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Mary Kay Letourneau, the grim inspiration for May December, explained

We still don’t know how to talk about Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau.

A couple sitting on a sunny concrete wall and leaning back on a grassy verge.
Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau during a photo shoot at her beachfront home April 27, 2006, in Washington state.
Ron Wurzer/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In many ways, the country isn’t ready to revisit and reassess the story of Mary Kay Letourneau and her sexual-abuse-victim-turned-husband Vili Fualaau. In 1997, Letourneau, a beloved 35-year-old Seattle-area schoolteacher, shocked the nation when she was revealed to be pregnant by Fualaau, her then-13-year-old student with whom she’d been having sex for nearly a year. The story fueled tabloid media for months, with Letourneau pleading guilty to two counts of secondary rape but insisting on reuniting with Fualaau — and giving birth to two of his children before he turned 15.

Perhaps because it was difficult to look at too closely, however, the story of Letourneau and Fualaau fell out of the media spotlight just when it became really layered: after their 2005 wedding. Despite the circumstances of their relationship and the 22-year age gap between them, the couple stayed married for nearly 15 years. They divorced in 2019, with sources claiming the relationship had “run its course.” Letourneau died a year later, of cancer.

The Letourneau-Fualaau saga now regains the media spotlight thanks to Todd Haynes’s star-studded drama May December, arriving to Netflix on December 1. In this fictionalized version of the story, an actress (Natalie Portman) cast in a film about analogues Grace and Joe (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) shadows the couple to witness their superficially happy relationship, only to realize things aren’t as they seem.

What society wasn’t ready to confront at the time of the scandal — and what seems shockingly clear to us today — is that Letourneau meets the definition of a pedophile: someone whose preferred sexual object is a child. She spent years grooming her target, then strengthened her ties to him through the legitimacy afforded her by motherhood and marriage. The way we talk about predatory behavior has evolved tremendously since then, but the way we understand what happened to Vili Fualaau hasn’t necessarily evolved with it.

The film doesn’t purport to tell the real story. It introduces a key fictional character, and fictionalizes key details, like the way Grace and Joe meet, portraying them as pet shop coworkers, not teacher and student. In addition, the production chose not to consult with Vili Fualaau about his experience, even though it’s the key inspiration for a performance by Charles Melton which has since won critical acclaim, including a Golden Globe nod and a likely Oscar nomination. This gap combined with Haynes’s slippery tonal choices for the film, means that it’s difficult to read May December as a faithful recounting of a real event. But that also means it’s more important than ever to understand what actually happened between Letourneau and Fualaau — a crime we’ve avoided confronting as a culture for too long.

The unsettling relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau

Letourneau came from a large family — one of seven children born to white, wealthy, privileged, extremely conservative parents. Her father, an Orange County politician named John Schmitz, was notorious for his antisemitic, homophobic, and misogynist public remarks; he was banned from the notably extremist John Birch Society for being too extremist.

Letourneau’s father was embroiled in a sex scandal with a student. In the late ’70s or early ’80s, Schmitz, who was then in his 50s, was teaching government at Santa Ana College when he began sleeping with one of his students, then in her 40s. The two had a multi-year affair that resulted in the birth of two children. In 1982, the affair came to light after a bizarre incident in which one of Schmitz’s two children by his student was taken to the hospital because hair had become tightly wrapped around his penis — so tightly it was almost severed. The resulting investigation forced his mother to confess who the boy’s father was, a revelation that severely damaged Schmitz’s political career.

Letourneau, who never professed her father’s politics, grew up pretty and popular. She married her college sweetheart, Steve Letourneau, after she became pregnant, and the two moved to the middle-class Seattle suburb of Normandy Park. As a teacher, Letourneau was described as having “boundless energy,” a fact later attributed in part to her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She seemed to balance huge bursts of creativity with extreme recklessness. She gained a reputation as an “exceptionally gifted” teacher and loving mother who was devoted to her four children by husband Steve.

Because Fualaau, a Samoan American, was a minor, his identity was withheld for most of the ’90s, which meant the narrative of their relationship was entirely dominated by Letourneau’s version of it — and she portrayed them as star-crossed soul mates who just couldn’t help themselves. She ascribed impossible traits to Fualaau when she met him in second grade, gushing to the Seattle Times that she somehow recognized in the child a mutual “respect, an insight, a spirit, an understanding between us that grew over time.”

Letourneau described lavishing Fualaau with attention, giving him special focus as a teacher, taking him on trips, and showering him with gifts. By the time Fualaau entered her class again as a sixth grader, “He was my best friend. We just walked together in the same rhythm.” Letourneau gave a similar narrative to Oprah, insisting that Fualaau had “called” to her and that he was “the love of my life.”

Today, most people would probably find this narrative horrifying, the frank confession of a pedophile who spent years grooming their target. The gifts and attention she heaped on him would doubtless raise numerous red flags as signs of a predator. But in 1997, these actions went largely unremarked upon, while Letourneau’s attorney, David Gehrke, defended her in terms that read as jaw-dropping in 2023:

“This was a child she took an interest in, not unlike one of us might have taken an interest in one of our teachers,” he said. “She did a horrible thing ... but we all make mistakes. She’s a very good person who did a very bad thing.”

The idea that Letourneau did something understandable and that Fualaau was actually a lucky kid was bandied about throughout the media of the time. Outlets gleefully reported Fualaau’s claim that he “bet a friend $20” that he would have sex with Letourneau, allegedly long before they started sleeping together. The double standard that applied to Fualaau as a male victim is striking, even in the small details. For example, when Steve Letourneau learned about the abuse by discovering his wife’s letters to Fualaau (the tipping point that ultimately led a relative to notify authorities), his instinct was not to confront her about whether she had been sexually assaulting a student, but to go to Fualaau’s house and confront him, demanding whether he was sleeping with her — as if Fualaau were merely the other man in an illicit affair.

Equally telling was the repeated insistence of Fualaau’s mother, Soona Vili, that her son was mature beyond his years — “an old soul trapped in a young body,” she told the Seattle Times. In court in August 1997, just two months after Letourneau gave birth to her son’s child, Vili said in a prepared statement, “I don’t feel that this is a crime. My son does not feel victimized.” She urged the court to be lenient in sentencing, and initially the court agreed: Although the standard sentence for two counts of second-degree rape was between five and seven years, the judge originally suspended most of Letourneau’s 89-month sentence, instead ordering her to serve just six months and receive treatment for sexual offenders. Vili took custody of Letourneau’s newborn daughter during her brief prison stint.

A key condition of Letourneau’s parole, however, was that she eschew all contact with Fualaau. Letourneau, still claiming to be “in love” with her victim, violated this term immediately. A month after her release — after serving just three months of her original six-month order — police discovered Letourneau and Fualaau together in Letourneau’s parked car. Police found over $6,000 in cash in the car and noted that Letourneau appeared to be planning to flee the country with him. Instead, she was sent back to jail to serve out the remainder of her seven-year sentence — now six weeks pregnant with her second child by Fualaau.

While serving out the remainder of her prison sentence for this offense, Letourneau appeared on the cover of People in 1998 under the headline, “Their bizarre story of obsessive love: Pregnant again after trysting with her former pupil, Mary Kay Letourneau, 36, is back in prison — and still defiant.” The accompanying photo showed Letourneau holding her first child in her arms while fixing the camera with a pleading expression. The profile questioned if Letourneau’s psychological issues could be blamed on her conservative father. For all it portrayed her as unwieldy and obsessive, it also balanced every caution with a quote like a friend’s insistence that the pair were “drawn together like magnets.”

The friend’s prediction that the couple would likely marry as soon as Letourneau was released proved accurate: In 2005, they did just that, bringing what NBC called her “notorious seduction” to a relatively happy ending.

But was it? And was that really the end?

What happened to Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau after they left the spotlight

In a 1997 Seattle Times interview, Fualaau, then 14, gave a quote that many people point to in order to justify his agency in the relationship:

The boy expressed frustration at being treated like a child. He said he realized that people were trying to protect him but that, as a result, he had not been given a voice in all that’s happened.

“I want people to stop seeing me as a victim,” he said. “My life is going to be fine. Mary didn’t harm me in any way. Who are they to say I’m too young to know anything when they don’t even know me?”

Fualaau, even while under the cover of anonymity, stuck doggedly to Letourneau’s narrative that they were in love. In 2002, Soona Vili sued the school district over what she was now calling Letourneau’s “abuse” of her son, and reportedly said she regretted allowing Fualaau to “sell his story to the media” — but still spoke of having forgiven Letourneau and trying her best to move forward. She and Fualaau raised the couple’s two children together until Letourneau’s release from prison and their subsequent marriage.

But even at the time, not everyone had such a positive outlook. Sex offender therapist Florence Wolfe flatly called Letourneau’s behavior “exploitation,” telling the Seattle Times in 1997, “The proclamation of love — it is a rationalization. Did she care about his welfare, about what could happen to him by becoming a father at 13? ... That’s not love — that’s a big emotional party.”

“The great disparity in age, position, and developmental level between the teacher and student make any true form of consensual relationship impossible,” wrote a reader named John Baker in a perceptive and perhaps prescient letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer. “Children invariably suffer the same kinds of side effects regardless of sex. In boys it can become more damaging due to an often more difficult time in accessing the emotional centers to resolve issues.”

Although the couple were married for well over a decade, they first began to separate two years before their actual divorce in 2019, at Fualaau’s behest. Still, when Letourneau entered her final battle with cancer just months later, Fualaau reportedly returned to help care for her until she died in July 2020. From the outside, even in the latter years of the marriage and beyond, family and friends seemed to be supportive of them. In September, the couple’s younger daughter described Letourneau to People as “an amazing mother” as she prepared for motherhood herself. Another family friend, speaking to People in 2017, described their relationship as “deep,” forged through the fire of a media scandal, adding, “I give them a lot of credit. They will always have a bond.”

But a closer look at the situation raises some questions. A 2006 profile of the family in People after a full year of marriage found 22-year-old Fualaau struggling with alcoholism, driving under the influence, and depression, as well as with integrating himself into a family where he was only one year older than Letourneau’s oldest son. “I feel like I don’t really have a place except that I’m their mother’s husband,” he told the outlet. “I get so frustrated.” On their 10th anniversary, even as he celebrated their marriage, he reportedly told Barbara Walters that he believed “the system had failed him” as a child.

As heartbreaking as this statement is in retrospect, Fualaau seems to be moving on with his life; last year, at age 39, he welcomed his third child into the world. In the wake of May December, he told the Hollywood Reporter he was “offended” by the reductive nature of the film, and stressed that “my story is not nearly as simple as this movie.”

Even after Fualaau and Letourneau separated, he continued to grieve her loss. In a 2020 interview with Dr. Oz, he described her as his “best friend,” and said that he felt she was “the only one who actually cared” given everything that had happened between them.

“Is everything going to be okay?” Dr. Oz asked.

“I don’t know,” Fualaau replied. “I don’t know.”

Update, January 5, 2024: This story, originally published November 25, 2023, has been updated to include statements to the Hollywood Reporter from Vili Fualaau.

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