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In 1997, Mary Kay Letourneau became instantly famous once the 34-year-old teacher’s sexual relationship with her 13-year-old student, Vili Fualauu, went public. There is no question that was she did was a crime, and she served many years in jail for it. But Letourneau and Fualauu also had two children and spent more than 20 years together before splitting in 2019. The new Discovery+ docuseries Mary Kay Letourneau: Notes On A Scandal does not deny the predatory nature of Letourneau’s actions, but it does try to understand them and offer an alternative perspective on what really happened between teacher and student, and how Letourneau’s tumultuous upbringing might have played into it.

Opening Shot: News footage of Mary Kay Letourneau walking the halls of a Seattle courthouse as flashbulbs blare all around. News cameras hover overhead and interviewers try to get a comment from her about her trial for second-degree rape of a minor, after it’s discovered that she, a teacher, has been engaging in a relationship with Vili Fualauu, a student she had known since he was eight years old. “Mary, was it worth it?” we hear one journalist ask, getting no response. But that seems to be the question at the heart of this series. Was this affair worth sacrificing your life, your career, and your family for, only to be known as a child predator?

The Gist: Notes on a Scandal offers a lot of back story to Mary Kay Letourneau’s life that potentially informed her decision to engage in a relationship with a minor. There’s the fact that her father, John G. Schmitz, was an ultra-right wing politician who campaigned on a platform of family values, only to be found later to have two secret, illegitimate children that he fathered with… wait for it… a former student. Then there’s the fact that her mother Mary was a staunch Catholic who believed in abstinence-only sex education, and pulled Mary Kay out of a traditional sex education class as a child. Later, when Mary Kay was dating a college boyfriend, Steve Letourneau, and she became pregnant, her family decided that the only recourse was to marry Steve. (Though they would go on to have four children total, the documentary paints a picture of an unhappy home life and a marriage that should never have happened.) And then there is the shocking reveal of her own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a male family member.

None of these details, or the many other anecdotes about Mary Kay’s life which are thrown in so we can see her more as a person than as a legal sketch, attempt to excuse what Mary Kay did; you definitely don’t get the sense that the filmmakers here think Mary Kay was wrongfully accused or misunderstood. But you do get a sense that what they are trying to say is that it’s possible for many things to be true at once. Mary Kay can be a rapist. She can be a victim of terrible trauma and terrible judgement. And she can also believe that she’s in love with a boy who was just 13 when they had their first sexual encounter.

The documentary features interviews with many of Mary’s childhood friends, former students (most of whom loved her as a teacher and were shocked and traumatized when the affair went public), journalists who followed the investigation into Mary, and many of the lawyers and law enforcement responsible for trying her case. Absent from the film, however, are any of Vili or Mary’s family members (an interesting side note to her story is the fact that her father’s hard line political conservatism spread to her siblings, and her two brothers are both involved in right wing politics, one of whom worked for Donald Trump and supported the overturning of the 2020 election). One of the most fascinating aspects of the Mary-Vili affair was how no one ever denied what occurred, because they consistently claimed they were in love and did nothing wrong, and that’s absolutely why this situation is still so riveting to this day.

Mary Kay Letourneau: Notes On A Scandal
Photo: ID

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Though she was not a killer, this documentary feels a lot like Killer Inside: Inside The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, in that it tries to understand how someone with so much charm and potential could ruin their reputation and their life so thoroughly.

But if you want even more information direct from Mary Kay herself, the A&E show Autobiography featured an episode about her that will help get insider her mind, too.

Our Take: If you’re the kind of person who needs a trigger warning, let this be it. There is so much about this documentary, from the extremely intimate love notes between an adult woman and her child lover to the details of when and where they had sex, that will make many people’s stomach’s turn. It’s a very slippery slope trying to spin a story of childhood sexual predation into romance. In fact RIGHT NOW seems like a specifically weird time to do so, given the era we’re living in. But we also have the luxury of hindsight here, and the fact is that even after Fualauu become of legal, consenting age, roughly fifteen years after his affair with Letourneau started, they two married. I cannot possibly fathom the idea of this, and I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of people can’t either.

But the truth is that this case is so incredibly complicated because both Mary Kay and Vili stood by one another and maintained a happy relationship for decades. When the documentary opens, you get the sense that the filmmakers might want to redeem Mary Kay, or at least place some of the responsibility on her actions on her upbringing, but over the course of it, understanding why she did what she did only gets more muddled. Was she mentally ill, as many of the psychologists who evaluated her have said? Was she simply just ignorant to the laws around consent, as her friends said she was? There are some people who have made their minds up about her and will never waver, but it’s possible that this film might make some people more sympathetic to her. (It should be noted that Letourneau died in 2020 at age 58 after separating from Fualaau he year before, but he did return to her side in her final days.)

Sex and Skin: None is shown, but there are several potentially distressing descriptions and references to sex with a minor throughout.

Parting Shot: One of the running sequences in the documentary features the text from love notes that Mary Kay and Vili passed to one another early in their relationship. As the film closes and we learn that their marriage had its struggles, as most do, and that Vili eventually filed for separation prior to Mary Kay’s death in 2020, the text from one more note written from Mary Kay to Vili is scrawled across the screen. It reads, “Do you remember when we first saw the promise in each other’s eyes… We were only a dream.” For a tale that’s so complex, it feels a little too Happily Ever After an ending for this particular film, if you ask me.

Sleeper Star: Anne Bremner was a trial attorney who was involved in a legal case filed by Vili Fualauu and his mother against the local Seattle police department and school district after his affair with Letourneau. Being so close to the case, she clearly has a lot of information and insight that many of don’t have, which is why it’s no surprise when she spoke of Vili and Mary Kay’s relationship, stating, “I think it’s the rape of the child.” BUT THEN she follows up by saying, “And I think it’s a love story. It’s both. And that’s why it fascinates people.” I mean, if the lawyers – who are not even working for Fualauu or Letourneau – are saying that, that’s kind of wild.

Most Pilot-y Line: “Some of the things I’m going to say are not going to be very popular,” Letourneau’s childhood best friend Michelle Lobdell says. “But truth is truth and it needs to be told.” That’s the gist of the film, honestly.

Our Call: STREAM IT… but I say that with reservations. I enjoyed understanding more about Mary Kay’s family history and I’m fascinated by how it may have informed her adult decision-making, but given the subject matter, this is not a show for everyone. If you like true crime, this documentary offers remarkable details about this case and the deeper history behind it, but there’s no real bombshell that blows the lid off of the how and why of it all, just plenty to ruminate on. But for many people, I can understand how bringing up these exploits and trying to understand the gray areas of this case could be a bridge too far and to them, I say this is not for you.

Liz Kocan is a pop culture writer living in Massachusetts. Her biggest claim to fame is the time she won on the game show Chain Reaction.

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