Prisoner of love

Why is Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old teacher who slept with her 13-year-old student, trying to keep her own book out of American stores?

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The mystery of what a couple is, exactly, is almost the only true mystery still left to us, and when we have come to the end of it there will be no more need for literature -- or for love, for that matter.

--Mavis Gallant, "The Affair of Gabrielle Russier."

You're housed in maximum-security isolation -- what they call the "segregation unit" -- fettered in chains, because you tried to make inappropriate contact with your victim. You're in until 2005, when you'll be released to a world where you'll have to tell your neighbors about your time in the big house as a sex offender. No need for introductions; they'll recognize you. You won't be able to find work; at least not doing what you loved. Your family will have vanished long ago, and the one good thing you've still got, your boyfriend, will be barred from seeing you since, well, he's what got you into prison in the first place.

Needless to say, life in 2005 doesn't look much like life at all. But if you're Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old teacher who got pregnant twice by her 13-year-old student, Vili Fualaau, you were never very good at thinking in the future tense anyway. Fortunately for Letourneau, January 2000 looks almost like redemption.

It's been two years since Letourneau was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for "child rape," and though she might be trapped in solitary, the first mythologies of her romance are finally making the rounds. Of the 10 books once reportedly due out about the case, the one that made it to the shelves, a true-crime paperback called "If Loving You Was Wrong," goes a long way to rehabilitating her reputation. Last week's USA Network movie, "All-American Girl" -- which pulled in the cable network's second-biggest audience ever -- casts her as a martyr for true love, caught inside the gravitational pull of a cocksure teenager. So why is Letourneau determined to make sure that the one best document to make sense of her affair -- the book she and Fualaau co-wrote themselves -- is one American audiences will never read?

It would seem there is little left to reveal. Her biography is now part of the public record. Letourneau grew up in California and Washington, D.C., the daughter of the ultraconservative John Schmitz, a congressman who ran for president as the far-right American Independent Party's candidate in 1972. The household was incredibly strict -- Mary and her three brothers switched Catholic schools to escape taking sex-education classes. In 1982, her father was exposed as having fathered two kids by a mistress, and the fagade of family values split down the middle.

By 1995, Mary was married to Steve Letourneau, a baggage handler for Alaska Airlines, and had four kids. She worked as a teacher at the Shorewood Elementary School in Burien, Wash. That fall, she started teaching Vili Fualaau, an artistically gifted kid from a welfare family whom she had earlier taught in second grade. (The child of Samoan parents, Fualaau had been raised in Hawaii and Seattle by his mom.) Her father, "the man of her life," then announced that he was dying of prostate cancer. A few months later, Letourneau had a miscarriage.

During this time, Fualaau moved from being her student to friend to confidant. In the summer of 1996, he and Letourneau had sex for the first time, and soon enough she was pregnant with Fualaau's child. By the following spring, her husband discovered love letters to Fualaau in the house, a cousin tipped off the school and Letourneau was arrested.

After six months in jail, she was granted parole as long as she didn't see Fualaau. But the next night, Feb. 3, 1998, police found Fualaau and Letourneau in her parked car with $6,200 in cash, a load of baby clothes and her passport. Letourneau was sent back to prison to serve out the balance of her full sentence.

Media scandals on the scale of Letourneau are industries of facts, and Gregg Olsen, author of "If Loving You Is Wrong," finds them everywhere. He just doesn't know when to stop finding them. His strongest sections -- and the ones most sympathetic to Letourneau -- focus on her childhood and relationship to her father (whose own pattern of adultery, Olsen suggests, may have given Letourneau ideas).

The final section, titled "Commodity," expertly catalogs the corrosive role the media played in the affair. But at a certain point, right about when Olsen describes Letourneau's father's mistress "tying a hair around her son's penis" -- a penis narratively several times removed from the main story -- you begin to realize that all these apergus won't amount to an argument.

Because Olsen got no access to "Buddha" (as Fualaau was nicknamed) or his mother, Soona, and had only limited time with Letourneau, the book has been composed from the testimony of friends, friends of friends, the erstwhile baby sitter and those "who knew the situation well." You've got to admit Olsen is dogged; it's as if he vacuumed up the stories of everyone who intersected with Letourneau and then emptied the bag onto the page. (This might come, in part, from desperation. In his author's note, Olsen discusses how difficult it was to get interviews in an era of "checkbook journalism," where secondary characters demanded $70,000 or more for their stories.)

But as exhaustively reported as Olsen's 372 pages are, a strange prudery hangs over his book. He has witnesses talking about Letourneau and Fualaau showing up disheveled at school and at home, but he avoids the sexual details. And prudery, in Letourneau's case, is a political choice. When Letourneau announces that she's pregnant with Fualaau's first baby, it seems like an immaculate conception. It's not like this information wasn't available.

The pre-sentencing investigation records, first revealed in a Spin article by Matthew Stadler, get to the point: Fualaau "stayed overnight at her house once more when the two of them fell asleep in their chairs after a long talk ... He asked her to come and sit next to him and she complied. He held her and she could feel that he was aroused ... She then made the decision to 'relieve him of this forcefulness' ... She described that incident as the 'beginning of the end.'"

The beginning of the end happens, albeit modestly, in the middle of the USA flick "All-American Girl," and it's most assuredly not a rape. The sex scene comes as the crescendo of their affair and not the start of it. He's been coming on hard for months, asking her at recess, "How do you know if you're good?" That summer night in 1996, after a fight with her husband, she and Fualaau find themselves at her home alone. Fualaau tells her, "I can't wait any longer," and she straddles his forcefulness, wearing her bra until the fade-out. It's tactfully if safely done (something of a shift for the network known for screening grade-Z horror flicks of the "Sorority Girls and the Creature From Hell" variety).

The film is also surprisingly tasteful in its avoidance of tabloid polarities about their affair (like Mary Kay = Sorority Girl, Vili = Creature From Samoa). Instead, it opens by subtly contextualizing her crime: a group of female sex offenders in treatment go around confessing their crimes -- burning their kids with cigarettes, forcibly "penetrating" them. Letourneau, sitting among them, looks on horrified.

There's so much evidence mounted in Letourneau's favor -- her cold, abusive husband, his affair and Fualaau's principal-may-care eye-lock -- that the affair comes off as soap-opera inevitable (with the soundtrack from "Badlands" laid on top for that fugitive cred). "Vili pursued me as a man pursues a woman," Letourneau testified. "He has the dominant sexual urges."

It's not hard to believe. Most reports about Fualaau describe him as acting much older than 13, and certainly not a virgin. Even his mom calls him "an old soul." If the film could be faulted for anything, it's that it smooths out other differences between them, not simply the age divide. Fualaau's life has obviously been polished and de-ethnicized for prime time. As Stadler, the author of the Spin article, notes, "I guess 'nonwhite poor boy' doesn't work on TV unless he lives in a brownstone."

But these problems are native to television. In terms of the factual accuracy of the story, "All-American Girl" is impressively straight. Sonny Grosso, the producer of the flick (and the ex-cop behind "The French Connection" and, weirdly, "Pee-wee's Playhouse"), claims that the quality comes from the fact that the screenwriter interviewed Letourneau for two weeks and used direct quotes in the screenplay. Letourneau, however, has been burned by that process. In fact, it's her efforts to control her own voice that explain why she now stands between her publisher and her own book.

At the height of the Letourneau controversy, the French publishing house Laffont contacted her lawyer, Bob Huff, asking whether Letourneau wanted to write a book about the affair. "Most American publishers were looking at this as an icky story," says Huff, "but the French saw it as a love story."

The French also had a precedent. In 1973, 30-year-old Gabrielle Russier, a schoolteacher and mother of twins, fell in love with a 16-year-old student. The pair traveled secretly across Italy together, until the boy's parents found out, forcibly separated them and brought charges against her. Since France has no age of consent law, Russier was tried on the charge of ditournement de mineur, or causing a minor to leave home. She was acquitted, but as soon as the verdict was handed down, the prosecutors took up an appeal. Battered by the trial and the toxic radiance of being a cause cilhbre, Russier committed suicide before the second trial could begin.

To the French publishers, Letourneau suggested a blond version of the martyred Russier, trapped in Puritan America. Huff brokered a $200,000 advance for "Un Seul Crime, l'Amour" ("Only One Crime, Love"), which went to Fualaau and a trust for the couple's two children. The book was scheduled to come out both in French and English. Bob Graham, an Irish journalist, was flown over to interview Letourneau and Fualaau, but frustrated by the prison's restrictions on seeing her, he eventually left and did the rest of his interviewing by phone.

When Letourneau got a copy of the hastily assembled manuscript last year, she claimed that the book was crowded with misquotations and inaccuracies. It's a somewhat unusual allegation, considering that the whole premise of the book is a direct transcription of her testimony, a jailhouse memoir. It's hard to believe that Graham, who didn't even bother to cook up segues from one incident to the next, would take the time to rewrite her quotes.

Letourneau's other objections suggest that the real problem lies elsewhere. According to Huff, Letourneau is upset about the inclusion of Fualaau's mother's testimony as the book's prologue. "It was supposed to be just her and Vili's book," says Huff. In her section, Soona Fualaau defends Letourneau from the rape charge, but attacks her for the adultery. "I know myself, that it wasn't rape, and God knows it too," Soona writes. "Yes, it was adultery, that I don't dispute." (Huff also admits that Letourneau was upset that he took Fualaau to France for the book tour. "She was supposed to take him to France," he says. "All her fairy-tale shit.")

Despite Letourneau's complaints about the book, Huff, as he puts it, "did an end-run," completed some interviews with Fualaau himself, and sent an approved manuscript to Paris. "Had I not done that, we would have been in total breach of contract and the book would have never come out," says Huff. The book has now been published in France, where it was a book-of-the-month selection. Rights for Italian and Japanese editions have been purchased.

But because the contract with Laffont gives Letourneau final say over the English edition, her solution to her unhappiness was to edit the book to death. She has made revisions to 28 of the 33 chapters and demanded "approval" over Fualaau's sections as well. (There's no financial impetus here -- as a convict, she can't make any profit from the book.) Laffont got so fed up with her orneriness that it put the English publication date on hold. Since then, her editor has left Laffont. Huff no longer represents her. The book has fallen into limbo.

But there's another reason that the book is missing in action, one that must scare Letourneau. "Un Seul Crime, l'Amour" is entirely too accurate about the yawning psychological divide between her and Fualaau. Every love affair is, of course, two stories masquerading as one history. Up through the trials, Letourneau and Fualaau maintained that they were in love and that there were no victims.

But a reading of the French book reveals the fissures in that neat fiction: Mary Kay keeps to the lovelorn longing and Vili sticks to the lust. "Her idea of the book was this romantic valentine to the love of her life and he's just talking about boinking the teacher," says Olsen, who read an English translation while working on "If Loving You Is Wrong."

Fualaau reveals that he bet a friend $20 that he could seduce Letourneau (a fact that also surfaces in "All-American Girl"), claims they had sex "200 or 300 times" and boasts of his sexual conquests with other girls. Recurring accounts of sex in the car -- their only available trysting spot -- run through his narrative like a leitmotif.

Meanwhile, Letourneau's sections are sweet, often pleading. "We took, I know, a road different from others, the road less traveled," she writes. "But we're no longer in the Middle Ages, when they burned women, the unfaithful, the witches, who dared to love outside their marriage." She also swoons over their two kids, who are currently cared for by Soona. (Her original kids now reside with their father in Alaska.)

For Fualaau, the idea of being a father was "overwhelming." The disjunction of their voices makes the possibility of a continuing relationship seem all the more doubtful. Gabrielle Russier's romance may have ended in a tragedy, but also a fermata of devotion. Judging from "Un Seul Crime, l'Amour," the Letourneau-Fualaau affair may be headed for divorce before marriage.

Admittedly, being interviewed for the book might have prompted the macho Fualaau to exaggerate, to front a swaggering persona. Then again, the book may be a map of his "growth." Since Letourneau went to prison, Fualaau, now 16, has been arrested for second-degree robbery and been suspended from school several times.

Flash back to his sixth-grade yearbook -- a project that served as the cover for much of their burgeoning affair -- and Fualaau describes himself as a "truthful, grateful, and a strong warrior ... Who fears nothing but endings, and sad stories ..." There's a precocious tenderness there that Fualaau may be leaving behind as he makes his way toward adulthood. Letourneau fell in love with him while he was in transit. And how long can you love someone who is changing?

By Austin Bunn

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