This week marks the ninth annual Charleston Film Festival at Terrace Theatre. While there will be local premieres of notable films like the Bob Dylan documentary Trouble No More, the Oscar nominated animated feature The Breadwinner, and a block of Oscar shorts, the Charleston premiere of Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s documentary, What Haunts Us, is the film piquing the most curiosity.
What Haunts Us recounts Porter-Gaud’s 1970s child sex abuse scandal that received national attention in the late ’90s when former PE teacher Eddie Fischer was sent to prison for 20 years on 13 sexual abuse charges. While the convicted pedophile would later confess to molesting 39 boys, Tolmach’s film focuses more on the suffocating silence left in the scandal’s wake. A South Carolina grand jury found the private school and two former administrators — principal James Bishop Alexander and headmaster Berkeley Grimball — responsible in the sexual abuse case. According to Post & Courier‘s 2004 report, “the school had been warned repeatedly and had done nothing to stop Fischer. Instead, school officials helped him get jobs at other schools where more children were harmed.” Even after Fischer had been dismissed from Porter-Gaud, in 1986 principal Alexander filled out a positive recommendation for him to teach at James Island High School.
In 2004, seven years after the first victim went public, 31 victims reached an agreement with the private school and settled for $10 million. But the damage was already done. The silence, secrecy, and resulting suicide of six 1979 Porter-Gaud grads has left a scar on the school. Recently Porter-Gaud’s Head Of School, D. DuBose Egleston, Jr., penned a letter voicing regrets, encouraging students and alumni to view the film, and noting the strides made to foster a safer school environment.
“This is a difficult and painful part of our past and it’s affected people in various way. It’s not something that goes away,” says Egleston. “It affects generations. And it’s a story we have to own.” While the school opted to not participate in the documentary, Egleston says it is committed to supporting What Haunts Us and its resulting discussion. “It’s an important dialogue and the film, in a lot of cases, tells the story of how not to handle this. Here’s all the things that went wrong. It’s a cautionary tale.”
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Tolmach, a Porter-Gaud alum herself, recounts a six year journey that has led to numerous awards and, what she hopes for most, a dialogue about the silence that usually surrounds sexual abuse of children.
City Paper: First off, will you be at the local premiere?
Page Goldberg Tolmach: I am. I’m very excited. Can’t wait to get there … I’m a Charlestonian. I lived in L.A. for the past 20-something years but I’m from Charleston, my whole family is from there.
CP: When I’ve mentioned the documentary to lifelong residents they’ve had their own story.
PT: The story is trying to reach anyone on the planet. I’ve done a lot of traveling and you can tell people want to talk. Any time you mention this topic, every single person has a story about their school. It’s extraordinary. It’s a widespread topic which is why I had to make this movie because it’s a cautionary tale for parents everywhere
CP: You went to Porter-Gaud right?
PT: I was there in fourth grade until I graduated in June of ’86… I loved my school. I love Porter-Gaud. I loved high school and I know it’s a weird thing to say but I did. Then I went on to college and loved that too. I had a good experience at that school. I think what was so extraordinary was that we went to school surrounded by all this utter crazy, horrible stuff that was going on around and not really knowing it because we were kids. And I think that’s what struck me so much. As I got older and started having my professional career and then Guerry Glover [a victim of Eddie Fischer] came out and sued Porter-Gaud over Eddie Fischer, and then covering it up and all that stuff, we all knew about this. When Gary came forward, we read about it in the papers but we never really talked about it much more than that. We didn’t even know Gary. Gary was older than I am. I remember him as such a nice kid and how horrible was that? And then we went on with our lives.
Then I became a mom. When I became a mother in 2006 I was kind of struck with the fact that I was taught all these things that moms are taught to do. You learn which car seat to use. You learn the food you give your kid and you learn how they sleep at night, which baby bottles to use and stuff like that but no one ever talks to you about keeping your child safe from predators. One day when I was making dinner, my little son was playing in the backyard and my husband was coming home from work and I was thinking, “Oh, I’m going to turn on the news really fast and see what’s going on.” And there was a picture of Jerry Sandusky on the news. I am telling you he looked a lot like Eddie Fischer to me and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh my god I don’t know how to protect my kids.” And I got really, really, really scared. I started to think, from that moment forward, “What the hell happened at my school?” How do I not really understand what happened and how it was allowed to happen?
I knew I wanted to protect my child. And the only way to be able to do that was to sort of go back into the past and understand really what went down at Porter-Gaud to make sure I could understand how it happened, then to make sure it wasn’t going to happen again now in my life. What I discovered was extraordinary. I didn’t know almost any of what I learned. And I thought I should make a film about it because I thought that people in Charleston and the world really should know the truth in order to be able to protect our children.
CP: You mentioned discoveries. What do you feel you discovered through this?
PT: I didn’t realize how many victims there were. I didn’t realize how many suicides had happened at Porter-Gaud — boys who grew into men who then committed suicide. I knew people who committed suicide but I didn’t know why they committed suicide. Now I understand it. I never realized how much people knew about what was going on and how the school had allowed Eddie Fisher to resign. They allowed him to resign and let him go on to another school with glowing recommendations. It broke my heart. I love my school. I’m a mother who loves her child. The notion that we send our children to school every day with the knowledge that they will be protected is a pretty sacred thing and the notion that people were not protecting us or not protecting the children in their care because the institution was more important than the individual was nauseating to me as a mother, as a friend, as a former student. I wanted to have a hand in making sure that parents were aware of that. They need to be involved and you do the squeaky wheel at their schools. They need to stand up for their children because I feel like we’re the only ones who advocate for our kids. It doesn’t seem like anyone else is really doing it. So it’s up to us to always have our eyes open, ears open, and keep our mouths open, too
CP: Were you able to talk to anyone from Porter-Gaud for the film?
PT: I talked to tons of people from Porter-Gaud. Most of them could not be on film but they gave me a tremendous amount of information. I actually went to the school before I started filming and said, “Would they be in this film with me?” They chose not to. In fact I thought the film would be a really different. I went with the idea that I would go to Porter-Gaud to make a film together on how to protect children now. This happened in our past. Let’s acknowledge it and talk about how we protect our children now. How it’s not going to happen again. But they didn’t want to be in it. I was naive. It surprised me and I thought, “Oh my god I don’t know what this movie is going to be now. I just kept moving forward doing research and then that becomes part of the story like the fact that they don’t want to talk to me. That means they’re still not talking about it. So that’s the story. I had no idea going into this film that the narrative ended up being part of the narrative. Silence is a character in this film. And that’s why I realized how important it was to tell it because enough is enough. We need to talk about this. I wanted to make the film to start the conversation about childhood sexual abuse. The reason it keeps happening every single day. It’s happening as you and I are having this conversation because we don’t talk about it as parents or educators. As people we don’t talk about it and it’s probably because we don’t know how.
CP: Were you frustrated when Porter-Gaud declined? How did you feel when that initially happened?
PT: I wasn’t frustrated. Again, I think I was really naive. I really thought that they were going to do this with me. I had really good intentions and I thought they would say yes. When they said no, I actually sobbed when I got that call that they weren’t going to do it. I kind of took it personally which is ridiculous. It took me like 10 days to get my act back together. I was kind of sad about it. And then I thought, “This is part of the story that we don’t really talk about it. And it’s still happening? So that was when I realized that I was sort of reinvigorated. I’ve got to go forward and write and tell this story the real way real real people deserve to hear it. Like not only the survivors deserve to know how the public know, their whole story but people who went to Porter-Gaud the town — we all deserve to know the true story behind the story.
CP: How long did this process take? When did you initially start?
PT: It took me six years to make this movie. The first couple of years I just needed to make sure the ones who were going to talk to me were going to talk to me. I needed to make sure they felt comfortable with me and that they trusted me. So I spent about two years talking to Guerry Glover just making sure he knew that my heart was in the right place, making sure he was comfortable. The first call I made to him, I said “I want to make this movie and if it’s gonna hurt you any more than you’ve been hurt I won’t do it.” He said “Go for it and I’m here for you.” With him behind me, I was able to do it.
CP: So it was like his blessing in a sense?
PT: Yeah. You know when I finished the movie, when I finally had a real cut, I showed it to Gary and he just said, “I feel like I’ve been telling this story for so long and now I don’t have to say one more word.”
CP: How have other reactions been to the film?
PT: Wherever we take this film, we have amazing Q and As after we screen it. You know there are tons of movies out there about this topic. They are amazing films, but they’re hard to sit through. I knew I had to make a movie that a mother could sit through because if I could do it the other parents could do it. So I had to walk a very fine line.
CP: It is a fine line that you don’t want to go into sensationalism but you want to remain true to the heart of the story and the people involved. But you do want to make sure that the other person is engaged.
PT: Exactly and you want to motivate them because the second you hear too much you to tune out. I’ve done it myself too because you don’t want to believe this can be true. We just can’t let your brain absorb it.
CP: In October there was an article about the film in the Post & Courier. In the comments section, someone asked why dredge all this up? I would imagine that’s a common reaction?
PT: I’ve had people spit in my face and say how dare you, it didn’t happen to you. So, who do you think you are and why bring this up again. I’m bringing this up because it’s not old news at all. It’s happening every day in every city. And the reason I made this movie is because I love my little boy. I want to protect him and I have a feeling that other parents want to do the same thing. The Porter-Gaud tale is not the original story. It happens everywhere all the time. The only way to stop it is for us to start talking about it and arm our children with the knowledge that they are in charge of their bodies and they can talk about this. But the only way to stop it is to educate our children about it and be and be squeaky wheels in our schools. So no it’s not old news. I wish it was but it’s not.
What Haunts Us premieres at the Terrace Charleston Film Festival on Sat. March 17 at 7 p.m. and Sun. March 18 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit terracetheatre.com.