Cris Mazza's new novel, Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, blends a true story of unrequited love with a fictional attempt by Mazza's alter ego, Hester Smith, to rescue a 14-year-old prostitute.
The first part is drawn from Mazza's experience. The second part is her attempt to explore — as one reviewer put it — the continuum from flirtation to abuse. The story is intricate, so let's begin with a synopsis:
It's 2004 in San Diego County, Cal. Hester Smith is writing a letter to a man named Dan Wood. The two dated briefly in 1979, when Hester was a student teacher at a local high school and Wood was her supervising teacher. Wood was married, though unhappily. The "affair" was unconsummated, which frustrated Hester because, at 23, she was still a virgin and couldn't understand why Wood didn't want her sexually. The relationship ended after 4 months.
What prompts the letter is news that Wood is being sued by another woman, named Heather, who claims she had a sexual relationship with Wood when she was 16 and a student at the same high school. The protagonist, Hester, realizes their affair occurred during the time she was seeing Wood.
The news comes as a bombshell, but Hester's reaction isn't moral outrage. Like the author, Hester's first thought was: Why her?
In the letter, Hester admits the news prompted her to excavate her own memories of that time. She also reveals to Wood her plan to rescue a teenage prostitute working nearby. Hester has read reports of underage girls being kidnapped in Mexico, smuggled into the U.S. and forced into sexual slavery. But, she writes, nobody she knows is doing anything to stop it.
One of these girls is working at the edge of the nursery where Hester now works. Hester confides to Wood that she slipped, disguised, into the makeshift brothel and met her.
The letter ends with a staunch defense of Wood:
So, 25 years ago one 16-year-old thinks she's extraordinary because she has attracted a 30-year-old man and consents to be his lover, proving her ultimate value to herself ... and 25 years later when she cries foul, the newspapers, the lawyers, the prosecutors, the talk-show mavens zero in on her beguiled former lover as a piece of vermin who sickens moral society. Meanwhile abducted teenagers are being f**ked 30, 40, 50 times a day by that many men, in "rooms" made of flattened chaparral, and where are the voices raised in protest, the hoisted fists of moral outrage, the saturation of media interest? Where?
Asked why she chose a novel to tell this story, Mazza answered, "A novel might be the only way to put these two subjects together, because it would seem so extraordinarily inappropriate to do in non-fiction or in a news story."
One thing a novel allows, according to Mazza, is a deeper understanding of the relationship between Dan Wood and the 16-year-old Heather. Motivated by the "Why her?" question, Mazza imagines how the affair starts, she imagines their trysts, and finally watches their relationship disintegrate— from Wood's and Heather's perspective.
"It's almost like method acting," Mazza says. "I had to be in her while writing that, and the character I thought she was going to be changed." Mazza thought Heather would be a teenager who knew her allure and used it to attract an older man. But as she created this character, Mazza realized the confusion Heather must have experienced:
"She started to not be able to think about her future. She started to not be able to know what to do after high school. And so I learned about the ways in which teenagers can't handle this kind of relationship. I hadn't fully realized until I play-acted it through fiction."
Mazza says she also learned how the affair affected Wood:
"He was 31. I do not consider that to be very old. He was in a troubled marriage, he was confused. He didn't set out like a predator to find a teenager to abuse. But once he got into it, he was troubled by it as well. He didn't know what to do about the fact that he received comfort from this girl."
One author, Janet Burroway, calls this story "feminist in the best sense." For her, the book "wipes aside the pieties around the subject of harassment to probe the multiple realities of desire."