Alone one night in her Manhattan hotel room five years ago, filmmaker Allison Anders prepared to throw away a decade of sobriety. Lining up liquor bottles she had pulled from the minibar, Anders convinced herself that getting drunk was the only way to dull the anguish she still suffered over being gang-raped at age 12. “I’d been in therapy, I’d been in several mental hospitals, I’d worked on getting over it for years,” she says. “But I hit a crisis.”
A phone call to her mother helped her resist temptation. It also led to a breakthrough. “I was like, ‘All right, I gotta do something,’ ” says Anders, now 46. ” ‘I gotta go back there.’ ”
“There” was the single-story house in Cocoa Beach, Fla., where, in spring 1967, Anders was hanging out in the living room with a group of neighborhood kids, including three brothers whose parents owned the house but were away. Without warning, the boys forced Anders into a bedroom, where she was attacked. They were never arrested—in part, says Anders, because she was too ashamed to tell anyone (even her own mother, who didn’t find out until years later).
The rape “literally shattered my spirit,” she says. But the acclaimed director of 1992’s Gas Food Lodging and 1994’s Mi Vida Loca says she has undergone a remarkable healing process, thanks largely to her latest film, Things Behind the Sun (airing this month on Showtime).
The fictionalized story of an aspiring rock singer, Sun includes a graphic gang-rape scene—filmed in the very house where Anders was attacked. Returning to the scene in June 1996, a month after her hotel-room catharsis, “could have been very masochistic,” says Anders. But a tour of the house (now owned by another family) “made me feel better [about myself],” she says. Though she had kicked and screamed during the assault, “for years,” she says, “I had carried the guilt of ‘Why didn’t I hit them on the head or something?’ ” Once she saw that the hallway outside the bedroom led to a dead end, she recalls thinking, “My God, you couldn’t have gotten away!”
When she shot the rape scene in May 2000, “I thought the experience would be a secondary trauma for her,” says the film’s star, Kim Dickens. “But she was almost in a joyful place about it at that point.”
Happiness had been an elusive goal for Anders, whose parents divorced when she was 5. At age 15, Anders moved to L.A. with her mother, Rachel, now 63 and a former songwriter (who was pregnant with sister Dominique at the time), her sister Luanna, 12, and their stepfather. There she suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized for two years. Released into foster care, she made several suicide attempts before running away at 17. By 1977 she had become a single mother to two daughters by two different men: Tiffany, now 27 and a musician, and Devon, 24, a film production assistant.
Things turned around in 1982, when Anders and then-lover Kurt Voss enrolled in UCLA’s film school. Nine years later she made her solo directorial debut with Gas Food Lodging, about a single mom raising two teen daughters. (In 1995 Anders adopted a son, Ruben, now 11.) While preparing to shoot the more painfully personal Sun, she reunited with her childhood friend Mary Craig (née Burke), who had witnessed the rape but agreed to keep silent. Anders then got the phone number of one of the three brothers who’d attacked her. “I don’t really remember you,” she recalls him saying before hanging up. But from his sister, Anders says, she learned that the siblings had suffered “the worst case of child sexual abuse I had ever heard of” at the hands of their father. That revelation, she says, helped Anders forgive her attackers.
“Since making the film, she has seemed much more at peace with herself,” says Voss, her co-screenwriter. Anders agrees. “I will never have another crisis about this,” she says. “It’s over now. That’s the amazing thing. Five years ago I walked around as if the rape was still happening. Now I can go, ‘Oh, that was seven minutes of my life.’ ”
Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles