There are many different schools of psychology that shape various strategies of clinicians practicing therapy. An interesting point of commonality is a shared acknowledgement of the significance of the past and a shared interest in how childhood experiences sculpt adult life experience. Cognitive theory explores learned thought processes. Behavioral theory emphasizes learned behaviors. Systems theory explores our conscious and unconscious loyalty to childhood roles assigned by the family system. Freudian theory – the most controversial but also the most interesting – studies how childhood traumas are formative and shape adulthood through conscious and unconscious drives to navigate and master difficult situations that connect back to historical trauma.
Another interesting thread connecting varying approaches to therapy is a shared acknowledgment of the healing nature of storytelling. Studies continue to affirm that journaling facilitates healing, reduces anxiety and can crystalize insight and understanding. Newer research also emphasizes the therapeutic value of film viewing with respect to improving therapeutic outcomes.
As I watched and re-watched Jennifer Fox’s brilliant new film The Tale, I was struck by her ability to take viewers along her journey through writing a script and then directing a film that re-tells and re-processes her traumatic childhood memories about sexually abusive relationships with her running and horseback riding coaches. (The Tale is the first dramatic film purchased rather than produced by HBO and premiered on Saturday evening.)
The film opens by explaining: “The story you are about to see is true, as far as I know.” This honest introduction invites viewers on a harrowing, heartfelt journey through which the protagonist digs in deep to make sense of the messages and scripts she created during childhood in order to survive. These old scripts allow her not only to survive – but professionally thrive in the competitive world of documentary filmmaking. The writer/ director uses her own name throughout the story, in which Laura Dern plays the part of Jennifer with raw affect and candor. While subjugating her personal story, Jennifer cultivates her documentary skills to tell the global stories of abused and exploited women around the world.
The Tale opens while forty-eight year-old Jennifer is filming on remote location and receives several frantic calls from her mother. Having discovered a middle school essay ensconced in the attic of her childhood home, Jennifer’s mother reads her daughter’s tale of “something so beautiful” – a special, loving relationship between young “Jenny” and her two magnificent adult coaches. The back page of the essay includes the teacher’s misguided feedback that the story, while disturbing, must be rooted in the young author’s active imagination. Jennifer’s mother remembers her own suspicions and fears that The Tale is one of truth not fiction. When Jennifer’s fiancé (played convincingly by Common) reads old letters between student and coach that were also discovered in the attic, he, too, raises concerns. Jennifer asserts her determined refusal to experience herself as a victim: “It was MY childhood…. He was MY coach…This was important to me… I’m NOT a victim!” She then insists that her loving partner get out of their home and leave her alone.
In one of many effective cinematic takes on the elusive nature of memory, flashbacks to a young “Jenny” begin with several riding-oriented scenes at the coach’s farm, during which Jessica Sarah Flaum plays Jenny as a developed teenage girl. Once adult Jennifer sits down with her mother in her childhood home, flipping through photographs taken during the time frame she is exploring, she is jolted into the startling realization that she was only 13 years old when she wrote the essay about the relationship. Suddenly, the flashbacks shift. Young Jenny is re-scripted, re-cast and replayed by a much younger, pre-pubescent Isabell Nelisse.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are best advised to watch this important film with supportive loved ones. The material is graphic and raw and may trigger traumatic memories and unsettling feelings. Hotline numbers are provided through the film and the credits clarify what looks somewhat obvious in a visually compelling cinematic strategy – an adult body double is used during the scenes that depict sex between an adult and a minor. The director’s approach to filming the sex scenes represents a metaphor for the film as a whole. The Tale is at once brutally honest, but also a template for the healing process. Great art depicts the ugliest and darkest corners of human nature, but also the capacity for healing and growth. Sometimes it is the creative process itself that culminates in the greatest healing of all.