When she was 14, Jenny Kutner had an affair with her eighth grade teacher. At least, she calls it an affair, despite admitting that she understands in hindsight he abused her, in a beautifully written piece in Texas Monthly published this week that outlines the complexities of the victim narrative in stories of rape and abuse.
Kutner's relationship with her 23-year-old married teacher developed outside school, moving past phone conversations, to the point where she was lying to her parents about spending time with him. He would come over to her house and lie in her bed with her. He would joke about them being married. He did touch her, she writes, though the most explicit details of what happened between them are left out: "The truth remains that something happened, and—like everything that happens—it happened while it did and then it didn't." But she liked it, because she liked him. As anyone who has ever had a crush on a teacher or someone in a position of authority, this feeling is very familiar.
During the subsequent court case after her parents found out about what was going on, Kutner writes that she viewed herself as her teachers "accomplice" while "other people saw his victim":
I still cannot determine when I would have become a victim, because I've never believed that I did. When would that have happened? Certainly not in those moments that Trace Lehrer and I spent outside the law, between the sheets, where I was convinced that the rules were meant to protect anyone but me. Trace Lehrer and I were the exception to the rules; the law safeguarded only fourteen-year-old girls who didn't know what they were doing, when I was so sure that I did. If I did fall victim at all, I fell to inexperience, manipulation, or the jealous threats Trace Lehrer made to keep me quiet and convinced of his affection. I believed that I was safe, and loved, and in no need of rescue. If anything, I was a victim of delusion.
Since that time, Kutner writes, she's had difficulty calling her abuse anything other than an "affair," despite her admittance that she knows what it really was:
It's a word I've chosen carefully, because it seems like the only appropriate word I could have chosen, or the only word that can bear the weight of what I mean. It implies the fault I felt for so many years, but I keep it tethered to the innocence that makes—that has always made—my hands clean. I use the word "affair" because it is malleable, because it is discreet, because it connotes something that I feel more comfortable implying than do words like "assault," "abuse," or "molestation." When I say that I had an "affair," I feel I have the agency and the control that I never had when the whole affair happened.
"Still, the word means something I can't describe; I never learned the right vocabulary," Kutner goes on to explain. Read on; it's worth it.
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