Fox only began confronting the truth after her mother found a story she wrote about the relationship as a child. Picture: Stuart Ramson
Fox only began confronting the truth after her mother found a story she wrote about the relationship as a child. Picture: Stuart Ramson

Abused teen’s 40-year-old boyfriend

AGED 13, Jennifer Fox wrote a fictionalised account for English class about her 40-year-old boyfriend. It wasn't until she too was in her 40s that she had a devastating realisation - she hadn't been in a relationship, she had been abused.

The American filmmaker has dramatised her experience again under the same title, The Tale. This time, it's a confronting movie starring Laura Dern, Australian actor Elizabeth Debicki and rapper Common, which garnered rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival and has been bought by HBO.

Fox's story looks very different in its latest incarnation. "It's about the process of a 13-year-old ... how she was taken in and loved and given a lot of attention and made to feel special," Fox told news.com.au after giving a talk at the Australian International Screen Forum in New York.

The privileged, shy young girl was gradually persuaded to lose her virginity to her running coach Bill (Jason Ritter), with the encouragement of her horseriding teacher, Mrs G (Debicki) - two people she considered mentors.

Now, she believes the pair groomed and manipulated her while she stayed at a Philadelphia ranch, feeling neglected by her large family.

 

'I DIDN'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT SEX'

Fox vividly remembers every moment of the sexual abuse. She would vomit after her sexual encounters with Bill, found kissing with tongues "torture" and squirmed under his touch, but she believed it was worth it for what they had together.

"You want this adult figure to love you, you might not know - in my case, I really didn't know anything about sex," she said. "I'd never been kissed before, I'd certainly never been French kissed before. I knew nothing, but I really wanted this attention.

"It wasn't particularly sexual for me, I did not fantasise about my coach, he was not like, oh, that's the person I want to go out with."

In the movie there is another storyline in which she wants to go on a date with a boy her own age, but her parents won't allow her. She said that was the innocent romance she really wanted, but she "also was incredibly entranced by this man who was like a mentor to me".

While the movie isn't graphic in terms of nudity, it doesn't gloss over the disturbing sex scenes. Isabelle Nelisse, the then 11-year-old who plays the young Fox, was filmed separately from Ritter, with an adult woman playing her body double. Fox directed Nelisse to perform the deeply uncomfortable reaction shots by telling her to imagine being stung by a bee, eating ice cream or hearing a dog barking.

Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse both play Fox in The Tale, which chronicles how the director lost her virginity to her running coach when she was 13, and he was 40.
Laura Dern and Isabel Nelisse both play Fox in The Tale, which chronicles how the director lost her virginity to her running coach when she was 13, and he was 40.

"I felt that if I didn't show that, no one would really understand how it happens," said Fox. "I actually have had many people, even who have worked in the field ... lawyers said, 'I've been working in the field of child sexual abuse for 30 years, I thought I knew it inside and out, and yet I never really saw it, and now I get it.'

"I couldn't have this adult and child go into a room and close the door and fade out, it's also not where we are as a culture. I was hoping, and thank god we are ready to see what happens.

"It's very important to see and understand the mechanics of how a child gets into a situation they can't handle and don't know how to say no to."

Fox said it didn't take bravery to put her name to the searing memoir, in which she is played by Dern. She liked that the actor looks nothing like her, but knew having the character share her name would give legitimacy to the experience she lived through, and which she has come to realise is "universal".

'IT WAS A LOVE STORY ... AND ONE OF HORRIBLE ABUSE'

The award-winning documentary director said she buried the hurt of her abuse for decades, throwing herself into her work, often exposing injustice and sexual oppression of women. Eventually, she came to understand just how many women and men have a similar tale.

It was only in 2006, when her mother found the story she had written as a child, that Fox started to confront how deeply wrong her abusers' behaviour had been. Her teacher had noted on the essay: "If this is true, it's a travesty, but it can't be because you're so well-adjusted."

The movie, which stars Aussie Elizabeth Debicki as Fox’s enabling horseriding teacher, garnered rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired for release by HBO. Picture: AAP Image/David Moir
The movie, which stars Aussie Elizabeth Debicki as Fox’s enabling horseriding teacher, garnered rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired for release by HBO. Picture: AAP Image/David Moir

Fox said she never wanted to be a victim, and the experience is simply part of the fabric of who she is today - although she "wishes it had never happened".

It was only in middle age that she felt enough distance from the child she was to tell her tale.

"It was the love story of the girl, but there's another story, which is horrible abuse, which was never allowed to exist because it would have killed me," she said. "So basically 'til I was 45 I couldn't even begin to handle the truth that it was abuse, because to be a victim is worse than the event itself. People don't realise that, but even the word victim victimises the victims, so I knew as a kid that if I let myself feel like a victim, I was going under, and I'm talking under, like I would have ended up in an institution."

Fox said she's still dealing with what happened. She met with her two coaches while making the film to try to understand their motivations, but didn't confront them directly, because she knew they would run away.

'THE WORDS ON PAPER REALLY SHOCKED ME'

The filmmaker had told a few people about her unusual childhood relationship, but it was only when she told her boyfriend in her 40s (played by Common), that somebody called it rape.

Even now, the 58-year-old doesn't accept that it was rape, although it certainly is statutory rape in the eyes of the law and society. To her, rape is something more brutal, and she said her experience was "violent psychologically" but "not externally violent", and therefore affected her in different ways.

The 58-year-old, whose confronting film does not shy away from the detail of how she was groomed, says she never wanted to be a victim. Picture: Stuart Ramson
The 58-year-old, whose confronting film does not shy away from the detail of how she was groomed, says she never wanted to be a victim. Picture: Stuart Ramson

"Child sexual abuse has many faces," Fox said. "In my story, it was a slow, what we call grooming process ... to make me part of their so-called family, and where I began I felt important, I felt special, I felt loved.

"So when the sexuality came up, it was simply one more step that, as uncomfortable as it was, it was a step. And it was done in steps also, just like there was psychological grooming, there was also grooming around the sexuality, you know, let me rub your back, let me touch your hair, let me ... it was done in inches and over many periods of time, so the possibility of saying no was very hard because I was so close to these people, how could I not trust them?"

Fox said her film has conveniently emerged at the right time to have a frank conversation about child sexual abuse and how it can be tackled. She is working with organisations across the world to arrange screenings when it is aired by HBO and discussions of real experiences and how to deal with them in this #MeToo era.

"Many people don't call it sexual abuse until they're middle-aged - what's that?" she said. "Let's tell those stories, let's support the people now who might be ready, let's talk about memory with trauma, not just with sexual abuse but with all trauma.

"What was so crazy for me was when I read this story I wrote at 13 about the relationship I had with my two coaches, as an adult I saw sexual abuse all over it, and as a child I didn't. I really was describing a relationship and that's the way I remembered it, but the words on paper really shocked me."

emma.reynolds@news.com.au



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