It has always been a challenge to know what, exactly, to think of the saga of Mary Kay Letourneau, the schoolteacher from a scandal-plagued Orange County, Calif., political family who went to prison for sexually abusing the 12-year-old boy who later became her husband.
(Just typing that makes me wince.)
But of all the things that could land her back in jail, who would have guessed unpaid parking tickets?
Letourneau, 51, was arrested on suspicion of driving with a suspended license and booked into King County Jail. A year ago, the paper said, she’d been cited for driving with a suspended license after failing to pay her tickets. She didn’t show up at a "relicensing program" or a court hearing, so a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Whatever the outcome of this minor criminal case, her arrest has thrust back into the limelight a case that always inspired mixed emotions and raised questions about the oft-romanticized notion that sexual seduction of male students by older, female teachers is a harmless rite of passage.
This case was no "Summer of '42" fantasy, no fleeting and private one-nighter between a high school student and a grieving war widow. It was a sordid, domestic drama featuring a whole range of pathologies that played out in public over a number of years.
You probably remember reading about it: Vili Fualaau was in second grade when he first met Letourneau, his angelic-looking teacher. They became lovers when he was 12, in the sixth grade, and she was 34. He is now 30.
Both came from dysfunctional families. But Fualaau’s history — with a father in prison for armed robbery — was relatively normal compared with hers.
Letourneau’s father was John Schmitz, the ultra-conservative, family-values Orange County congressman and one-time presidential candidate who was found in 1982 to have a second family with a woman who was a former student.
How conservative was Schmitz? He idolized Sen. Joe McCarthy. The John Birch Society kicked him out for extremist rhetoric.
Letourneau’s mother, Mary, was a high-profile "anti-feminist" — the "West Coast Phyllis Schlafly" — who crusaded against the Equal Rights Amendment and put an ERA tombstone in her front yard when it went down to defeat.
Schmitz’s domestic deceptions came crashing into public view in 1982, when his mistress was investigated on suspicion of child abuse; their infant son underwent surgery to remove a human hair that was tightly wrapped around his penis — doctors believed deliberately. Schmitz had begun the affair in 1973, the year his 3-year-old son died after falling into the new family pool while Mary Kay, 11, babysat.
When she was first arrested in 1997, Letourneau, a frail blonde who has always looked much younger than her age, was pregnant with Fualaau’s baby. She pleaded guilty to child rape and spent several months in jail, after which she was required to attend a treatment program, register as a sex offender and stay away from her victim.
But a month after her release, she was back in the news. Seattle police found her with Fualaau in a silver VW sedan, its windows steamed up. She had conceived again, but this time the judge was not lenient. Their second daughter, her sixth child, was born in prison, where Letourneau would spend 7½ years.
In May 2005, she and Fualaau married, selling exclusive access to "Entertainment Tonight." In 2009, Seattle papers reported, Letourneau hosted a "Hot for Teacher" night at a Seattle bar while her husband DJ’d.
Their relationship has been the subject of books, TV shows and movies, still fascinating, and perplexing: Is the match the delusional fantasy of two immature people, or an enduring love affair between soul mates?
One thing is certain: They’ve made careers out of their transgressions, and found a way to cash in on their infamy. In this country, baby, what’s more functional than that?
Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.