From Curiosity to Denial: The Case of ‘An Open Secret’

The failure of An Open Secret to connect with a wide audience speaks to the persistence of denial when the perpetrators of child abuse populate the entertainment industry.

“Is it newsworthy? Yes.

Are we gonna air it? Of course not.

Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth.

That’s why we’re not going to air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets!”

— Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999)

Privacy is long gone, in part because there are technological means to record, preserve, and disseminate all aspects of a networked existence. While the NSA story has become old news, there remain differing opinions of the ethics of examining private information. Thanks to whistleblowers, the ability to know who-knows-what represents some reclamation of power over things personal, even if that power is countered by ongoing targeting, tracking, and mining.

All of the curiosity exhibited by the filmmakers and courage shown by the testifying survivors resulted in a film silenced, overshadowed by the dubious allegations of one of Berg’s survivor interviewees and the objections and threats made by SAG-AFTRA.

Most citizens lack the security clearance to learn who knows what and how and why. Many present their lives as content for social media consumption, often without considering what’s being lost. In modern life, digital and virtual spaces complicate concepts of consent and violation.

Against the loss of privacy and discretion, it would seem that the role of the journalist to help prevent abuses of power and/or institutional abuse is more necessary than ever. At its best, journalism is not a mere document dump or an inconvenient truth buried on a minor page. Nor is it the stuff of an unreflective social media spree. Journalism involves discernment, narration, prioritization, perspective and point of view. The journalist tests evidence to find the truth. They consider causes and effects.

A judicious journalist would find little to gain by prying into or compromising the private life of a subject unrelated to a developing story. This line between private and public is a common theme of whistleblowing narratives. When a private person becomes a public person, there exists the question of consequences for participation in a media endeavor. The central conflict of Michael Mann’s The Insider is not the conflict between truth and lie, but between the forces that have access to the information; in this case, the whistleblowing individual (spurned employee Jeffrey Wigand) versus the much more powerful corporate structures (Brown & Williamson, CBS) seeking to quiet the noise.

In a situation like this, if the mediating journalist mismanages the disclosure of information, then the individual whistleblower might become more damaged than if they had never chosen to speak out in the first place. Indeed, as CBS waffled in its commitment to Wigand, his personal and professional life fell apart. The journalist might also feel a loss, as did Lowell Bergman, the dogged 60 Minutes producer who succeeded in bringing Wigand’s story to national attention. Played by Al Pacino in Mann’s film, he answers his wife’s concluding assertion “You won” with a question: “Yeah? What did I win?”

Spotlight, the reigning Academy Award winner for Best Picture, could be described as the most prestigious scripted American drama film about journalists to come along since The Insider. And yet the scale of Spotlight’s dramatic action is considerably different from Mann’s film, which was adapted from a Vanity Fair article organized around the tale of lone whistleblower Wigand. Whereas The Insider focused on one informer and one reporter crusading against corporate interests to inform the nation about a public health concern, Spotlight is about a group of victims gaining the attention of a group of reporters armed with a “spotlight” incisive enough to break through the silence regarding sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church.

Additionally, the nature of the information being investigated sets Spotlight quite apart from other tales of insider whistleblowers. Child victims of sexual abuse are especially helpless. They cannot be seen as consenting participants, which is a distinction from other harm scenarios in which known risks exist — tobacco use, for instance, but also the use of prescription drugs, the hazards of certain workplaces and other instances that routinely appear in the news and in dramatic storytelling of imperiled citizens.

The abusers are also different because priests and assumed godly people in the Church’s power structure aren’t merely the sort of overstepping executives or corporate figures that normally populate whistleblowing stories. They are believed to be on the side of righteousness, perceived as mediators between man and God. Within the belief system, these men are next to God. As one adult survivor says in the film, “You feel trapped … How do you say no to God?” In Spotlight, the contrast between absolute helplessness and absolute power is conducive to powerful storytelling.

For the journalist-heroes of the film, the urgency to break the abuse story involves the potential to highlight past abuse and to save present victims and prevent future victims. The Boston Globe’s titular “Spotlight” team (played in the film by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and others) is equipped to conduct deep investigations into stories that might otherwise go unnoticed. Early in the film, the story selection process for the team is described as finding “what’s essential,” even if that essential story conflicts with other interests at the paper and in the community.

Nearly every line of dialogue, action, and image of the finely tuned script for Spotlight exists to illustrate how essential this particular story is. From the rare light moment (one staffer at the paper tells a member of the team to “go be curious somewhere else”) to scenes of grave importance (a victim asks “you really want to hear this?” during an interview), everything said is suggestive of a general complacency or an ingrained denial to report the truth about the pervasive abuse in particular.

Boston is rendered as a small place that takes care of its own (in a sinister sense) at the expense of the victims, who grow into adults that carry the effects of their abuse. Some of the offending priests, relocated but not disciplined in any real way, develop “odd rationalizations” for their actions, including having been molested when they were young. The greater community ensures that no one involved is in a position to accept responsibility or meet justice.

Spotlight is a film focused on the journalists that bring a story out of the darkness and into the light, so the primary dramatic arc of the film is not any single victim’s story, but instead the realization that the truth-tellers themselves have been complicit. Early claims were buried. The facts were known, but never collected and shaped to inspire the sort of outrage that they might have stoked. The eventual triumph of the team of reporters is predicated on an admission that they, too, had for years been part of the denial.

In light of this recent history of acclaimed Hollywood films about truth-telling citizens and journalists, the reception of a recent documentary very much in the spirit of these films is a curious thing, indeed. Amy Berg’s 2014 film An Open Secret was released last year in a rollout so small there aren’t even statistics on Box Office Mojo to reflect its commercial performance. Berg, the Oscar-nominated director of Deliver Us from Evil, a thematic forerunner of Spotlight, executes An Open Secret with the same sort of crusading spirit of Lowell Bergman and the Spotlight team.

Yet the failure of her film to connect with a wide audience (and its present unavailability on home video formats) speaks to the persistence of denial when the perpetrators of child abuse populate the Hollywood power structure rather than another institution like the church. Such selectivity sends a message to viewers that the film industry will support and celebrate crusading storytellers so long as the truths they uncover don’t expose Hollywood’s secrets. This contradictory position on truth-telling only enhances the credibility—the essentialness—of An Open Secret.

As the title of the documentary suggests, the instances of child sexual abuse in Hollywood have been simultaneously known and ignored, exposed and suppressed. The film opens with evidence of this bewildering duplicity in the contrast of footage from Diff’rent Strokes’ pedophile warning episode(s) “Bicycle Man” (1983) and a present-day interview of star Todd Bridges, himself a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the same show business that dramatized the issue in his television series.

Bridges has long been a subject of discussion about the rocky path child actors face as they grow up (and further into or out of) the entertainment industry. But viewers of An Open Secret needn’t know the specifics of his hard times to understand the bind he was in, a bind shared by many other young performers. Berg and her co-writers and editors present the evidence. While some of the evidence in the film is anecdotal, and some of it has been publically challenged, the totality of the case the filmmakers make leaves no doubt that there is a child abuse epidemic in the entertainment industry.

Thus, the experience of viewing An Open Secret situates the viewer in a position much like that of the Spotlight journalists uncovering information that was hidden in plain sight. And in this case, Berg and her team assemble the argument so convincingly that anyone who enjoys movies and television shows involving young actors should feel some complicity in supporting an industry that stays silent on these matters. Perhaps the potential for outrage and action among the ticket-buying public is the reason the film itself was destined to become all but hidden. If we become too curious about the problem, mightn’t that break through the denial?

One core theme of the film is the degree to which child performers are isolated from parents and other would-be protectors. Once isolated, they are subject to unsupervised grooming from adults in the industry. To reinforce the claim that the industry prefers “emancipated” kids who can be seen “as adults”, the film includes footage of casting director Krisha Bullock speaking at a Back Stage at the SAG Foundation video. She tells the audience, “Once you are eight you are responsible for your own career.”

Michael Harrah, one of the industry’s first exclusive managers of child talent and the former chairperson of the Screen Actor’s Guild’s Young Performer’s Committee, appears in a contemporary interview. He says, “Children are mostly willing to listen. They’re ready to absorb things. They haven’t yet developed any preconceived ideas about who they are and how they’re going to get somewhere.” Add to these emphases on isolation and grooming the repeated notion that parents of aspiring performers are likewise ignorant of the system and require an education about the rules of the game, and a picture emerges of a power imbalance that would be easy for a person with ill intentions to exploit.

Considering these conditions, it’s not surprising that sexual abuse of children is rife in Hollywood. Resources and materials for education and prevention of abuse often mention identifying or creating isolation being among the grooming tactics used by abusers. Marty Weiss, a manager of mostly male child actors, is described in An Open Secret as a man who “had sleepovers regularly”, a tactic shared by several other industry figures spotlighted in the documentary.

Harrah repeatedly evokes the issue of parents not being around to supervise as a key factor in abuse situations. Yet from home video evidence interspersed throughout the documentary, it’s clear that Weiss was also often around the parents of his victims, to the point of having been symbolically adopted into their family structure (this too, is a tactic of abusers). Some viewers of An Open Secret might ask how the parents of the victims could not see what Weiss was up to. But the downside of allowing one’s examination to drift to other influences or causes (like parental recklessness) takes the spotlight off of the known predators, and the filmmakers are careful not to let men like Weiss slip from blame.

Another theme An Open Secret shares with the scandal dramatized in Spotlight is the prevalence of rationalizations and excuses the abusers make to normalize the behavior. Some of the evidence of this sort comes from the first-hand testimonies of abuse survivors who courageously appear before Berg’s camera. Nick S., whose screen credits included The Apostle and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, recalls being molested by Marc Collins-Rector, the founder of Digital Entertainment Network (DEN). Nick recalls that Collins-Rector would say, “Don’t be scared, it’s completely normal,” as he abused him in a home movie theater.

Other evidence of rationalization and normalization comes from the mouths of the abusers themselves. On a secretly recorded audiotape produced by another brave survivor, Evan H., we hear Marty Weiss admit to sexually abusing Evan when Evan was 12 years old. Weiss suggests that Evan wanted it and excuses the sexual activity between himself and the 12-year-old boy by saying “it is a natural function… animals… if they like it, they go for it”.

One of the most shocking moments that Berg captures in contemporary footage is when Michael Harrah, the man who was a pioneer of managing child performers, appears to admit abusing Joey C., another survivor interviewed in the film. In the same scene, Harrah defends the actions of Bob Villard, a known abuser and child pornography collector/transporter. Harrah defends Villard’s actions, saying, “I take these things with a grain of salt. I’m not sure how horrible they really are.”

These two themes — isolation and normalization — help to explain how the well-known abuse remains an open secret. Though the survivors featured in the film are distinctive and talented individuals, they do share the same narrative of having a dream to be an entertainer, meeting the men who could make that happen, and then for a time silently bearing the experiences of having been abused by those men. Thus, they also share the same stigma. More than one instance in the film (particularly the episode involving Brian Peck) speaks to the pressure young survivors of abuse feel to stay silent in order to continue working.

The victims’ silence and shame coexists with an ever more open and obvious predation among the abusers. The researchers and reporters quoted in the documentary point out the layers of social and professional activity allowing these predators to act out in the open. This is another kind of evidence featured throughout the film — scripted and non-scripted footage from various DEN programs (“Chad’s World”, “Rawleywood”) that depict or suggest the molestation going on among the network’s circle of adult executives and their associates.

These programs, like the flow of headshots of shirtless young boys on online marketplaces and forums, show any observer precisely how these particular men are looking at young boys. Additionally, in the circumstance of DEN, An Open Secret illustrates what happened when that activity went unchecked: inappropriate and illegal sexual contact between adult male predators and child victims at the homes of the powerful men behind the network.

Berg and the other filmmakers behind An Open Secret organize the film in a responsible manner. They present the evidence in a journalistic way, occasionally editorializing to heighten the emotional content. But the film didn’t reach the audience it might have reached, or rally celebrities to its cause, or win prizes. All of the curiosity exhibited by the filmmakers and courage shown by the testifying survivors resulted in a film silenced, overshadowed by the dubious allegations of one of Berg’s survivor interviewees and the objections and threats made by SAG-AFTRA.

But neither the manufactured controversies that met the film’s release, nor the changes requested and/or made to the film amid those controversies lessens the film’s impact. A single unreliable source and a single offended union are not, nor should they be, substantial enough to distract the public from the truth communicated in the film.

A goal of speaking truth to power is to produce a turning point after which those in power will be more accountable to the individuals they serve or employ. At least that’s the spirit the entertainment industry encouraged on Oscar night 2016, when Spotlight won Best Picture and Lady Gaga performed nominated song “Til it Happens to You”, a number appearing in a documentary about rape. Who better than artists in the spotlight to influence the pop-culture attuned public on such dire matters? But in the case of An Open Secret, the powers that be are that exact same entertainment industry, and here they seemed to have trounced the truth-teller on a technicality.

A year after its small release, the fate of the film corresponds to the implicit message that abuse survivors encounter within the industry: it’s better to stay silent than risk the counteracting force of a business that produces, protects, and rewards abusers. For that reason, the survivors who share their story in the film are to be doubly commended for speaking out and for telling a truth so real, so essential, so swallowed up by the denial of an industry that isn’t ready, or willing, to hear them.