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Mary Kay Letourneau and her former sixth-grade student-turned husband Vili Fualaau talk with Barbara Walters for a special 20/20 segment Friday — along with their daughters Audrey, 17, and Georgia, 16. (Photo: Heidi Gutman/ABC/Getty Images)
Seattle middle school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau was convicted of second-degree child rape nearly 20 years ago. Yet the scandal of her illegal relationship-turned marriage with former sixth-grade student Vili Fualauu – beginning when he was just 13 and she was 34 – still raises questions to this day.
The registered sex offender, now 53, and her husband, 31 — who works at a home-and-garden center and moonlights as a DJ — are answering some of those questions in a taped a sit-down interview alongside their now-teenaged daughters Georgia, 16, and Audrey, 17, with Barbara Walters airing Friday on 20/20. (Fun facts: Audrey is a high school senior set to attend community college in the fall and Georgia is a sophomore).
And as the parents reveal how the family has fared since Letourneau was released from prison in 2004, as well as what they’ve told their kids about the still controversial couple’s start, Yahoo Parenting tapped experts to ask what so many have been wondering: How will the girls’ unique childhoods affect the rest of their lives in light of all of the points made below?
Audrey and Georgia were both infamous before they were even born.
It was Letourneau’s pregnancy with Audrey that brought the whole saga to light in 1997 and she gave birth to the daughter three months before pleading guilty to two counts of child rape. Georgia was actually born behind bars the following year, after Letourneau conceived her while out of prison on parole in violation of her parole. But remarkably, all the scandal their lives started in may not necessarily scar them psychologically, family therapist Paul Hokemeyer, PhD., tells Yahoo Parenting. “It really depends on each child’s resiliency,” he says. “In this case, the children appear to come from a very resilient stock. Their parents have survived against the odds and obstacles. This indicates that the girls are built to survive and thrive too.” Whether or not they feel secure in the world plays a big part too though. “It’s with a secure attachment to a primary caregiver that people grow in to healthy autonomous adults, so hopefully they had a strong mother surrogate who let them know they were lovable and of value in the world.”
For all of their early years, mom was out of the picture, locked up.
Letourneau was in prison for the first seven years of the girls’ lives, leaving then 14-year-old Fualauu a single parent. “It was a huge change in my life, for sure,” the dad tells 20/20. “I don’t feel like I had the right support, the right help behind me … from my family, from anyone, in general. I mean, my friends couldn’t help me because they had no idea what it was like to be a parent, I mean, because we were all 14, 15.” Though Letourneau says she was impressed by “how invested he was in being a father,” Hokemeyer reveals why those early years likely made a lasting impact on Audrey and Georgia. “The first days, months, and years of a child’s life are incredibly important,” he says. “They set the blueprint for how the child will view herself and the world. The goal is for the child to have what’s called a secure attachment.” If the two had such a rock in Fualauu, he says they’ll likely have felt “seen, heard, honored and validated.” Without that stability, he notes, “children are less equipped to be part of the world in a positive way.”
Their parents went ahead and got hitched soon after mom was freed.
The girls went from having an absentee mother to welcoming her home and watching her marry their 21-year-old dad just 10 months later in 2005. Fualauu tells 20/20, “It was a huge relief to actually get married,” and Hokemeyer says it likely made a positive impact on the girls as well. “Marriage is incredibly validating,” he says. “Through it, relationships and families are seen and honored. The subsequent marriage of their parents probably showed the teens that they exist in a unit that is valid and supported by the community around them.”
Mom and dad don’t talk about the family scandal at home, ever.
Letourneau says that the couple has never had “a sit-down chat,” with their daughters about their family history, noting that they haven’t said, “'Now is the time we’re going to talk to our children about this. They seemed to already know … because they grew up with it. … There’s just never been a ‘Wow, we better explain.’“ But a family meeting could really benefit the daughters, according to Hokemeyer. “Parents need to guide their children through life rather then expecting them to parent and guide themselves,” he says. “Letourneau’s resistance to have the discussion seems to be a residual of her own shame about what happened. But children need to know that parents are imperfect and parents need to be judiciously honest about their imperfections.” By refusing to openly discuss what is already so clearly known, he adds, “Letourneau is perpetuating shame, avoidance, and denial.”
Then there’s the whole 22-year age difference between mom and dad.
The teens are closer in age to dad than the father himself is to Letourneau. And that gap likely makes things more difficult for the girls. “It’s got to be a challenge in the sense that it adds to their sense of being ‘other-ed,’ and there are already such factors in play here that make the family outsiders to the rest of society,” says Hokemeyer. But if the parents help them overcome any feeling of shame about it he notes, “they’ll be able to feel good about their parents’ integrity and wear their feelings proudly.”
Their dad struggles with alcoholism.
“I’m surprised I’m still alive today,” Fualauu tells 20/20. “I went through a really dark time.” As a result, the father reportedly turned to alcohol, which Hokemeyer says could have likely led his girls to feel pretty unstable themselves. “Alcoholism and drug addiction are family diseases,” he says. “While we like to think that it’s only the identified patient who suffers and needs help to heal, the truth is that everyone in the family needs help to recover. Active addictions in the family make family members feel insecure. They threaten the family members’ very sense of safety.”
And don’t forget, the girls have four other half-siblings to contend with.
When Letourneau and Fualauu wed, they stay put in the same Seattle area where their involvement began, because they wanted to get “on track with life,” the mother says. Her four other children from her first marriage however, moved to Alaska with their father. Still Letourneau tells 20/20 all of her children are “very close.” (For Fualauu, though, the same does not hold true. He’s less than 2 years older than his wife’s eldest son and admits, “It’s an awkward feeling, for sure.”) Letourneau’s older four kids will “definitely” have had their sense of security and safety compromised by their mother’s sex scandal all those years ago, says Hokemeyer. “They would naturally feel threatened and even competitive with the other children,” he adds. But the inevitable comparison the children in both families will make between each other doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “What’s important for Audrey and Georgia is that they come to their own histories and life trajectories and believe that that they have the power to write their own life script,” he says. “Because they do.”
Their parents’ marriage has withstood the test of time.
Ultimately, the simple fact that Letourneau and Fualauu are still together bodes well for the girls’ future happiness, Beverly Hills relationship psychotherapist and Sex Box costar Dr. Fran Walfish tells Yahoo Parenting. “Their long-lasting, loving relationship that bore two children and sustained a separation during Mary Kay serving jail time indicates these two people had the stuff it takes to weather heavy pressure, disappointment, conflict and public humiliation,” she says. “The bottom line is that every child needs to know she and he was conceived out of love. And these two girls’ parents declare that they were.”