Trust Me: Lessons I Should Not Have Learned in School provides a first-hand account of how the calculated manipulations of a popular teacher and coach at a small rural high school had devastating consequences for the student he selected, groomed, and cultivated for repeated sexual assault over a period of four years. The damage spread to her family, the teacher’s wife and two sons, and the community at large. The book illustrates the teacher’s insidious approach, the young girl’s anguished attempts to escape from his grasp, discovery and exposure of the relationship, and her subsequent attempts to overcome this early obstacle to success in life and love. This story serves as a cautionary tale for parents, students and educators.
* * * * *
For almost my entire high school career, I was the target of educator-initiated sexual abuse. While I have been squeamish about words like “victim,” “survivor,” “recovery” or even “abuse,” for the past two decades, since my final contact with the high school English teacher and coach who robbed me of my childhood, I have labored under a heavy sense of personal accountability.
I believed that if I didn’t keep my promises, Coach would either be dead by his own hand, or be in jail for over one hundred years. He told me he would commit suicide rather than go to prison. So I didn’t cooperate with the investigation that ensued after our relationship was discovered. My abuser has since gone free, while I have served my own self-imposed punitive sentence.
I have since learned that my story is far from unique. In December of 2003, The Seattle Times published an extensive investigation into sexual abuse by coaches, entitled “Coaches Who Prey.” [i] The ABC television show, “Primetime Live,” premiered on September 16, 2004 with a report on “a troubling problem that seems to be making headlines more than ever before–female teachers sleeping with their male students.” The show’s investigators uncovered at least fifty cases in the last two-and-a-half years in which teachers have been accused of having illicit relationships with their students. [ii] Barbara Walters’ finale on ABC’s 20/20 featured an interview of Mary Kay Letourneau, a former teacher who plans to marry the former student she was convicted of sexually assaulting when he was just 12 years old. [iii] The March 2006 issue of Whistleblower Magazine dedicates the entire issue to “Predators: What’s really behind today’s epidemic of teacher-student sex?”[iv] In June 2012, Former Penn State defensive coordinator Gerald “Jerry” Sandusky was convicted of 45 out of 48 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys over a 15-year period. [v] In October 2012, a court ordered the Boys Scouts of America to release more than 1,200 “perversion files,” records of confidential sexual abuse allegations from the 1960s through 1985. [vi] Without a doubt, there is another scandal waiting to emerge in some upcoming news cycle.
I participated in a national conference and summit on the topic of educator sexual abuse on September 30, 2004 at Hofstra University in New York. This gathering of researchers, educational professionals, lawyers, and policy makers resulted in the formation of an ad hoc task force to address the problem on a nationwide basis. The issue of educator sexual abuse promises to garner as much attention as the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
While I was engaged in what I once called my “love affair,” I was constantly inundated by references in popular song, articles and advise columns in young women’s magazines, and even in the high school reading curriculum. Sting’s popular song, “Don’t stand so close to me” is just one example of the kind of song that vexed me to silent tears as I suffered through the lyrics. Certain melodies still make me squirm uncomfortably. Cosmopolitan Magazine, my “sophisticated” choice of leisure reading, was full of agony columns and short stories about illicit love. We read Othello, The Scarlet Letter, and The Great Gatsby during my junior year of high school, when the majority of my abuse took place. The choice of curriculum, with all that adultery, seemed sharpened and pointed directly at me.
My hope is that my writing can help to give a voice to silent victims. Many targets have been so stigmatized by initial efforts to come forward that they suffer in silence. Many bear the shame and blame for what they feel they willingly participated in. Many simply don’t have the tools or opportunity to speak out. I hope to articulate the experience with the freshness, innocence, and naivety of the young girl who was vulnerable, susceptible to the predations of a much older man. I squirm and blush when I read my diary entries. It might be easier to sustain illusions of sophistication by distancing myself from this story by writing as an adult about my memories. But as uncomfortable as it is, this story is The Truth for the young girl that I was then. I can take comfort in my knowledge that I am safely grown out of that situation, but I will not betray my former self by making my history into a caricature, even to fulfill my own urges to promote a more heroic image of my adolescent self. In reality, there are very few heroes in this story.
This account can bring the issue of educator sexual abuse to peoples’ living rooms, subway commutes, late-night reading refuges. It is accessible in a different way than academic studies, policy statements, and sensational media coverage. While every target has his or her own story, this narrative provides a graphic illustration of what Dr. Robert Shoop calls, “the predictable pattern of selection, testing, grooming, sexual intercourse, and finally abandonment.”[vii] Many young people may see the progress of their own victimization in these pages.
This book is my best attempt to go beyond my own personal struggles to integrate my bereavement and violation and live fully despite my wounds. I’m old enough now to know that there is no triumphal imperative, no final destination of happily-ever-after. It is possible, though, to be happy despite great loss and suffering.
I aim to present a point of view that is sadly neglected in all other accounts of educator sexual abuse. The media and the legal system have to protect the identity of the victims, the academic studies can only access certain general patterns of abuse and its consequences, and the only publicly accessible personal narratives to cover this issue are by infamous teacher perpetrators who seem to assert that they have been victims of the phenomenon. At last, here is a shockingly honest and devastatingly personal account from a victim who will be silent no more.
–Heather Severson, Author of Trust Me: Lessons I Should Not Have Learned in School
[i] December 14 – 17, 2003. “Coaches Who Prey.” Seattle Times. Available online at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/news/local/coaches/
[ii] Mickey News Press Release. 9/15/2004. “Primetime Live” Premieres With An Investigation That Explores The Truth About Donald Trump’s Financial Empire, Thursday, September 16 On ABC. Online at: http://www.mickeynews.com/News/DisplayPressRelease.asp_Q_id_E_9154Primetime
[iii] ABC 20/20. Barbara Walters interview with Mary Kay Letourneau, September 24, 2004. Online at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/2020/US/Letourneau_040924-1.html
[iv] Whistleblower Magazine. Is there a Debra LaFave in your child’s school? ‘PREDATORS’ exposes today’s hidden epidemic of teacher-student sex. Posted: March 24, 2006. Online at http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=49049
[v] National Public Radio. “Penn State Abuse Scandal: A Guide And Timeline.” Posted June 21, 2012. Online at http://www.npr.org/2011/11/08/142111804/penn-state-abuse-scandal-a-guide-and-timeline
[vi] Los Angeles Times Blog. “Boy Scouts’ ‘perversion files’ released: ‘The secrets are out.’” Posted October 18, 2012. Online at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/10/boy-scouts-perversion-files-released-the-secrets-are-out.html
[vii] Shoop, Robert J. 2004. Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot It and Stop It. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.