Do Tell Is All About Showing…How The Past Is Prologue

As Lindsay Lynch (easy to misread as Lindsay Lunch on the book cover) does tell it, her drive to write the novel that became Do Tell stemmed from the media headlines that were percolating circa 2016 to 2017. And especially at the end of 2017, with the #MeToo movement being resparked (Tarana Burke had already coined the phrase and its meaning in 2005) amid Ronan Farrow’s damning article on Harvey Weinstein entitled, “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories.” Released on October 10, 2017, it unleashed a torrent of long-dormant chronicles of sexual abuse and exploitation within the film industry and beyond. 

There’s no denying that part of the pushback against Weinstein seemed to coincide opportunely with Donald Trump’s first year in office. He being the president who effectively served to remind that if you abuse women—and openly talk about it—not only will nothing happen to you, but you’ll actually be rewarded. In Trump’s case, with the highest office in the land. An office he was quick to take advantage of via actions that went far beyond mere unhinged tweets and overall narcissistic braggadocio. And yes, many of the “moves” he made were decidedly anti-women. Take, for example, terminating funding to the United Nations Population Fund, an agency specializing in the improvement of worldwide reproductive and maternal health. Or, months before the #MeToo movement, signing “a Congressional Review Act resolution to revoke a regulation enacted under Obama the previous year that required businesses to publicly disclose any sexual harassment or labor law violations over the previous three years whenever they bid on large federal contracts.” While even the most misogynistic president might not have bothered to take notice of something so highly specific, “the goal of the rule was to prevent federal money from flowing to firms with a history of such infractions.” Firms with such history that Herr Trump was very likely close to and dependent upon for favor, both political and financial, hence his desire to repeal it. To add insult to injury, Trump got rid of the Obama-era Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order in the same fell swoop. A revoking that, quelle surprise, disproportionately affected women, who “are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, and are vulnerable to labor and employment law abuses, like wage theft, sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination on the job, or retaliation when they try to unionize or enforce their rights.”

With such an anti-feminist, anti-woman president in office, it certainly beared remarking upon whether or not the U.S. should hate Trump as much as it should hate itself. For what was (and is) Trump if not a reflection of the collective rot that has been brewing in said country even since the days of Errol Flynn? The actor who Lynch takes key inspiration from for one of her main characters in Do Tell, Freddy Clarke. And like Flynn, he is known for playing “swashbucklers” and “war heroes.” But, more importantly, like Flynn, Clarke becomes known for a statutory rape charge lobbied against him by an up-and-coming actress at FWM Studios named Sophie Melrose. The latter being a stand-in for the real-life accuser, Betty Hansen. Just as it was for Melrose, Hansen also had to endure a humiliating trial during which her name would be dragged through the mud as a result of the usual patriarchal go-to of slut-shaming. But fifteen-year-old Peggy Satterlee would be the girl who received the most flak for being a “loose woman” because she worked as a dancer at a nightclub, and had past affairs with married men. 

Satterlee’s “incident” occurred on a yacht, while Hansen’s occurred at a party. Both are fictionalized in the book, with Lynch reshuffling the chronological order of how Satterlee’s rape happened first on the yacht and when she reported it, the charge was thrown out by District Attorney Thomas W. Cochran. The emergence of a second similar scenario reported by Hansen forced the case to be taken “seriously.” Though who knows why when considering that, in 1943, women were even less respected than they are now. Whatever compelled the DA to take Hansen’s case to the next level, it didn’t do her much good. Nor does it do much good for Sophie either. And, in contrast to Hansen, she’s on the brink of major stardom after starring in a new movie with both Freddy and Nell Parker. A likeable leading lady who has just been saddled with an arranged studio marriage to Charles Landrieu…a leading man also in the “swashbuckling” category like Freddy. The difference is Charles doesn’t act like that offscreen.

Indeed, his vibe is more like “mild-mannered ranch hand.” A man who simply enjoys tending to and riding horses. A sensitive man, if you catch the euphemism. And, by the end of the book, you surely will. His engagement to Nell happens, a little too coincidentally, right after Charles returns from shooting a movie with Hal Bingham and Margy Prescott. Reports from the set offer wild speculations about why the three seemed so inseparable while filming, with many crew members positing a ménage à trois type of relationship that promoted Charles and Hal to “flip a coin” for her. The truth could not be further from that, and it’s one that starts to unravel gradually as Edie O’Dare (changed from O’Shaughnessy), a bit-part actress-turned-gossip columnist, relays the tale from her sidelined, “invisible” perspective. Of course, she becomes much more visible when her column, “Do Tell,” becomes nationally syndicated. 

Before she hits the big time, though, O’Dare, in the spirit of Sheilah Graham and Hedda Hopper, must go up against an “OG gossip columnist” named Poppy St. John (a Louella Parsons sort), to whom she originally funnels information to before deciding she can do her one better by putting out her own intel and actually making a decent living out of it. After all, her contract with FWM is about to be over, and going back home to Massachusetts (especially so many years later) simply isn’t an option. What’s more, she’s even gotten her brother, Sebastian “Seb” O’Shaughnessy, to abandon the East in favor of joining her out in the West. 

And, like most East Coast types, he finds Hollywood both unseemly and beneath him. That doesn’t stop him from writing scripts for a while instead of the novels he would prefer to. Even so, he doesn’t have the same stomach for filth and vileness that Edie appears to. Then again, considering her as a “woman of the time,” most women had no choice but to “grin and bear it” (whatever chauvinistic behavior was meant by “it”). A phrase that, indeed, does bring one’s mind to rape. Something that was only too common—nay, expected—in Old Hollywood. A term that can now also be retroactively applied, in its own way, to the era in which (and just before) Weinstein reigned “supreme.” For it’s almost certain that any subsequent generations of Hollywood (if, in fact, it’s not taken over by AI) would only be able to look back at the epoch that ranged from the late 1960s (this being when all vestiges of the studio system had vanished) to the late 2010s as its own Dark Age (rather than Golden Age) of H’wood. There was no “progress” then, not really. At least, not in anything beyond special effects and cost-cutting. Women were still expected to shrug off bad male behavior as “par for the course” or “all part of the process.” Said process being: climbing the ladder of success. In someone like Marilyn Monroe’s day, that definitely included succumbing to the horrors of the casting couch. 

In truth, many women simply assumed they would have to put out in order to get the role they wanted, to catch that “big break.” All while producers and studio moguls alike did everything possible to break their will instead. Those who couldn’t “hack it” (a.k.a. endure the rampant sexual harassment) would have to leave. And that was fine by the men in charge, for they knew aspiring actresses were a dime a dozen, and there would always be plenty of them willing to “work with” (and not against) the system. Just as Sophie tries to in Do Tell. That is, before she’s taken upstairs by Freddy at the party being thrown in honor of Nell and Charles’ (sham of an) engagement. It’s Edie who sees her, drunk and disheveled, in the bathroom just before any shred of Sophie’s remaining innocence is lost. 

The details needn’t be rehashed; suffice it to say, they’re as gruesome as any sexual assault. Like, for instance, the one Fatty Arbuckle committed against Virginia Rappe at the dawn of the 1920s. Naturally, it was sworn up and down by those in Arbuckle’s orbit that he never would have done such a thing and this was a blatant example of an opportunistic woman (who ended up dead) trying to take advantage of a big star. Ironically, the studio urged everyone in their employ not to speak up for Arbuckle, whereas FWM urges everybody to give nothing but the most glowing reviews about Clarke. Perhaps it’s a clear-cut case of handsome looks being on Clarke’s/Flynn’s side. For Fatty was, well, not just fat but rather abominable-looking. Edie speaks on the reality of good (but relatable) looks working to a star’s advantage when she says, “We like our stars to have flaws, but we like them to have the right flaws—the crooked smile that reminds you of a boy back home, or a beauty mark you might see in a daguerreotype of your grandmother when she was young and beautiful. There’s an art to knowing which flaws are acceptable, the careful line between something that inspires empathy and something that inspires derision or judgment.” Arbuckle did not inspire that, though he did inspire Hollywood to attempt “scaling back” on its libertine ways (or at least to pretend to). This compounded by another salacious news headline from the “the Colony” in 1922 pertaining to the death of William Desmond Taylor. In short, Hollywood needed an image overhaul. A combination of Will Hays and the Great Depression helped plenty with chastening the town. 

Nonetheless, the decadence and debauchery that had been “put aside” after the sinful 1920s was starting to reemerge again as the nation began to come out of its Great Depression. Case in point, Edie’s description of FWM studio head Thomas Brodbeck’s Bel Air mansion: “Anything that could be gilded was gilded, from the molding along the walls to the railings on the staircases. He imported plants from around the world: palms, orchids, birds-of-paradise. Even the staff was adorned with gold buttons and a fresh flower for every lapel. Five years ago, he would’ve toned it all down; it was poor taste to be wealthy while the rest of the country was devastated. But the thirties were nearly over. As we crept closer and closer to a new decade, there was a promise of fleeting abundance—everyone figured they could take advantage of it as long as it lasted.” The subtext to this also pertains to what was once referred to as “tomfoolery.” “Boys will be boys” and all that rot. The thing is, “taking advantage of it as long as it lasted” has endured well into the next century. Mainly because the system designed to favor white men of privilege is fairly indestructible. The world at large and the United States in particular was literally set up by white men, so yeah, it’s hard to obliterate what they established. Not because people are afraid of metaphorically tearing up a document of creeds and tenets, but because it’s been so indoctrinated already that to expel the fundamental belief in so-called male superiority from all of our bodies would probably take a neuralyzer to eradicate completely. It’s there on a cellular level. 

It’s there in the unchecked behavior of every man, “star” or otherwise, in Do Tell. And when Edie confronts her only friend (or the closest thing to one) in the industry, Augustan Charters, to discuss her concerns about the latest “version” of Sophie, Grace Stafford, she ends up telling him that she was the mysterious “Ash Copeland” who sold Sophie’s interview about the assault to a tabloid called the Inquirer. The truth bubbles out of her when Augustan says, “You could have written a hundred columns about how wronged Sophie was, and you know what? The outcome would still be the same. I can’t think of any deviation of events that would lead to justice for Sophie Melrose. America is a country built for men like Freddy Clarke to prevail and he is always going to prevail.” He then crudely adds, “People like us ought to be smart enough to make a profit off it if we can.” Which is precisely what Augustan, as a PR head honcho, does by protecting and valorizing Freddy’s reputation. Edie, disgusted with it all, replies, “I tried, you know. To help her… I was Ash Copeland; I published the interview.” Unmoved, Augustan responds, “And you saw all the good that did.” 

This entire exchange is the crux of why Lynch explained, “While drafting my novel, I felt tempted to write a narrator who stands up to the status quo, who becomes that one person enacting change. And, to be fair, Edie does try. But could it really be a spoiler for me to tell you that she doesn’t succeed?” Not to those who aren’t willfully naive and/or delusional. The same goes for being keenly aware of how resonant the tale of Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee is in the present. Yet Lynch was concerned about “coloring” the story too much with her modern perspective on the matter. However, as Lynch put it, “When I first shared a portion of my manuscript with a few readers, I included a note wondering whether or not I should be concerned that my novel would inevitably be read in the context of the #MeToo movement. I had tried not to bend history to my will and my contemporary viewpoints, but the parts of the novel that felt the most prescient were the parts that I wasn’t making up.” As it is said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Or rather, more depressing and anti-women’s rights. 

For those who might feel that Lynch is “hitting us over the head with” the parallel of Old Hollywood to present-day everywhere, she has this to say: “Look, I didn’t want to be heavy-handed with my treatment of American history—but American history is really goddamn heavy-handed.” On that note, those who criticized the heavy-handedness of a movie like Damien Chazelle’s Babylon seemed to overlook Lynch’s fair point. And yes, in many regards (minus the sexual assault focus), Do Tell is a literary version of the largely panned, rather underappreciated Babylon (and not just because both feature scenes involving exotic animals at a party). A movie that also serves to underscore the reality that, as many have come to understand, the romanticized “glamor” of Old Hollywood was belied by so much exploitation and suffering.

Babylon, in opposition to Do Tell, would like viewers to believe that it was all worth it because it was in service of this incredible modern art form called filmmaking. An art that, at its outset, caused people like Rock Hudson to suppress their true selves for the sake of “image.” The one that the studio system was determined to uphold for the sake of conservative, pearl-clutching America. 

With Do Tell, Lynch doesn’t necessarily offer us the comforting notion that things have vastly changed, so much as the emphasis that they’ve become more “cloaked.” To phrase it like the executive in Barbie responding to Ken’s accusation that, “You guys are clearly not doing patriarchy very well”: “We’re doing it well, yeah, we just, uh, hide it better, you know.” 

Lynch realizes that as much as any woman and, accordingly, has the wisdom to comprehend how “Flynn’s story was only one in a long history of white men in America being pardoned—both by the state and by the public—for their atrocious acts. The script was already written, because it’s been written a hundred times over. There was never an America in which Errol Flynn was going to be convicted.” Because the system was set up long ago to benefit his kind. And it is so enmeshed in the culture that it works all on its own, without any “helping along” necessary. So deep-seated that it would take blowing up the entire system to actually change it. Or, if you’re Ryan Murphy, simply writing a revisionist history about the era called Hollywood as a form of garnering “reparations” for the emotional and physical atrocities that were committed before something protective like #MeToo came along. Even though that has revealed many limitations as far as “protection” is concerned. Just look at what happened to Christine Blasey Ford in the wake of the “movement,” already experiencing a backlash by 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh was inevitably nominated to the Supreme Court. It was just prior to that time when Lynch found herself at a party with many neighbors of the Kavanaughs (“…a block away from my house, for all those years, lived a US Court of Appeals Judge named Brett Kavanaugh”) in attendance. 

As Lynch recalls, “I didn’t know what to say when I listened to the people at that party—all of whom would have proudly voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, would have marched on Washington, would have knitted pink hats—say that it’s not that they don’t believe Christine Blasey Ford, but she might not remember things very clearly from that night decades ago. Brett Kavanaugh was a friendly neighbor, their kids went to school with his daughters, he coached the girls’ basketball team. They were all very, very sorry for what happened to her. But they didn’t think the man they knew, their good neighbor Brett, could possibly have been the man in that room all those years ago.” It reeks of the things that were said of Arbuckle in the wake of Rappe’s assault and eventual death. A man no higher in the echelons of Hollywood than Charlie Chaplin himself said Arbuckle was “a genial, easy-going type who would not harm a fly.” 

The jury got that message three trials later when they finally acquitted Arbuckle of the crime, declaring, “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him… there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime.” And, of course, to discredit the primary accuser on Rappe’s behalf, Bambina Maude Delmont, the “issue” of her history of prostitution and blackmail was brought up as cause for discrediting her account. Rappe, too, was written off as a floozy who probably brought on her own demise because she had, according to testifying witnesses, venereal diseases in the past that somehow could be attributed to causing the health issues that night that led to her death. So you see? History repeats itself. Consistently instructing everyone, including women themselves, not to believe women.

Trying to ignore that just because “we’ve come so far” is something Lynch knows better than to do, citing how growing up with a historian in her family made her learn “you don’t get to alter history: it’s ugly and it’s unsatisfying, but it’s a disservice to the people who lived through it to make their suffering more palatable for a modern audience. I can’t change history. What I can do is tell stories.”

And oh, how well Lynch does tell this one, with the title of the book itself becoming a play on words, an urging for women to keep telling, no matter how many cautionary tales they hear of women before them getting nothing but contempt or, worse still, deafening silence. No matter how many cautionary tales they hear that might try to stun or scare them into remaining quiet. Complacent. Another unnamed victim.

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