With the increasing number of newly released documentaries, it’s rare to stand out from the pack. Alongside City of Ghosts, Jane and Strong Island, Paige Tolmach’s What Haunts Us is nominated for the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking at this year’s Emmy awards. For the film, Tolmach dug into the history of her adolescence to tell the story of the pedophile teacher who had been allowed to torment boys for decades while teaching at a prominent high school. It wasn’t until a former student and victim brought the case to light (and the subsequent civil class holding high profile member of school staff responsible) that things truly began to change in Paige’s North Carolina hometown. But as she mentions in our interview, the Eddie Fischer case isn’t unlike many of the cases (Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nassar) in which failure to report caused horrible crimes to create a legacy of pain.
Lesley Coffin: The film feels especially timely right now, but how long was it in development?
Paige Tolmach: I probably started working on it seven years ago, completed it probably a year ago, so it’s been in my head for a long time. But I think I knew for a longer time period than that that I really wanted to make a film about this subject. I think it’s been in the back of my head almost since I left high school. But, I think, I thought for a long time that this wasn’t something I could or should bring to the rest of the world. But in 2006, I became a mom and when you become a mother for the first time you start to see the world in a completely different way. I realized as my son was growing that we’re taught so much about how to be a good parent. We take classes and read articles about the best bottles and car seats, what to feed them to keep them healthy. But we don’t really talk about keeping kids safe from predators. And I remembered really clearly, making dinner while my son was playing the backyard, and turned on the news and there was Jerry Sandusky. And it call came rushing back because Jerry Sandusky is a lot like Eddie Fischer. And in that second, I realized that as good a parent as I thought I was, I didn’t know how to talk about these issues with my own son. And I thought the only way to do that would be to truly try and unpack my past. So, that’s really when it all started.
Lesley Coffin: You talk about the fact that this became such a major issue in the town when all this came to light, but do you recall Eddie Fischer’s behavior being discussed in the town before law stepped in? Were people talking about it in whispers among each other?
Paige Tolmach: I don’t recall any parents telling their kids to stay away or warning them, but I think some parents were talking among themselves about him. But since the film’s release I’ve heard people saying, “I remember my dad telling me not to go near him” or their mom saying, “Never be alone with him.” And I’m just struck that so many people seemed to know, but because they weren’t vocalizing their concerns publicly, other parents didn’t realize and other kids weren’t being warned. What we know about Eddie Fischer is, he went into the homes of these children and made friends with their parents to gain their trust. That wasn’t my family’s relationship with him, but what I recall is, a lot of jokes about him telling kids to drop their drawers. No matter the illness or injury, he’d tell kids to drop their drawers. And I knew at the time it was kind of weird and kind of funny. But we didn’t know what it meant. But the adults heard about that and they certainly should have said or done something about it. And they didn’t, because the institution was more important than the individual. And that’s what we keep seeing, over and over again.
Lesley Coffin: One of the really interesting aspects of the film is the fact that Guerry Glover’s family, middle-class farmers, weren’t like a lot of families whose sons were hurt by Eddie Fischer. Did Garry discuss how Eddie Fischer first came in contact with his family?
Paige Tolmach: It was interesting that he hurt so many sons of powerful men but the ones who brought him down was the son of a farmer. But Guerry was a little bit of a unique case. The abuse started younger with Guerry than most boys. He’d become friends with the family and offered his sister rides home from cheerleading in order to be close to Guerry, who was just nine years old the first time it happened. He told me about the first time it happened, upstairs in his own bedroom while his parents were downstairs. And I asked why he didn’t run downstairs and tell them right away. And he said, “Paige, I didn’t even have the words.” And that was so interesting and it just broke my heart. He didn’t understand what was happening, and Eddie Fischer kept saying, “This is what I do with boys who are special” and “This is something secret, don’t tell your parents.” He was nine years old and didn’t even know about sex yet. So, he didn’t tell when it started, so it keeps happening, and then it’s just a cycle that lasted for years.
Lesley Coffin: We now have the #MeToo movement, which has done so much good, there is a new debate about how to encourage men to reach out the way we now so vocally encourage women. In you experience talking with male survivors, do you feel there is a lack of public, vocal support or community outreach?
Paige Tolmach: Absolutely. I think boys often feel an added layer, or different kind, of shame. They’re in the middle, understanding their sexuality and what masculinity even means. And boys who have a male perpetrator, presented as a role model to them, there is that added layer of confusion. And I really don’t think there’s enough of a community for boys and men who’ve been victims of abuse. And that’s just not fair, because we should be all in it together.
Lesley Coffin: When you first started working on the documentary, how open were people to you? Did you still hear people talking about the need to keep private lives private?
Paige Tolmach: Oh, most people didn’t seem to want to talk about it. And to this day, I still get emails from people on Facebook or email or a message at my home, they would angrily say, “Shame on me.” And when I first started researching this, people seemed especially angry that I was making it, saying “How dare you?” and “It’s not your story to tell.” Someone spit in my face. One person said, “If more men die, there blood is on your hands.” People seem to think that I’m causing more pain and we shouldn’t keep bringing this sad chapter back up, we need to be done with this. People just don’t want to talk about it, even though the film has started these vital conversations and a lot of people have reached out to say thank you for sharing more stories.
I will say though, my very first call was to Guerry and I said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I want you know that I think what you did was heroic. You are a hero to me, I hope my son grows up to be someone like you. I want to make a documentary about what happened, but I will not do it if my doing it will hurt you more. You’ve been through too much for me to do that.” And he said, “I haven’t heard I’m a hero from most people, so go with God and make your film and I will be here for you.” And that’s when I knew I could do it and had to do it. But it was a long struggle, it took six years because so many people just didn’t want to talk. They wouldn’t return emails. They’d just hang up the phone.
Lesley Coffin: There is a point where you are unpacking a box of material that was sent to you, containing information and testimony from the case. Do you know where that box came from?
Paige Tolmach: I do. One of the survivors, a man I spoke with but didn’t want to be interviewed or be on camera, would talk to me sporadically on the phone, but said “I saved all these artifacts from the case, do you want them?” And he sent them to me and I just went through everything. And included in the box were these tapes of men, younger than they are now of course, talking about their experiences. Apparently, there had been an idea previously to go ahead and make a narrative film and do interviews at that time. And I just couldn’t stop crying. Every time I saw their faces and heard their stories, I saw my little boy’s face.
Lesley Coffin: Did they talk about how their family reacted to learning what happened?
Paige Tolmach: Some did. People have asked me a lot what seems to be the difference between the people who have survived and those who don’t. And there have been a number of suicides, two men died as I was making the movie. I don’t know the answer to that, but what I saw was a supportive family was a major factor. Certain families rallied around their children, listen to what happened and helped them get through the trauma. And in most cases, those were the men who survived. Not to say that the men who died didn’t have supportive families and some of the survivors said their families just weren’t there for them or were angry that they came forward. The notion of a family blaming their son for what happened is nauseating. But we know that for the most part, most survivors do better when they have families to support them through the trauma.
Lesley Coffin: I know you were unable to get school board and faculty members to speak on camera for the most part, but you have a couple of teachers who talked about knowing something was wrong. In retrospect, do you think more people from within the school should have been held accountable in the civil case for failing to report?
Paige Tolmach: Absolutely. I think that child sex abuse only stops when we take a bottom-up approach. We need to talk to children about how to protect themselves from predators, but we also have to go after the people in power protecting the predators and lowing them to thrive. I do believe teachers, administrators and faculty, need to all be held accountable. Those who knew and didn’t say anything are the reason this went on for so long. Look at all the cases where we know people knew and they just let it keep happening or didn’t say anything publicly to warn people. And we all need to stand up and say something, otherwise we’re all to blame. That’s the idea of the film. If we all have a hand in the horrible things that happen, we can all have a hand in making things better.
Lesley Coffin: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about one of the artistic decisions you made. Where did the idea to include animation come from and what was the intention of including those vignettes?
Paige Tolmach: I’m not really a fan of recreations. There are times when it’s done brilliantly, but I knew I wouldn’t use it. But I wanted to make a movie that people could sit through. The subject is so dark but are often hard to sit through. I decided I wanted to show moments of memory that were beautiful and made the film a little easier to watch. A friend of mine, David Guggenheim made this beautiful film, He Named Me Malala, and used this beautiful animation. And I asked who did that animation and he introduced me to David Navas in Spain and he did that animation for our film. I think having something on screen that is beautiful, even though people are talking about something horrible, makes the film more palatable. And David’s work was so beautiful and brought the story to life.
© Lesley Coffin (8/22/18) FF2 Media
Read FF2 Media’s review of What Haunts Us.
Photos: What Haunts Us
Photo credits: © 2018 Tolmach Productions