Charleston, South Carolina native Paige Goldberg Tolmach is a local girl made good. She co-founded a successful eco products business in LA and recently earned an Emmy nomination for her directorial debut, the documentary What Haunts Us.
Those accomplishments might seem enough for Charleston to take pride in Paige, but to hear Tolmach tell it, the city has decidedly mixed feelings about her.
“Still, in my hometown, right now, they’re really angry at me,” Tolmach tells Deadline. That anger stems from the very film she made, the one that earned recognition in the prestigious Emmy category of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
Tolmach’s film probes a serial molestation scandal that took place at Charleston’s distinguished Porter-Gaud prep school, a subject she says some would prefer go unmentioned.
“People told me, ‘How dare you talk about this?’” she recounts. “‘We worked so hard to sweep it under the rug. Who do you think you are?’”
Tolmach graduated from Porter-Gaud in 1985 and says she was inspired to direct the film after learning that yet another of her fellow alums had committed suicide. Of the 49 boys from the class of 1979, six have taken their lives.
“It’s just a terrible, terrible statistic. I mean, it’s shocking. And the fact that no one has paid attention to this, no one’s noticed this, in all these years? That the school never noticed this, just kind of slayed me,” Tolmach recalls.
What may link the suicides is widespread sexual abuse that went unchecked at the school for a decade. From 1972-1982 Porter-Gaud employed a teacher named Eddie Fischer who cultivated an unusually close relationship with male students. Fischer was a popular, outgoing presence on campus, and took advantage of his position to secretly molest 20 male students.
In her film, Tolmach interviews several of Fischer’s victims including Guerry Glover, one of the few who came forward to denounce his abuser. But the school turned its back on him.
“Guerry, who is the hero of my film, he went to [school] authorities and said, ‘This happened to me.’ And he was inspired to do that because he saw that Fischer was still riding around town with little boys in his car,” the director recounts. “And Guerry said, ‘Enough is enough. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.’ And he tried to get the school to help him. And they didn’t.”
A conspiracy of silence kept the abuse under wraps, in part because Fischer cleverly chose his victims from among some of Charleston’s most prominent families, with reputations of their own to consider.
Porter-Gaud students “are the privileged,” Tolmach observes. “And I think, in that environment, you kind of know that these kids aren’t going to say anything, because it’s how they were raised. Sort of like, ‘Make it go away.’ And it was diabolical. It was an absolutely diabolical plan, in [Fischer’s] brain.”
After one family did tell school officials Fischer had sexually abused their son, he was allowed to quietly leave the faculty. With recommendations from Porter-Gaud in hand, Fischer took up teaching at another private school in Charleston, where he abused more boys.
Tolmach says she approached Porter-Gaud’s current administration about participating in the documentary, but got the cold shoulder.
“I went to them, and I said, ‘I want to make this film, I’d like you to hold my hand, and let’s make this film together, and show this world that it’s not going to happen again on our watch,’” Tolmach states. “And they were not interested in that.”
Since the release of the film on the Starz channel, Porter-Gaud has come closer to seeing things Tolmach’s way. The school’s website offers a statement about What Haunts Us, which reads in part, “The film tells the story of the sexual abuse committed by former Porter-Gaud teacher Eddie Fischer from 1972 until 1982 and the School’s ineffective handling of the allegations… We deeply regret this painful part of our past and the poor manner in which the School treated the victims.”
Fischer eventually was arrested for his crimes in 1997, mostly due to the persistent efforts of Glover. Fischer died in prison in 2002. Although some in the community apparently don’t want further attention trained on the case, Tolmach says it’s vital to confront the issue of sexual abuse of children, whether in Charleston or elsewhere.
“We can stop sexual abuse as long as we’re talking about it. And for me, the film really was the start of that conversation,” she stresses. “I get so many messages from people all over the place who are thanking me for talking about something that no one wanted to talk about. It’s helping them heal.”
What Haunts Us is one of only four documentaries up for Exceptional Merit, a special juried category at the Emmys. It joins Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, Brett Morgen’s Jane and the Oscar-nominated Strong Island, directed by Yance Ford.
Tolmach says when she learned of the honor, she got emotional. “I just started crying. I said, ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
The filmmaker adds, “This Emmy nomination is extraordinary for us, because it takes a topic, the icky topic that nobody wants to talk about, and it gives it a platform. It gives it a lot of attention. And that’s what we want.”