Review of What Haunts Us by Eliana Levenson
Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach provides a clear overview of the case that rattled her alma-mater, Porter-Gaud, but fails to add anything new to the twenty-year-old narrative or deliver on promises of an examination of the psychological toll the case has had on the alumni and community. (EML: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Eliana M. Levenson
Back in 1997, the floodgates opened on a scandal that rocked the Charleston community and particularly the elite school of Porter-Gaud. Guerry Glover, a former Porter-Gaud student, came forward with a chilling tale of sexual abuse committed by a former teacher, Eddie Fischer. Not only did Glover accuse Fischer of repeatedly molesting and sodomizing him over an extended period of time, Glover insisted that the administration of Porter-Gaud, particularly Headmaster Dr. Berkley Grimball and Principal Major James Bishop Alexander, knew of Fischer’s predatory ways and did nothing to stop him or protect the students.
Now, twenty years after the case made headlines, director Paige Goldberg Tolmach returns to her alma mater to talk to survivors, fellow alumni, and other community members to try and make sense of the tragedy that still hangs over all of them all these years later. Tolmach, armed with a box full of evidence that was left on her doorstep a few years after the cases against the school and Fischer, explores the scandal by returning to her hometown determined to gain answers and understanding.
With a combination of interview footage and archival footage, colored with artistic flourishes including animated reenactments and still photography, Tolmach takes the audience on a journey through the case. She speaks with her fellow alumni, including two of Fischer’s victims, Glover and Carlos Salinas. She tells of her own experience, on a date with an older boy in high school who revealed that Fischer would touch him to help him “practice sex” and how she sat silent and never told anybody what she had heard. She discusses the setting that allowed this to happen with lawyers and reporters.
While What Haunts Us provides a nice overview of the Porter-Gaud scandal, it feels at most times like an extended Dateline episode or a Wikipedia page brought to life. Tolmach does an excellent job of introducing the audience to the subject matter, ensuring those unfamiliar with the case know all the facts but, unfortunately, there isn’t much beyond that. In fact, the most interesting parts of the documentary are the archival videos of Fischer’s confessions and the chilling apathy with which he discusses his crimes.
What Haunts Us poised itself on a promise of exploring the long-term effect of these crimes on the students and Charleston community, particularly the tragedy of a high percentage of alumni who have committed suicide in the decades following their time at Porter-Gaud. However, this aspect is shockingly absent from the final product. Instead, the documentary simply talks about the facts of the case, the willing ignorance of the Porter-Gaud board, and the implicit compliance of the Porter-Gaud administration.
Though there are moments throughout the film where Tolmach hints at this deeper exploration, by the end of the documentary the audience is left wondering what this film added (outside of perhaps increased exposure) to a twenty-year-old scandal. Unfortunately, the sexual abuse that Tolmach is discussing is not an unfamiliar subject, and therefore it makes it even more difficult for What Haunts Us to set itself apart. Unfortunately, while the film is wonderfully shot and a solid documentary, What Haunts Us fails to add new depth or perspective to the growing canon of documentaries exploring sexual abuse of children, particularly at the hands of teachers.
Top Photo: The poster for What Haunts Us with the tagline "Pay attention to who pays attention to your kids."
Middle Photo: A polaroid of Porter-Gaud school, the center of the scandal.
Bottom Photo: Eddie Fischer stands in the center of a group in an old Porter-Gaud yearbook.
Photo Credits: Blue Fox Entertainment
Q: Does What Haunts Us pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Nope. Since the focus of the documentary is a male sexual predator and his male victims, all of the conversations, even those between Tolmach and fellow female alumni, discuss men directly.