Mad About The Boy

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The hours after midnight are shared largely by lovers and criminals. Seattle police searching for a stolen car were not sure which they had discovered last Tuesday at 2:24 a.m. when they noticed a gray Volkswagen Fox along a residential street, its parking lights aglow and its windows steamed. But when a well-known and attractive blond stepped from the car, they knew they had both.

She was Mary Kay LeTourneau, 36, a former schoolteacher who last August pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree child rape for having a sexual relationship (and a baby) with a former student, a 13-year-old boy. LeTourneau had been released from jail last month, her 7 1/2-year sentence commuted to six months on the strict condition that she never contact her young lover. But when police investigated her car before dawn last Tuesday, they saw that she was with the boy. They also found $6,200 in cash, new men's and infant's clothing and LeTourneau's passport--indicating, prosecutors said, that she intended to flee with the boy and their baby.

LeTourneau was arrested and, after a court hearing, was hauled back to jail to serve her full sentence. Judge Linda Lau called LeTourneau's violations "egregious and profoundly disturbing." And Seattle-based sociologist Pepper Schwartz spoke for many parents when he observed, "To have a teacher take a child for herself is a serious act of treachery." Some medical experts who examined LeTourneau, however, protest that she is mentally ill in a way not typical of child molesters. She violated the terms of her release, they say, because she did not get the right treatment.

How did LeTourneau lurch into this nightmare? The answer may be found in her DNA, encoded for blond hair, brown eyes and perhaps bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness. Several blood relatives filed affidavits with the court saying they had been treated for the disorder. Also, she grew up in the shadow of unapproved love: her father John Schmitz, a former ultraconservative California Congressman and college lecturer, ended his career in disgrace after fathering two children by a onetime student.

The most benign stage of bipolar depression is hypomania, a sustained high that brings great creativity, grandiosity, energy and insomnia, punctuated by short bouts of depression. Julie Moore, a psychiatrist who examined LeTourneau at length for the defense, believes this pattern describes the acclaimed teacher who, while rearing four young kids, routinely pulled all-nighters to devise projects for her elementary school students.

People with bipolar depression can function normally, even exceptionally, for years. Mozart, Poe and Van Gogh are thought to have had the disorder. But without diagnosis and medication, the sufferer risks becoming manic, delusional and attracted to risk. In 1995 LeTourneau began slipping over. Her beloved father was found to have terminal cancer. Her marriage was troubled. And in January 1996 she suffered both a miscarriage and severe depression.

It was then that she turned to a Samoan-American boy in her sixth-grade class, a slender, sensitive, artistic youth who looked and acted older than his years. He was sexually mature, yet someone she could mold. The two began visiting museums and exchanging poetry, and by June 1996 they were having sex. "She found the man of her dreams," says her lawyer, David Gehrke, "but he was 13."

The two decided to "bond" by having a baby. But in February 1997, a pregnant LeTourneau, turned in by one of her husband's relatives, was arrested and pleaded guilty. After baby Audrey was born in May, LeTourneau was sent to jail.

In mandating her sentence and therapy during a hearing, the court treated her as a sex offender. But she didn't fit the pattern. The typical sex offender is a predator who becomes active in his late teens and strikes victim after victim. LeTourneau's record was clean. Moore and others who examined LeTourneau believed she committed a sex crime because of delusions occasioned by the illness--a distinction with important implications for her therapy. It was late fall before LeTourneau's doctors were able to persuade her jailers to give her a drug called Depakote, to which "she had a positive response," Moore said.

But drugs like Depakote produce side effects like nausea. And manic depressives, remembering the high of hypomania, are prone to dump their medicine. Within days after her January release, her friends reported, LeTourneau stopped taking Depakote and planned to see a "naturopath" instead. She quarreled with the doctors in her treatment program. Within weeks, she was in her car with her illicit young lover, kissing and talking, fully clothed, until they were discovered by police.

The boy, now 14, says he loves LeTourneau and objects to being called a "victim." LeTourneau, now on suicide watch, is without medication or therapy. And there is no assurance, say her doctors and lawyer, that she will get either one in prison.