“A Teacher” Illustrates the Difficulty of Recognizing Abuse

Psychological manipulation can alter victims’ perceptions.

Posted Jan 04, 2021

This post contains spoilers for FX on Hulu’s “A Teacher.”

Viewers might initially mistake the 2020 miniseries “A Teacher” for a story of forbidden love, rather than one of predatory grooming and abuse. It begins the way many love stories do, with what seems like a romantic connection between two unlikely people—though in this case, it’s a high school senior and his English teacher, something that makes most viewers uncomfortable, even as they might find themselves caught up in the drama.

The show’s creator, Hannah Fidell, explained in an interview with Elle that the early episodes are meant to be emotionally confusing, so that we experience the student's infatuation and almost root for the relationship, only to have the rug pulled out from under us, just as it is for him, as reality sets in. Getting this glimpse into the victim’s perspective allows viewers to better understand why he might have had trouble recognizing signs of abuse. 

Some may argue that as a high school senior, he was old enough to know what he was getting himself into, but as the story unfolds, we see the problems with this assumption. There are many reasons why he—and others in similar situations—may be blindsided by predatory behavior. 

For one, predators often use psychological manipulation to normalize and justify their behavior. This includes grooming, which involves building trust and dependency to coerce victims into compliance and secrecy. Because grooming behaviors can seem harmless on their surface, they can be hard to spot even for people who are not being directly targeted by them. In one study, a majority of college students who read vignettes describing different types of grooming were unable to identify them as predatory behaviors.

In “A Teacher,” Claire begins grooming her student, Eric, in one of their first interactions, when she flirtatiously implies that he is smarter than his friends and offers him half her sandwich. Although these acts may seem innocent enough, they set the stage for her to define their relationship as a “special” one where the usual rules don’t apply. 

From Eric’s perspective, it might seem like Claire is interested in him despite his much younger age because she sees him as more mature than his peers. In reality, his youth is likely a driving factor in her interest in him, because her position of power allows her to fully control the relationship. But this motivation isn’t readily apparent to Eric, because Claire downplays her power, for example asking Eric to call her by her first name, and plays up her vulnerability by sharing personal struggles and emphasizing how much she is risking to be with him.

Predators may also work to create a narrative in which the victim sees themselves as the aggressor. Although Claire has spent weeks cultivating intimate moments with Eric and testing his boundaries, when he finally tries to kiss her, she reacts in shock and rebuffs him. Later, she acts as if she is finally giving in to his wishes when she initiates physical contact that seems to go beyond what he is comfortable with. He returns home after their meetings determined to see them as a triumph, telling himself, “you’re the man” through what seems like an attempt to fight back tears. 

These pep talks illustrate another reason why people in Eric’s shoes might have blinders on: Acknowledging abuse can be extremely distressing and destabilizing. Despite concerns about Claire’s intentions, like the fact that she only seems interested in a physical relationship, Eric clings to the kernels of reassurance she gives him that she genuinely cares for him. He wants to believe that what they’re sharing is real, and this desire is understandable because the alternative is so disturbing—that she is simply using him to meet her own needs, without regard to the profound negative impact on his life.

Research on cognitive dissonance finds that when we are confronted with information that is psychologically threatening, such as the possibility that someone we trust and rely on might be harming us, our first instinct is often to rationalize and reframe the situation to make it feel okay, or convince ourselves that things are not as bad as they seem. The more Claire takes from Eric, the more painful it may be for him to acknowledge the darker truth of the situation, and the more he may try to hold onto the illusion that what is happening is special and meaningful. 

The final scene in the series takes place 10 years in the future, after Claire has resumed a normal and seemingly happy life following a short prison sentence, while Eric continues to struggle. Claire invites Eric to lunch ostensibly to apologize, but instead, she tries to rationalize the abuse, still framing it as if it had been a consensual affair. Eric, who in the preceding years has presumably undergone therapy, can now see through her manipulation. He tells her she is still in denial, and decides to end the conversation and walk away.

Finally seeing the abuse for what it is comes with its own burdens—as Eric puts it, this is something they will both have to live with for the rest of their lives. But it is an important step towards healing, as it allows him to stop blaming himself for the abuse, and for the difficulties he experienced in its aftermath. Substance abuse, self-harm, troubled relationships, and other challenges are not uncommon in response to this kind of trauma.

“A Teacher” educates viewers about the psychology of abuse and the toll it takes on victims, but it also teaches us something about our own susceptibility toward rationalizing predatory behavior, especially when it goes against stereotypes (for example, the fact that in this case, the perpetrator is female). While understandable, these biases can compromise our ability to identify and prevent abuse in our lives and the lives of those around us. Seeing clearly may mean seeing things we don’t want to see, but it also gives us more power to change them.