What to Know About the True Story That Inspired May December

8 minute read

If the scandalous origin story of the couple at the center of Todd Haynes' disarming black comedy May December seems familiar, that's because it bears more than a few similarities to the Mary Kay Letourneau case from the 1990s. While the movie, which releases in theaters on Nov. 17 and is set to stream on Netflix starting on Dec. 1, is fictional, it appears to be inspired by Letourneau, whose story helped define the sensationalist tabloid culture of the '90s.

Letourneau was a Seattle school teacher who made headlines in 1997, when she was convicted of raping one of her sixth grade students, Vili Fualaau. Letourneau began having sex with Fualaau in 1996, when she was 34 and he was 12. They had two children together before Fualaau was 15, one of whom was born in prison, where she was serving a serving a seven-year sentence for violating court orders to stay away from Fualaau. Following her release in 2004, Letourneau and Fualaau, by then an adult, fought for and won an overturn to a no-contact order, leading to their marriage in 2005. The couple were married for 14 years until they separated in 2019; Letourneau died in 2020.

Read more: Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman Circle Each Other Warily in Twisty Age-Gap Drama May December

In the film, Gracie Athertoon-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), have built a picturesque life for themselves and are about to be empty nesters, with their three children now in college. Now in their late 50s and 30s, respectively, their current situation is a far cry from the salacious beginnings of their relationship nearly two decades ago, when a then-36-year-old Gracie began an affair with 7th grader Joe, after he started working alongside her at the local pet shop. The pair is forced to confront longstanding dynamics and issues in their relationship after Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), an actor set to portray Gracie in a film based on the couple, comes to their town to do research for her role.

While the Haynes and the screenwriter have shied away from directly referencing the Letourneau case as inspiration, anyone familiar with the real-life story will no doubt be reminded of the decades-old news item after watching the movie. Here's what to know about the Mary Kay Letourneau case ahead of May December.

Is May December based on a true story?

Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo with Charles Melton as Joe in May December
Julianne Moore as Gracie Atherton-Yoo with Charles Melton as Joe in May December.Courtesy of Netflix

While the story is fictional, People reported that screenwriter Samy Burch said at a New York Film Festival screening that she drew inspiration for the film from seeing the connection between the media climate during Letourneau's case and the current true-crime boom.

"I really wanted a fictional story that dealt with this tabloid culture of the '90s that has kind of seemingly led into this true-crime biopic world we're in now, and kind of question that transition and why we want to keep recreating these stories," Burch said. "That was the real jumping-off point for me... All of these stories like this that are in the ether are just completely embedded in everyone's cultural history."

Director Haynes—who has worked with Moore on his previous films Safe, Far From Heaven, and Wonderstruck—said in a press conference that Moore did use Letourneau as a reference when she was developing her character, evidence of which might be seen most tangibly in Gracie's pronounced lisp.

"To be honest, there were things in kind of a loose upper palate that we did find interesting in Mary Kay Letourneau's speech that was a kick-off for her," he said. "And she took it further."

While some elements of May December are similar to Letourneau's story, like Gracie and Letourneau both being married with children before beginning their affairs, other details are different. While Letourneau was Fualaau's teacher in both second and sixth grade, in the film, Gracie and Joe meet when Joe begins working at the same pet store as her. In real life, Letourneau and Fualaau lived in Washington and had two daughters, but in the movie, Gracie and Joe live in Savannah, Georgia and have a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, as well as another daughter. And while Letourneau and Gracie are both in their thirties when they begin their affairs, in the film, Joe is portrayed as slightly older, having just finished 7th grade, than Fualaau, who began sleeping with Letourneau the summer after being in her 6th grade class.

Who was Mary Kay Letourneau?

Letourneau was born Mary Katherine Schmitz in 1962 in Tustin, Calif. Her father, John Schmitz, was a college philosophy professor and politician who served one term in Congress. As a father, he was extremely strict, while as a politician, he was known for his staunch conservatism and obsession with public decency. This fervor was called into question when it was discovered in 1982 that he had two children with a mistress who was a former student, a secret that effectively ended his political career and devastated his family, who was already reeling from the drowning death of Letourneau's little brother; Letourneau remained loyal to him throughout the ordeal.

Letourneau (then Schmitz) was popular in high school and later attended Arizona State University, where she met Steve Letourneau, whom she married after getting pregnant with their first child. The couple had four children and settled down in Normandy Park, a suburb of Seattle, where she began teaching at the local school.

Letourneau first met Fualaau when she was his teacher in second grade, where she noted his artistic ability and kept in contact with him over the years until he was in her sixth grade class in 1995. During the fall of that year, Letourneau experienced a number of challenges in her personal life, including having a miscarriage, her father getting terminal cancer, and tension in her marriage. During the summer of 1996, Letourneau, then 36, began sleeping with Fualaau, who was 12 years old.

In a 2006 interview, Fualaau told NBC Dateline that he initiated the sexual relationship: "I wanted her," he said. "So I wasn't going to stop." In the same interview, Letourneau also claimed that she didn't think at the time that what she was doing was illegal and her primary concern was what Fualaau's mother would think. Letourneau and Fualaau's affair was exposed in February 1997, when her husband found love letters between the two; unbeknownst to him, at the time, Letourneau was six months pregnant with a baby conceived with Fualaau.

A month later, after one of Steve's relatives called the elementary school she worked at, Letourneau was arrested. In May 1997, Letourneau gave birth to Audrey, her first child with Fualaau; three months later, she pleaded guilty to two counts of child rape and was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, which was suspended to just six months under the condition that she enter a sex offender treatment program, take medication for her bipolar disorder, and have no contact with Fualaau.

Letourneau, however, was unable to commit to those terms; after serving her six months and being released in January 1998, she stopped taking her medication and rebelled against her sexual deviancy counselor. She also violated her parole by seeing and sleeping with Fualaau, becoming pregnant with their second child. Her original sentence was reinstated in February 1998 and Letourneau gave birth to their second daughter, Georgia, in prison. That same year, she and Fualaau wrote a book about their relationship, titled Un Seul Crime, L’Amour, or Only One Crime, Love. In a 1998 interview with Oprah, as reported by the Spokesman-Review, Letourneau said that she was willing to violate parole because she loved Fualaau.

"He called, and I came,” she said. “I think, with all certainty, this young man is the love of my life, or I wouldn’t have done this to my children.”

In August 2004, Letourneau was released from prison and she, then 42, and Fualaau, then 20, successfully petitioned to have their court-mandated no-contact order lifted, although she remained a registered sex offender in Washington State. In May 2005, the pair married.

Where are Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau now?

In 2017, after 12 years of marriage, Fualaau filed for separation from Letourneau, but they continued to live together until late 2019.

While it does not appear that Letourneau and her first husband Steve stayed in touch (upon the announcement of her and Fualaau's separation, Steve told People: “I’ve moved on and I have nothing to say"), she worked to maintain relationships with children from her previous marriage, with regular visitation. Her daughter Mary Claire was the maid of honor at her wedding to Fualaau.

"If I had known a year ago how all of them are together in my life now,” she said in a 2006 interview with People, “I would have cried.”

In July 2020, Letourneau died of cancer at the age of 58. For the rest of her life, Letourneau had no remorse about her relationship with Fualaau.

"Am I sorry he’s the father of my children, and that we’re married and this is the man of my life?" she said in a 2018 A&E documentary about her. "No, I am not."

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com