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BooksFebruary 29, 2020

The teacher stories


I had planned to write an unabashed rave review, and then another book landed in my letterbox – and I just couldn’t read those stories in isolation from my own experience, writes Spinoff books editor Catherine Woulfe.

I want to write about two books that I’ve just read, and then I want to tell you my own story.

A Trio of Sophies is a new YA novel by Auckland writer Eileen Merriman. It’s fast and dark and thrilling, and it is set in a North Shore high school (“Eastbrook” aka Westlake). There is a missing girl and a diabolical narrator and a very cool backwards-diary structure, all of which is skilfully done and appeals on an intellectual level. It is an excellent book. 

But on a base level – and this is what teen readers will find most exciting about Sophies, I think – the best bit is the very sexy sex a student has with her teacher. 

It’s not explicit, as such – by which I mean we don’t actually see teacher P in student V. But it is secret and illicit and it happens by an open fire and at the beach and in a bach up north and at his flat, and they spend their lunchtimes sitting in a classroom, playing cards with her mates and exchanging special smiles, which is nearly as good as sex. 

The teacher, James, is in his third year on the job. He teaches English; he’s young and hot. His hair smells like coconut. When the student, Sophie, turns 17 he gives her a bellybutton ring with tiny diamonds on it. 

“He hooked me like a fish,” she writes in her diary. “I was happy to be caught.”

Other things she thinks about him: “What if nothing ever feels that good again?” “I should have known he’d tire of me.” “I had something special within my grasp, something just for me.” And: “Would I do it all again, if I’d known? … Maybe I’d tell me to run, and don’t look back. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t.”

Spoiler, kind of, except for all the giant red flags above: James is an abuser – beyond the fact of him being a teacher having sex with a student, I mean – and he has a sexual relationship with at least one other girl at the school.

Sophie hates him because she thinks he cheated on her. And in a sideways sort of way, because of the abuse. Those things tangle with the fact that he’s a teacher and completely overwhelm it: at no point does she parse that he was wrong to have a romantic relationship with her full stop. Neither does he, at least not on the page. So you come away from the book knowing he’s a terrible person, but with the notion that if he’d not been violent, not cheated, then he would’ve been a catch. “A very, very good dream,” in fact. “A delicious secret.” 

When I spoke to her, Merriman points out that they hook up before they realise he’s her teacher but to my mind this does not push the relationship into grey territory. The moment they realised – the moment he realised, because this is entirely on him – it abruptly became black and white. 

Yet this is how Sophie explains it to herself: “James loved me so much, he risked his job. He loved me so much, he risked his freedom.”

I want to pause here and note that I’ve read the book twice, and that on the first read I was so swept away by the romance and the mystery (another Sophie is missing, presumed dead) and by the extremely deft and clever writing that I did not flinch at the teacher-student stuff. I really don’t think teen readers will be bothered by it. Actually, I think they’ll love it. (Anyone who’s read Moonlight Sonata, Merriman’s also-excellent novel for adults, will know how good she is at titillation and the whole sneaking-around thing.)

So I think I would have let it go, and written the piece I had planned to write, which was an unabashed rave spliced with the long and generous interview Merriman gave me. I’m very grateful for that and sorry that I won’t be using it. Because the other day another book landed in my letterbox.

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell and A Trio of Sophies, by Eileen Merriman.

Kate Elizabeth Russell, a US writer, took 18 years to write My Dark Vanessa. It’s an adult novel and it’s about a high school girl who is manipulated and abused for years, starting at 15, by her English teacher. I can’t write much more about it because I feel actually nauseous. 

As the girl thinks near the end, “I’ve seen how it plays out. How quickly people lift their hands and say, It happens sometimes, or Even if he did do something, it couldn’t have really been that bad … “

The teacher in this story uses books to groom his victims. Lots of them, but mostly, Lolita. And the girl clings to that book, sinks into it, uses it to make sense of what is happening. 

“To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing,” she explains. Later: “I just really need it to be a love story. You know? I really, really need it to be that.”

After the book came out people started asking the author if it was all actually her story and she put out a statement saying it was “inspired by my own experiences as a teenager” and that: 

I believe novels can help create space for readers to unpack and talk about sensitive or difficult topics. My greatest wish is that My Dark Vanessa will spark conversation about the complexity of coercion, trauma, and victimhood, because while these stories can feel all too familiar, victims are not a monolith and there is no universal experience of sexual violence.

And so here is my story, which is definitely not a love story, and which I have never put down in writing before.

It starts when I am 10. A much older man – let’s say he is “teacher-adjacent” – starts grooming me. He gets brave enough that soon he is kissing me on the mouth. With a flourish. In front of his wife, other kids, their parents. Not my parents. 

I think it must be fine because it is happening in front of other people and they are fine with it. Every week I want it to not happen but I also feel a tiny kick of maturity that it does because the other girls don’t get the same attention. 

After six years – I am 16, maybe 17 – he propositions me in his car, in the carpark of my high school. The man tells me that since the first moment he saw me – when I was 10 – he’d known I was special. That my skirt had flicked up. He had wanted me. He puts his hand on my knee.

I fucking bail and slam the door and I tell all my mates and all the adults I can think of and I make sure I never see him again. Nothing happens to the man, so far as I’m aware. 

This was 20 years ago. He’s probably dead. I hope he knew I became a journalist and that he was always a little bit scared. 

But I left him alone. I hadn’t got my head around him yet. Instead I went on a rampage against the system. I dug through the files of the Teachers Council and found a series of cases that floored the Education Minister at the time, cases that still haunt me. One of these guys had told the disciplinary body hearing his case that touching his 15-year-old niece had been “somewhat addictive”. He admitted that he had sexually abused her over a two-year period. Somewhat addictive. They let him keep teaching. Kept his name secret. Another guy masturbated on the head girl, had sex with her, told her he loved her, she said. The Council believed her. “On a fine balance”, it let him keep teaching. Kept his name secret. And so on.

At times it felt absolutely insane. The Council promised it closely monitored the teachers it was letting back in the classroom but their internal documents said otherwise. Steve Hocking, then principal of Kawerau College, told me in 2007 the system was “limp” and that “anyone could quite happily and merrily be a pedophile” and the principal hiring them would never know. (He’d unwittingly hired a teacher who’d been busted putting pornographic shots of himself online asking girls “the younger the better” to contact him).

Two years later Hocking himself resigned after paying out a former student, then aged about 17, who said he propositioned her in a pub. “I want to take you home and fuck you,” was the line, she said. He disputed her account but conceded making “remarks”. Happily and merrily. 

The system has tightened up a bit since then. It is harder for teachers to abuse kids in their care and get away with it. And I am clear that it’s always been just a tiny proportion of teachers who do it. Of adults in power, in general. But it still happens. Of course it does. 

And I want to acknowledge here that readers bring their own shit to stories, just as writers do, which is something Merriman and I talked about and agree on. 

So know that my story is absolutely informing my conviction that, on a fine balance, A Trio of Sophies should not be marketed as YA. That it should not be in school libraries. That if your child is reading it you should read it too, and have one of those “we need to have a chat” chats with them about it. 

Merriman says she just sat down and started writing a story without really thinking which market it’d slot into. She believes it is absolutely not appropriate for young teens, but is OK for older teens – 15 and up, depending of course on the individual – and will also find an audience among young adults. She says she was expecting questions like mine, and was surprised they hadn’t come up yet. She mentions that two high school librarians have written reviews on Goodreads and don’t seem fazed. (In case I’m way off base I contact two friends in the children’s publishing world, who’ve read the book, and both say they share my concerns.)

“I don’t think the relationship is right either,” Merriman said to me. “But I don’t think it’s my role in the book to point out to teenagers that it’s not right.” She notes that by the end, readers can’t be sure which bits of the story are ‘true’, as it’s all been through the deeply unreliable filter of Sophie. 

Merriman was really bloody good about it all, considering. As I told her, though, this is not a witch hunt. I am not out to cancel her, or this book. I just worry. 

Because some books have real and lasting power. See: Lolita. See also: Twilight, used similarly by the abusive teacher in Lisa Taddeo’s non-fiction triumph Three Women. More broadly, as Jann Meddlicott, the radiologist who has just revealed herself to be the sponsor of the Acorn fiction prize, puts it: “Everything I’ve read in my life has made me who I am. I believe we are products of what we read, not what we eat.”

Before that day in the school carpark I had read everything in the school library, just about, and everything I found lying around at home. One I’d read again and again was The Lake, by Jack Lasenby, in which a hitchhiking girl gets herself out of a truck, fast, when a driver gets leery. Slam. I thanked Jack for that book once without telling him exactly why and he was quiet for a minute and then he said, “Yes, a lot of women your age have thanked me for that book.” 

I’m grateful for the Alex series by Tessa Duder, and for Alex Archer rising up in tall and righteous fury against various creeps and pervs. For I Am Not Esther. The Handmaid’s Tale. I am grateful for Sherryl Jordan’s highest and best creation, Elsha, who knew herself, and for John Marsden’s take-no-shit Ellie, who is not like she is on the Netflix show. I carried all those girls and their stories with me; they helped push me out of the car that day, stood with me as I told. 

But what if instead I had read and carried with me a love story about a teacher and a student? A black and white story covered over in grey, covered in diamonds and beaches and dirty weekends? A delicious secret?

I worry. 

A Trio of Sophies by Eileen Merriman (Penguin, $19.99) is available from Unity Books from 3 March

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (HarperCollins, $37.99) is available from Unity Books from 9 March

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