It’s hard to believe in Tampa’s predatory protagonist not because she’s too sexual, but because she’s exclusively sexual
Until I was about eight or nine years old, I was best friends with a girl who would years later be charged with nearly 100 counts of child sex abuse, acts she committed and confessed to when barely in her 20s. As most media reported it, she was “having sex”
If you’re planning on Googling the above details in the hope of finding pictures, I warn you there are quite a few cases that fit the profile. After just a cursory search for female-teacher-on-male-student action—even with the addendum of “special education”—the results indicate a near epidemic of such abuse. Consider this extensive list of female teachers convicted of inappropriate sexual contact with their students, then remember that, though recent, it’s hardly comprehensive. Then think of all the women committing the same crimes who are never caught.
Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, a novel about a predatory eighth-grade English teacher, describes obsessive sexual desire, specifically the desire of a beautiful young woman, that both does and doesn’t resemble these real-life stories. Much has been made of the book’s opening sentence—“I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation”—and it is the appropriate hook for the explicit catalog of carnal activity that follows. Twenty-six-year-old Celeste smears her wetness on school desks and “wallpaper[s her] cervix” with a card bearing the signature of a student crush. In preparation and anticipation for her eventual intercourse with a 14-year-old student, Jack, Celeste vibrates herself, wears open-nipple bras while teaching, and imagines digging through a boy’s trash at home in search of a specially used tissue. These initial passages are outrageous, funny, and, in the less sexually extreme moments, arousing.
Some reviewers have placed great emphasis on that last component, praising (or condemning) Nutting for making readers complicit in Celeste’s perversion with detailed sex scenes, but it’s not quite as scandalous as all that. In these early stages, Celeste masturbates without ever having physical contact with a minor. And it’s worth remembering that accurate descriptions of arousal are reliably arousing in and of themselves, so when we read about a woman (or man) becoming increasingly turned on, our response tends to be in kind.
But Nutting is impressively rigorous about ruining whatever excitement her text might provoke by forcing us to face the fact that Celeste’s desires are unmistakably that of a pedophile (hebephile, if you’re being picky). This is not a woman drawn to a star jock who happens to be three months shy of 18. She emphatically rejects “specimens” with signs of adult maturation: facial hair, deepened voices, muscular arms. When she rhapsodizes about her preferred students, it’s their underdeveloped state that she focuses on, fetishizing tentativeness, uncertainty, and a “diminutive leanness.” She responds to skinny ankles and “boxy flatness,” eschewing the contours that come with age. “He was the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit him,” she thinks of her chosen conquest. We come away not with the feeling that adolescent boys are sexy, but rather the conviction that it wouldn’t remotely be a turn-on to sexually assault a kid.
Celeste is identifiably a sociopath. Of her husband, she thinks, “His pain seemed like such an internal, private thing, no different from excrement—something to be dealt with in private. But here he was, putting it before me and making me smell it.” In spite of her taboo actions, she sees herself as a reasonable person who shouldn’t be held responsible for her sexual aggression. When reflecting on the possibility of giving birth to a male child, she decides that “at a certain age it would be impossible to ignore him, and I would never want to force that transgression upon myself.” (My emphasis.) Celeste’s indifference toward everyone, particularly the young objects of her desire, is one of the several ways Nutting flips the cultural script. Pop psychology holds that women are uniquely emotionally vulnerable, especially during sex; Celeste is Machiavellian, impervious to attachment. If anything, sex makes her colder and more calculating.
The rather too careful continuity of that personality is only briefly complicated, when later in the book Celeste refers to her desires as an “affliction” and wonders once if Jack feels “too molested.” After she’s forced to face consequences for what she’s done, she marvels that “in merely following my own desire I’d been catapulted … into a realm of punishment.”
The realization feels especially hollow because Celeste is amoral but not stupid; she has always been aware that getting caught would create problems, mostly in the form of obstacles preventing future sexual contact with minors. Celeste’s nonchalantly selfish and self-justifying voice is so eerily consistent that these small deviations register as just that, and not as an indication of any depth of character. After their first instance of intercourse, Celeste observes that Jack “didn’t seem traumatized or the victim … He looked improved.” Is she rationalizing in response to society’s disapproval? (She can’t be rationalizing for her own purposes, since she is incapable of feeling guilt or remorse.) Earlier in the book, she has relished the idea of one of her former students as an adult, masturbating to one of her advances while remaining tortured, “unsure and hungry for clarity,” because of that early encounter. Does she truly believe that Jack is better for their experience?
If so, it doesn’t stick. After a series of increasingly extreme, Celeste-contingent personal disasters, Jack is “broken for good,” too emotionally desolate to have the boyish energy or innocence that originally attracted her to him. The only time we see Celeste suffer is when she encounters something she finds repugnant, like adult male lust or an unattractive woman, or when she’s denied sex with boys, but this pain is apparently enough for her to assume a nihilistic attitude. At the end of her affair with Jack, she recognizes Jack’s “understanding that the world could be a terrible place. His eyes said that no one at all was looking out for him … My eyes stared back and told him that he was right.” This is the Celeste we know, the same one who asked herself, “Why did anyone pretend human relationships had value?”
The most peculiar element of Celeste’s improbably cohesive personality are her visions, which are not particularly funny or plausible (even in the context of her habitually extreme thoughts) and instead resemble psychotic breaks. When her husband, Ford, rides next to her in the same car where she’d deflowered Jack, she imagines Jack “writhing unseen” under her husband, “being suffocated as we drove.” It’s in that same car that she glances regularly into her rearview mirror after school to make sure Jack isn’t following “with the fly of his jeans unzipped” and within which she images a giant Jack bending down and crushing the convertible’s roof with the head of his dangling penis. At home, she fantasizes about “boys on television” as “tadpoles who grew in Ford’s stomach until they were … large enough to rip their way out in a violent mass birth.” These bizarre interludes, intended to be satirical, overembellish the already exaggerated figure of Celeste. The more directly sexual reveries make the same point about her egotism and appetite, and far more effectively.
In interviews, Nutting speaks of Tampa as a book with many priorities, a novel on a mission to (a) give the world a predatory female protagonist, (b) expose the sexism that colors our reception of female teacher–male student exploitation, and (c) highlight the role our worship of female beauty and youth plays within that sexism. That she has accomplished the first item is indisputable, and she introduces much convincing evidence for the last as well. Yet to what end does one point out sexist apologies for female predators if not to bring attention to the harm done to their victims? Here, Tampa makes a case that’s cursory at best.
Because Celeste is our narrator and sole source of information, her inability to empathize with the boys she preys upon renders our understanding of them extremely limited. We know that she escapes justice, but our desire to see her punished is dependent on knowledge that she’s more or less morally bankrupt and isn’t about things being made right with her victims. In fact, given the powerful allegiance protagonists can inspire in spite of their obvious flaws, I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers root against a jail sentence.
To further complicate matters, Jack’s trauma is primarily caused by a variety of outlandish events related to his relationship with Celeste as opposed to being a direct result of the sex itself. What’s more, a considerable amount of the sadness he reveals is in large part due to his realization that Celeste was only using him, not in love with him. The tacit suggestion is that if Celeste were motivated by love or planned to marry Jack once he’d graduated high school—as Mary Kay Letourneau, Kimberly Bynum, and Sarah Jones planned with their onetime victims
Nutting has stated that she didn’t want Celeste to have any sympathetic qualities because we’re already so prone to excuse the behavior of beautiful female predators, but Celeste is so cartoonishly libido-driven that she’s a caricature. After seeing a student adjust his genitals through his pants, for example, she is so transported by her lust that she “grip[s] the side of [her] desk for support, working hard to speak just a few more words ... without sounding like a labored asthmatic.” Nutting renders Celeste’s amorality in chillingly persuasive detail but sacrifices the plausibility of her sexual nature for purposes of satire. One reviewer wrote that she had “some difficulty believing in a woman with Celeste’s particular voraciousness”—a sadly predictable response.
Rationally, we know that truly perverse sexual mania is not limited to one gender or another and that plenty of women are motivated by and passionate about highly satisfying sex—Celeste’s numerous orgasms are enviable, even if the circumstances through which she achieves them are not—but these truths are lost in exaggeration. (Those reveries about husband-killing tadpoles and death by giant penis don’t help.) Celeste is so monomaniacal in her pursuit of sex with pubescent boys that she ceases to seem like a real threat, or even real at all.
It’s useless to complain that Tampa should have had a different protagonist; Celeste is the story, the story is highly entertaining, and Nutting was not beholden to create any particular “correct” representation of a teacher who coerces her students. But when I think of the real-life victims of such a figure, and the real-life victims of my former friend, the seriousness of the damage done to them contrasts sharply with the odd weightlessness of this novel. And as a novelist Nutting should be beholden if not to correctness than to reality. By creating a narrator expressly to fulfill a certain purpose and therefore too one-dimensionally heartless to be believed, Nutting lost the chance to say something more profound about the complexity of desire and suffering. After all, the problem with excusing beautiful women who transgress sexually isn’t merely that doing so is shallow and sexist. The problem is that excusing such women lets them do terrible things again.
Tampa may encourage some readers to rethink their instinctual, excusatory reaction to the next new report of a female teacher having assaulted a male student, wondering if the woman is a calculating monster instead of a lonely young professional or a neglected wife, but the addition of this possibility hardly seems like great progress. At the book’s end, Celeste is a free woman who has learned nothing, spends most of her time on the beach, and uses tourist boys for sex by pretending she’s a college student who mistook them for closer to her own age. Does Nutting think we should find this behavior as disturbing as Celeste’s machinations as a teacher? With the power dynamic no longer in place but the age difference intact, are the beach boys victimized in the same way her former students were? Are they victims at all? In answer to these difficult questions Tampa ultimately offers few insights.
My former friend, if you’re curious, served jail time and has since been released. Locals who remember her crimes leave online reviews of any retail business unwise enough to hire her, asking why the store gives haven to a child molester.