The Tale searingly drives home the point that in any sexual assault case, the victim’s memory is their biggest obstacle — unreliable, repressed, and always on revision mode
Back in May, one of the country’s top news channels decided to jettison every pretence of ethics by airing CCTV footage connected to the sexual assault case brought against former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal by a colleague. The case is sub-judice, and yet the controversial footage was aired publicly for the first time, that too at prime time. The existence of such a recording had long been discussed in private.
According to Tejpal and his lawyers, the complainant’s statement — in which she accused him of raping her inside a lift of a five-star hotel in Goa — was fallacious because it didn’t seem to “match” the version of events captured in the footage.
Their argument hinged on a cruel technicality: The accused didn’t correctly remember the assault.
It’s impossible to ignore how frequently an assault victim’s own memory is used against him/her. It’s exploited to belittle not just their own testimony but also the imprint of the crime on the psyche, normalising the assumption that a victim’s memory should be a fail-safe alibi. Especially when an assault victim’s memory is the biggest obstacle — unreliable, repressed, and always on revision mode.
Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical The Tale — which can be streamed on Hotstar — goads introspection on this very aftermath of abuse. Headlined by an electric Laura Dern essaying the 48-year-old Fox, who’s forced to re-examine the wreckage of her past, the film is a searing portrait of sexual abuse and the excavation of memory.
Based on the director’s personal experiences, The Tale starts with a voiceover by Dern (as Fox) saying, “The story you are about to hear is true — as far as I know.” What seems initially like a harmless sentence is given a context-laden makeover of sinister proportions by the end of the film.
After returning from a work trip to India, Fox, a documentary filmmaker and professor, comes home to a barrage of frantic voicemails from her mother. While going through some documents at home, her mother had chanced upon a short story that Fox had written when she was barely 13, as part of a school assignment. Titled ‘The Tale’, the story highlighted a sexual encounter between a teenage Fox and a 40-something running coach named Bill when she spent a summer on a ranch with her riding instructor, Mrs G, who was Bill’s lover. In her story, Fox describes the encounter as a “beautiful experience”.
Her mother insists that Bill had raped the teen under the enabling eyes of Mrs G. This perplexed Fox, as she had always counted the incident as her first relationship, which happened to be with an older man, and not an abuse of power. Except, as we find out, that was hardly the case. Fox finds herself forced to delve deep and investigate the dark recesses of her memory.
Did she really enter into a consensual relationship with an older man or was it just a story she had designed to protect herself from the trauma?
With a heartbreaking sequence that is nothing short of a cinematic coup, the film paints a portrait of how unreliable an assault victim’s memory is. In her head, the 13-year-old Fox was a slender teen on the cusp of adulthood and the flashback scene fittingly shows her as an almost-grown woman. But a little later, she finds an old picture of herself and realises that the image in her head was from when she was 15. In reality, the 13-year-old Fox was a shy pre-pubescent child. Instantly, in the flashback, we see her shrinking and becoming a younger, and tinier, version of herself.
It’s a scene that evokes unbridled horror because it makes us acutely aware of the fact that Fox was just a child when she lost her virginity. We understand that there was no way she could have given consent to the sexual encounter and recognise that she was raped.
It’s telling how the audience is apprised of the abuse before the film’s lead is able to solve the puzzle, for, unlike us, she is in a constant battle with her repressed memories. Memories that have constantly unsettled her and, yet, not torn her apart because she had subconsciously locked them in her mind’s storage room with no key.
By emphasising how little Fox could trust her memory, The Tale forces us to discern that when someone is assaulted, so is their mind — blocking their own memories becomes not only their language, but also their instant cure. It reminds us that trauma and shock can last for years, nibbling away at one’s capability of accurate recollection.
But, most important, it makes us realise that confronting their own memory is a privilege not all victims can afford.
Poulomi Das is a film and pop-culture writer based in Mumbai