“The story you are about to see is real,” a 13-year-old Jenny Fox says. In the highly anticipated HBO film The Tale — directed by documentarian Jennifer Fox and based on her own life — Laura Dern plays the adult Jenny as she struggles to come to terms with a childhood sexual assault. The movie follows Jenny’s journey to uncover the truth of what happened to her all those years ago. Knowing the premise of The Tale, I thought I was ready for what I was about to see. I was very, very wrong.
I attended the HBO premiere of The Tale in Chicago. Here is a little known fact about me: Despite running a non-profit against sexual assault, I don’t often, if ever, immerse myself with art on the subject. I prefer the novelties of Gilmore Girls and Friends over documentaries on gender violence. I read romance novels, not institutionalized studies on rape victims. I’m invested in the work I do, but I don’t live and breathe it with every waking step. However, out of the few pieces that I have seen (Jessica Jones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), The Tale is the only one that’s elicited a personal response. It is the only film that’s been able to reach into the crevices of my heart and stir up that rare feeling of recognition.
I saw more of myself in Jenny than I ever saw in any other work that’s tackled the thorny topic of sexual assault. In the six years since my own rape, I was able to say, “That girl on screen is me.”
I’ve always thought being a victim of sexual assault is not unlike having a cavity. On the surface, we can be immaculately polished, as writers, as filmmakers, as any mask will let us be. It isn’t until you bite into a person do you realize there is something rotten inside: a memory, an experience, rooted in agonizing hurt. Like a cavity, if untended to, it can rot away your entire being. Unlike with a physical wound, though, there are so many nuances to being a sexual assault survivor that are impossible to explain. The Tale is the first film in a long time that shows the labor-intensive work of unpacking a trauma from the psyche.
'The Tale' will never be a feel-good, wine night pick. But it deserves to be seen. It deserves to be talked about.
The weeks, months, and years following my own assault, my mind swallowed the experience whole. I couldn’t find the words to tell anyone what happened, so I didn’t. Eventually enough time passed that I was able to distance myself from the memory of it altogether. If I didn’t think about it, if I didn’t say the words out loud, then it couldn’t have been me. Like Jenny, my life continued because my mind protected me. I graduated high school. I fell deeply in and out of love (once). I had fantastic, terrible, mediocre, and strange sex with boys I either cared nothing for or adored. I wrote my heart out about a number of subjects, but never this. I often find myself wondering how much longer I could have repressed that awful afternoon. Jennifer Fox said it best in the Q&A afterward the screening I attended: “Your mind takes what it can hold.”
But, like a bad stomach ache, the trauma eventually did hurl itself out: inconveniently, violently, and messily. For Jenny, but for me as well.
Jenny’s reluctance to acknowledge her assault is familiar. The way that she screamed at her fiancé, played by Common, when he brings it up (“Either you leave or I do”) is familiar. The one and only time I was directly asked about my rape in therapy, I walked out. Adult Jenny seeks to uncover the truth between her relationship with her predator. She obsesses over it, yet she fears what she finds. She was taken advantage of by adults she trusted, leading to a lifetime of subconscious inability to trust. If I had a dollar for every time someone in my own life asked why I can’t let people in fully, I could buy a moat to keep them at bay.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Jenny screams at her fiancé: “I am not a victim!” The bitter loathing in the way she says “victim” is the most familiar of them all. I’ve said the same sentence with equal amounts of defensiveness, hostility, and denial. My entire life, even before, I have wanted people to know I was capable. Identifying with victimhood meant being vulnerable in a way I couldn’t let myself be. I didn’t want to be weak. I didn’t want to be the girl with the tragic childhood. Any survivor of sexual assault can relate with the fear beneath her words: the fear of judgment; the fear of isolation; the fear that if you accept it, a victim is all you’ll be.
Adult Jenny does not want to a victim. College-educated, professionally-accomplished Jenny with an independent streak and creative flair does not want to be a victim. We are decades apart in age, but bonded together in a shared refusal to be reduced to our trauma. I think of my favorite quote from the Iliad: “Be strong [my heart], you have seen sights worse than this.” The film, told through present time and elusive flashbacks, goes on. Life goes on; and childhoods, beautiful or foul, end.
I will admit that there aren’t a lot of similarities between young Jenny and a young me. Throughout the film, Jenny was depicted as a nervous child tip-toeing into adolescence, constantly seeking reassurance to fill a void left by her parents. I have always been overzealous, boldly occupying space with the confidence and shamelessness of a reality star. Jenny longed for acceptance and attention; I demanded freedom, unwilling to play by anyone’s rules but my own.
She was groomed by a charismatic pedophile, manipulated into thinking rape was love at the age of 13. She was blinded. I was attacked by a caretaker as punishment at 15. It was three minutes of brutal, degrading pain, followed by an insistence that I “deserved it.” Our stories, each their own shade of horrific, are different.
None of that matters, in the end. We were both just kids.
After the premiere, a friend of mine remarked that the violence of sexual assault is harder to stomach than the violence of, say, war. We are the generation raised on gore galore. Video games, the entire Human Centipede franchise, any war documentary is easier to watch than seeing a 40-year-old man having intercourse to — not with, but to, as she lay immobile, flinching — a 13-year-old girl. I looked away. Many others did, too. I don’t blame them. But we kept watching, out of a need to know that Jenny gets her resolution (spoiler alert: she does, kind of, as much as you can) and out of obligation.
For as difficult it was to see, it’s infinitely worse to live it, as Jennifer Fox had.
The Tale will never be a feel-good, wine night pick. I doubt I will ever see it twice myself (or unsee it, ever). But it deserves to be seen. It deserves to be talked about. It is raw and haunting and nearly impossible to digest immediately, but it is real. Laura Dern’s phenomenal acting chops brought the story to screen, but Fox’s resilience brought it to life. She took back her narrative in a way that many will never be able to understand. And with The Tale, that’s fine. You don’t have to understand what she’s been through. It’s enough to just know. We all know a Jenny Fox, after all.
Sara Li is the founder of Project Consent, an international nonprofit campaign that aims to combat sexual assault and rape culture by raising awareness, spreading education, and taking action.
Based on the filmmaker's own story, THE TALE is an investigation into one woman's memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual experience and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. THE TALE will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand from May 26th onwards. More info and full list of nonprofit partners can be found at thetalemovie.com.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).