Everyone has seen television films based on the experiences of real people, and wondered how it must feel for them to have the most intimate details of their private lives unveiled in front of millions of viewers. Why do they consent to it? What do they hope to achieve? Do they have any chance to participate in the process?
One person who can answer these questions is Sharon Simone, an adult survivor of child abuse who, with her sister, sued her father — a former FBI agent and child abuse expert — and won judgment in a landmark case that is rewriting national law in this area. Simone’s story will be told in ULTIMATE BETRAYAL, which aired Sunday, March 20, 1994 on CBS-TV 9:00-11:00 p.m. (ET). Marlo Thomas stars as Simone.
“After a story about our case appeared on ’20/20,’ we were deluged with calls from television producers,” says Simone. “We talked it over, my sisters and I, and decided to go ahead.”
We knew what we wanted the television movie to do and not to do”, she says. “There’s already too much attention paid to abusers and the violence they commit, and I don’t believe that helps people. We wanted to show people the personal consequences of not dealing with abuse — consequences I hadn’t faced myself until my relationship with my children began to fall apart. We talked to a number of companies, and chose Hearst Entertainment because they seemed responsive to most of our requests, and thoughtful when they disagreed with us. They told us flat out, for example, that we couldn’t have final approval of the script, but that we would be involved in every step of the production process.”
Simone and her three sisters brought together the producer/director, Donald Wrye, the writer, Gregory Goodell, and a therapist for a marathon two-day session in which memories, feelings, and resentments were confronted and explored in depth. “This was really the first time all four sisters had sat down together to talk about our family at length with support”, Simone says. “It was very emotional. It plunged the production people into the situation, showed them the damage that had been done, let them get to know us as individuals. Other discussions followed over a period of months, and Simone reviewed approximately ten drafts of the script before it went to final.
Sooner or later, in any fact-based movie, comes the time when actors and actresses have to be chosen to play the real-life people. When Simone heard that she was to be played by Marlo Thomas, she was delighted.
“She’s a woman who’s always stood up for the rights of women and children”, she says. “She does things right, with her whole heart. Integrity seems to be her base, and I admire that.” Simone and Thomas conferred repeatedly over a period of mine months, with the actress questioning Simone at great length about her actions and her feelings. It wasn’t a one-way street.
“Marlo told me about her own private feelings, some of her own pain. We agreed completely that shame is most powerful when it’s kept a secret. When it’s let into the daylight, its power disappears.”
The two became so close that when the time came for Simone to see the show at last, she asked Ms. Thomas to watch it with her. “I was in Los Angeles, where Marlo had done a press event for the film, and we went into her hotel room and put it on the VCR. I was sitting there crying and when Marlo saw me she started crying. When it was over”, I said. “My God, you got it exactly right. You’ve given me a gift of healing for my whole life.”
And how does Sharon Simone feel as the air date nears? “Grateful and thrilled. It’s such a relief to know the truth will be out there. There is an ironic proportionality about it. As imprisoned, silenced and numb as I felt before — that’s how relieved I feel now.”
ULTIMATE BETRAYAL also stars Mel Harris, Ally Sheddy, and Kathryn Dowling. Donal Wrye produced and directed for Hearst Entertainment.