In a Controversial TV Movie, Teen Actress Roxana Zal Tackles a Taboo Subject—Incest

updated 01/16/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/16/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Even though 14-year-old Roxana Zal's screen credits include playing a motherless survivor in Table for Five and a nuclear-holocaust victim in Testament, her parents were reluctant to see their teenager cast as "Daddy's girl" in Something About Amelia, a Jan. 9 ABC-TV movie. Says Roxana's father, Los Angeles investor Hossein Zal, "We told her whoever does that stuff [in the film] is not normal."

"That stuff" is incest, a hitherto taboo subject on prime time. (Although the Princess Daisy miniseries this season titillated viewers with allusions to "forbidden love" between Daisy and her half brother, Amelia was touted as the first frank treatment of the subject.) Anticipating a flood of telephone calls, the network had its affiliates line up local social service agencies, and then flashed their phone numbers onscreen at the end of the movie, for children or parents personally concerned about incest.

Roxana, whose parents let her decide whether or not to take the role, had her own way of dealing with the script. "I figured it was like child abuse," says Roxana. A vivacious honors student, she learned about incest "when I was pretty young, probably from a friend in school and then the movies. I don't really remember. It was like learning about the birds and the bees." She has never known anyone victimized by incest. As for her Iranian-born father, she says, "He is a very special dad who has always been there when I needed him."

The only time during filming that Roxana lost her cool came when Amelia's mother, played by Glenn (The Big Chill) Close, refuses to believe her daughter's accusation. "The worst thing is that her mother calls her a liar," says Roxana. "During that scene my eyes filled with tears." If faced with incest in real life, she says, "I think I'd be able to tell my mom, and I'm pretty sure she'd believe me."

Another reason Roxana may have been able to handle the part was that the moments of sexual intimacy were not presented on-screen, although Ted Danson is shown eyeing his daughter with adult interest. Ground rules had been established. "ABC stipulated that father and daughter were not to be shown in bed together and further that there be no scenes showing the father going into the girl's bedroom and closing the door behind him, which would be even worse," says executive producer Leonard Goldberg. The drama, instead, focuses on the aftermath of Amelia's confession—her guilt, her parents' denial and finally the family receiving help from court-appointed therapists. (A psychologist-consultant, Dr. Stan Katz, was hired by ABC to oversee the two-hour production. See accompanying story, p. 91.)

The adult actors apparently were personally affected by the filming. Close found the experience "painful." Most ill at ease was Ted (Cheers) Danson, in real life the father of a 3-year-old girl. Danson says "a kind of boy-girl relationship developed, and I thought, there but for the grace of God..." In one run-through, Danson recalls, "Verbally, Roxana was being flirtatious, doing toe dances on my nose. I don't know if she was joking or not. I was thrown for a loop."

Since the filming, Zal has returned to her ninth-grade class at a Santa Monica junior high apparently none the worse. Popping a wad of bubble gum, she says, "I just hope Amelia helps one person. If it does, I'll feel I really, really accomplished something."

Amelia's psychologist, Stan Katz, advises families faced with incest

How true to life are the sordid revelations of incest in Something About Amelia? Though every case is different, the TV depiction is reasonably representative, according to Dr. Stan J. Katz, 34, the film's medical consultant. A Beverly Hills psychologist with a Ph.D. from UCLA, Katz, married and the father of three, has evaluated more than 300 child-abuse cases as an expert for the Los Angeles superior court. He teaches professionals at the Children's Institute International of Los Angeles about the emotional devastation of child neglect, molestation and incest.

Incest, Katz says, occurs in all socioeconomic classes and is more common between a father and daughter than between other family members. Precise statistics are impossible to come by, but some authorities estimate that up to 12 percent of American girls between the ages of 5 and 17 are victimized. Appearances can be misleading. "The man next door who goes to church and gives to charity," says Katz, "is sometimes a perpetrator of incest."

As to the whys, theories abound. "Some experts believe these men are self-loathers and need to do something to deprecate themselves further," he says. "Many that I see are confused; they exploit their children to fill their own immature, egocentric needs for sexual gratification. Some fathers rationalize their acts by saying they had poor sex with their spouses and it was all right to have sex with someone else. Others claim they were drinking and weren't responsible. Well, alcohol and drugs do not cause molestation; they are just excuses to hide guilt."

Amelia's reluctance to reveal the incestuous relationship is the standard reaction. "In many cases the victim never tells, feeling she can't betray her father's confidence, thereby magnifying her guilt and shame." And if she does tell (in Katz's experience, kids 5 or older rarely make this up; under 5, it's difficult to tell), the mother typically disbelieves the child. "Who'd want to believe that her husband has had sex with her daughter?" he asks. "So the initial shock is converted into anger toward the victim who has made those disgusting allegations. This anger rarely manifests itself in a physical way. The mother's emotional rejection of the child is itself traumatic enough."

In the film the father ultimately admits his crime. A judge's "no-contact order" separates daughter from father, who moves out of the home but remains out of jail while his case is being evaluated. The rest of the family, first separately and finally together, is counseled by a psychologist. The film strongly suggests that however long, the painful process of reconciliation may take, Amelia's family may one day reunite.

Katz admits to some reservations about the resolution of the story, which he considers idealized. Child-abuse laws vary from one jurisdiction to another, he says, as does the availability of outside help. "That's the scary thing about Amelia. Kids may confess what's happening, and the repercussions may not be as positive as they are in the film. The child has to endure the shame of being interviewed by police, testifying in court and being told she's a liar by many people. The father may go to jail, and the parents may get divorced," says Katz, who estimates that in about half the cases where the father admits incest, the family will split up within a year. "That makes the child a victim twice over—once by being molested and now by being blamed for the family breakup."

Even so, he argues, "there's a certain healing process that goes with admitting the act and being treated. Without therapy the victim will learn not to trust anyone, thus making it difficult to form loving relationships. A girl who has been abused may grow up and marry an abusive husband, feeling that's what she deserves. If a boy is abused by his father, he may grow up to be an abuser. Sometimes the boy may fear that he is a homosexual, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As for the abusive father, without therapy it is possible that he will abuse other children in the family."

Katz recommends that victimized children should immediately tell someone they trust. "Usually this will not be their own parents, since one is the perpetrator and the other is blind to the problem," he explains. "The child should therefore tell whomever she feels comfortable telling—teacher, counselor, clergyman or perhaps a friend's parents. If a mother suspects incest, she should let the child know it's okay to talk about it with her, that it's not the child's fault and that the mother will be emotionally supportive." The mother could either report it to the police or seek professional help for the family from private therapists, a public mental health clinic or appropriate self-help groups (Parents United, for example). "What we're saying in the film is, it's better to intervene no matter what the consequences," says Katz. "Children should be protected."

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