The Tale: An accurate representation of what survivors of sexual abuse really go through
In the opening scenes of The Tale, the viewer follows journalist Jennifer Fox, played by Laura Dern, as she films and interviews other women about their experiences with sexual abuse. The expression of purpose on Jennifer’s face shows that she is in her element when telling other people’s stories. However, when Jennifer starts to examine her own stories, she is guarded.
The Tale is based on the real Jennifer Fox’s life, specifically focusing on the sexual abuse she endured as a child from her riding coach (Elizabeth Debicki) and her running coach (Jason Ritter). The film is an exploration of memories, and how these memories intersect with the truth.
“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful,” the voice of 13-year-old Jennifer, then known as Jenny, tells the viewer. Jennifer recalls the summer she stayed with Ms. G, her old horse-riding coach, and was introduced to Bill, her running coach, which, on the surface level, are sparkling and joyous memories. We see Jenny shrieking and splashing around in the pool with her coaches and fellow students. “Why are you telling this story, Jenny?” Jennifer asks her past self, sounding exasperated, like she can’t believe her own mind would waste her time investigating something that was clearly innocent. At the beginning, Jennifer’s memory of her sexual encounters with a man in his forties when she was 13 is simple: She insists they were in a relationship, he was just older. It is only after her mother finds an old essay that Jennifer wrote for her English class during that time, and sends it to her, that Jennifer starts to dig into her memories and, ultimately, how she views herself.
Although time has a sequence, the way we remember events does not. Just as in real life, The Tale switches fluidly from moments with present Jennifer to her childhood memories. The camera follows present-day Jennifer as she goes to confront her old writing coach in a shot next to her riding as child.
The more Jennifer remembers, the more she is unsettled by the power dynamic with her coaches. Then the audience follows Jennifer’s deeper investigation of her memories, a process she has perfected over years of writing about other people, but has never before applied to herself. “Why am I doing this?” present Jennifer asks her mom on the phone. As she continues to revisit her memories, Jennifer realizes they are coalescing into a revelation that her relationship with Bill was one of sexual abuse.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Jennifer tells a lecture hall of journalism students about her life in a scene from her present-day position of remembering her experiences. Jennifer did not limit her storytelling to her professional career. Instead, to deal with the pain of her experience with sexual abuse, she told herself a story about two adults who loved each other and loved her.
While The Tale may be about just one woman’s story, it represents a broader experience of survivors of sexual abuse, most prominently how women process abuse in a society that blinds them to it. Jennifer’s journey of not only remembering and processing her past, but also deciding to share her story, is both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from.
While sexual assault is often used in films written, directed, and produced by men as a vehicle to propel the plotline forward, The Tale offers to the cinematic landscape a story about sexual abuse from an honest, unfiltered perspective, written by the survivor herself. Not only does the character Jennifer reclaim her story, but it’s clear the survivor and journalist Jennifer Fox has as well.
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