The HBO original motion picture “The Tale” tells the real life story of director Jennifer Fox, who experienced sexual abuse as a 13-year-old girl. In the film, Jennifer is an accomplished journalist and professor in a committed relationship, and yet struggles with commitment. She’s been engaged for over two years and we see her mother comment on her inability to tie the knot and marry her boyfriend of 10 years. I’ve written elsewhere on the impact of childhood sexual abuse on trust and relationships. This movie illustrates the real-life struggle of a woman, who revisits her memories and what she has been telling herself about her first intimate relationship when she was a pre-teen.
What’s fascinating about this film is that the process that Jennifer goes through to remember and revisit her past trauma is similar to the process that people go through in psychoanalysis. We see how the mind of a young girl, who was seduced by two trusted and loved adults, created a version of reality that kept her in control of her own faith and protected her from the pain of sexual abuse – she believed that the man, who abused her was her first boyfriend. But as she begins to unravel the realities of what actually happened to her and as she goes through pictures and letters she wrote as a young girl, Jennifer realizes that she was subjected to the hurtful manipulation of her pedophile/coach Bill and his disturbed colleague, Mrs.G.
It is not uncommon for survivors of abuse to question their reality and their memories, to doubt their version of the experience and to struggle with trusting their own perception of what happened because of what the abusers have told them. In the film, Bill tells Jennifer that he is teaching her and that they are making love, while in fact he rapes her multiple times. In analysis, we work with the self-doubt, the shame and the unimaginable pain that the abuser caused the survivor. Dissociation and as we see in the movie, anxiety and panic attacks are also common reactions to the experience of sexual abuse.
Other consequences of sexual abuse especially in children manifest in physical symptoms such as enuresis, encopresis, headaches, stomach aches, etc. In “The Tale,” Jennifer’s body reacts to the experience and she throws up after each assault as well as one time right before she is supposed to go and meet Bill for another “lesson.” In psychoanalysis, we say that when something is out of language and unspoken, it re-emerges in the real or gets inscribed in what in neo-Lacanian psychoanalysis we call the “letters of the body.” That may be why many people, who have had a history of sexual assault or abuse, struggle with autoimmune disorders, chronic physical pain and unexplained medical problems. The work of the analyst in the analytic process is to “listen” to these “letters of the body” and to trace their origin to the original trauma.
Interestingly, some people experience the betrayal of trust and the violation of the relationship between them and their abuser as far bigger injury than the trauma itself, especially if the abuser is a family member or a trusted adult. There is also blame towards the other members of the family or other adults, who failed to notice or protect the child. These feelings are so conflicting and contradictory that people are left feeling confused, guilty, and self-loathing. They may blame themselves for what happened and may internalize and identify with aspects or parts of their abuser. Our job in analysis is to guide the person in making sense of what happened to them and renegotiate their relationships with people and the world in a way that allows them to move on into an esthetic or creative space, in which they are not bound by the desctruction if the trauma.
In that sense, “The Tale” is a wonderful accomplishment of the creative energy of the director Jennifer Fox and a beautiful yet hard-to-watch feat over the painful reality of her experience. In the movie, she confronts her abuser as an adult and exposes him in front of his current students and his wife. Even as a child, she “breaks up” with him despite his begging that she stay, which feels incredibly empowering to watch. In analysis, we strive for a similar resolution for the person working through their trauma – a regaining of control over their body and mind into an esthetic production of their subjectivity as human beings.