When I was 30-years-old, I began, for the first time, to truly reckon with what happened to me as a senior in high school: I was groomed and abused by an English teacher. At the time, I didn’t see it like that. I certainly did not see myself as a victim of anything, as vulnerable, as an easy target for a predator. Now, nearly 20 years later, I see myself and my situation very differently.
When the teacher came into my life, I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. Think back to your school days – remember that one teacher you had? The one who was younger than the other teachers by a few years but still old enough to be in charge of you? Handsome. Always had a shoulder to cry on when a student had a broken heart, somehow cooler than all the other adults in the building? That was him.
My crush bloomed quickly into love – or as in love as any 17-year-old can be. I had been battling serious, deep depression and felt lonelier and sadder than I had ever known. What started off as after-school tutoring – I desperately wanted to be a real writer, and the teacher had gone to Columbia University and studied at Oxford, was worldly and had his own poetic streak – escalated into meeting secretly at night, passing erotically charged notes back and forth in his classroom, and my teacher giving me pornographic images and telling me that was what he imagined it would be like when we could be together. He even asked for my bra size in return for the size of his penis. He gave me a copy of Lolita, whispering that it was a story about love, about our love. “You’re my Lolita,” he said to me in the dark. And that was only the first few months.
There was a moment between us that was captured on film: I was the lead in the school play, which he was helping direct, and it was backstage on opening night. The room was filled with the bustle of everyone putting on stage make-up, the dance of changing into your costume so the other students couldn’t see your gangly limbs more than you wanted, the excitement of an audience waiting.
Another girl was doing my hair. I was in a blue-and-white-striped summer dress, red lips, a strand of hair coyly surrounding my face. The teacher was watching me from a few feet away. If I reached out, I could touch his khakis. Our eyes locked. I looked at him, full of lust and longing. I felt so strong, so sexy, so powerful. “I am your Lolita,” I turned the phrase over in my mind and mouth without moving my lips, trying to say it all in my gaze. A student grabbed my camera, boxy and plastic, and snapped a photo of that moment – me in the chair, the teacher unseen on the other side of the lens.
Shockingly, or un-shockingly, the relationship – though I am loathe to call it that – became controlling, manipulative, and abusive. Emotionally, physically, sexually. Once I graduated from high school, we started sleeping together. I thought we were going to get married. I thought I was the Jezebel he wanted, the Lolita character Vladimir Nabokov created in his most famous novel.
After a year of keeping us a secret, I chafed under his thumb and broke the relationship off. It was ugly and messy, filled with long letters of apology from him, promises that things would be different. For the first 10 years afterwards, I thought of it simply as a bad break-up with a shitty ex. One of many. But then, at 30, I began to teach. As a college professor of creative writing, many of my students were freshman, only 18 and 19, a year or two older than I was when I first met the teacher. And they were so young.
It was the first time I saw my younger self plainly, in the faces of my students. The girls who radiated their trouble, their sadness, their need. They were so obvious. The ones who always stayed after class to ask questions about a text, scheduled extra office hours, wrote lyric poems about loneliness and love. They were just like me. They needed support, affirmation, maybe counselling. The girls were asking for help. They were not asking to be fucked. The facts slapped me in the face, hard.
I remembered the moment caught on film. I remember thinking it was a secret shot of love, the one photographic proof of our connection. The feeling of power I had, how his attention morphed me from a gawky adolescent to his own Aphrodite, how I held the power of a sex goddess. I searched for the photo, desperate to prove that my experience was different, that it was love, that I was the confident, strong grown-up I remembered being. I found it, finally, in a high school album, the memory rising as a corpse. And my understanding of my relationship with the teacher shattered like a looking glass.
A four by six inch rectangle of truth stared back at me, of who I was at 17, and who I was not. I was not grown-up. I was not powerful. I was not confident. I looked like a vulnerable, scared girl, all skinny limbs and slouched shoulders. Yes, the dress was blue and white. Yes my lips were red, and my eyes looked into the unseen face of the teacher next to the camera. But I didn’t look sexy. I looked sad. Small. Fragile. Exactly what I was: a teenager in heavy make-up, ready to play make-believe on stage.
As I locked eyes with myself, a self I no longer knew because everything I remembered seemed wrong, I had to face the truth, exposed in full colour. It was not love. It was never an equal relationship. I was a child. I was a victim.
Almost seven years later, this new understanding has unlocked so many doors. Realising that your first real relationship was mostly manipulation and often rape is the kind of sadness that can break you. It has been painful, full of raw anger at what was done to me, anger at myself for letting it happen, empathy for the child I was, trying to do my best in a situation far beyond my capabilities. This younger me, this 17-year-old stranger, has become known again. I am only one of many teenage victims of an older male predator. Nothing about my experience is unique, and this knowledge is both heartbreaking and comforting. It has taken a lot of therapy, a lot of honesty, a lot of strength. No longer keeping his secret. Seeing the reality of that abusive, terrible relationship exposed in my hand. And telling the story out loud.
‘Being Lolita’ by Alisson Wood is out now, published by Orion.
More from British Vogue: