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Survivors of Sexual Abuse From the Powerful Face a Hard Road Back

The James Toback film “Black and White” was supposed to be an opportunity for Tina Nguyen to show off her improvisational skills. Gutsy, outgoing and determined to pursue her passion, Nguyen had garnered early buzz after transitioning from working in the music business to acting. Now, she was eager to prove herself.

She had just been hired on the production in 1998 when Toback lured her to a second meeting at his home. He asked her to perform a monologue, instructing her to recall her most painful memory for inspiration and to do so while changing her clothes. Sensing her unease, Toback explained it was an exercise countless other actresses had performed and would allow him to gauge her emotional depth. She reluctantly went along with it. After she finished and was putting on her shoes, the director dropped to his knees, humped her leg and quickly ejaculated. Just moments earlier she had revealed to him in the acting exercise the excruciating trauma of being molested as a child.

“I spiraled into a deep depression for months,” Nguyen recalls feeling after the experience. “I was unable to leave my house out of fear, and I blamed myself. I suffered PTSD and would visibly shake at auditions. I lost that fearless confidence I once had and I quit. I was never the same.” Nguyen’s story was corroborated by two other individuals with whom she had shared her experience. Multiple efforts to reach Toback for comment were unsuccessful. The director has gone on record denying the more than 300 accusations made by women against him.

Even now, Nguyen, 44, continues to second-guess her actions of that night. In a two-hour meeting with Variety last week at a West Hollywood park, she vacillated between holding Toback responsible and scrutinizing her own decisions to overlook the red flags leading up to that encounter.

“I’m haunted and terrorized by the choices I made,” concedes Nguyen. “When it comes to my experience with James Toback and the film, I chose to go upstairs in his townhouse after being hired and told we wouldn’t be alone. I chose to share my deepest pain of being molested, and he used that pain against me for his own perverse needs.”

In the weeks since the toppling of Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein for alleged sexual harassment and rape, Hollywood has experienced a tectonic shift in which long-silenced victims are reclaiming power and finding safety in numbers. Joining Weinstein is a growing roster of alleged perpetrators including actor Kevin Spacey, former Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, NBC News journalist Mark Halperin, APA talent agent Tyler Grasham, Nickelodeon showrunner Chris Savino and others. The stories vary in gravity — from suggestive innuendos to groping to requests for sexual favors to outright assault — but they nonetheless illustrate how perpetrators have acted largely with impunity for years and in some instances have been protected by victims’ signing nondisclosure agreements in exchange for settlements.

But lost among the broader discussion of horrific misbehavior by powerful individuals is the long-term impact on their victims: diminished mental health, destroyed careers and problems trusting other people in their interpersonal relationships.

“Every individual is different,” says Jennifer G. Long, CEO of AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women. “Victims have varied responses. Some individuals withdraw from their personal and professional lives. … On the other hand, other individuals you may find throw themselves fiercely into their professional work. They may overachieve and show no outward signs that they’ve suffered.”

The stories from men and women who have shared their experiences on social media through the #MeToo hashtag underscore the many ways victims cope with the trauma.

Experts say the road to recovery depends on many factors, including whether a person has a strong support system in place or whether he or she has experienced past sexual trauma.

“These are experiences that are extremely disruptive to a person’s sense of well-being,” says Kristen Houser, a spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “It’s such an overwhelming experience. It’s a betrayal of trust. It leaves people with a sense of ‘Can I even trust my gut to make decisions that don’t put me in jeopardy?’ It can be very profound.”

Marc Wasserman, an activist attorney and a producer, recounts his personal story of sexual harassment with a tinge of regret as he describes succumbing 30 years ago, as a young actor, to a casting director’s instructions to strip naked during an audition.

When the actor realized the casting director had videotaped the meeting without his knowledge, he left and on the drive home pulled over to throw up.

“It was very embarrassing and humiliating,” Wasserman, now 49, tells Variety. “When I look back on it, I just couldn’t believe how I did that, that I just willingly and unknowingly listened to this guy.”

Wasserman’s father recalls that he wrote about his son’s incident in his journal when it happened. He remembers that the casting director told his son that “a good clean body is necessary if you’re going to model or be seen in Speedos.”

Wasserman, who is now married with three young children, says he largely focused on the positive direction his life took after that fateful audition. Uneasy with the power dynamic that had been leveraged against him, he no longer wanted his career to depend on individuals who could exploit their roles as gatekeepers in the industry.

He went to law school and later formed his own production company, eager to find independence. He would use the firm as a force for good in an industry rife with workplace abuse.

“In holding my own auditions with other actors and actresses, I remember going through that whole process of wanting to make sure they were comfortable and that they were feeling respected,” Wasserman said. “If they have talent, it’s not going to be up to me to make or break their career.”

Wasserman also came forward with his story because he wanted to dispel the myth that only women experience sexual assault in the entertainment industry.

“Everything you’re seeing and hearing is women,” he said. “It gets lost in there that this happens to men and boys. … It’s not gender specific. Unfortunately there are all these people out there who have been getting away with it for so long.”

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