You may not have heard of the Porter-Gaud School, but it’s a very big deal in Charleston. Formed in 1964 by a merger of the Porter Military Academy, the Gaud School for Boys, and the Watt School, it’s where local movers and shakers send their children to be educated. One assumes that parents willingly shell out for Porter-Gaud tuition ($17,570 to $20,750, depending on the grade level) so their children can have the best possible education, not so they can be molested by a faculty member, and yet, as documented in Paige Goldberg Tomach’s new film What Haunts Us, the latter was exactly the experience of some Porter-Gaud students.
Tolmach noticed that she seemed to be receiving a lot of notices of suicides among her Porter-Gaud classmates and she wasn’t wrong: of the 49 boys who graduated from Porter-Gaud in 1979, 6 committed suicide over the next several decades. The reason was not far to seek: for decades Porter-Gaud had employed a serial predator and turned a blind eye to fairly obvious indications that his behavior ranged far outside the limits of acceptability.
Eddie Fischer, a teacher and coach, had a reputation as a cool guy, who invited students to his house and let them drink alcohol. His nickname, “Fast Eddie, ” was more accurate than anyone knew at the time, because Fischer was a hustler of the most reprehensible type. He groomed students, sexually abused them, and persisted in doing so secure in the knowledge that he’d get away with it. Faculty and administration covered up for him, his victims were too afraid or unwilling to speak up, and the other members of the student body treated him as a harmless joke. One school assembly was even enlivened by a skit portraying one of Fischer’s well-known practices, that of telling students to “drop your drawers” no matter what kind of injury they had.
The music stopped in 1997, when one of Fischer’s victims, Guerry Glover, filed a suit against the school. Two years later, Fischer was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and a year after that, school principal “Skip” Alexander and headmaster Berkeley Grimball were found negligent for failing to protect students (Alexander committed after news of Fischer’s predatory behavior became public). Millions were paid out in settlements to the victims, although of course that doesn’t bring back any of the suicide victims, nor does it begin to repair the damage done to any of Fischer’s other victims and their families.
What Haunts Us consists primarily of interviews, most notably with an incarcerated Fischer, who is sometimes candid about his crimes and sometimes seems to have a conveniently faulty memory. Past events are sometimes illustrated with paintings, others with photographs, news clippings, and similar archival materials. It’s an effective approach that keeps the focus on the story being told, rather than the means of telling it. What Haunts Us was nominated for a 2018 Emmy and is currently available from several streaming services.
The general outlines of Fischer’s story are sadly familiar, and the real point of What Haunts Us is not so much that a terrible man did terrible things, but that so many others who probably think of themselves as good people allowed him to do it. Fischer’s playbook is not that different from that of many other predators, nor is the official response to him. After all, how many times did the Catholic Church transfer known child molesters to positions where they would have access to children, while never making the nature of their crimes public? The behavior of the Porter-Gaud victims is also sadly familiar—often the boys blamed themselves rather than the adult who was molesting them, or the other adults who failed to stop the molester. One victim could think of no way out except to provoke his own expulsion through cheating. If anything is going to change, those in power have to take responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable, because there’s always another Eddie Fischer looking for his or her next victim. | Sarah Boslaugh