What Haunts Us is a disturbing and deeply pertinent documentary for the era of Jerry Sandusky, Harvey Weinstein, and Larry Nassarall prominent men who were able to sexually abuse and assault scores of young girls and boys, men and women, mainly because those around them looked the other way and did nothing. Some of them may have known, some of them probably did know, and other probably should have known, but, in the end, they failed to sound an alarm, raise a flag, or point a finger. And, in some cases, when someone did come forward and try to lift the veil, powerful men interceded and ensured that nothing came of it, making some kind of horrific Faustian bargain based on the twisted idea that maintaining the peace, the status quo, and their bottom line was worth the torment of past victims and the risk of future ones.
That is precisely the story that unfolds in first-time documentarian Paige Goldberg Tolmachs What Haunts Us, which explores the sordid history of one Eddie Fischernicknamed Fast Eddie by his fawning studentsa well-liked high school teacher and athletic trainer at Charleston, South Carolinas prestigious Porter-Gaud School, who used his position to sexually abuse more than 40 students during his decade-long tenure from 1972 to 1982. Fischer appears throughout the film primarily in yearbook photographs, where, on first blush, he looks like any other gregarious, smiling teacher; of course, seen now in the light of the revelations about him, they carry a queasy, horrific suggestivenessthe monster was right there. He also appears in video footage later in his life, where he discusses his crimes with a folksy matter-of-factness that would be disarming if it werent so evil. With his oversized glasses, southern drawl, and clearly slumped frame, he wouldnt seem fit to harm a fly, which is what makes his utter inability (or refusal) to recognize the horrors of what he did that much more unsettling.
The thrust of the film, though, is not that Fischer was a monstrous sexual predator; that is too obvious. Rather, it is that he was enabled in his victimization of dozens and dozens of teenage boys (a number of whom bravely tell their stories on-camera) by a veil of silence spun by everyone at the school who willfully looked past the obvious signs of what he was doing. Even more nefariously, he was actively protected by the school administrators Principal James Bishop Skip Alexander and Headmaster Berkeley Grimballeven though, as the film makes clear, they knew what he was doing and, in the formers case, possibly shared his predilections. One of the films most chilling moments is when Grimball, in later court testimony, said that he would not have cared had he known a pedophile was teaching at a school unless he was bothering my children. That utter lack of concern for others, that galling self-centeredness, is the real sin, one that is all the worse because it enables men like Eddie Fischer, who care only for their own destructive appetites. (To illustrate just how deep callousness this runs, I recently read that Grimballs name was not removed from two of Porter-Gauds buildings and a school award until this films release brought renewed attention to the case, even though a jury found him grossly negligent 17 years ago in failing to stop Fischers abuse.)
Tolmach, who was a student at Porter-Gaud in the late 1970s, gives What Haunts Us an indelible sense of personal anguish because she was there. Her interest in the subject was initially roused when she learned that six of her male classmates (out of only 49) had committed suicide as adults, a pattern of self-destruction whose roots led right back to the Fischer case. Tolmach is, therefore, not an outsider looking in, but rather a participant in an unfolding tragedy looking back decades later and asking, Why? Why didnt she and others do more? Why didnt they say anything? Why didnt they do more when Fischers activities were so well known that his having students drop their drawers for any injury was turned into a joke in a school program? That is a heavy load to carry, and at its best What Haunts Us conveys in no uncertain terms that the past is never dead, but rather is borne by all of us into the present. The films thin silver lining is that there is a lesson to be learned here, that things can be different, and men like Eddie Fischerand Weinstein and Sandusky and Nassar and all the other predatorscan be stopped, rather than emboldened, by those around them.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Matt Tolmach Productions and the Kennedy/Marshall Company
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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