Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE LAW IS a blunt knife and when it is used to cut between criminal and innocent love you can virtually guarantee that there will be cases which will resist the blade, messily crushed beneath it rather than giving way to the edge's insistence on either/or. The story of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher jailed for the "rape" of a 13-year-old boy, is an obvious case in point. Why is the word rape in quotation marks? Well, partly because its use seems provisional here, a holding position until some better description can be arrived at for a consensual sexual affair between an older woman and a male child - an event so rare that society hasn't had to think of a proper name for it. And yet one hardly needs to ask what we would think of this case if the sexes were reversed - or if a film about a male teacher's affair with a 13-year-old girl proved so indulgent to the feelings of the older party: "People are putting me down, accusing me of being unfit because I allowed him to love me," said Letourneau at the beginning of Inside Story (BBC1), an intriguing documentary about the case, and the film which followed never entirely overruled that plea to be treated as a victim rather than a villain.

There were two broad defence strategies - insanity or infatuation. According to the first, pursued during the trial by LeTourneau's defence lawyer, Mary Kay was suffering from bipolar disorder, a derangement brought on by domestic strain and the death of her father (an ultra-right-wing teacher with his own history of student affairs). This apparently accounted both for the bubbly highs which made her such a popular teacher and also for the obsessive fixation on a precociously talented pupil, an obsession so strong that Letourneau defied the conditions of her suspended sentence and became pregnant by the boy for a second time - resulting in her current jail sentence. The infatuation defence, followed by Letourneau's sisters and loyal friends, calls for the word "obsession" to be replaced by the word "love". By this argument Letourneau is exploiting no one; her condition is that most envied state of bipolar harmony, and only the hysterical myopia of society, which cannot discriminate between predatory paedophilia and mutual devotion, would see it as criminal. Like the star-crossed lovers in Titanic - the couple's favourite film - they are martyrs to romance, not examples of sexual pathology.

Unfortunately Letourneau's children are martyrs to the cause too - and if there was an accusation of child-abuse that was likely to stick it concerned them - four victims of their mother's self-indulgence. The "treatment" ordered for Letourneau can hardly have helped here; she had to live outside the family home and when she did see her children, she had to formally announce to them that she was a child-rapist and promise that she would try not to rape them - an absurd application of a punitive therapy designed for paedophiles. Even so, her decision to place her satisfaction above their predictable suffering is not easy to forgive; an abdication from the responsibilities of adulthood which will probably be far more damaging than her effect on the boy himself, who is now bringing up their children, consulting his media lawyer, and waiting for her release. Those who support her might like to think that love conquers all, but they need to face up to the fact that love is often the first casualty of such romantic imperialism. The prison sentence might be a nonsense - it has no deterrent or rehabilitative purpose at all - but the sense of social outrage surely isn't.

The credit sequence for Maisie Raine (BBC1), in which the heroine walks towards the camera with two bulging carrier bags, looks hilariously reminiscent of The Drudge Squad, Jo Brand's spoof police sketches, in which two blousy old slappers in curlers were the detectives. This description will not do for Pauline Quirke, I hasten to add, but even so, it is a bit difficult to overcome the association and the series itself doesn't help - lacking any connection to the real, uncomfortable world. The implication of last night's episode - that the only problem with policing the black community is their own lack of co-operation - went beyond the anodyne to the actively offensive. If you can't do better than that in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence case you should stick to cosy dramas about country vets.

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