May 25

“The Tale”: Featuring Laura Dern

…does a better job than any film I can recall at exploring the malleability of memory, particularly in relationship to trauma, and the stories people tell themselves to avoid feeling victimized. Sara Stewart, New York Post, reviewing The Tale

Airing on HBO tomorrow night, The Tale is a drama based on documentarian Jennifer Foxs real-life experience of childhood sexual trauma.

David Ehrlich, Indiewire: “’The Tale’ opens with a destabilizing line of narration: ‘The story you are about to see is true…as far as I know.’ The voice belongs not to Fox, but — unmistakably — to Laura Dern, embodying her director with great sympathy and a crinkled hint of self-loathing.”

Viewers meet Jennifer, the lead character, decades after the abuse. She’s a journalist engaged to Martin (Common). It just happens that her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds an old essay (“The Tale”) written by her daughter way back when. Tomris Laffly, Time Out:

‘Something so beautiful’ is how Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse, heartbreakingly vulnerable) refers on the page to her double relationship with the frosty, angelic riding instructor ‘Mrs. G’ (Elizabeth Debicki, excellent and blood-curdling) and ex-Olympic athlete Bill (a boyishly trustworthy Jason Ritter, commendable for signing onto such a punishing part). But ‘beautiful’ isn’t the whole story: Over a summer spent on Mrs. G’s farm, the two adults lure Jenny into a sexual relationship, a manipulation the girl is too young to resist or even recognize as inappropriate. First told through brightly lit flashbacks that resemble heavenly postcards, The Tale deepens into something much darker as the grown-up Jennifer slowly pieces together the details of her past, chasing down interviews and asking the tough questions she couldn’t as a kid. (Be warned: Fox isn’t shy to show us rape scenes, necessary to her story and filmed with adult body-doubles.)

Watch the trailer:

Selected Thoughts from Reviewers

Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter: “Ultimately, where the film is truly challenging, and potentially controversial for some, is in the way it questions the nature of victimhood, and how young women, longing to feel loved and desired, and needing to assert agency for their actions, effectively collaborate in their own abuse and its covering-up.”

David Ehrlich, Indiewire: “An immense, brave, and genuinely earth-shaking self-portrait that explores sexual assault with a degree of nuance and humility often missing from the current discourse.”

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox: “In The Tale, Fox takes an experience that’s far, far too common — and newly visible in American culture — and mines it for its emotional heft, turning it into an interrogation of how those who’ve experienced assault and abuse go on to navigate their lives. It is a story of a woman taking her life back, nested in a film serving the same purpose.”

Jul 24

“Scared Selfless”: Therapist’s Childhood Trauma

I was raped and tortured and prostituted to countless men. I was used in child pornography. As a result of this abuse, I grew mentally disturbed and was in danger of a wasted existence. But I made a decision not to give into despair. I vowed that, no matter what, I was going to fight for a good, decent, normal life. The journey to that good life wasn’t easy. It was fraught with pain and self-doubt and self-loathing. But I persevered and eventually found the help and love I needed to be happy. Psychologist Michelle Stevens, from her memoir Scared Selfless (2017)

Michelle Stevens, PhD, is the author of Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving. Scared Selfless is based on her psychology dissertation, one that merited special distinction from her school, Saybrook University.

Stevens’s memoir presents a unique viewpoint: on the one hand, as a therapy client she’s addressed the severe mental health effects of her own horrific abuse; on the other, she’s now a therapist herself, able to offer her specialized expertise to clients who also have trauma histories.

In the brief video below, Stevens explains further:


Kirkus Reviews summarizes what happened to the author early in life:

Stevens was 8 years old when Gary Lundquist came into her life. A primary schoolteacher and toystore owner, his apparent interest was in the author’s impoverished, poorly educated mother. But shortly after the pair began dating, Lundquist declared his intention to develop a ‘special relationship’ with Stevens and took the child home with her mother’s consent. There, he began to ‘train’ her as a sex slave whom he also prostituted to other equally sadistic pedophiles. The abuse, which Stevens could not articulate to her mother, continued for six years.

The toll the trauma and forced silence took was enormous, with effects including PTSD, anxiety, depression and suicide attempts, and dissociative identity disorder.

“In the end,” adds Kirkus, “it was the empathetic, nonjudgmental kindness of a dedicated therapist—who later became Stevens’ professional role model—that saved her life and gave her the courage to begin the journey toward psychological health.”

Selected Reviews

Sara Corbett, co-author of A House in the Sky“Michelle Stevens has written a fierce, honest account of her life that will stay with any reader long after the last page has turned. This book does more to explain what it feels like to live with the effects of trauma than anything I’ve ever read. It’s the rare book that’s both personal and clinical. It should be a resource and an inspiration not just to survivors but to those who love and seek to understand them.”

Dave Pelzer, author of A Child Called “It”: “a riveting memoir that takes readers on a roller coaster ride from the depths of hell to triumphant success. Michelle’s extraordinary life story and diligent, compassionate work as a therapist teaches us that, with true-grit determination, it’s possible to overcome the worst adversity. Scared Selfless offers courage, strength, and resilience to anyone who desires a better life.”

Joe Navarro, Special Agent (Ret.) and author of Dangerous Personalities“…This is a story about the psychological legacy of abuse, the struggle to survive a troubled mind, the challenges of finding elusive help and about finally and triumphantly finding redemption through the most unapologetic example of personal grit I’ve ever read…”

Jan 16

“Pee-Shy”: A Memoir by Victim of Childhood Sex Abuse

Pee-Shy. We’ve heard the term—though not necessarily its clinical equivalent, paruresis.

The International Paruresis Association (IPA) provides the following info: “YOU ARE NOT ALONE. In fact, recent studies show that about seven percent (7%) of the public, or 21 million people, may suffer from this social anxiety disorder. Often referred to as Pee-Shy, Shy-Bladder, Bashful Bladder, etc., avoidant paruresis is nothing to be ashamed of, and you have made an important step simply by coming to this website.”

Indeed, go to the site and you’ll find various helpful resources.

Physician Frank Spinelli traces his own condition to his troubled and traumatic childhood. At the age of 11 Spinelli was molested by a Boy Scout leader, a guy who was also a respected cop in the community.

Below is a brief intro to his memoir, Pee-Shy, a book that began for him as a type of journalling therapy:

Publishers Weekly capsulizes the book in its review: “…(E)arly chapters document the daily life of a driven, lonely, extremely neurotic gay doctor in upscale Chelsea….Yet Spinelli remains very much the child of working-class Italian parents, and as he begins his quest, and falls in love with a fellow doctor, his prose gains depth and grows less mannered. Spinelli deftly portrays his years as a chubby, awkward adolescent and the complexity of his reaction to the molestation. Spinelli’s refreshing honesty as a protagonist make this memoir an important testament to a reality that is too often concealed by shame or fear.”

A synopsis and review by Angel Curtis (OutSmart) reveals further important details: “Once he told the truth about the abuse, every person in his life betrayed him—both the adults he trusted and the peers he depended on. This left him often depressed, sometimes distanced, and painfully pee-shy. After he had become a doctor living in Manhattan, Spinelli was told his abuser had died. Seeking closure, he went online to find the obituary. What he found was not only that his abuser was still alive, but that he had written a book detailing his adoption of 15 boys. Pee-Shy details Spinelli’s work to make sure his abuser was charged, convicted, and sent to prison. This is a beautiful story, well told, that I hope will give abuse victims some comfort that, even after many years, justice can still happen.”

Adds Adrian Brooks, Lambda Literary, about this important memoir: “It’s part therapy, part rescue mission, for, as he confronts his past, old guilts are exposed and his relationship with his partner undergoes strain as he faces his demons and grapples with his need to heal.”