I don't particularly like reading about hard-to-comprehend stories, or stories-that-could-have-happened-to-my-friends, but what story in life doesn't fit into one of those categories?
This story, The Other Side of the Story by Jenny Kutner, begins with this tagline: "When I was fourteen, I had a relationship with my eighth grade history teacher. People called me a victim. They called him a villain. But it's more complicated than that."
While the issue of adult-child relationships, teacher-student relationships, and other taboo sexual encounters have been all over the news in the past few years, there have been few times when all sides of the story have been discussed, because there is always a villain, and there is always a victim. But things aren't always so black-and-white, at least not to those involved, and this piece does a great job of bringing those complications into question.
And there's a lot we can learn as writers from it!
Not Defining Everything
There is a tendency when writing to feel that we must define things: we must define the characters involved, the relationships, the situations very clearly so the reader won't be confused. But life is full of confusions, and this is one such example of some of those confusions. This part struct me as a good example of why the relationship can't always be explained:
"Still, the word means something I can’t describe; I never learned the right vocabulary. I did learn that Trace Lehrer and I had something significant, though, but no one ever taught me its name. Whatever it was wrenched my gut more than my heart once it ended, though most of the lasting effects have worn off. It still makes my hands sweat whenever I drive past my middle school on my way back home to see my parents, but my heart no longer starts beating up my windpipe, threatening to choke me, when I walk by an anonymous twenty-something with ill-fitting pants and a cowlick."
Life isn't defined, and a huge part of this story was in those holes. In those moments that she wasn't taught to understand, and so she had trouble coming to terms with what she went through in her relationship with her former teacher, who would eventually be charged as a sex offender. Sometimes, things aren't clear, and this was a great way to incorporate that lack of clarity in both language and of life.
Openness on a Personal, Hard to Share Topic
It's not easy to write about yourself. It's not easy to write about things in your past or present that you see as mistakes or wrongdoings. It's even harder when the picture of what is right and what is wrong has already been painted for you, such as on this topic of student-teacher relationships.
But Jenny Kutner wrote this anyways. She has never been bashful about sharing her story, because part of what she thought was necessary to recover and understand what she went through was being open about it: it happened. It happened, and it happened to her. The ability to share in a self-narrative can be hard. How do you do so without being too sure of anything? Kutner did a great job overcoming that by detailing her forgetfulness, her insecurities, and her wrongdoings clearly throughout the piece:
"I hardly remember anything he and I said on the phone that first night he called; I can’t remember most of the phone calls that followed that one either, although over time those conversations came to occupy my every waking moment."