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America’s confused obsession with Mary Kay Letourneau

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/9/2020 Monica Hesse
a person looking at the camera: Mary Kay Letourneau married her former sixth-grade student after she was convicted of raping him. © Alan Berner/AP Mary Kay Letourneau married her former sixth-grade student after she was convicted of raping him.

Until reading that Mary Kay Letourneau had died this week at age 58, the last time I remember being shocked by her name was in 2009, after stumbling across an online flier promoting a “Hot For Teacher” night at a Seattle sports bar. The DJ was Vili Fualaau, the man Letourneau had raped when he was 12 or 13 and she was a 34-year-old teacher. The evening’s special guest star, in a plug that the bar obviously expected to play well with fans, was Mary Kay Letourneau.

By that point she was sometimes going by Mary Kay Fualaau. She’d married her victim upon her 2004 release from prison. Their timeline — briefly, for those who weren’t glued to news in the mid-1990s — was as follows: In 1996, police found Letourneau in the back seat of a car with Fualaau, but she wasn’t arrested until nearly a year later when she was already pregnant with Fualaau’s daughter. Discharged from prison after serving only a few months, she immediately disobeyed court orders and saw him again. They conceived another child. Letourneau went back to prison, this time for six years.

Entertainment Tonight negotiated “exclusive access” to their wedding. The show meted out details about secret invitations and luxurious motor coach transportation. “Mary Kay and Vili trusted ET and The Insider to tell their story,” a producer gushed at the time.

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If the fawning coverage seems nauseating to you, or at least head-spinning, then you have properly situated yourself with an unobstructed view the facts of this story. Mary Kay Letourneau was a rapist, but there was a faction of the population that was still willing to treat this as a fairy tale. 

There were the newlyweds, now 43 and 22, posing with their two daughters in flower-girl white. A decade later, there was the couple again, celebrating their 10th anniversary with Barbara Walters. Letourneau loved watching Fualaau with their daughters, she told Walters in the interview. Fualaau was frustrated by accounts that portrayed him as a victim, he said. Letourneau hoped to teach again, she said, if only she could get off the sex offender registry.

Every bit of this was confounding. Did Letourneau actually believe she should again be given access to children? Was Fualaau wrapped in protective self-denial, convincing himself that he’d been an equal participant in what was obviously a predatory relationship? Were we wrapped in denial, forcing a now 30-something man to be labeled a victim for the rest of his life?

For a while in the 1990s and early 2000s, pretty female teachers molesting their underage male students seemed like an epidemic. Christine McCallum and Christine Scarlett, Debra LaFave and Hope Jacoby. But then you started to wonder whether it really was an epidemic or whether tabloids just knew they could catch a lot of readers by trawling through the Myspace profiles of pouty social studies instructors and detailing how naughty they’d been. Female students abused by male teachers have encountered their own measure of victim blame but not usually accompanied by the same level of tittering: the implication that these horny teenage boys probably wanted it, and were lucky to get it.

“There are still people who are shocked and disgusted,” Walters said in an interview about her interview. “But, you know, they’ve been married 10 years.” It wasn’t clear what Walters considered to be the appropriate moral statute of limitations — the duration of time in which the marriage between a rapist and her victim eclipses the crime — but it seemed that in her mind, Letourneau and Fualaau had cleared it.

There was the couple, year after year. As societal conversations about sexual assault became more nuanced, Letourneau stuck stubbornly to the simpler narrative that they were star-crossed soul mates. Or maybe that this was a manifestation of every adolescent boy’s fantasy. Repeatedly, she insisted that he had been the pursuer (hot for teacher and all). When prompted, he agreed.

Would we believe it? Would we buy the idea that deeply disturbing origin stories can end with happily-ever-afters? Or would we always suspect that sometimes damage runs so deep that a happy ending is really just a victim telling himself, and Barbara Walters, what he needs to in order to make the story of his life — and the relationship that shaped it — make sense?

Eventually the relationship ended. The couple filed for legal separation, finally splitting residences last year. Letourneau got sick with cancer and died on Monday. A lawyer for the family told People magazine that Fualaau had been at her side. “He knew that this was Mary’s end coming, fast moving, and for her sake and the family’s sake, and for his sake, he came back up and was with her, and it meant the world to her.”

I couldn’t help but notice, back a few years ago, that it was Fualaau who had filed the court documents for separation.

By then they would have been married 14 years, a reputable length for any marriage. Fualaau was in his mid-30s, about the same age Letourneau had been when she encountered Fualaau in her sixth grade classroom at Shorewood Elementary. On an Australian television program featuring the entire family, an interviewer asked Fualaau what he would say to his younger self.

“Don’t do it!” he said, laughing.

He added that he regretted nothing because he loved his daughters. They were college-aged at the time of the interview. Barely adults. Still years older than their father had been when he met Mary Kay.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.

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