Childhood abuse isn’t just horrific for the way it physically wounds; it’s also appalling for begetting shame in victims, who often respond by burying their pain deep within, far from prying eyes. Kept inside, it festers and corrodes, thereby ruining not only the present but also the future. It’s the evil that keeps on giving; a plague that devastates feelings of self-worth, decimates relationships, and—in some cases—produces a gnawing desire for escape via death.
Porter-Gaud high school in Charleston, South Carolina, knows full well the ramifications of such crimes, as chillingly laid out by What Haunts Us, Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s riveting documentary about her alma matter, which over the last few decades has suffered innumerable suicides—including losing six boys (out of 49 total) from its graduating class of 1997. That epidemic has cast a pall over the revered institution, as well as sent shock waves through its community. And most distressing of all is that one monstrous cause of those deaths is known—as are the identities of those who allowed it to happen in the first place.
Opening with William Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” What Haunts Us (in NY and LA theaters May 11, and on STARZ May 14) begins with happy memories of Porter-Gaud from former students of varying ages. As one graduate states, however, the bright hues with which she associates the school have now been sullied (“there’s a shroud over all the color”). The reason for that is Eddie Fischer, a gregarious teacher whose blue eyes, silver-fox grey hair, and winning smile made him a hit with kids of all ages. Friendly and approachable, “Fast Eddie” was, in short, cool—or at least that’s what most initially thought, until revelations emerged in 1997 about the nightmarish deeds he’d been perpetrating.
Fischer, it turned out, was a pedophile—and not a passive one. Thanks in part to his own trial deposition admissions (video of which is presented here), it was revealed that Fischer molested over 50 of the boys he worked with at both Porter-Gaud and his previous and subsequent educational employers. Worse still, everyone apparently had some inkling of his behavior. He was commonly seen walking on the beach with a coterie of young males; he routinely had students over to his house, which he littered with porn magazines and movies, and where he permitted drug and alcohol use; and his habit of inspecting students—injured in any way—by asking them to “drop your drawers” was so commonplace, the request became his virtual catchphrase, and was openly mocked during at least one school assembly.
As What Haunts Us elucidates, what was whispered about in the shadows didn’t fully surface until 1997, when Guerry Glover came forward with accusations of severe abuse. Deliberately targeted at an early age by Fischer, Glover eventually went so far as to get himself expelled to flee his torment. Nonetheless, incapable of staying silent as Fischer continued his reign of terror—first at Porter-Gaud, and then afterwards at Charleston’s College Preparatory School, which wound up being the same school where Glover later enrolled—the young man made his suffering public. What’s more, he also pointed his finger squarely at Porter-Gaud, and in particular, the two men at its helm: Principal James Bishop “Skip” Alexander and Headmaster Berkeley Grimball, both of whom were close allies of Fischer, and who, according to numerous figures interviewed by Tolmach, knew full well about Fischer’s deviant predilections (and, in the case of Alexander, maybe shared them as well).
In both new and archival conversations with Fischer’s victims (many recorded with their faces and voices obscured and altered), as well as the lawyers who sought to bring him to justice, What Haunts Us paints an overarching portrait of insidious sexual exploitation. As multiple speakers explain, Fischer’s success was predicated, in part, on his ability to project a nice-guy persona, which allowed him to create trust that he could subsequently manipulate (with kids and adults) to his own advantage. And by going after kids who were well-to-do, he helped guarantee their silence—since such boys were naturally loathe to come forward to their respected and powerful parents and relatives.
More disturbing—and infuriating—than Fischer’s horridness, however, is What Haunts Us’s depiction of the Porter-Gaud powers-that-be, and the community residents who supported them.
In a manner eerily similar to the Catholic Church’s handling of its own pedophiles, Alexander and Grimball consciously tolerated (if not facilitated) Fischer’s detestable actions. And when his conduct could no longer be kept behind closed doors, they allowed him to quietly resign and take a new nearby teaching post, without warning that institution about his disgusting offenses. Because of Glover, Grimball was eventually forced to answer for his conspiratorial crimes—and in a frightening admission, he told the court that, had his own son been in a school with a pedophile, he wouldn’t have cared “unless he was bothering my children.” Alexander, realizing his own wrongdoing was about to be unmasked, never made it to court, opting instead to end his own life.
With a story this wrenching, What Haunts Us’s inability to always lucidly tell it proves more than a bit frustrating. Rather than providing a clear timeline of its narrative’s events, the film stumbles awkwardly out of the gate, only establishing its footing once it gets into particulars about Fischer’s life and times at Porter-Gaud. Even then, one feels like there are more details to this tale—about Grimball and Alexander, and about Glover’s experiences both during school and in the (clearly difficult) years afterwards—than we’re shown. Running only 69 minutes, and embellished with animated sequences that don’t necessarily add much to its overarching arguments, Tolmach’s documentary sometimes feels as if it’s opted for stylish brevity over comprehensiveness.
Regardless, in Tolmach’s own admission that she once heard about Fischer’s modus operandi from a school friend, only to not do anything about it—a regret compounded by the classmate’s subsequent suicide—What Haunts Us captures a powerful strain of remorse to go along with its astonishment and anger over what so many adults let transpire against the very innocents they were supposed to be protecting. In that regard, this gripping documentary, flaws and all, is not just an exposé of unimaginable wrongdoing—it’s a testament to the power, and necessity, of vocally confronting long-buried sins.