Back in my grad school days I wrote about Wordsworth and his work The Prelude: a long blank verse poem Wordsworth had written during the French Revolution. The Prelude was autobiographical. However, there’s one section known as the “Spots of Time.” It’s infamous in Restoration lit. circles as an example of the fallibility of memory. Wordsworth edited and reworked The Prelude multiples times over his life, and each time the “Spots of Time” changed. With each edit, Wordsworth searched for a certain truth, trying to recapture the moment, and in the process remembering and creating new details to fit his story.
Writer and director Jennifer Fox‘s The Tale, much in the same fashion as Wordsworth, is also searching for truth. However, more so than the poet who wrote his landmark work at 28, Fox wrote her’s at 13. For her, buried beneath defense mechanisms and fear is a traumatic event of sexual assault.
Her HBO film is a delicate rewind and fast forward of those memories triggered by her mother (Ellen Burstyn) confronting Fox with a letter written at age 13. The letter, at first “innocent,” is only made significant by Jennifer’s memory unwinding itself. And as the film progresses, with each speck of remembrance she comes across, she must redouble: adding new detail to an out of focus picture.
That picture is shocked into us by the first flashback, as Fox shows a 15-year old Jennifer (Jessica Sarah Flaum) arriving for her horseback lessons. The scene is an endearing memory as Jennifer notes, “I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful.” Much like Jennifer, we trick ourselves into believing this to be a coming of age story. However, that’s shattered as Jennifer begins to look at old photographs of herself with her mother. Her mother notes that Jennifer wasn’t 15, she was in fact 13 (Isabelle Nélisse) when she started those lesson with Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and Bill (Jason Ritter). Many of us are fuzzy on dates, but to forget two years serves as an early indicator of her trauma.
The proceeding film is made in a documentarian style as Fox interrogates not only the adults in her life, through mock interview shots, but also her 13-year old self. During these interrogations it’s never clear who’s asking the questions: is it Fox the character or Fox the director? It’s most likely both, and that’s one of the aspects that makes The Tale so powerful and brave. Because trauma isn’t a one-time deal. Fox telling a story about her traumatic event isn’t only a story from a perspective of a person who’s “figured it out,” it’s someone who’s still battling. That is, even while directing this film, Fox is still sifting through her memories and mining for answers. It’s a cruel self-inflicted meta inquiry.
Nevertheless, as Jennifer questions these childhood figures: Mrs. G, Bill, and her younger self, we’re never handed a cathartic release. These are photographs and memories that she’s questioning, and they don’t give over so easily. In fact, they’re often tight lipped, swerving away from her gaze even as she treats them to straight on camera shots.
And even Jennifer herself, the adult one, veers from her “unsavory” truths. As she rarely refers to her and Bill’s moments together as “sexual abuse.” She defines it as a relationship, and chalks it up to being the 70’s, even as those around her classify it as it is: rape.
This unnerving information for Jennifer is thrown in contrast to her letters (written at age 13), demonstrating Bill’s slow grooming of her as he breaks down each “tiny” barrier to earn her trust. And Bill, like many pedophiles, attempts to both demonize Jennifer’s parents while also placating them. In one scene he tells Jennifer, “Your parents are afraid of becoming free,” while in the next he creepily hands her mother flowers and her father a gift as if he’s courting her. Nevertheless, much of the grooming comes in the sex scenes between the two (which Fox thankfully used an adult body double for), because with each sexual encounter Bill pushes a little bit further, even framing it as a good thing for the young Jennifer. Much of that grooming never leaves Jennifer, at least not until she’s an adult.
Throughout the film, Laura Dern adeptly plays a woman who’s trauma runs so deep that she’s at once confrontational, contradictory, and in denial. As each detail of each memory floods back, Dern balances anger and confusion without ever fully peaking. Because in most instances of recall from abuse, there is no one single peak. And as Jennifer confronts an older Bill, the final scene of her sitting in a bathroom with her younger self is not only a reminder of who she once was, but also who she’ll never be again.
Doubling back, Wordsworth spent the rest of his life “editing” his memory, editing The Prelude and his “Spots of Time,” yet never fully completing it. His work was posthumously published by his widow, and there’s a very good chance that Wordsworth never found the ‘truth’ he was seeking in his memory, only half-recollections that melded the story he wanted to remember and the parts that he didn’t.
As for Fox, much like the poet, she’ll probably never have a completed picture of what happened to her at 13. That little girl is gone, and it’s impossible to fully know what she felt and thought, even with the aid of a journal and letters. But that shard of truth that cuts between the brain is secondary. It doesn’t come close to the need to understand. Because our memories, our stories, our tales, are nothing more than ways for us to explore ourselves. And with every added detail, we learn more. We cope. For Fox, and for all of us, The Tale is a spot in time worth finding.
Credit to Viola Davis and Laci Green in the above gifs. Davis for sharing (which I assure you, you should research) her story and Green for providing sex education lessons on Youtube.