The Imprecise Truth and The Flawed Memory: Martyrdom and Abuse in The Tale (2018) and National Treasure (2016)
I recently watched HBO’s The Tale (2018), a searing semi autobiographical film based on writer, director and producer Jennifer Fox’s experience with sexual abuse. It is a profoundly personal look at a subject that is as intimate as it is sadly pervasive, but it treads that delicate line without romanticizing or trivializing its point for cinematic effect. The story oscillates between the adult Jennifer who has seemingly forgotten about the abuse — or does she simply remember it wrong? —, and the thirteen year-old Jennifer who is infatuated with her running coach Bill and her elegant riding instructor Jane (or “Mrs. G”, as she affectionately dubs her).
Throughout, I was being strongly reminded of something else, but I could not put my finger on it until long after I finished the film: and then it struck me. It was something similar I had watched two years previously, namely the hypnotic first season of Channel 4’s National Treasure (2016).
In it, legendary comedian Paul Finchley is accused of rape by his adult daughter’s former babysitter, and soon, many others come out of the woodworks with similar allegations. This, naturally, casts his beloved legacy in a decidedly less generous light. It also slowly shatters his tremulous family dynamic, and unearths long-held suspicions and unsaid tensions therein — even as Paul vehemently denies the accusations.
At a first glance, both works are night and day: National Treasure details the downfall of a powerful figure, and while it dips into the points of view of Paul’s entourage (his troubled daughter, his wife Marie, his longtime friend and comedy partner Karl), the floor is his, so to speak, and we are made to see how it all unfolds through his eyes — something that soon gets tricky, because as we’ll see below, Paul is an extremely unreliable character.
The Tale, on the other hand, chooses to tell the story through the survivor’s point of view, namely the two (young and adult) Jennifers. Her mentors Bill and Jane are seen through her eyes (again, this will soon become a problem); the audience never truly gets insight into the couple’s thoughts and feelings, and what little we guess is not exactly reassuring.
But in truth, both works are merely two sides of the same coin. They are a terrifying exploration of the ways charismatic people — Bill, in one case, Paul in the other — blur the notions of boundaries and appropriateness. The abuse of power is synonymous with the lack of acknowledgment and accountability, and affects the same target group. The accusers who come forth in National Treasure were barely teenagers when it happened; in The Tale, the adult Jennifer learns that there may have been many more victims roped in by Jane and Bill’s seduction.
In addition to being complementary, both can also be seen as the Before and After in the thorny process of bringing accused rapists to justice: National Treasure explores the initial accusations and how it ricochets off on those concerned, including those who may have been complicit through silence and complacency. The miniseries is fantastically uncanny, in that it could have predicted the Weinstein scandal, word for word, from the way Paul’s accusations shatter the elite acting community he’s been part of all his life, to the way the media viciously demonizes the victims.
The Tale, on the other hand, is what happens when hurt children grow into adults who dedicate their lives to preventing injustice and alienation. Jennifer makes documentaries focused on women from around the world who discuss their sexualities, their careers, their families, their wants and desires — things a seemingly happy Jennifer doesn’t know she’s been processing in a dysfunctional manner.
This is because initially, as far as she’s concerned, she has never been abused.
And it is this vagueness regarding fact and fiction, more than anything, that makes National Treasure and The Tale so strikingly, hauntingly similar.
National Treasure, at face value, is a straightforward account: a man is accused of the worst kind of crime, repercussions ensue. It is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to Paul Finchley’s fall from grace, because we’ve been exposed to so many similar examples in real life: Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Jimmy Savile (who was, in part, the inspiration behind the series).
But the show doesn’t let us off so easily. As previously mentioned, this is Paul Finchley’s story, told mostly through his point of view, and not only does he vehemently claim his innocence, he claims he doesn’t remember anything at all. Throughout the four episodes, Paul's guilt or lack thereof is consistently, agonizingly put in question. His lapses in memory and refusal of accountability can be explained by the fact that he is either in absolute, utter denial, or the fact that he's being unfairly accused of something he didn’t do.
Paul isn’t an aging action star or a dramatic actor: he is a comedian, and that is not a coincidence. The series makes sure to play into that affability, to play into his tendency to crack lighthearted jokes even as his life is falling apart around him. It makes us sympathetic toward him, we can’t help it. He is gentle with his supportive wife, even as she starts to withdraw from him, and he is gentle with his daughter, even as she openly throws her scorn and suspicion in his face.
But this very gentleness, if this is all an act, also carries creepy, almost predatory undertones. He has not been a perfect human being in other areas of his life, as I’ll detail later: to the point where National Treasure is almost not about whether he sexually assaulted the women who have come forward (although this is of extreme importance, of course).
It becomes about his attitude in general, and about what he chooses to remember or not. It is about what he lets us, the audience, see through his eyes, and the parts he opts to shut out. It is like reading excerpts of a diary, getting half profound glimpses into a half complete portrait of a man.
Thus, throughout the show, most of his actions acquire double meanings and parallel interpretations, depending on where one stands: and I, for one, flip-flopped between thinking that
a- he was a shitty but innocent man who was finally getting karmic justice for his youthful mistakes,
b- a downright sexual predator who was rightfully being put under the microscope.
In other words: is Paul Finchley a sociopath, or is he a potentially guilty, bumbling old man who is happy to stay vague about the things he’s done?
While National Treasure leans into Paul’s status as the nation’s sweetheart, The Tale, as the title suggests, takes a look at the stories we tell ourselves, and how they can generate a lifelong narrative that is as complex as it can be damaging. And while it seems to point to Jennifer’s efforts to untangle what happened to her, the “tale” in question could also refer to coach Bill and Jane, and the attempts they make at reconciling their conscience with what they've done.
The story is prompted by Jennifer’s mother Nettie finding a story her daughter wrote when she was thirteen years old. Nettie is horrified by the content, which suggests that Jennifer suffered abuse at the hands of Bill (facilitated by Jane, who groomed her). But when she contacts Jennifer, Nettie is stunned to find that her adult daughter remembers the incident completely differently, and in fact has never once thought she was abused. She remembers being cocooned by Bill and Jane’s friendship, and being flattered by their desire to “educate” her in the ways of the world.
National Treasure puts Paul’s guilt in question, making us work hard to figure out who is lying, and who is telling the truth. The Tale, on the other hand, puts the guilt front and center. If we follow her story’s logic, we know that something inappropriate happened. What we don’t know is how inappropriate it was, because Jennifer, just like Paul, is an unreliable character.
Jennifer insists the story is just that: a story. But the more she reads, the more she is slowly reminded of things she had apparently completely forgotten: is this a traumatized woman who has blocked out her painful past? Is this a woman in denial who has rationalized her experiences, then compartmentalized them completely? Is this a woman whose memories are being influenced and rewritten by a story she penned as a child, a story she barely recalls?
On some level, we commiserate with Jennifer, follow along with her as she tries to unravel the mystery. But on another level, we stand apart, observing her with sympathy, because she is obviously someone who wants to hold onto the notion that she is fine, even when it’s clear that she is not. We can’t help but agree with her outraged mother, who doesn’t understand why she doesn't see what we all see, why she won’t come to terms with the abuse.
But can we blame Jennifer? How would most of us react to realizing, very belatedly, that something life-changing had happened to us? A instinctual reaction of denial, or an effort to sweep it under the rug wouldn’t be out of the question.
What is more, most of Jennifer’s dismissal of the gravity of her situation is distinct from a reaction of horror: a part of her genuinely believes that she was in a consensual relationship with Bill (nevermind that sex with an underage girl is never, by definition, consensual), and she frequently waves off the violated boundaries when they are mentioned, with a placating “it was a different time”.
As a child, she was often referred to as precocious, and while this is obviously a grooming tactic used by Bill and Jane, it is true that she was a genuinely bright child. She was also lonely, came from a too-big family, and Bill and Jane became surrogate parents/siblings. It is almost (almost) easy to see how one would internalize this and believe that they were in control.
National Treasure and The Tale, as such, explore the line between truth and fiction, and between suggestibility and objectivity: what differentiates lies from delusions, beliefs from facts, and where does memory fit in all that?
This question doesn’t only apply to Paul and Jennifer, because indeed, while it’s more or less understandable why they wouldn’t be forthright (Paul has a reputation to salvage, Jennifer is scared to open the can of worms), their respective entourages also go through the strange motions of fuzzy remembrances and ambiguous recollections.
Paul’s daughter Dee is a recovering addict whose emotional turmoil has been well documented in the press. Her relationship with her mother is strained, and although she loves her father, theirs is an obviously loaded affair. When the accusations directed at Paul surface, her shaky composure is shattered: she is flooded by recollections she isn’t sure how to deal with.
She starts remembering, for example, the night in question when her former babysitter was assaulted by her father. She starts remembering that he may have assaulted her too, and may have cheated on her mother more than once. But are her memories reliable? She is described as a consummate liar, and her life has indeed been upended by addiction: perhaps she is impressionable, fueled by the rancor for her parents, but she could just as well be telling the truth.
Similarly, Paul’s wife Marie has dutifully stood by him for years, through his celebrity and his multiple affairs, and she chooses to stand with him now, as he is put under the worst kind of microscope. But even her faith starts to crumble eventually. As the details of his infidelities surface, and as she starts to get the full scope of the lying, cheating, disrespectful man who has made a fool out of her for decades, she seemingly stops caring about whether or not he is also guilty of rape.
She searches her own memories, puts her own convictions to the test and finds that they don’t hold as well as they used to; and the more she doubts his timelines and alibis, the less she confides her doubts to him. Interestingly, at the beginning of the series, she and her daughter Dee stand at diametrically opposed poles: by the end of it, they have switched, with Dee seemingly choosing to believe while Marie has lost all faith.
Perhaps the most ambiguous character in National Treasure is Karl, Paul’s longtime collaborator and best friend. He is the Laurel to Paul’s Hardy, a wingman and a yes-man who stands by him and publicly defends him. Karl’s character is problematic in many ways: if Paul is guilty, Karl has provided with him many alibis throughout the years, and is just as complicit as he is. If Paul is innocent, Karl is still problematic, because he has enabled his philandering ways over time, and has taken part in much of his awful “locker room talk”. But despite this, the audience is never truly sure how much Karl believes Paul, nor how much he even likes him, and this is chilling, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.
The Tale portrays unreliable characters slightly differently. Here, they are not trying to save face, but rather, trying to settle the difference between opinion and fact.
Throughout the film, Jennifer and her mother Nettie wrangle often, about details that seem minor, but mean a lot depending on how they are interpreted. Jennifer remembers writing the “story” when she was around fifteen, a confident and beautiful teenager. But her mother quickly corrects her: Jennifer was closer to thirteen, and was mousy, furtive. This completely changes the way she is portrayed on screen, and shifts the narrative that the adult Jennifer is trying to cling to: she was indeed taken advantage of, as she was only a little girl. This is corroborated by two people Jennifer interviews, who were also students of Bill and Jane at the same time as her.
Another element they argue over: at one point, after one of their “dates”, Bill drops young Jennifer off at her doorstep, and he kisses her. Jennifer’s grandmother witnesses this shocking act, and she angrily threatens to tell Jennifer’s mother. But when the adult Jennifer mentions this, Nettie is gobsmacked. She swears her own mother never mentioned the kiss, or she would have done something about it; Jennifer does not believe her, suggesting instead that Nettie is choosing not to remember, because she’s ashamed that she didn’t protect her daughter. They agree to disagree, and we the audience are left with a hovering question we might never get an answer to.
The power of selective memory and blind spots is further highlighted by another detail: Jennifer remembers there being three of them during that summer with Bill and Jane, but one of her old friends points out that there was a fourth girl, a girl Jennifer has seemingly entirely erased from her mind, although she was pivotal at the time, and was also abused. Why has she forgotten her?
Better yet: in Jennifer’s memories, Jane is charming, tall, exquisite. But when she sees her again as an adult, Jennifer is stunned by the frail and taciturn old woman before her. Have the years simply been unkind to Jane? Or has Jennifer embellished the woman in her mind, an evidence of her misguided affection for her? Perhaps Jane was always this cold and distant, and she had never noticed. Or perhaps Jane is distant now, because she doesn’t want to get into the fact that she had a big hand in facilitating Bill’s criminal behavior. Again, we might never know.
Even Bill, whom Jennifer confronts at the end, seems to suffer from the “faulty memory” curse: he is now an acclaimed staple in the sports world, celebrated for an impressive Olympic career. Jennifer is able to track him down, and when she crashes a party given in his honor, he welcomes her vaguely, as if he cannot fully place her. There is a heart-stopping, sliver of a second, where one is almost tempted to ask: has this all been a fabrication in Jennifer’s head? Does Bill not remember because none of this happened? But when she starts exposing what he did to her, and his composure crumbles, revealing the vicious, frightened man underneath, the answer is, at last, made crystal clear.
The most terrifying aspects of The Tale and National Treasure is not the sexual assaults at the nucleus of their respective stories. Those are heart-wrenching, depressing, intolerable, even.
Rather, it’s the idea that it is strikingly easy for perception to become reality: it’s easy for trauma victims to internalize their suffering, and convince themselves that they are at fault, because they can’t totally remember the details of their abuse. It’s easy for perpetrators of causal sexism or outright violation to exculpate themselves, because they turn a blind eye to the shameful things they've done. It’s the idea that we are willing to accept terrible things, for ourselves and for others, either because of what we think is deserved, or because it’s what our subjective, faulty impressions have convinced us to accept.
Although she has led a successful life, and an apparently normal adulthood, a closer look at Jennifer reveals the small cracks in the facade: on a primal, profound level, she knows that something happened to her, even if she hasn’t voiced it for years, even if she has convinced herself that Bill and Jane’s intent was harmless. Her exasperation at her mother when she initially brings the story up is telling. She is in no hurry to discuss the subject. When her loving boyfriend reacts in shock and fear, upon finding the story, she descends into the kind of rage usually displayed by cornered, frightened people, and she nearly breaks up with him.
She did not tell her parents when she was a child, has clearly never confided in other boyfriends, and at a young age, explicitly stated her desire to never have children or a family. None of this is accidental.
It has also affected her life in seemingly unconnected ways: Nettie, at one point, mentions that as a teenager, Jennifer was very promiscuous. Jennifer insists she was merely exploring her wants and desires, but it’s not unheard of for abuse victims to act out sexually afterward. The fact that Jennifer chose to make documentaries for a living proves her subconscious thirst for fact-finding and exposing people’s vulnerabilities.
In the case of Paul, it his loving public who has opened doors for him, and it is his untouchable status that has given him free rein to maim others.
One of the police officers handling Paul’s case asks him, at one point, as they are discussing the media frenzy because of his status as an entertainment icon: “how can you be loved, and still want to hurt women?”. Paul is absolutely floored by the question, but we, the audience, have seen enough to be disgusted by his tragic lack of self-awareness. Through flashbacks, we witness him being inappropriate with waitresses and looking the other way when his friends do similarly damaging things; we see his wife slowly fall apart as he desecrates their wedding vows, see his daughter overdose and end up in the hospital.
Just as the show seems to finally teeter on his innocence, and his trial exonerates him of all charges, in a horrific plot twist, it is revealed, through flashbacks, that Paul was guilty all along, and he knows it. He cries as his verdict is announced, seemingly out of relief, but these are either crocodile tears — happiness at being freed — or tears of a guilty conscience. Worse yet, Karl knows that he raped one of his accusers, having overheard the attack as it was happening, all those years ago. Marie, who now doubts everything, has become positively disgusted by her husband, and even his daughter Dee isn’t sure she was right to defend him after all.
The show ends as Paul and his entourage celebrate the outcome of the trial, but this is a bleak victory indeed. Marie, who has participated in the smear campaign against the accusers in support of her husband, literally vanishes from the party, and we the audience are left wondering if she will come back, and if so, whether she’ll divorce him down the road. Karl, who has committed perjury in court to defend Paul, and who has recently started an affair with Marie, will most likely desert him also, if his conscience allows him to keep his mouth shut. It is also more than likely that Dee, who has shoved her suspicions aside to be a supportive daughter, was abused by her father, since we now know him to be a rapist.
Most of all, Paul, the affable old man who has claimed his innocence all along, has gotten away with the worst crime, and is revealed to be a monster. Whether he is truly sorry for his crimes is a mystery, but his victims, sadly, will never have that justice.
The lie wins, in National Treasure, while the deafening truth is eviscerated, and one cannot help but wonder whether Paul would have known the same outcome had his own demeanor been less ambiguous: or did his celebrity status always destine him for protection?
In The Tale, the truth, however thorny and bendable, triumphs in the end, as Jennifer takes back her narrative and looks the ugly situation right in the face. Would we have given her the same level of faith had she been the one accused of a crime, rather than the victim of it?
What is clear is that despite the clarity they seemingly offer, truth and lies are never that simple, and become decidedly less so, once the notion of boundaries is involved, and once more voices join the fray. The two are thrilling examples of how often these notions, tragically, play out on smaller levels, in everyday interactions, bringing us no closer to an steady absolute.