psychology, true crime

What makes someone an authority?

Yesterday’s debate about the legitimacy of Mary Kay Letourneau’s relationship with her ex husband and former student, Vili Fualaau, made me do some thinking. The two women on RfM who insisted that Letourneau was irredeemable and deserved no mercy were actively shutting down anyone else’s opinion, even going to the point of accusing commenters disagreeing with them of being “rape apologists”. After awhile, a man joined in the fray, also agreeing with the women. He left me a comment, even though I was “out” of the active discussion.

The man who left me a comment claims to be a victim of sexual abuse. In his comment to me, his very first question was “Were you a victim of sexual abuse?” He followed it with several statements about his experiences as a sexual abuse survivor, as if that made him some sort of expert on the subject.

I’m not sure what he was expecting my answer to be. My guess is that he assumed I have not been abused, and therefore could not relate to the experience. But, in fact, there is sexual abuse in my past. I have written about some of it in this blog. The rest, I prefer to keep private, because it’s really no one’s business. I also suspect that some of my memories of it may be repressed. I don’t remember anything truly awful happening to me on the level of rape, but for some reason, I’ve always had a very hard time trusting men. I’ll just leave it at that.

The other two commenters qualified themselves too, as they rabidly took anyone to task who didn’t cheer about Mary Kay Letourneau’s death from colon cancer. They seemed to be working as a tag team. Perhaps they know each other offline. One of them claimed the other has a law degree from a very prestigious university out west. Maybe she does, although one might wonder why she spends so much time on a message board for ex Mormons if she’s a brilliant lawyer.

On the other hand, I’m “overeducated” myself for my lot in life. Maybe people don’t believe that I did any time in graduate school. It’s not like I carry my diplomas in my purse. Either way, I only know about them what they post, just as most people only know about me what I post. There’s no proof of their claims about their credentials, although both women (I assume, based on their monikers?) are clearly very articulate and intelligent. Both are quick to argue with other posters with an air that they’re always right, regardless of the subject.

For whatever’s it’s worth, Rolling Stone magazine also agrees with them that Mary Kay Letourneau was a terrible person who was romanticized by the press. I can agree that the press did kind of make Mary Kay out to be more sympathetic than perhaps they should have, particularly back in the late 1990s, when this was hot news. There was even a made for TV movie done about her.

Penelope Ann Miller was a good casting choice. As to the movie itself, it’s been years since I saw it.

A couple of years ago, there was a documentary about Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. I remember watching it and thinking Mary Kay came off as less of a predator and more as someone with serious organic mental illness. However, given what she did, there is no doubt that legally, she was guilty of child rape, which is definitely wrong in the eyes of the law. For whatever reason, her victim didn’t see what she did as wrong, even if almost everyone else does.

I don’t personally know anyone involved in this case. I have no idea what any of them are like, other than what I’ve read about them. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I try to be open-minded as much as possible about most things. I often try to give people the benefit of the doubt, too, although I’m not always able to do that.

I can’t picture myself speaking to Vili Fualaau, who is now a grown man in his late 30s, insisting that he has no right to be sad about Mary Kay Letourneau’s death. I can’t see myself grabbing him by the lapels and shaking him, demanding that he see her the way that many other uninvolved people see her– simply as a child rapist. He was the main victim in this case, although others have rightly noted that others were also victimized– her ex husband, her children, her colleagues, and her other students, as well as extended family members who have had to live with the shame and notoriety of her crime.

But many of those same people who knew Mary Kay Letourneau privately also didn’t know her as simply a child rapist. Those people have the right to their feelings, whatever they may be. Ultimately, that was what I was trying to get at when I initially fell down the rabbit hole on RfM. I was not one of Mary Kay Letourneau’s victims. I don’t approve of what she did. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around how and why it happened. I don’t have all of the facts. But when it comes down to it, she was a human being who had loved ones, including the man she victimized when he was a child. What right do I have to judge him for the way he says he feels? And what right do other people have to judge me for how I feel? Feelings are just that.

I have written in this blog about one of the men who sexually abused me when I was growing up. When I think about it, there were a number of instances involving people besides him, although they varied in severity and regularity. The man I have written about is the one who stands out the most to me. What he did wasn’t on the same level of what Mary Kay Letourneau did, although it was clearly abuse. I didn’t see it as abuse at the time.

It wasn’t until I spoke to mental health professionals that I realized that what he did was sexual abuse. Some people might see that as a problem. No one wants to be an abuse victim. In some ways, making that realization made things somewhat worse for me. It became something I felt like I had to hide. I never told my parents the full extent of what happened. Even if I had done that, back when it was happening, I’m not sure they would have done anything. I suspect they might have even blamed me for it.

I don’t know what Vili Fualaau’s life is like. However, it doesn’t appear to me that his life was ruined. He has two daughters. He was married for about fourteen years, which is longer than some marriages last. From what I can tell, he hasn’t turned to a life of crime. He’s not, to my knowledge, a sex pest himself. In spite of being a victim of child rape, it looks like Vili is doing somewhat okay. But I really don’t know. I only know what’s he’s told everyone.

I remember watching Montel Williams back in the early 00s, when he had a talk show. One time, he did a show on child sexual abuse survivors. I remember he got very emotional and shouted something along the lines of, “These victims’ lives are RUINED!” It bothered me that he said that. It seemed like an awful lot of power to give to an abuser, as it also seemed to diminish the power of the abused. Who is he to say whose life is ruined? It’s not his experience. He’s not an authority on their lives!

My life hasn’t been ruined because of what I went through as a child. I don’t give my abuser that much power, or really, that much regard anymore. I don’t even hate him, even though according to the women on RfM, simply based on what he did, he was someone unworthy of any compassion or sympathy. What he did was wrong, but that didn’t make him a person without any value. He had some good qualities. One thing I remember about him was that he was an incredible gardener. Also, our dog, Rhonda, loved him and used to run to greet him when he’d come home from work every day.

So… I guess my point is, I’m not an authority on anyone’s experiences but my own. I am in charge of my thoughts and feelings. No one necessarily has the right to tell me that my opinions are *wrong*, because they’re just that– opinions– not facts. You may disagree or disapprove of my opinions, but I still have the right to them. Shouting me down, either literally or in written form, doesn’t make you “right”. It makes you an insufferable blowhard. My experiences as a sexual abuse survivor don’t make me an expert on sexual abuse as a whole. They only make me an expert on my own experiences. Likewise, I think Vili Fualaau is the best person to determine if his experiences with sexual abuse ruined his life. From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t look like they have.

Sigh… I probably need to stop spending so much time on RfM, too.


2 thoughts on “What makes someone an authority?

  1. Well said – here’s how I think of it: if I don’t have any relationship with a person, I don’t have any rights to judge that person. Full stop.

    But this social media weapon in my hand sure makes it easy to strike out from my own damaged experience, doesn’t it… yeah, that’s how I’ll justify my actions

  2. Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I understand what they’re saying. What Mary Kay Letourneau did is horrible. But I feel strange “diagnosing” Vili as “damaged” if he doesn’t seem to feel that way about himself. Logically, I guess I might expect he is, but I don’t know for sure. Hell, all I was really trying to do was express condolences, and for that, I got labeled a “rape apologist”. If they only knew.

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