Culture Trips

Groomed: how a film-maker learned to confront a childhood of abuse | Documentary

It wasn’t until she was knee-deep in research, making a documentary on sexual assault that would later become the film Groomed, that the film-maker Gwen van de Pas learned the word for what happened to her.

Van de Pas had scaled back her consulting job in San Francisco in January 2016 to make a film about sexual assault, informed by but not centered on her experience of sexual abuse in the late 90s, as a 12-13-year-old, by an adult coach, then in his mid-20s, on her swim team. For years, Van de Pas struggled to find certainty in her story: his attention had made her feel special then; now it haunted her. The nightmares left her in tears, but if she hadn’t been afraid at the time, was it not scary? If he wasn’t a bad guy in her memories, could his inappropriate, confusing sexualization of their relationship be a bad thing?

Then she learned about the term “grooming”, the process through which an abuser builds an emotional, trusting relationship with a child or potential victim to manipulate, exploit and sexually abuse them. Understanding her abuse, and her confusing vertigo of emotions, as grooming – a deliberate, classifiable process with clear steps – “completely changed how I was looking at my own path”, Van de Pas told the Guardian. The word dislodged something within her; something fell into place. Within 10 minutes of learning it, she told her now-husband that she might report her abuser, the first time she had ever considered it. “And of course, that thought didn’t immediately stick and it wasn’t a straight line from there,” she said. But the term unlocked a central realization: “I’m not confused because it was confusing; I’m confused because he confused me.”

The resulting film, Groomed, now streaming on Discovery+, captures Van de Pas’s viscerally raw journey of re-configuring the psychological fragments of abuse. It’s a strikingly nuanced portrait that dives into the gray thicket of her ambivalent, shifting, often contradictory emotions while remaining resolutely clear on the patterns and prevalence of grooming.

Groomed explores in two voices: that of Van de Pas, identifying and seesawing between her growing clarity and the ingrained thinking of a groomed child, and experts who confirm the pattern. It is part investigation into how grooming works, as explained by expert psychologists and fellow grooming survivors, including several women and one man abused by family members, acquaintances or church elders. And it is part reconciliation, as Van de Pas returns to her childhood home in Holland, speaks to her parents about the abuse for the first time in 20 years, shakily revisits combustible memories and considers reporting her abuser (who, she discovers, still lives within minutes of her parents).

The individual stories illustrate the grooming process, listed repeatedly throughout the film: target the victim, gain the family’s trust, build a relationship, sexualize the relationship, maintain control. They also attest to the destabilizing trail of groomed thinking – the blocks a manipulative relationship can put on seeing abuse, and a child’s vulnerable, powerless role in it, clearly. Van de Pas recalled the paradox of working in survivors’ groups, where everyone could identify grooming in others’ stories while hedging with uncertainty in theirs. “We all felt so strongly about the other person’s story. But then when it came to our own stories, then suddenly all that doubt came up again,” she said. “It helped to see, again, that the fact that I’m guessing it doesn’t mean that it should be guessed, because I don’t think that about anybody else’s story, either.”

Much of the footage is bracingly vulnerable, almost as if you’re watching security footage of the guardrails stripped from Van de Pas’s psyche. There are panic attacks and nightmares, the contents of a Facebook message from another victim relayed through sobs, ambivalent diary entries typed on screen. In one of the most arresting scenes, Van de Pas searches her childhood bedroom in Holland for a series of letters her abuser wrote her. They are not in the drawer where she thought they were, and she begins to cry – from the relief that she could be spared going back there (“I’m worried it’s gonna confuse me”), the fear of finding what is in them, and the even worse possibility that they could be gone for ever, a potential grip of irrefutable evidence from her haze of memories cast out to sea.

She does find them, and the contents are shocking: graphic descriptions of sexual fantasies and lust from a twentysomething man to a 12-year-old child. “It’s so gross, it’s so gross,” she cries, repulsed. “I remember liking what was in them, now they disgust me.” But the shadow of grooming peeks through in real time, as she worries that because he put the damning dates on each letter, he must not have thought he was doing anything wrong.

The undermining of the groomed voice comes up throughout the film; even as she anticipates its release, two years post-filming, “the groomed little part of my brain is coming up again,” said Van de Pas. Old thoughts, such as “oh, do I really want to do this?” and ‘I want to protect him, what is he going to feel?’” bubble up again. “It was disappointing to realize that, in a way, even after this whole process and feeling very strong, still it’s not gone,” she said. “And I think that speaks to just how ingrained the grooming process becomes in your mind.”

The film also includes an interview Van de Pas conducted with a convicted sexual abuser, Dennis, as part of a process called “proxy clarification” – a supervised process in which an abused person seeks closure or clarity by speaking with another abuser as a stand-in for their own. The camera skirts around the tricky subject, closing in on side angles of Dennis’s face of the back of his head, peering over his shoulder at a tentative but open Van de Pas, never looking directly at him; he avoids graphic details on the abuse of a step-granddaughter, but offers a chilling account on the groomers’ deliberate methods of gaining and exploiting trust.

The decision to include the words of an abuser was a difficult one, said Van de Pas. “There was a part of me that thought, well I don’t want to give a voice to an offender, you know?” But she thought “I can sit here and psychologists and all of us, we can sit here and explain what grooming is like but we don’t really know how it works until we also hear from the people who are doing it, and I just felt like who can give better insight than an offender?”

She ultimately found more closure, to the extent that exists – in accumulation, never finished – through talking to other survivors, though the proxy clarification process “marginally helped”, she said, in validating her confusion as part and parcel of grooming.

That validation, laying out the steps clearly, is the motivation for Groomed, which Van de Pas said she made for two primary audiences: parents, to recognize and stop grooming as it occurs, and survivors of sexual abuse. The array of emotions, measures of peace and stories in the film, Van de Pas hopes, “can move people from victimhood to survivorship”.

“What I want for other people is to go from no clarity to clarity,” she said. “To have that confusion be gone about their own part, or was it abuse or was it not, is he a bad guy is he not a bad guy – all of that soup of confusion, I want that to be gone and I want people to be crystal clear that they had no part in this.”

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