“I’d like to begin this story by telling you something so beautiful,” young Jenny writes as she begins her tale. Older Jennifer imagines herself walking through her zoo-like childhood home of screaming children and her clueless parents. She is tall with perfect hair, older, and confident. Her memory comes after hearing a message from her mother, reminding her of this tale she wrote in high school; her mother is concerned, but Jennifer is not. As she tells her boyfriend in bed, “I hadn’t told her he was older so she’s beside herself.” In her mind, there is nothing to worry about.
This is just the first memory Jennifer misconstrued of her time as a child. The tale weaves throughout her memory, interrogating the past, not just investigating it. She talks directly to younger versions of her mentor, Mrs. G., or her coach, Bill. Jennifer speaks to the other girls she trained with the original summer. She even interviews herself. Details of her age, who said what, how something happened, and the setting in which something occurred evolves as she learns of her inaccuracies of the events. The truth is hard to find in memory and regardless of the exact facts, regardless of how things might have changed through Jennifer’s perception across time, Jennifer’s tale is true.
Jennifer is a documentarian, working on a major new project while also being a teacher. In one classroom scene, Jennifer emphasizes the importance of observing body language by interviewing one of her students on stage. Her class asks the student questions and Jennifer asks him if he believes his own answers, to which he responds in the negative. “So how do we go beyond what the person is telling us?” Jennifer must do the same to herself as she unwinds the tale Jenny created.
Following this scene, Jennifer remembers the end of her summer with Bill and Mrs. G. Before Jenny leaves, her coach and trainer tell Jenny ‘the truth”’ by roping her in on their infidelity. Jenny wonders how they knew Jenny could keep their secret. All the other girls would tell, she says. The obvious truth is their predatory nature knew her vulnerability. In Jenny’s mind’s eye, it is romantic. Through the lens of a child, she sees a forbidden love; a love out of a story, out of fiction.
The loneliness of being unable to make new friends draws her closer to the people who prey on her. Jennifer thought her father picked her up from school in the fall to take her to Mrs. G.’s ranch, but it melts into the realization that it was actually Mrs. G. picking her up instead. She remembers Bill picking her up from her house one evening, but all of the details were wrong. Bill accidentally kisses Jenny in front of her grandmother, but maybe that didn’t actually happen. Jenny encourages her to refrain from telling the truth to her family or to herself. She spins the truth how her abusers want her to believe it. It becomes so unclear, Jennifer doesn’t recognize herself. She can’t remember her reasons. Jenny yells at Jennifer, “Let me live!” exactly like a child’s temper tantrum. Jenny is convinced, convinced, Bill and Mrs. G. are right and everyone is wrong. But Jennifer only just begins to question this for the first time at age forty-seven.
Jenny is the memory of a little girl explaining away why she feels sick with Bill. He asks her, “Do you want to take your shirt off?” He tells her, “No one else would ever do this for you?” He implants into her, “Pain is good.” He nods and she says yes. He says not to tell Mrs. G., even though they promised they would always be truthful. And when Jennifer’s boyfriend discovers the letters for himself, trying to make her see reality, she cannot accept it. “I am not a victim!” She cannot justify it, but she cannot explain away the trauma.
The more she learns about Bill’s life (by hiring a P.I.) and learns about others, she cannot repress this truth her abusers tried to make her ignore. Memories of Iris, another girl Bill and Mrs. G. used, rush back. Jennifer confronts Mrs. G. in her home when she begins to realize for the first time the full scope. “I loved you and Bill so much,” she confessed to a dismissive Mrs. G. She pushes her, “You must have known… I need to talk to someone who was there.” But Mrs. G. couldn’t admit the truth any more than Jennifer could.
The truth of what she experienced comes slowly throughout the movie. The epiphany doesn’t strike her after a big, melodramatic scene. The film builds to this moment, even before she encounters Bill as he really is, among the families and socialites he has also managed to charm. Jennifer interviews another student who discusses her first sexual encounter. Jennifer realizes how healthy and beautiful this woman’s story was and understood she didn’t have that with Bill. She goes back to her documentary footage of women abused as kids. Hearing these women recount their experiences of their sexual awakening, she empathizes with these women rather than her joyous college student.
The ultimate question Jennifer is looking to answer is why she never said anything. “I’m not the victim of this story,” Jenny tells Jennifer. “I’m the hero. He fell apart without me.” It’s beautiful how Jennifer tells her story. She depicts the tragedy with grace. Every new piece of information changes the context of her whole narrative. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but it’s powerful and never exploitative. It’s questioning, but not vengeful. It’s painful, but not angry. Characters don’t yell at each other. They don’t fight and scream in pain. Jennifer, in her confusion, finds solace in reflecting in her emotions and memories. There is no sense of pity. She accepts what happened, and now Jennifer must push forward. Was it traumatic for her? Was it sad? Those aren’t the questions she was looking to ask in her tale. What’s important in her tale is that it was told for us to bear witness in her memories. Regardless of the details, what she tells is true.
(You can watch The Tale on HBOGo, HBONow, or any other HBO subscription channel.)