Time flies! In February of this year, a breaking story emerged about a senior White House staffer who was struggling with a security clearance. The staff person was Rob Porter and his problem was that he had been accused of the physical abuse of his former wife, Jennifer Willoughby. Willoughby appeared in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. On February 23, we wrote that every American with a teenage child should have their child watch Willoughby tell her story in a way that was both elegant and chilling.
On August 8, I listened to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross as she interviewed Jennifer Fox. Jennifer Fox is a filmmaker of some note and she has just issued a semi-autobiographical movie documenting her own sexual abuse by a coach when she was thirteen years old. The movie called The Tale, is distributed through HBO. I cannot say that I have seen the movie, which even Ms. Fox notes it to be an amalgamation of her personal history with fiction. But the interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air is Fox talking about the experience of being seduced and having a sexual relationship with a prominent adult male before the onset of puberty. This all transpired while her doting parents took what seemed justifiable pride in their investment in a private athletic coach to advance their daughter’s athletic skills.
This story is not unique. As we are learning from the US Olympic Committee and more than a handful of college campuses, this kind of sexual grooming by a person “in authority” goes on all of the time. What is so important about Jennifer Fox’s interview is that she has the objectivity to evaluate what happened in 1973 from all sides. She considers what her parents might have seen but missed. She discusses what she thinks motivated a forty-year-old man to want a thirteen-year-old girl and that discussion is one not infected with rancor. It is as if she is describing an auto accident unfolding before her eyes. Most importantly, she probes deeply into how she fell prey to this relationship and negotiated her way out of it. You can tell from the interview that she has reviewed her teenage years with a jeweler’s eye and the result is something all of us should hear. Almost all teenagers feel powerless and quest for approval and recognition. That creates vulnerability. Adults in western societies tend to be youth obsessed. If you doubt that proposition, I commend you to look at the career of Brook Shields who played a twelve-year-old child prostitute in her 1978 major film debut or Jodi Foster who was 14 in 1976 when she played the same kind of role. Filmmaker Fox was in high school when those films were issued and she echoes a 2007 Mayo Clinic study, which observes that victims of childhood sexual abuse are often prone to inflict their trauma on the generation that follows them.
As with Jennifer Willoughby, Jennifer Fox has a story to tell that is highly instructive. It is all the more valuable because there is little if any time devoted to blame or retribution. I commend the interview because it is not fictional. I suggest that while it covers a sensitive subject, it does so in a real and unemotional way. If you are the parent of a child, you have already tried to teach your child to be wary of “known risks.” But we don’t like to consider sexual abuse a known risk. However, if you think that risk is remote, consider the fact that Larry Nassar practiced medicine for just over twenty-five years. At last count, two hundred and sixty-five women profess that the team doctor for USA Gymnastics abused them. How can that be? Listen to Terry Gross ask Jennifer Fox how and teach your children well.