Both heartbreaking and immensely informative, Gwen van de Pas’ documentary Groomed details the trauma inflicted on her as a child by a trusted adult who betrayed that trust in the most heinous way possible. Decades later, when the long-buried memories of the sexual abuse and rape she suffered resurface as nightmares and panic attacks, she uses filmmaking as a way to process the experience and figure out how to move on.
Van de Pas grew up in Holland and competed on a swim team; it was one of her coaches who started abusing her around the time she was 11. But before he assaulted her, he groomed her: earning her trust (and that of her family), making her feel special, and encouraging her to keep secrets. As van de Pas discovers as she interviews experts — and a convicted sex offender — he followed the predator playbook to a T. And he wasn’t the only one. Van de Pas also talks to and bonds with fellow victims, people who were abused as children by adults they loved: a father, an uncle, a priest.
As she tells her story — which involves revisiting the abuse with her parents and also deciding whether or not she wants to report her offender to the authorities — van de Pas lays out the specific stages of grooming, which makes Groomed a valuable tool for anyone who wants to know what to look out for and help protect kids from being targeted. When van de Pas recognizes her own experiences in the practices of groomers, it is both enraging and a relief: Finally, she has a name for what happened to her, and she can begin to believe that it really wasn’t her fault.
Van de Pas shares many of her deeply personal moments in the documentary, from her conversation with her brother when she tells him what happened all those years ago to a raw video call with her husband after she’s just discovered that her abuser may have had other victims. But it never feels stagey or manipulative. Rather, it feels like the brave actions of a woman who is determined to speak up and show the world the truth.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: Using her own childhood molestation as a starting point and through line, filmmaker Gwen van de Pas shines a light on the practice of grooming. Assailants work to gain control and the trust of children and teens, easing their way into assaults that leave their victims with lasting trauma and, in too many instances, no justice. Often unable to contain her powerful emotions as van de Pas revisits her painful past and attempts to heal and to hold her abuser accountable, she lays bare the devastation visited on victims. Supplementing her own story are those of others who survived similar experiences, as well as observations of psychologists and even a sex offender – who provides the film with some of its most chilling moments in his recollections of his actions coupled with his insistence that this is not the man he wants to be, an assertion that rings hollow. It is a chilling documentary, made more so by the knowledge that there are predators among us. The film is also a call to action that adults recognize the signs of grooming and stop abuse before it can start.
Marilyn Ferdinand To look at Gwen van de Pas’ enviable life as a business consultant based in San Francisco who has a successful, supportive boyfriend and a loving family in The Netherlands, you’d think she hadn’t a care in the world. She thought so, too, until she started thinking about having children and began having frightening dreams about following a man across a swimming pool deck and into a private shower where blood starts appearing everywhere. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Director Gwen van de Pas finds a path toward healing by sharing her excruciatingly painful story of child rape in Groomed. What the abuser she still cannot name did to her spirit, by making her feel special and loved as he abused her is more devastating that what he did to her body. She invites us in as she talks to experts, other survivors, and a one-time abuser who shares his experience. “I’m ungroomed,” she says at one point. As hard as it was to learn he was acting out of power and selfishness, not love, it frees her. And sharing her story will help other survivors, even, perhaps especially, those who have not yet recognized that they’ve been harmed.
Susan Wloszczyna: Director Gwen van de Pas, who lives in San Francisco as an adult, turns the tables on that scenario by being able take control of the narrative of own sexual abuse story. As a pre-teen in Holland in the late-‘90s, she was part of a swim team whose male assistant instructor singled her out for special attention. She continues to be haunted by how her sexual abuser systematically made her feel special while taking physical liberties with an under-aged child. Van de Pas uses the medium of film to perform a kind of exorcism for her and others so they can move on with their lives. Read full review.
Marina Antunes Groomed is a term heard often among survivors, their families, the doctors and specialists who care for them and while it’s often depicted in movies, TV and books, the act is rarely referred to by name. Filmmaker Gwen van de Pas gives resonance to the term in Groomed, a personal and deeply moving film in which van de Pas confronts her own abuse and comes to terms with the fact that what happened to her was not her fault. At times difficult to watch but van de Pas’ journey is cathartic and empowering.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Groomed is the utterly personal, heartbreaking, and compelling story of documentarian Gwen van de Pas’s journey to report the swimming coach’s assistant who abused her beginning when she was 11. Not all documentaries that feature the filmmaker as a subject work on a universal scale, but this one does. It’s impossible not to feel invested in Gwen’s story. Van de Pas also interviews other survivors of child abuse, all of whom were abused by men close to them (a priest, a church leader, an uncle, even, horrifyingly, a father). Psychologists, and most chillingly, a remorseful former abuser, are also included, breaking down and explaining how grooming works. It’s a difficult documentary to sit through, and audiences should be sensitive to the trauma it highlights. It’s also a powerful reminder of how important it is to discuss the topic of grooming, so adults and children alike can attempt to recognize it before it turns to abuse.
Leslie Combemale It is astounding that someone is willing and emotionally armored enough to use their own sexual abuse to the betterment of a documentary. It’s one thing to be drawn to the subject, it’s another thing altogether to fearlessly inject your own experience. Such is the case with director of the documentary Groomed, Gwen van de Pass. There’s no question that the film is hard to watch, in fact, it’s excruciating. It feels like the ultimate example of why trigger warnings were invented. Even if it hasn’t been your own experience, it would be a challenge to come out of the viewing unscathed. Still, it’s a film that everyone should watch with their own kids, hard as it may be. Van de Pass herself was unprepared for how she was singled out and made to feel ‘special. May this documentary go beyond highlighting the problem and prepare young girls for the darker elements so many unexpectedly face as they grow to adulthood.
Jennifer Merin Gwen van de Pas’ intimately personal Groomed is a documentary that calls forth audience compassion, concern and engagement. But the film has another component that makes it a must see for all parents. It shows clearly that Gwen van de Pas and the other survivors of child abuse who are featured in the film were ‘groomed’ by their predators — a swimming team coach, a father, an uncle and a priest — to submit to the abuse without telling anyone about it and to assume that they were ‘bad’ and at fault for their victimization. It outlines the ways in which predators manipulate and con their vulnerable young victims and details the steps they take one by one. As van de Pas recalls and relives her childhood trauma and revisits the difficult the past with her father, and as she interviews the other victims who appear in the documentary, the perpetrators’ predatory practices and tactics and variations on those practices and tactics become clear. A discernable pattern emerges. This truly important information is delivered in Groomed. Parents and those who take care of young children should heed the skillfully delivered message. Read full review.
Loren King San Francisco-based filmmaker Gwen van de Pas’s painfully honest, deeply personal examination of her own sexual exploitation and abuse becomes a larger cautionary tale. Part video diary, part legal thriller, Groomed is grounded in Van de Pas’s compelling journey to come to terms with her trauma. She recounts her years as a preteen swimmer in her native Holland and how the adult man who was sometimes a teammate and sometimes her swim team instructor gradually earned her trust and confidence before he became her abuser. Through her own memories and interviews with others who share similar experiences, she tracks how abusers frequently target vulnerable young women and men with friendship, attention and praise and often ingratiate themselves into their families. It’s a pattern that is also disturbingly detailed in other documentaries, from Netflix’s “Athlete A about the US women’s gymnastics team to Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil about clergy sexual abuse and An Open Secret about teens snd preteens sexually preyed upon within the movie industry. Groomed taps experts, psychologists and even a convicted sex offender for insight but it is Van de Pas herself as well as the other abuse survivors who offer the most courageous and compelling testimony. Groomed is powerful, necessary and cathartic, for both filmmaker and viewer.
Liz Whittemore This deeply personal doc confronts trauma head-on as filmmaker Gwen Van De Pas wagers whether to report her childhood abuser. Comprised of intimate interviews with other sexual abuse survivors and sessions with psychologists, this is the first step in a long journey towards healing herself and her family. The behavior of preditors may even sound familiar to you, as the experts file through the steps of grooming. The film also highlights the injustice that remains prevalent in court systems. The statistics for conviction are staggering. An important watch for parents and children alike, Groomed is a story of extraordinary bravery and determination to stop the cycle. Read full review.
Cate Marquis Groomed is Gwen van de Pas’ exploration of her own long-suppressed abuse by a swim coach starting when she was 11 years old. The California-based, Dutch-born filmmaker’s journey takes her back to her childhood home, and to therapists and those who work with survivors where we learn about how child sex abusers “groom” their victims for abuse. Through interviews with those who work with convicted offenders, with psychologists, and even with other child abuse survivors, Groomed delivers an eye-opening and also empowering look at the topic and the filmmaker’s own healing journey.
Directors: Gwen van de Pas
Release Date: March 18, 2021
Running Time: 84 minutes
Language: English, Dutch with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Gwen van de Pas (documentary)
Distribution Company: Discovery+
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin