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FILM / The Tale: What Fox’s Narrative Structure Can Teach Us About Writing True Stories / Laura Valeri

Image courtesy Sundance Film Festival

Image courtesy Sundance Film Festival

The old cliché a picture is worth a thousand words is still true, and Jennifer Fox must know it well. The Tale is a true story about a relationship that Jennifer Fox (writer and director of the film) sustained at age 13 with a much older adult man. The shocking and disturbing aspect on the movie doesn't stop at the inappropriateness of that relationship, however. What is most involving is the narrator's difficulty reconciling what she had thought of as a formative romance with the realization that it was pernicious abuse. The story is about her resistance to recognize that she was destructively manipulated by not one, but two adults-- and so cleverly that for most of her life she had come to see this abuse as "a thing so beautiful."

If you have not seen the film, let me stop you right here and urge you to go see it, not only because it furthers the argument on a seldom discussed aspect of sexual abuse, but also because it pushes the boundaries of film-writing craft, and writers of all creative genres can learn something from Jennifer Fox's approach to storytelling.

There are many cringe-worthy moments in the film, the most obvious one being sex between the 13-year-old Fox and the adult "Billy" (at one point, it is suggested he may have been as old as 40). It was a scene that Jennifer Fox had insisted had to be in the film, in spite of the considerable resistance she met by all those she approached for production. That sex scene, which is played by an adult body-double for the girl’s part, made it difficult for Fox to find sponsors and actors.  But Fox knew the scene was necessary. In an article by the Hollywood Reporter Fox explains her gut instinct. She understood that only by seeing the sex act on screen would people appreciate "just how grotesque [child sex] really is." It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the film's success to shock value, as the actual worth of the film is in the psychological defensiveness of the woman who suffered the abuse, and in Fox’s approach to storytelling.

What I most admire, besides Fox's courage to tell such a complicated and layered story, is the creative choices that become instrumental in driving home the subtler, less obvious aspects of the abuse. These narrative choices bring attention to a girl's false sense of maturity and invincibility, two adolescent defensive tactics that ironically, in this case, serve as fodder for a predator. When Fox (played by Laura Dern) recollects her first meeting with her former lover Billy, and Mrs. G., the woman who throws her in the way of that relationship, Jennifer is cast as a shy and awkward but fully-developed teen in actress Jessica Sarah Flaum. We are given to understand that this is how the older Jennifer remembers herself at that age. When her mother finally shows her a picture of herself at age 13, however, the narrative repeats the same first-meeting sequence, this time with the innocent and physically undeveloped Isabelle Nelisse playing lead.

Where the first sequence with the older Jessica Sarah Flaum somewhat supported the illusion of a summer fling, the scene recast with the younger actor forces the viewer to unequivocally reject that proposal, simultaneously indicating that Fox, too, is shocked into reconsidering her acceptance of that "relationship" as normal and even important. The audience then becomes complicit in the horrific misdirection of the earlier sequences, and are subsequently forced to question Jennifer Fox as a reliable narrator or fair judge of her own experience. Casting the very young looking Isabelle Nelisse in the second sequence really drives home just how "grotesque" it is for an adult to be attracted sexually to a child. It also turns the spotlight on the fallacy of memory and self-delusion that often glosses over these traumatic and frankly criminal situations. 

The two juxtaposed sequences also invite the audience to recognize how abuse can sometimes be dismissed on the basis of physical appearance. I am reminded of the helplessness I felt when, while attending my first MFA degree program, I argued with classmates over Nabokov's Lolita. I had felt uncomfortable, sometimes horrified, reading about Humbert’s manipulations and obsessions, but, without getting into a discussion over what Nabokov may or may not have intended, I could not get my male friends to fully appreciate the baseness of what Humbert Humbert was doing to Lolita. To them, Lolita was a "nymphette,” not a normal child. She had been the one to initiate seduction. How innocent could she be? Her sexual voracity made all the difference. It was the same when the movie American Beauty first screened. In it, a 42-year old man, ironically played by the now exposed Kevin Spacey, attempts to seduce his daughter's 17-year-old friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Angela's overt sexuality was not understood by my male friends as the girl's immaturity and evidence of her child-like thinking. Rather, it was evidence of her nefarious intentions to seduce an innocent man to stray from his marriage.

Fox's creative structuring of the narrative prevents any such clichés and tortured logic from excusing the abuse in The Tale, but it doesn't stop there. Throughout the film, we watch as the older Jennifer, convinced her childhood had nothing to do with her inability to connect to others as an adult, painfully drives away those who have caught on to the abuse and who try to get her to see it, from her mother, to her current lover, to the detective who works cases like hers. She rejects their concerns and clings to the same false narratives that society has passively accepted about women’s physical maturity being equitable to their emotional maturity, a narrative that has been popular at least until the #MeToo movement.  In articles and interviews Fox has repeatedly stated that she believes her story would not have had an impact had it not been for the movement, but I disagree.  Her approach to reveal the inner workings of a young girl's mind as she wrangles with an abusive situation that's being presented to her as freeing and beautiful directly engages the audience with a victim's unintended complicity in her own abuse.

To illustrate her internal struggle, the 48-year old Jennifer Fox (played by Laura Dern), imagines interviewing her 13-year old self to try to make sense of the clues she discovers as more details of the abusive relationship comes to life. She also mentally interviews the adults who snared her into the abuse, imagining them as they were at the time of her relationship. The most culpable adults are, of course, Billy, her lover-abuser, and Mrs. G., the woman who facilitated Billy’s and the young Jennifer’s coming together. These interview scenes serve to give voice to the questions that inwardly trouble the older Jennifer Fox, but they are also extraordinarily effective in emphasizing the gap between the tendency of her 13-year-old self to processes the details of an inconceivable situation through wildly romantic filters, and the older Jennifer’s ability to discern the harsh truth at the core of events that happened more than thirty years before. 

In one of the most brilliant and revealing moments in this exquisite use of the technique, the 13-year-old Jennifer tries to persuade her 48 years-old self that she was in control of that relationship the entire time. The 13-year old claims that breaking up with Billy, who continued to write her for years afterwards, proves that she was not a victim. She casts herself as master of her own fate. She even wrote a story for her English class, she says, the very same artifact that triggered the older Jennifer’s journey when her mother finds it while cleaning house, and sends it to her with concern. The 13-year old Jennifer proclaims "I even got an A" with a cat-like smile, a gesture that unequivocally characterizes the sad delusion of her perceived victory. It is a poignant scene that drives to the heart the destructive consequences of the lies we tell ourselves.

The imaginary interviews Jennifer holds with the adults she remembers from the past also provide an effective contrast to the actual in person meetings that the older Fox has with the now aging adults. Where the interview subjects are earnest and forthcoming, the real adults are as evasive and manipulative as ever. The young Billy (played by Jason Ritter), explains his attraction to the 13-year old Jennifer as a need for an innocence and freshness which he cannot find in jaded, cynical adults. However, the older William refuses to answer adult Jennifer's phone calls and hides behind predictable denials and petty evasions. The young Mrs. G is unrepentant and unapologetic, but she at least confesses that her sexual intrigues were intended to revive Billy’s sexual interested in her. The older Mrs. G. hijacks the conversation, steering Jennifer’s questions away from the facts and towards her sad upbringing, the recent loss of her son, and her husband's terminal cancer. Ironically, her manipulative tactics, which would have worked on the 13-year-old Jennifer, are what eventually waken the older Jennifer to the fact that her memories have betrayed her. Confronted with the selfish and emotionally irresponsible Mrs. G, she finally acknowledges to herself that what she remembered as a mentorship was, in fact, something far more sinister.

I was, at first, overwhelmed and disturbed by the truths that the story brings to light, but not because I found them surprising. Like most women of my generation, I have experienced, in different and admittedly less traumatic forms, both the manipulative overtures of older men who should have known better, and the self-deceiving justification we assign to those moments. What the movie gave me beyond that is a new way to think about writing and structuring narratives, particularly when the power of a story lies so exclusively within the character's inner struggle. The power of the realizations Jennifer experiences is inextricable from the imaginary and real-life interviews that bridge past perception with present understanding. They are invaluable means of expressing what often feels inexpressible.

Frequently, in writing craft talks, we talk about interviewing our characters as a way to get to know them better, and I have sometimes seen this method integrated in metafiction, but I have never seen this technique used so literally in film, at least, never in a true story, and never this seamlessly integrated in a character's inner struggle. As a writer of creative nonfiction, I see it as a brilliant evolution from the deeply introspective questioning that authors often engages on the page, but one that opens opportunities and new ways of thinking about structure and style. I am left in awe of Fox's creative approach, and I now want to experiment with adapting this interaction of people as we remember them versus how they really were on my own writing, a dance with perception that inspires me to approach my work in fresher and more emotionally significant ways.

Laura Valeri is the author of three story collections, Safe in Your Head, The Kinds of Things Saints Do, and The Dead Still Here, forthcoming with SFA Press in 2018. Her work was awarded the Iowa John Simmons Award, the SFA Press Prize in literary fiction, and the Binghamton University John Gardner Award in fiction. Laura Valeri teaches at Georgia Southern University and is the managing editor of Wraparound South, a literary journal.