‘May December’ True Story & Real-Life Differences: What Happened To Mary Kay And Vili Fualaau?


It is said that some people really have a way with words. They have the ability to say the right thing at the right time, which can influence a person down to their bones. In Todd Haynes’ film, May December, Gracie Nell Atherton was that person. Her story is based on a 1990s real-life scandal that filled all the pages of the most popular tabloids in America. In February 1997, the Seattle Police Department arrested an elementary school teacher named Mary Kay Letourneau who was having an affair with a student at her school, Shorewood. The boy in question was Vili Fualaau, a 13-year-old kid belonging to a large Samoan family in the White Center area. His father was arrested for criminal charges when Vili was very young, and therefore, the boy was raised by his single mother, Soona. In May December, Joe Yoo plays the role of Vili, and the ethnicity of the boy has been changed to Korean for some creative reasons.

Spoiler Alert

Is Elizabeth Berry A Real Person?

Todd Haynes’ film is set in the early 2010s, while the real incident took place in the late 1990s. Elizabeth Berry played a fictional character in the film who visited the Atherton-Yoo family so that the actress could learn more about Gracie’s past life. A movie was going to be made about Gracie and Joe’s scandalous relationship, and Elizabeth wanted some real insights to play Gracie’s role on screen. However, it was only after meeting the woman in the flesh that Elizabeth realized that there was more to her than met the eye. Gracie’s entire personality was like a maze, and a person might spend their entire life but still not be able to reach the end. She didn’t really reveal who she was, yet her actions spoke for themselves. Gracie controlled the entire family, be it her husband (Joe) or her children (with Joe), but you don’t understand that at first glance. On the outside, she acted like a fragile woman who would cry over trivial things and craved her husband’s love and attention. But the devil is in the details.

In May December, Elizabeth acted as the eye of a filmmaker who was precisely picking up these minute gestures that reveal Gracie’s true character. Being an actress and a filmmaker, she didn’t comment on it directly. It is said that an actor should love the role they play, even if it’s morally gray or completely black. For them, even the villain is the hero of the story, which is why Elizabeth wasn’t judging Gracie, but she was trying to consume her personality to become her. Does she succeed on that part? We don’t know.

Is Tom Atherton Based On A Real Life Person?

While doing her round of interviews, Elizabeth met with a person named Tom Atherton, who in reality is based on Mary’s first husband, Steve Letourneau. She met Steve during a fraternity party at Arizona State University in 1983. They soon entered into a relationship, but Mary wasn’t sure if there was any real connection between them. According to Mary’s best friend, Michelle Lobdell, he wasn’t the guy for her; however, a few months after she met her, Mary got pregnant. Mary Kay came from a religious Catholic family and had an extremely strict mother, who forced Mary to marry Steve before people could start talking. Mary’s father, John Schmitz, on the other hand, was a senator and had advocated anti-abortion laws in his state, so one could understand that for Mary, it was out of the question and she had no other option but to marry Steve. It became a marriage of convenience in the end.

The couple shifted to the Normandy Park area in Southwest Seattle in the 1990s to start a family together, but problems followed. They didn’t have a lot of money, and the kids kept coming one after another. Steve used to work as a baggage handler at SeaTac airport, and Mary used to teach in an elementary school, but their combined income wasn’t enough to feed all the mouths in their family. The couple together had four kids, and it was a very hectic life. In short, there wasn’t any room left for love. Mary longed for the love and attention of her husband, but he was working most of the time. She wanted to have control over things, but when her married life didn’t offer it enough, she started grooming a kid in her school named Vili. The young boy worshiped his beautiful teacher, and Mary, being a narcissist, loved that attention.

In May December, Tom Atherton told Elizabeth that he found out about the affair when the police came to arrest Gracie, which wasn’t the case in real life. Steve had found romantic letters (which hinted the sexual relations between them) exchanged between Mary and Vili. These letters are also mentioned in May December when Joe hands over a pink envelope to Elizabeth, and she reads it out loud in front of the mirror to transform into her character. Nevertheless, as soon as Steve found out about the affair, he confronted the young boy and asked him to stay away from his wife. But Mary couldn’t live without Vili. She broke all the rules and ended up getting arrested, after which Steve took custody of their kids and left.

Did The Police Arrest Gracie From The Pet Store?

In May December, Gracie used to work as a store manager at a pet store called Telfair Pets. It is where she met the 13-year-old Joe Yoo, whom she had herself employed as a part-time helper, and later started a physical relationship with. However, in real life, when Vili was just 8 years old and was in the second grade, he saw Mary for the first time when she joined Shorewood Elementary School. Some four years later, when Vili started sixth grade, Mary became his class teacher once again, whom he had a crush on for a long time. Being a little mature, Vili finally was able to express that he really liked her teacher, and Mary, who was having her own family issues at home, probably loved that attention and couldn’t resist. She took Vili to Huckleberry’s for dessert, where the young boy gathered some courage and kissed his teacher. What was worse was that she didn’t resist. It was the beginning of an affair that would be looked down upon by the entire society for years to come.

Through Elizabeth, we found out that Joe made love to Gracie in the stockroom of Telfair Pets, which was seen by someone and was notified to the police. It was a bit of a blur in the film, but in real life, the first reported incident took place on June 19, 1996. Dave Shields, a security officer who worked for the Des Moines Marina, spotted a van in the area and reported it to the police. The officers arrived at the location and found Mary and Vili at the back of her van in an explicit condition. They soon informed Vili’s mother about the matter, but as she trusted Mary a lot, she didn’t get into the details, and asked the officers to return her boy to Mary. Nobody was arrested, nor was the school notified of the incident. It was sometime later that Steve’s relative or close friend found out about the affair and reported it to the authorities, soon after which Mary was arrested, and it all became a famous scandal.

How Did Gracie and Joe End Up Together?

Sometimes, when you keep telling a lie to someone for a long time, the person does end up believing it to be true. It is what happened with Joe (or Vili in real life). Michael Comte, a forensic psychotherapist who conducted Mary Kay Letourneau’s psychosexual evaluation, reported that she was superimposing qualities on to the victim that one normally ascribes to an adult male. It was clear that she didn’t love her first husband and, therefore, wanted to groom someone into becoming an ideal mate for her. Unfortunately, it was Vili who fell into that trap. Mary wanted to be in control of something, as her own family life was slowly breaking down. She couldn’t save it and therefore started a relationship with a minor because she had the means to do that. She also showed traits of a narcissistic personality and had childhood trauma that needed long-term clinical attention, but she didn’t get any.

Vili, on the other hand, never saw his father and suffered from a sense of abandonment. His mother was always doing odd jobs to support the family, and the only attention he got was from his school teacher, Mary. She probably filled the void in his life and groomed him for a life from which he never really recovered. He always believed that Mary loved him, but in reality, she manipulated and controlled him. After Mary was arrested for her crimes, Vili waited for her, and when she finally finished her sentence, he decided to marry his rapist. Mary had locked Vili in a box and left no holes in it for him to look out of. In May December, we came across numerous instances where Joe felt suffocated and strangled in his married life, but he didn’t have the courage to act against his groomer and therefore remained a prisoner until the very end.

Did Gracie’s Brother Sexually Assault Her?

May December mentions the fact that Gracie’s brother had sexually assaulted her, which was the root cause of her childhood trauma. However, in the end, Gracie herself refuses to accept any such rumors, but in real life, something of the sort did take place. Real-Life Mary Kay told Michael Comte that she was sexually abused by a family member (we don’t know who). When she was just seven or eight years old, the perpetrator forced her to perform oral on him on multiple occasions. According to Mary, the abuse ended when she complained of pain, so we believe there might be some truth in the rumors spread by Georgie, Gracie’s son from their first marriage.

Will Joe leave Gracie?

As mentioned earlier, Garcie is the cunning fox in fiction. She is the hunter, and Joe is her prey. She won’t let her prey slip away so easily, and therefore it is safe to assume that he won’t be able to escape the clutches of the monster. In real life too, Vili had his doubts about the marriage and tried to file for divorce, which he withdrew later. The woman had been quite manipulative throughout their lives and always manipulated Vili into thinking that she was the victim, not him. He was the one who sneaked up on her from under the table in school, and he was the one who initiated the kiss. It was the boy who had desires for the teacher. It was through these numerous instances that Mary convinced Vili that he was the man in charge of their relationship, but it doesn’t take an exceptionally smart person to know that it wasn’t the case. Fortunately, they finally separated in August 2019, as Vili realized that it wasn’t a healthy relationship. Mary passed away a year after their divorce. She died from colon cancer on July 6, 2020, at the age of 58, when Vili was just 37 years old.

Where is Vili now?

The couple had procured a hefty income from selling the exclusive rights to Entertainment Weekly to cover their marriage. After their marriage, Vili and Mary purchased a beach house, where they started living with their two daughters. The area was well connected to the neighborhood where Vili grew up and Mary used to work. Vili became a professional DJ and started working in a store to spend his days, while Mary became a legal assistant. According to Vili’s Facebook profile, he still lives in Normandy Park, probably in the same house that he purchased with Mary. After her death, her entire property went to Vili, who had the responsibility for his two daughters. It is not known whether he moved on or not, but we really do hope the best for him.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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