It was six years ago that Paige Goldberg Tolmach chose to revisit her dark past.
The filmmaker is an alumna of Charleston’s Porter-Gaud, a onetime all-boys military academy that morphed into a co-ed high school where beloved teacher and coach Eddie Fischer was a sexual predator who preyed upon young boys.
Tolmach chose to chronicle the real-life tragedy in her latest film, titled “What Haunts Us,” in hopes it will raise awareness on student molestation occurring in schools.
“I think it’s a story that kind of sat in us for so long,” Tolmach told Fox News. “Really haunted us for so long. And needed to be told. But I don’t know when really any of us were going to start talking about it. And then I became a mother.
“And the world became a different place. And I started seeing things really differently. And I think that’s what really compelled me because I love my little boy. And I just needed to understand what happened at my school because I need to protect my son now.”
Charleston-based newspaper The Post and Courier reported Fischer taught at Porter-Gaud from 1972 to 1982, and subsequently at College Preparatory School and James Island High School. He was discovered to have abused about 20 boys at Porter-Gaud, and as many as a reported 50 total.
Fischer was arrested in 1997 as a result of persistent efforts made by one of his victims, Guerry Glover, who claimed to be abused by his teacher from age nine until nineteen. In 1999, Fischer was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In 2002 Fischer died while serving time. Former Porter-Gaud principal James Bishop Alexander killed himself in 1998 — just days after he was reportedly scheduled to discuss sexual abuse allegations against his friend, Fischer.
Tolmach said there have been six suicides of men from the 1979 graduating class, in particular, since the scandal became public. She started as a fourth-grader in 1977 and graduated in 1985.
“There were two while I was making this film,” she claimed on the suicides. “And I think there were about 12 altogether [from the school]… It’s a hard thing for people to talk about… But look at what something like this did. Look at what it did to all of these boys and their families… The wife of one of the men who died came to a screening I had in Charleston.
“She hugged me and thanked me and said, ‘I understand now. I understand more of what he was going through.’ … Even now, it makes me want to cry because she and her children deserved to know the whole story. And it’s part of why I made the movie. We all deserved to know what happened. And why it happened.”
Tolmach admitted that growing up, her impression of Fischer was far from horrifying.
“I really liked Eddie Fischer,” she said. “He was charming and charismatic. He was very, very kind to me… And he didn’t pay attention to that many girls.
“He was a charming guy. If you were in the Eddie Fischer group, you were cool. If you were one of the boys that hung out with Eddie Fischer, you were one of the cool boys… You were special. That’s how he made you feel. I think that’s part of the grooming and part of the scam.”
Tolmach revealed there were rumors in the school of young boys who went to Fischer’s home, hoping to be his new friend and part of his coveted circle. While some victims came forward to share their terrifying experiences in “What Haunts Us,” Tolmach insisted they were initially hesitant.
“It was extraordinarily difficult,” she explained. “That’s why it took so long to make this movie. I spent the first two and a half, three years just really forming close bonds… I needed them to know they could trust me.
“I felt so honored that they were actually able to share their stories with me. So I worked very carefully to gain their trust. But so many more people would not tell their story. And as we know from the film, there were so many more people who didn’t even survive this tale. So they couldn’t tell their stories. And that was heartbreaking.”
Tolmach said the world may never know exactly how many boys were sexually abused by Fischer. She claimed several families have called her since the film premiered in several festivals to share their harrowing experiences.
She said it continues to surprise her at just how many victims have continued to come forward.
“Many people came out and were so grateful and happy that I was telling the story,” said Tolmach. “And a lot of people were not. They were still really, really angry at me for shining a light on a story that we had worked so hard as a community to sort of sweep under the rug. And how dare I bring this up again? And I was kind of shocked, but I guess I should have known that going in.”
Since “What Haunts Us” premiered, Tolmach said none of Fischer’s family has reached out to her. But she’s more interested in how the story can further raise awareness on similar cases occurring across the country, as well as encourage victims of sexual abuse to speak up.
“We do need to talk about this,” she said. “We do need to arm our children. Empower our children without fear… We need to talk about it all the time. We need to have a dialogue about this. And we don’t. And that’s why it keeps happening.”