TV Shows Like ‘A Teacher’ Take Responsibility For Explaining Why Some Predators Succeed
I was 16 and a junior in high school. He was 25 and worked in security at another high school in town. I was a community theater kid and we met in a choir for Brooklyn theater junkies. The grooming and sexual abuse started a few months after I joined the group and continued on and off for almost a year.
It took me 25 years and ongoing trauma therapy to figure out how I got into this situation. And again, it wasn’t until I saw the FX miniseries, A teacher, who despite the buzz was snubbed by Emmy’s earlier this week, and the abusive dynamic between English teacher Claire Wilson (played by Kate Mara) and 17-year-old Eric Walker (played by Nick Robinson) that I knew with an absolute certainty that I was the prey of an adult man. A crime had been committed against me. My body. My psyche. I was shaking as I frantically watched the series, briefly reliving life through Eric’s eyes with each episode. I watched it first with my husband, then I watched it a second time, alone.
Establishing predation is something A teacher do good. Described as a lesson in predatory behavior, what Kate Mara’s character does is irrefutable, grooming and abusive. In Claire Wilson, we see a complicated woman in an unsatisfying marriage, who still faces the demons of childhood, namely the ghost of her father’s alcoholism and the trauma of her mother’s death. I guess, for some, those kinds of details show how someone could get out of hand and do something unfortunate. But a traumatized, bored, empowered woman who gives up everything to cross the line with a minor is an incredibly frustrating story. Focusing the series on Wilson’s internal struggles was an offensive misstep, suggesting it’s possible to rationalize how an adult might find themselves in such a situation. (Eric’s confrontation with her in the last episode does little to alleviate this narrative error.)
The series would have had a lot more impact if it had also taken into account the often unseen and unchallenged circumstances that can lead to a minor’s vulnerability, to see how Eric may have been prepared for victimization long before he met the teacher. It is essential to understand Why some sexual predators are successful. Otherwise, shows that establish predation without also highlighting the vulnerability of teenage victims run the risk of feeling like more entertainment and excitement, and there isn’t much information to be gained.
When cases of sexual predation against minors emerge in entertainment, we are often told almost nothing about the victims. I scanned the series to get a glimpse of the conditions that may have made Eric vulnerable to his teacher’s advances. There are a few examples of what appears to be psychologically complicated family life. Eric is clearly the man of the house – his mother (played by Rya Kihlstedt) relies on him to take on the responsibilities of maintaining the household and looking after two young children; it makes him feel guilty even when he fails. In many ways, it seemed like Eric was more of a surrogate husband or father than a teenage son, and his mother’s over-reliance on him struck me as deeply problematic.
Psychology might refer to the dynamic between Eric and his mother as parentification, a process in which children are inappropriately placed into adult roles. One can only guess how Eric felt about his role and obligations (exhausted? Angry? Bitter?), But the fact that he ended up between the sheets with his teacher suggests to me, after my own experience, that Eric felt perfectly equipped to consent as an adult. When children are parented, they naively feel ready to play adult games. And unfortunately, they’re more likely to seek out what they don’t get at home in other relationships. According to experts in cognitive science and child trauma, parentification is just one way children prepare for victimization.
I also felt equipped to consent when I met a man we’ll call Joey. He was cute, sort of a celebrity crush – I’d always thought of him as the Italian John Stamos. He loved the theater and was popular in the local theater circuit; he lived nearby and offered me round trips for the rehearsal. Joey met my mom and she trusted her to transport me to safety. When we were in the car together, he would tell me about school and tell me about the women he dated and the shows he performed in. I told her about the colleges that interested me and confided in her about the recent separation of my parents.
My experience with Joey reminds me of how Mrs. Wilson cared for Eric. Car trips and excessive sharing of his personal life built trust between them. Eric lapped it all, like an abandoned puppy looking for a forever home.
Like Eric, I was honored that a talented and objectively good looking adult wanted to interact with me, a child primarily concerned with homework, grades, and negotiating weekend curfews. With Joey, I felt seen in a way that my home life didn’t grant me. And by the time it appeared in my little world, I was already grown into adulthood. When your father prefers his vices to his family and your mother defaults to rage and routinely behaves as if motherhood was the short end of the stick given to her, your childhood is extinguished like a flame. ‘water. Research now knows that children born to emotionally immature parents struggle to meet their psychological needs at home. I firmly believe that the emotional void I experienced as a child prepared me for Joey’s grooming.
Even 25 years later, it’s hard to internalize that I was not – and could not have been – a willing partner in this equation. Sometimes I still find myself attributing the experience to my own poor decision making and inability to speak. I was a child who grew up in an archaic and crippling “children should be seen and not heard” environment, a toxic approach to parenthood that has endured for generations. Through therapy, I now know that Joey cheated on me with a carefully crafted show of respect and validation that other adults didn’t show me. As a child hungry for adult acceptance and positive attention, I fell into the trap and I was his. Before I knew it, I was cutting school to be with him. And like Eric, I haven’t told anyone about it. I felt obligated to protect my abuser – a sense of responsibility that can also be a byproduct of parentification.
When I think about everything I was dealing with back then, and everything that made me vulnerable, I get angry. Joey grabbed an opportunity I couldn’t have consented to – that I would not have consented under normal and healthy circumstances. At 16, I was not able to consent. And I don’t need to know anything about Joey’s life or Joey’s struggles to know that what he did was objectively criminal and damaging. There is no level of nuance that could have made his behavior acceptable.
We need more TV shows and movies that delve deeper into the root causes of sexual predation, on the receiving side. But what we don’t need are additional glorifications on the attractive, wayward, and dissatisfied predators who seek to escape in vulnerable children. A teacher helped me fully understand that I had been sexually assaulted. But it didn’t help me feel understood.
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