSS: Let's start by talking a little bit more about the story that you wrote when you were 13. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the Trump administration has radicalized ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His new article "How ICE Went Rogue" is the cover story of the new edition of The Atlantic.
So when you make a child a victim you destroy the thread that they have to get out of suffering. I want to say that every survivor should use the language that works for them, but for me, I really use the word "survivor" because that's what happened. On why she doesn't use the word "rape" to describe the abuse Technically it is statutory rape, but I think when we use that word, we deny all the manipulation that goes on for sexual abuse to happen. Now, if we look at it from his point of view, this is the delusion of a perpetrator. GROSS: I think of your courage in calling up the person you've named Bill, your running coach, and saying, like, I'm done. For a lot of reasons, I think about why I was so strong. And yet, there were holes because they trusted a revered adult, which is - you know, when you think of the current cases - the gymnasts' case - adults were trusting revered adults and not seeing manipulation and coercion.
And even though technically, I had little agency, because I was too young, ... belief that you have agency is what keeps us alive and keeps us actually surviving and going beyond trauma. But let's preference the story of the muscle and the strength — and not preference the story of the weakness. FOX: I think if we back up, we have to understand that, as a kid, I was very smart, and I had been trained like all children in the art of exchange. And kids are basically - I think we destroy souls of children by making them like good dogs of jumping through hoops. So basically, for me, in the big picture, the sexuality, which was horrible from beginning to end for me - and it's not for all kids that are sexually abused, but for me, it was not comfortable, not pleasurable. It was simply, OK, I can do this because what I'm getting back is attention and love. That was my experience of any kind of advance that went on. Instead, we should be basically propping up the parts of them that have gotten them through this ordeal by talking about survival skills and instinct and strength. FOX: So here is a family that was doing their best and gave me a lot of skills.I don't blame my teacher at all, and I don't blame my mother. She wrote and directed an HBO movie called "The Tale." She describes it as a fictional memoir. And even though, technically, I had little agency because I was too young, the false even belief that you have agency is what keeps us alive and keeps us actually surviving and going beyond trauma. A reminder to parents - this interview may not be appropriate for young children. GROSS: Because you were psychologically manipulated but weren't physically forced. And that's why a lot of survivors of sexual abuse will kind of get their ire up when you use the word rape. He thinks it's not fair that I get all the time with you. GROSS: But did you say to him, what you did was child abuse? FOX: I think that's a great point, but I had a larger goal. And he will die, and maybe, at that point, I can name who it was. GROSS: I'll say - I mean, I think it's a terrific film. Is there anything we haven't talked about that you really want people to know to change their comprehension about men who are predators of children... FOX: I think that something you said to me when we walked in off radio, which is beautiful, which is it's so amazing that we never talk about how a child can love his or her abuser.On whether writing "The Tale" was a cry for help I think as adults we think always anything like this is a cry for help, but honestly, when I dig into my own self and go back, I think that I was doing what I've done all my life ... I thought I would be made to be a victim, and would be psychoanalyzed, whatever, and I knew that the adults would get it wrong. It's based on the story of her life when she was 13 and she was sexually abused by her running coach and her riding coach. So when you make a child a victim, you destroy the thread that they have to get out of suffering. In the film, and this is probably what happened in real life, you threw up each time you were raped. It takes away all the coercion and manipulation that goes on with sexual abuse. I could turn this story into a huge fiction film that goes on HBO and around the world and millions and millions will see it. And that's a piece of the story that has not been included in any of the tellings.On why she kept the abuse a secret for so long Why don't children speak and why didn't I speak? And from very young - also, frankly, secretly pushed by my mom - I never wanted that. They were telling me of a world that I wanted and believed in. So the essay that you wrote when you were 13, looking back on that as an adult now, do you think it was a cry for help in any way? But honestly, when I dig into my own self and go back, I think that I was doing what I've done all my life in using storytelling to try to make sense of something I didn't understand. Frankly, I was terrified that the adults who I saw as bumbling and people that would make messes of things would actually find out about this and force me to do something that I didn't want to do. I mean, there was - there's this sense of, like, being loved. And often that person may seem to the child to be the only adult that loves them. GROSS: You told me they were afraid to let you go to sleepovers because bad things can happen there. I couldn't - all my friends had birthday parties - overnights.There was this profound inner code that this was our secret — and I loved [the two coaches]. I wanted to be somebody, and I wanted to do something out of the box. Anyhow, here were people that were saying the box is no good. You know, marriage, homemaking looked terrible to me. And I know, as an adult, people are saying, well, how could a 13-year-old feel like that? I know, like, a lot of young girls, they love the hugging and the kissing and the embracing and really don't want and aren't ready for anything more sexual than that. And we also - and I really want to emphasize this - have to take the greatest care when working with children in helping them prosecute their abusers because I think as adults we don't understand that when we talk to kids, we're also creating horror. I wasn't allowed to go because something bad could happen.
Imagine a woman who is married and a man who is divorced sharing their lives in close friendship, loving each other with all their souls, yet not being close with their bodies. I'm lucky enough to be able to share in their love. RITTER: (As Bill) They're just not brave like you are. And I think horror is much more ordinary than that.