Some decisions cost more in the not making of them, than the making of them. I wrote The Fifth Sister in an effort to encourage, support, and empower the 42 million of us in the US who were sexually abused as children. I didn’t make that number up. It’s a stat from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) as of 2012. Forty-two million. I’m pretty sure that number has gone up, not down.
Back to the decision. I turned down a major TV network – twice. Their viewership boasts 83% of American households. I still shiver internally to have made this choice.
In April, as The Fifth Sister was launching, this network reached out to me to be a part of a new series. I was immensely flattered. The media company, my PR firm and I met by phone to discuss possibilities. My heart soared at the prospect that millions of people would hear and be encouraged by my story.
As negotiations began we learned more. I would be a one-hour episode in a weekly series of true stories. Okay. I would be filmed in interview format in New York City. Nice. I would need to bring pictures and mementoes from childhood. No problem. “What’s the series called?” I asked. They told me. The name itself horrified me. The series would focus on crime, rather like reality TV.
I might as well have been thrown in the tundra naked. My gut voiced its intuitive markers in tsunami swells. “May I see one you’ve already filmed?” I watched that rough-cut episode with rising tension. This was not the focus I wanted for my story. While it’s true that Dad would have been convicted as a felon in today’s legal system, my focus was and has always been empowering those I speak to and for. Empowerment. Victor, not victim. Thrive, not merely survive.
I discussed my concerns with someone well placed in the television industry, and was told that The Fifth Sister merited a standalone docudrama, or screenplay. I chose to decline the offer, for I was unwilling to sensationalize the criminal element of my personal story, without the balance of the promise of healing. I didn’t doubt the rightness of that choice, despite my disappointment. I told them I had great respect for their company, and should they be interested in a docudrama, I would be honored.
When they contacted me again, last week, we set up a conference call. My hope was that they were now coming at me to pursue the standalone docudrama idea. The reality was that they hoped they could change my mind. They wanted me for the original series. They would come to me this time, and film me on my home turf. I didn’t need to go to New York at all. I could talk about The Fifth Sister. They’d even film me on my SUP in the river. Could we do this just two weeks from now? They’d send two fully edited completed episodes for me to watch immediately. I said I’d think about it.
The moment I hung up the phone, my body kicked into “are you crazy?!?” mode. It was as if someone had taken one of those old-fashioned eggbeaters to my insides. I had trouble eating. I lay in bed awake long after midnight. Every electrical circuit in my brain was sending sizzling little zingers. “Listen to yourself,” I admonished. “Sort out why.”
In the wee small hours of the night, I got to work, internally. All my life, in the face of my history, I have tried to find dignity. Honor. To shape ugly into something valuable. With every ounce of creativity I possess, I sought to imbue the telling of a wretched story with authenticity, integrity, humor, honesty and hope. To allow someone (who, by the way, never read the book, simply the New York Post’s article on me) to funnel down my life’s work to a reality TV-like crime enactment piece would be to lose a piece of me. More, I would betray my own trust in the telling of my story. I promised me I wouldn’t do this, and finally fell asleep.
In the morning, after four hours sleep, I watched the two TV ready episodes, complete with horror film music overlaying a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere. Confirmation.
I wrote the PR firm of my decision, and sent them a draft of an email I would send to the network. Tossing a grenade would have had similar effect. Sorry to hear this. Let’s talk. This was platform building. There was undoubtedly some way we could maintain creative control. It was implied that I needed to pay my dues. In my mind to have done this would be akin to the casting couch. I’m pretty sure I have paid my dues. If there are more to be paid, I’ll do it, just not this way.
It’s gone now, the offer. My radar sweeps without incident. Yet, every week I hear from adults who were abused as children. How my story validated their own. How they shared it with a friend or family member. Or, thanking me for giving words to the feelings they didn’t know how to express. I may have served me, but did I do the right thing for the 42 million? I am so second guessing myself right now.