Facing Our Ghosts

Entrepreneur and activist Paige Goldberg Tolmach on how discovering dark secrets from her past pushed her to become a documentary director.

There is almost no way to properly describe the feelings of sadness and guilt that I felt when my dear friend told me, late one night eight years ago, that he had been sexually victimized from ages 9 to 19 by our beloved teacher and high school coach, Eddie Fischer. But I will try.

I threw up that night when I got home. I was exhausted and weak after spending three hours sobbing with him, asking detailed questions. Our school was the perfect private school nestled in the perfect Southern community. Students like Stephen Colbert and Shepard Fairey attended and went on to larger-than-life careers while others went to schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale with the badge of Porter Gaud on their resume, so how could this have happened here? I wanted to know when it happened, where it took place and what he did to him. Months later, I still couldn’t shake my feelings of disgust and helplessness. Friends tried to console me by telling me to take some comfort in the fact that it didn’t happen to me. But the truth is, in one way or another, all of us were affected by what happened at Porter Gaud High School in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1973 to 1984.

Back in Los Angeles, a therapist told me that the child who sits next to the anorexic in class, day after day, is deeply impacted by the inability to do anything while his or her classmate wastes away. Similarly, whether we became hard-drinking alcoholics or needle-shooting drug addicts, whether we became overprotective parents or detached adults with the fear of intimacy, whether we hung ourselves by a rope in the master bathroom or shot ourselves on a deserted road in the country, we were all affected by what happened at Porter Gaud, whether we knew about it at the time or not. These stories, this legacy, is what we live and die with now.

As I watched the evening news one night in 2011, I saw the face of the latest monster, Jerry Sandusky, and everything zoomed into focus. All of the feelings that I had been carrying around since that night with my friend were replaced by one overriding emotion – fear. I will never forget how I glanced at my beautiful five-year-old boy, happily playing in the backyard, and realized that I had already failed him. After all the babygroup classes, the parenting seminars and the CPR workshops, I had no idea how to keep him safe from someone who might want to harm him. I knew that in order to protect my child in the now, I had to first understand my past. And that became my mission.

I was not a filmmaker in 2011, but I am now. I started reaching out to old classmates and alumni. Many were excited to reconnect and had stories about how there was “something not quite right” at our school. But many more were angry and hung up on me. “How dare you bring this up again? This is in our past, we’re done with this.” Or, “Who do you think you are? It didn’t happen to you.” Fair question.

I soon discovered that an unusual number of boys from Porter Gaud had taken their own lives as they grew into adults. As I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together, I came to understand that attempting to unearth what had been buried so long ago would be a heavy burden to carry and it would take an intense toll on me. Still, I couldn’t walk away.

I set a meeting with the new head of school at Porter Gaud and asked him to include all of his principals and counselors. I flew to Charleston and sat in a big conference room and passionately pitched the idea for my film to these people, asking them to participate. I told them that I loved my old school and that this was my gift to them – a chance to show the world that we are a school who is not afraid to own our history. By shining a light on our demons, we could make sure they never showed up on our doorstep again. “Not on my watch,” I said. “Let’s hold hands and protect kids together.”

The head of school thanked me and said that he would be in touch. When I returned home to L.A., I got a call from the school’s attorneys who said that they would be happy to participate as long as I gave them final cut of the film. I laughed and said I’d never made a documentary before, but I had a feeling that if I let them decide what this movie needed to be, it would make me a pretty terrible documentarian. Thinking that my movie was over before it even began, I hung up the phone and began to cry. After two weeks of being sad and depressed that this meant the end of my film, it suddenly hit me. My school’s continuing insistence on staying silent, their inability to face the horror that had kept so many of us in pain for all of these years – that was the movie.

It’s been a painful seven years. As I dove deeper into the past, I began to unearth the terrible secrets that to this day continue to haunt my friends, my school and my community – the sexual assault of many boys by a teacher, and a conspiracy to hide that awful truth which went as high as the school board and the headmaster. I discovered that large numbers of boys were abused and that the pain was still deep. And the ripple effect created tsunamis for future generations at Porter Gaud and in the world beyond the school. Discovering these things broke my heart. I felt tremendous guilt about not doing anything to stop the abuse when I had the chance as a young girl. Why hadn’t I used my voice back then? Why had I refused to look directly at what was right before my eyes? I will never be able to answer these questions completely, but I do know that it was that guilt that empowered me to dig deeper and discover more. If I had failed to do the right thing when I was young, this was my chance to do the right thing now.

Many old friends from home refuse to speak to me. I know that they are in pain because, as I discovered, the things we keep hidden in the dark, haunt us in the daylight. While those few have closed their mouths, countless others have spoken up and sent me messages of tremendous gratitude. They thank me for having the guts to go against the school and the community and stand up for what I believed to be right. After every screening at every film festival in every city, people approach me and cry. They tell me that they were abused and that they have never been able to speak about it before because no one has given them license to until now. What Haunts Us has given them the courage to stand up and speak out.

My story is not an original one, and I am not special in any way. Never could I have imagined that my documentary and its message would be as relevant and topical as it is in the #MeToo movement of 2018. People say that I am brave for taking on this town and this school, but I just saw it as something I needed to do. I made this film to give voice to my friend and all of the people who have been silenced for so long and been afraid to speak up. I made this film for the many, many boys of Porter Gaud who died by suicide. This movie is a final cry for justice on their behalf. I made this film so that Porter Gaud School, and schools just like it, will stop hiding behind the walls of excellence and tradition, and acknowledge that monsters can live among us and keeping them well taken care of makes us all monsters, too. I made this film for my little boy; he deserves to know that his mother will always protect him, believe him and stand by his side.

In the spring of 2018, I took my film to Charleston and screened it to a packed house. There were 400 people in the audience, and the sobs and gasps were audible. I insisted that the head of my former school come to the screening. The discussion in the theatre that followed was emotional and tense, yet extraordinary. We got to look the ghosts of our past right in the eyes. And, for the first time, attempt to set them free, together.

Paige Goldberg Tolmach is the director and producer of the documentary What Haunts Us, about the dark secret – and systemic cover up – that endured for decades at her seemingly perfect high school. The film premiered at the Boston Film Festival in 2017 and aired on Starz earlier this year. A leading expert on environmental toxins and their effects on children, Tolmach founded The Little Seed in 2007, an eco-conscious store in Los Angeles that helped raise awareness about the dangers of toxic chemicals in our homes. The Little Seed partnered with Seventh Generation in 2009 to help launch their “Million Baby Crawl,” which demanded that Congress change federal laws to keep toxic chemicals out of our homes, and in 2010, she and her partner collaborated with Target to bring The Little Seed’s eco sensibility and eco awareness to the masses.