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The mind-boggling end of Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, explained

To make sense of the ending of Trust Exercise, stop thinking of the characters as individuals.

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Trust Exercise by Susan Choi Zac Freeland/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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The ending of Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is hard to talk about. It’s hard even to think about. The first time I read it, I made an involuntary sound of shock that made a friend demand to know what was wrong. In its subliminal, pulsing ambiguity, the ending seems to carry the key to the whole book — this vicious, knife-sharp book — but it’s so hard to figure out just what that key is.

Trust Exercise has three parts. The first and most straightforward tells the story of an adolescent love affair gone wrong at a performing arts high school in the 1980s; it’s a little bit Sally Rooney, a little bit Meg Wolitzer. But the two parts that follow get increasingly more complex, and each one destabilizes the story we thought we were reading just a little bit more.

We can’t say Choi didn’t warn us. It’s right there in the title. Every time we read, we’re doing a trust fall backward into the outstretched pages of a book, and Trust Exercise is designed to make us acutely aware of how vulnerable this action of reading is, and of how many different ways an author might play on that trust.

It’s also designed to examine less playful, more destructive betrayals of trust. Every time Trust Exercise peels back another one of its layers, it becomes more clear that this is a book about young women being preyed on by older men who hold power over them, and how devastating the trauma that ensues is.

To understand how Trust Exercise does this work — and how the ending fits into it — let’s go through the whole book, layer by layer and part by part. We’ll see what each section is telling us, and how they all start to fit together with the revelations of the final section.

Spoilers and discussion of sexual assault follow.

Trust Exercise starts off as a sweet teen love story. Then it gets weird.

Part 1 of Trust Exercise is the most self-explanatory of the book’s three parts. It’s a detached, spiky little adolescent love story about two 15-year-olds, Sarah and David. Sarah is a loner with aspirations toward punkdom; David is a charismatic rich kid with a sensitive side. Unlike the other two parts of Trust Exercise, this section is a dual point-of-view, with the narrator moving back and forth between the minds of both Sarah and David, although Sarah’s perspective dominates.

Both Sarah and David are theater majors at the local performing arts high school, where they study under the domineering Mr. Kingsley. Like cult leaders everywhere, he informs his students that he’ll first break them down (Ego Deconstruction) only to build them back up again (Ego Reconstruction). His classes are big on demented trust exercises, and it’s during one of these exercises that David and Sarah first connect.

Mr. Kingsley turns out all the lights and demands the students make their way through the darkness to touch each other. David, recognizing Sarah by the feel of her bedazzled jeans, takes her thumb into his mouth and kisses her. The two are overcome by a deep and chemical connection.

After a series of tragically teenaged misunderstandings, the pair break up, and it’s here that Mr. Kingsley begins to take an interest in the heartbroken Sarah. He begins to hold her after class for private chats, and this grants Sarah — as it does all of Mr. Kingsley’s pets — immediate social cachet. She has been recognized as damaged, adult in a way none of her classmates are, worthy of treatment that seems to violate the boundaries of normal student-teacher relationships. She starts keeping a lot of secrets from her mother, an academic secretary.

Mr. Kingsley begins to force David and Sarah to do mirror exercises together in front of the rest of the class. He wants them to mine their inner torment for stage work. “I won’t rest until you cry,” he tells David. When the two of them dig in stubbornly, refusing to react as Mr. Kingsley wants, he drops Sarah.

The narrator here walks right up to suggesting that there is something perhaps improper about the way Mr. Kingsley treats his students — something perhaps even sexual. Sarah notes after Mr. Kingsley begins to keep her after class that another teacher at the school once had a crush on her, but she always knew he would never touch her. When Mr. Kingsley begins to take an interest in another student, a boy named Manuel, Sarah reacts with jealousy and fury. She tells Manuel’s parents that he’s Mr. Kingsley’s boyfriend.

But at no point does the narrator go so far as to imply that Mr. Kingsley would ever sexually target Sarah herself. There’s a sort of hole in the narrative where that possibility lies, a place that Sarah never quite brings herself to confront. And anyway, she keeps noting defensively, he’s gay.

As Mr. Kingsley hovers on the verge of irredeemable creepiness, a new set of predatory older men comes to town. The high school is hosting a traveling troupe of high school actors from England, including their most distinguished alum (handsome Liam, 24), and their teacher, playwright, and director (creepy Martin, 40).

But there’s something that seems immediately off about The English People. Everyone else speaks in easy naturalistic dialogue, but in contrast their speech is heightened and warped, like a parody of an English person (“Hasn’t old Lillian taught you to shave, you inveterate son of a smothering mother?”). They seem to be not quite real.

Without quite understanding how it’s happened, Sarah finds herself on a double date: herself with Liam, who she finds weird and a little leering but tries to keep reminding herself is objectively handsome; and her classmate Karen with Martin. Sarah barely knows Karen, who seems a little standoffish, but Karen smirks when she assures Sarah that she and the much-older Martin are “just hanging out.”

The quartet ends up at a party at the home of the absent Mr. Kingsley, and there Liam and Sarah have a sexual encounter that falls right into the dark and murky space between extremely bad sex and a sexual assault. Everything is disgusting but appallingly pleasurable, and Sarah orgasms while moaning, “Nooo, nooo, noooo.”

Afterward, desperate to escape and with no ride, Sarah throws herself on the mercy of Karen’s cool young mother, a secretary who wears lipstick late at night and is delighted to comfort a girl over her boy troubles. She feeds Sarah supplements and tucks her into bed while Karen sleeps in the next room, and that’s where Part 1 ends.

In its second act, Trust Exercise introduces us to the angriest of Karens

Part 2 tells us immediately that we are not in Kansas anymore. More accurately, we are no longer in Sarah’s head: We are in Karen’s instead. Or at least we are with a narrator who calls herself “Karen” with pointed quote marks, and then drops them, assuring us that she is not petty.

Part 1, we learn, was not the real and historical truth. It was a novel written by Sarah about her adolescence, one that Karen considers to be exploitative and dangerously untrue.

Karen recognizes herself refracted into multiple characters throughout Sarah’s book. Her adolescent Christianity has been projected onto two other characters — one nerdy, one cool — and her deep friendship with Sarah, which ended their junior year of high school, has been displaced onto a third. The only characters who have not been kaleidoscoped out in this way, she informs us, are Sarah and David, who were always too self-absorbed to care about anyone else. But Karen, good sport, will go ahead and agree to abide by the names that Sarah assigned everyone else, even though they’re fake.

Karen is angry. Swinging back and forth between first- and third-person within the same sentence, she spits vitriol at Sarah, a mediocre actor in high school who only seems successful now because she chose a replacement talent that anyone could fake: writing fiction. Karen herself went from acting to dance, which requires real commitment. Also she reads a lot of self-help books, and she consults the dictionary and thesaurus for pleasure. She’s been to therapy. She’s built a consistent narrative out of her past. She could have done what Sarah did, if she weren’t too principled to mine her past that way, she informs us.

But Karen has a plan. Martin, the English drama teacher — the one she dated when she was 16 and he was 40 — has been fired from his high school for having sexual relationships with students. David, who is now a local theater director, is incensed. Surely those girls consented? Surely this is a witch hunt? To make it up to Martin, he decides to direct Martin’s latest play.

Karen reads the play, and she concludes that it’s good. Or at least she reads it quickly and keeps thinking about it afterward, which surely suggests that it’s good, she argues. She is struck by the feeling that the play is “stuffed full of invisible silence,” and specifically “a silence of meaning, a refusal to spell out the facts.”

This is as good a description as any for Sarah’s book, which we just finished reading a few pages ago, in Part 1, and was so strangely elliptical, refusing so strongly to spell out the facts. But now we have Karen here, who, assuring us that she is not crazy, decides she’ll have to take control of things. She feels “a strong challenge to enter the play’s silences and to utter their meaning” — and, by extension, she’s going to do the same for Sarah’s book. Pointedly, she eyes those passages about Manuel and Mr. Kingsley’s inappropriate relationship with a raised eyebrow, informs us that there never was anyone like Manuel in high school, and makes a few cracks about projection.

Karen, who is now a professional organizer, organizes David’s production of Martin’s play. She gets herself cast in the only woman’s part, opposite Martin, who flies out from England to play the male lead. She gets Sarah to come to town for opening night and be her dresser, for old time’s sake. She gets a gun that shoots blanks for the scene in which her character shoots Martin’s character, and makes many jokes about Chekhov’s gun.

And on opening night, instead of shooting a blank, she shoots Martin in the crotch. She informs him that he’ll live. He just won’t be the same.

But before Karen shoots Martin, she fills us in on some of the backstory she says Sarah rewrote. She and Sarah, she says, flew to England together the summer after sophomore year to visit Liam and Martin. Liam, devoted to a disgusted Sarah, meets them at the airport, but Martin ghosts Karen. Karen is heartbroken, especially because she is pregnant. She flies straight back to the US, gives birth, and gives the baby up for adoption.

And as she grows up, Karen finds that her experience with Martin has changed her utterly, has warped her. Because despite what she thought at 16, their relationship was not romantic. It was abuse. He was an adult and she was a child, and he abused her.

There’s one more moment in this section I want to linger on before we move on to Part 3. When Sarah arrives on opening night, she’s furious to hear that David has invited Mr. Kingsley. “Mr. Kingsley is part of what happened to you,” Sarah tells Karen, who replies, “And here I thought he was part of what happened to you.”

It’s as though there’s been a collapse in the two accounts of abuse we’ve heard so far. Something seems to have happened between Sarah and Mr. Kingsley, sure, you can get that from all those jokes Karen makes about Manuel and projection — but what does he have to do with Karen? What is Karen not telling us, after her pointed fury that Sarah didn’t tell us everything either?

The final act of Trust Exercise is the shortest and most confusing

Part 3 is the most enigmatic section of Trust Exercise. It features a woman named Claire — ironic, another character tells us, because Claire means “clear,” and yet this Claire fails to make anything quite clear. She’s the baby Karen gave up in Part 2, and she’s looking for her birth mother. All Claire has to go on is that her bio mom attended a particular performing arts high school in the 1980s.

Claire goes to the high school and meets with the drama teacher, a Mr. Lord. At first he says he can’t tell her anything, but then he invites her to his house to see what he can figure out. He tells her about his divorce from his ex-wife, his two adult sons. He plies her with wine. Eventually he tries to force himself on her, and Claire runs away.

Years later, she recalls that when she left the high school on her lone visit, one of the secretaries seemed to recognize her, to know that she looked just like some former student, who must have been her mother. “But by then,” Choi writes, in the final line of the novel, “it was too late to go back and say, ‘Tell me her name.’”

So what are we to make of this?

There’s strong evidence that Mr. Lord is an analogue for the character Sarah named Mr. Kingsley in her book. (Karen told us that was a false name but kept using it.) He’s an institution at the high school, just as Mr. Kingsley was — its king, Claire tells us. In Part 1, Sarah makes a point of noting that Mr. Kingsley’s name is apt, because he’s the king of the school. And there’s a congruence between the names Kingsley and Lord, both suggestive of male aristocracy.

But the Mr. Kingsley of Sarah’s book was gay and childless. And his relationship with Sarah, while not an appropriate student-teacher relationship, was never sexual. Martin and Liam were the sexual predators of the stories we heard earlier — except for that strange exchange between Sarah and Karen toward the end of Part 2, when they both identify Mr. Kingsley as being instrumental to the other’s assault. Yet Martin and Liam were both so artificial, both so fictional in a way that none of the other characters in this novel are.

Part 3 gives us an explanation for that weird off-note of Martin and Liam. It suggests that they were not real. What Karen and Sarah told us happened with them did not happen: It happened with Mr. Kingsley instead.

It’s as though all of the trauma inflicted by a beloved teacher has been projected off onto these weirdos with the British slang, characters it is safe to loathe and be viscerally disgusted by. They allow Mr. Kingsley to remain innocent in the background, an admittedly eccentric but ultimately benevolent source of mentorship and approval.

But Part 3 reveals that Mr. Kingsley was fictional, too. He’s Mr. Lord, and Martin and Liam are also Mr. Lord. They’re all the same person, fragmented into different fictional characters in the same way that Karen saw herself fragmented in Sarah’s book, so that their victims can bear to hate the predator without hating the celebrated teacher.

But what about that bizarre ambiguity about who Claire’s mother is? Why is that where the novel ends? Don’t we know who Claire’s mother is? It’s Karen, right? Who else could it be?

In this book of multiple identities, this book where individuals are refracted onto a cast of different characters so that their true selves can only resolve in the final pages — are we all that sure that Karen and Sarah are different people? Or could they be different characteristics of the same person: someone who is half desperate to hold onto fond memories of her high school romance, to cling to the legacy of the teacher who changed her life, and half spitting mad at all that was done to her and out for blood?

What if all these elliptical, circuitous stories we’ve been reading about boundaries transgressed, trust betrayed, and sex that becomes ever more clearly an act of violence in each progressive scene — what if all of those stories are about the same two people? A young girl, and the teacher she trusted who used his power to prey on her?

On one level, of course it’s meaningless to say that Sarah and Karen are the same person. Trust Exercise is a work of fiction, and Sarah and Karen are fictional characters. Neither one has any “real” stable identity.

But on another level, of course they are the same person. They are the girl who was betrayed by her teacher. They are the woman whose life was ruined by a man who was trusted with too much power.

They are the woman whose story we have been telling, over and over and over again.

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