I woke up to the news that Mary Kay Letourneau passed away on July 6th. She’d been suffering from colon cancer and spent the last month in hospice care. Her ex husband, Vili Fualaau, was at her side taking care of her. This would not seem like such a strange thing, except that Mary Kay Letourneau did seven years in prison for raping Vili when he was almost 13 years old. She’d been his teacher in both the second and sixth grades. Although Mary Kay Letourneau was regarded as an excellent teacher who, to my knowledge, was not a habitual sexual abuser, for some reason she couldn’t resist Vili Fualaau. It cost her everything, including her freedom and access to her four children from her first marriage.
Mary Kay Letourneau also had two children with Vili. They were married in 2005 and split up in 2017, finally divorcing in 2019. I remember reading that the split was mostly because Vili wanted to start a marijuana farm and couldn’t do so legally as long as he was married to a felon. In spite of their divorce, he was with Mary Kay until the end, even though she was technically his rapist.
Mary Kay Letourneau’s story was certainly unusual. In the late 1990s, she was a fixture in the tabloids. Lots of people had, and still have, very strong opinions about her. Just this morning, there’s a thread on RfM about Mary Kay Letourneau’s passing. A couple of posters are steadfastly taking people to task for expressing sadness that Mary Kay died. I am one of those they’re judging. They claim I’m a “rape apologist” because I expressed condolences. Incidentally, I remember a few months ago, someone else on RfM implying that I’m a racist because I described the people who punctured our tire in France as “swarthy”.
The person who implied I’m a racist is also among those claiming that anyone who empathizes with Mary Kay Letourneau is a “rape apologist”. I guess this puts me right down there with Donald Trump. Actually, I think these folks, both of whom are very intelligent, but sometimes quite rigid and argumentative, are guilty of extreme black and white thinking. And they seem just fine with telling other people how and what they should think, too. I’ve learned that there’s no point in having discussions with people of that ilk because it goes nowhere. Their minds are made up, and they simply aren’t willing to consider other viewpoints.
I often get into trouble with people because, for the most part, I try not to engage in black and white thinking, even when it comes to what should be done with rapists, child molesters, and murderers. Perhaps it’s because of my social work training, although maybe if I had actually had to do a lot of work with victims, that “open-mindedness” might have gone out the window. I see most people as capable of being and doing good things, even if they’ve committed a heinous crime. I like to hope that most people are redeemable on some level, even if I know some of them aren’t.
Anyway, my thinking about this case is what it is. I don’t tend to think of most people as all good or all bad. For instance, I despise Bill’s ex wife, but even she has her redeeming qualities if I stop and think about it for a moment. She could have been much worse than she was, although she was certainly bad enough. She did some really terrible things to people– to include rape. But I can still think of worse people in the world. I also realize that whatever I think of her, she still has loved ones who wouldn’t want to see her dead. Or, I assume she does, anyway.
I had a social work professor who did a lot of work in prisons with domestic abusers and child molesters. While that work is certainly considered distasteful to a lot of people, it’s very necessary, just as defense attorneys are necessary to advocate for people who are accused of crimes. My professor explained what it was like to work with pedophiles and child molesters (there is a difference). I remember thinking how difficult it must have been for him to work with that population, but I later came to realize that working with them was a kindness. He provided a much needed service for the offenders, but also for anyone who has to deal with the offenders, including their families and other incarcerated people.
A person can be a pedophile, but not a child molester. A pedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have molested children. It could be that they’re just attracted to them and have fantasies. A child molester molests children, but may or may not find them sexually attractive.
Many people think that someone who victimizes children should simply be executed. I can understand why people feel that way. Children are innocent and powerless, and they are never in a position of strength over adults who victimize them. I agree that people who harm children must be punished and prevented from harming other children. However, many people also have issues with the death penalty. Although I grew up being all for executing criminals, my mind changed as I came of age and saw the death penalty unfairly administered. I read horrifying accounts of innocent people being exonerated, sometimes after they had already been put to death. So now, I’m mostly against executing people, unless it’s a matter of public safety, there is absolutely no doubt of the person’s guilt, and there is certainty that given the opportunity, they would offend again. I think it’s something that should be done exceedingly rarely.
What should we do with someone who confesses to being a pedophile, but never actually harms a child? If someone dares to admit to those feelings, especially to someone with training in counseling, should we just round them up and shoot them? Or should we offer them some kind of help? Do pedophiles have any intrinsic worth as human beings, despite their attraction to children? Can they be salvaged? Do they deserve compassion and understanding? As my professor said, people who are attracted to children are dealing with a very powerful drive. If they are brave enough to seek help before they hurt anyone, and even after they’ve hurt someone, I think that should be encouraged.
I also don’t think that all sex offenders are created equally. What Mary Kay Letourneau did was certainly very wrong. She did rape a child. But she was not on the same level as someone like Warren Jeffs, who repeatedly victimized scores of women and children for many years.
From what I have read about the Letourneau case, the relationship Mary Kay had with Vili wasn’t violent. He could not legally consent to having sex with her when they first got together, because he was a child. She certainly abused her power by giving in to having sex with him when she was his teacher. But he was, apparently, her one and only victim, and for whatever reason, he later married her and willingly stayed with her for years.
Did Vili have the right to make the decision to marry his rapist as a consenting adult? Yes he did, even if I don’t agree with his decision. It would not have been right for the government to say that he couldn’t marry his abuser, even if most people think it’s icky and wrong. Americans value their freedoms, as we’ve especially seen during the coronavirus pandemic. And Vili, evidently, did not consider Mary Kay Letourneau abusive, even if the law says differently. Mary Kay was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which may have had some bearing on her behavior, too.
I don’t see Mary Kay Letourneau as a monster, even if I definitely don’t condone what she did. I think what matters most is what her victim thinks. Vili Fualaau was Mary Kay Letourneau’s victim, not me, and he hasn’t been a child in many years. Apparently, he loved her, despite what she did. Mary Kay Letourneau went to prison for her crimes against him. She did her time, and to my knowledge, did not reoffend. She can’t ever hurt anyone else because she’s now dead. Colon cancer is also not a very pleasant way to die.
I don’t understand Mary Kay’s and Vili’s relationship, but since Vili is an adult, I respect his choices, and yes, I am sorry for his loss. That does not make me a “rape apologist”. Aside from that, Mary Kay Letourneau was still the mother of six people. I don’t know what her children think of her, although I did read that she managed to “mend fences” with her eldest children. Her daughter, Mary Claire, was even the maid of honor at Mary Kay’s wedding to Vili. They’re probably sad that she died. Or maybe they aren’t sad. They’re entitled to whatever their feelings are. As a fellow human being, I have empathy for them. It’s not my place to demand that they hate her or be glad she’s dead. It’s not my place to demand that anyone thinks or feels the way I do. It doesn’t mean I admire Mary Kay Letourneau or think she was a paragon of virtue. It means I see her as a flawed human being who suffered and is deserving of basic compassion. There are people who loved her and will miss her, in spite of her shortcomings as a person. And I am sorry for their loss.