Gracie Atherton In ‘May December,’ Explained: Is She Based On Real-Life Mary Kay Letourneau?


May December, directed by Todd Haynes, showed us the relationship of Joe and Gracie, whose characters were inspired by Vili Fualaau and Mary Kay, respectively, but we never really got to know what happened in the past that led a school teacher to indulge with a 13-year-old and tell the world that she had fallen in love with him. In this article, we will try to understand if Mary Kay’s childhood experiences had a role to play in the scheme of things, what the experts thought about her actions, and whether she groomed Vili or not.

Spoiler Alert

Did Mary Kay have a traumatic childhood?

Mary Kay had a turbulent childhood, and it could be said that the traumas that she suffered had an impact on her sensibilities later in her life. Quite often, Mary’s mother entrusted her with the responsibility of looking after her little brother, Philip. A tragedy happened when Philip drowned inside the pool, and Mary’s mother blamed her for the death of her brother. Mary was merely 12 years of age at the time, and the poor girl was burned with guilt in those tender years. We can’t even imagine the damage it would have done to her. Mary believed that had she not been so careless that day, her brother would still be alive. As if the blame for killing one’s own brother hadn’t damaged her core enough, she was also abused by her own family members. In May December, we saw that Grace negated the fact that she was abused by her brothers, but in reality, it was not true. She was not only abused, but she had nobody to confide in. The worst fact was that she knew that even if she told her mother about it, she would not have believed it and raised questions about the credibility of her narrative. Maybe that was why Mary stayed quiet, and she only told her best friend about it, knowing that at least she wouldn’t shun it as being a lie.

The news of Mary’s father, John G. Schmitz, having a relationship with another woman broke Mary to the point of no return. Her father loved her, and when he got accused, his entire political career was sabotaged, and obviously, it had an impact on the family, too. These wounds left scars, and though it is said that everything heals with time, for Mary, things only kept worsening.

How did her marriage impact Mary Kay?

Mary married Steve Letourneau when she was quite young, and it was probably another wrong decision, which this time she made voluntarily. Mary never got the attention she craved from her husband, and their marriage started deteriorating with time. They were struggling with their finances and, moreover, had a lot of conflicting opinions. Steve didn’t like Mary’s father, which was another aspect that caused a lot of friction in their relationship. She believed that she could heal the trauma of her past through the bond that she shared with Steve, but she was let down yet again. She never got a sense of companionship, and there was a void left inside her that could never be filled. The lack of love and attention in her marriage was also one of the major reasons behind the scandal that shook the entire nation. Vili Fualaau started coming over to her house when Steve was not there, and the latter didn’t have any clue that something like that was happening right under his nose, probably because up until then, he had given up on the marriage and was just somehow bearing with it.

What happened during Mary’s psycho-sexual analysis?

The biggest question that came in front of the experts was whether Mary had groomed Vili all those years or if she had actually fallen in love with him as innocently as she had spoken about it. The experts analyzed her behavior, asked her questions, and, after a thorough understanding of what was happening with her, came to the conclusion that she was grooming the impressionable mind of a 13-year-old, and she was aware of it. We saw a glimpse of the behavior in May and December, too, when Joe felt coerced to act a certain way, and he was so scared to act out his will and do anything that Gracie wouldn’t have appreciated. We saw that Gracie had a tendency to victimize herself, and whenever she talked to Joe, she always stressed the fact that it was Joe who wooed her, and had he not done that, she would have never taken the first step. That depiction is absolutely true, as during her sessions with the psychiatrist, she often romanticized her relationship and portrayed herself as a victim, knowing that if anybody was the sufferer in this case, then it was Vili. Michael Comte and Marsha Macy, the experts who evaluated her condition, said that the entire romanticization bit was a common thing that all sexual offenders did. It was a kind of way to validate their own actions, as they knew that neither the law of the land nor the morals and ethics of society would do that for them.

Why did Mary Kay marry Vili?

After a formal complaint was made in 1997, Mary was taken into custody, but she was lucky that the court gave her parole and ordered her to get treatment under the Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative (SOSSA) program. Mary was reckless, and she was caught once again by the authorities, together with Vili, in a public place. This time, the court didn’t leave her, and her parole was revoked. She was ordered to serve her entire sentence. After she was released, Vili was 21 years old, and he filed a petition in court to revoke the judgment, which prohibited him from getting in contact with Mary. Vili and Mary got married, and there was a huge section of society that believed that it was probably that one-off citation where the accused was actually speaking the truth, and they were really in love with each other. It might have been love from Mary’s end, but Vili was never given the option to explore what he wanted. He was caged in a relationship when he barely had the acumen to make decisions about such facts of life, and before he knew it, he was groomed to believe that he fell in love with her teacher and that she was the best thing that could ever happen to him.

As it was quite evidently shown in May December, Mary did groom Vili, and there was no doubt about that fact. She literally risked her life by writing letters from prison so that her influence wouldn’t fade. Maybe she was doing it subconsciously, but we cannot imagine that there was not even a moment when she would have realized that what she was doing was not right and that she was brainwashing a 13-year-old. We are not denying the fact that Vili didn’t have happy moments in the relationship, but the fact is that he never got a chance to explore what lay beyond this relationship, and so it cannot be said that he made a choice of his own free will. Vili’s state was similar to that of a wild animal trapped in a zoo who never knew about his natural instincts as he never had the opportunity to be in his natural habitat. Mary Kay Letourneau died of cancer in the year 2020, and her case still baffles the people who, fortunately or unfortunately, became a part of her journey.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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