Turning the Tables on Child Sexual Abusers

Placing guilt and shame on the perpetrators is key to recovery from the trauma.

Posted Aug 17, 2018

“The story you are about to see is true,” says the narrator, “as far as I know.”

The 48-year-old narrator’s recollections of being sexually abused as a 13-year-old girl, recounted in the Emmy-nominated 2018 HBO movie The Tale, aren’t a matter of recovered memory.

“I always remembered what happened,” says Jennifer Fox, writer, director, and subject of the searing drama based on her personal story of a relationship she had with her horseback riding and running coaches during the summer of 1973. “But it is about how I interpreted that relationship at the time, and how I see it more clearly now. And how I understand how deeply it impacted me.”

After her mom finds and confronts the grown Jennifer (played by Laura Dern, Emmy-nominated for best actress for the role) with an essay Jennifer wrote about the “relationship” when she was 13, the documentary filmmaker and college professor embarks on an information-gathering journey into her own past.

When Jennifer’s partner, played by rap artist Common, finds letters written to her by Bill, the long-ago running coach who sexually groomed and raped her (repeatedly, over time), she rejects his observation that she was raped. “I am not the victim!” she shouts at him.

She prefers, at first anyway, to believe that her 13-year-old self had freely chosen to engage in the “relationship” with her abuser, that she was mature and able to consent to a sexual relationship.

In a powerful exchange between her older and younger self (played by Isabelle Nélisse), young Jenny says, “Don’t you see, I’m not the victim of this story; I’m the hero. He fell apart, not me” when she broke it off with Bill and he cried, pleaded, and then sent her dozens of cards and letters over the coming years.

The older Jennifer responds, “You couldn’t even think that his lies would continue without you, that there would be others.” Young Jenny looks surprised to hear this. She hadn't even considered that she wasn't Bill's "one and only," but only the first in a long line. “You froze him in time, didn’t you?” says her mature self.

From there the grown-up Jennifer sets out to contact, and eventually confront, Bill in a tense scene as he is receiving an award for his by-now legendary coaching. She is clearly surprised to find a much older, fatter Bill accepting his plaque—still remembering the handsome 40-year-old locked in her memory, the man who read her poetry, stole her virginity, and swore her to secrecy.

As Jennifer looks back, she is surprised to realize how small and innocent she really was at 13—when all this time she remembered herself as being quite mature and self-sufficient. She begins to understand how her memories have protected her from the trauma of sexual abuse she experienced as a child.

She understands now why she was drawn to Bill, and “Mrs. G,” the horse farm owner and young Jenny’s riding coach--and Bill’s lover and procurer of young girls. When Jennifer's mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) asks, “Why did you keep going back?” Jennifer says, “I got something else. Love. I wanted someone to think I was special.”

As she educates herself about child sexual abuse, Jennifer watches a series of video interviews with other women who were victimized as children. One says it took her years to get comfortable enough to have an orgasm during sex with a man. Another says it’s pointless to feel ashamed, "otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.”

A third woman says part of the challenge for the child-victim can be in the simple fact that sex “feels good.” As she puts it, “There’s this sense that you enjoy it, someone touching you in a sexual way, and there’s guilt that you enjoy it and not understanding that it’s not appropriate.”

Phrased a bit differently from a male point of view, Nick Nutter, one of the former wrestlers at Ohio State who recently came forward about being groped and molested by their team doctor, said to the New York Times of his teammates, “People felt guilt. I guess they feel like an erection is an agreement. It’s saying, ‘This is something I like.’”

Shame and anguish are precisely what abusers count on to keep their victims silent and their own shameful behavior secret.

It certainly worked in Pennsylvania, where a devastating new report by a grand jury found more than 1,000 identifiable victims of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Potentially hundreds more cases are believed to remain unreported. The latest episode in the child sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church since allegations first emerged in Boston in 2002, revealed that church officials followed a “playbook for concealing the truth” by downplaying the abuse, not informing the community, and even lying to parishioners about the real reasons for removing an accused priest.

“It’s that very management of secrets that has given cover to predators,” said the Rev. James Faluszcak, an Erie priest who testified before the grand jury. “Priests were raping little boys and girls,” the grand jury wrote, “and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”

The 2012 trial and conviction of another coach, Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, revealed that even a totally secular organization, such as a university, can show “total and consistent disregard” for child sex abuse victims, while covering up the attacks of a sexual predator, as a report on the scandal put it. Sandusky was handed a 30- to 60-year prison sentence after being convicted on 45 counts, including involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent assault, unlawful contact with minors, corruption of minors, and endangering welfare of children.

The #MeToo movement has emboldened female, as well as male, victims of child sexual abuse and harassment to speak out. Turning the tables and putting the blame and shame squarely on the abuser and harasser, where it belongs, they give themselves permission to heal from their trauma.

Looking through wiser, grown-up eyes at what happened to them lets adult survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual harassment reframe the story they tell themselves about their trauma. It frees them of the guilt and shame that, as much research documents, so often leads to self-defeating and even self-harming behavior.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Jennifer Fox puts it in The Tale. “So what’s your story? What story are you going to tell?”