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She was 17. He was 47. #MeToo changed how she thinks of their relationship

Jill Ciment met her husband Arnold Mesches when she was his teenage art student.
Random House
Random House
Jill Ciment met her husband Arnold Mesches when she was his teenage art student.

In 2017, when women across the globe were sharing their stories of sexual abuse and sexual harassment as part of the #MeToo movement, writer Jill Ciment had a realization: "My MeToo story is my husband."

Ciment met her husband, artist Arnold Mesches, in the 1970s. At the time of their first kiss, he was a married 47-year-old father of two; she was 17 and his art student. In her 1996 memoir, Half a Life, Ciment described herself as the one who pursued Mesches, but in her new memoir, Consent, she reconsiders their dynamic — and the origin story of their marriage, which lasted until Mesches' death in 2016.

In Consent, Ciment writes that it was Mesches who initiated their first kiss — a story that is in direct contrast with her earlier recounting: "I think I told it that way [in the first memoir] not so much to protect Arnold or my marriage, but more to make me a young, willful woman who went after something and got it — not as someone who was a victim," Ciment says.

But now, as Ciment looks back on her 45-year marriage, she's left wondering: Can a relationship that begins with such a clear power imbalance, where one person is legally underage, ever be considered consensual? She notes that attitudes regarding consent have shifted dramatically since she and Mesches met.

"In 1970, he would have been a silver fox and I would have been the coolest girl on the block because I kissed my art teacher," she says. But, she adds, "Today you would probably use the word sexual aggressor, maybe even predator."

"It's a very complex thing," Ciment says. "Do I think he did something wrong? Yeah. I mean, if I saw men today 47 going after a 17 year old, I would intervene. However, it wasn't a time when people intervened. ... Would I do it differently today? Not for a second."

Interview highlights

<em> Consent</em>
Random House /

On why she wrote that she had initiated her relationship with Mesches in Half a Life

In the most basic sense, I think that I wanted to empower myself. I didn't want to be telling a story that was about the older man going after the younger woman. That had been the trope of almost every novel and movie that came out from 1970 to 1990, whether it was [Italian director Bernardo] Bertolucci or [the novelist] Philip Roth. So I wanted to make myself who I really felt at least then, that I had that kind of agency to be the sexual aggressor, because I felt that was more of the truth to what I was telling. Is that really the truth? I don't know.

On Mesches being married with kids when the relationship began

I came from such a broken family. The whole family, my older brother and me and my mother threw my father out because he was so intolerable to live with. And so I just didn't see marriage as what I see it now, which is this huge commitment of two people to go through the trials and tribulations of life. I just saw it as this thing that kind of ended in a mess. I just had no idea of the damage that I was doing to another family at 17. That's as simple as I could put it.

On whether or not she thought about how their age gap would impact their marriage

I would say at 17, I did not think about that, because it's inconceivable at that age to imagine growing old. At 30, I probably gave it some thought. But Arnold was a really vital man, so he was able to keep up with me. Now that I'm 71 and ... I get exhausted when I do all the things that 71 year olds do, I start thinking: How did I not notice when I was 40 how tired he must have been? And I was oblivious to it. And one of the things that is so interesting about aging myself now is that I try to imagine: How did he keep up with a 40 year old? It's much more amazing to me now than it was when I was the 40 year old.

At a certain point, you realize this person is going to die away before you, and that knowledge changes the way in which you view your future. And it's both good and bad, like everything else. I mean, in one way you think to yourself, "OK, I will start my life again in my 60s, if he lives to be 90," and at the same time you think to yourself, "How can I start my life again at 60?" So it makes the end of our relationship much more precious. If you have a sick partner, for example, a partner who has cancer, suddenly the years that they have cancer before they die become kind of precious to you, because they're finite. And I think that was a huge lesson for me to learn. And I think that's why the marriage continued to have that kind of intensity, because we knew it was going to come to an end.

On becoming equals later in the relationship 

It started to change at CalArts. So I would even say in my early 20s, simply because he may have known more about art, but I knew more about the avant garde. And so that was my sort of ace in a hole to become his equal. You know, I think as the relationship evolved, we traded roles as both mentor and student. We were very involved in each other's work. I felt free to pick up a paintbrush and paint over on top of his painting to show him what I thought needed to be done. And he felt empowered to cross off or throw out chapters that he didn't think were working for me. Obviously we waited for the other person’s permission. It was a very collaborative relationship. And so I think it balanced itself out for many, many years. And then the man painted 'til a week before he died. So it kept going.

On becoming old overnight when Arnold died

When you're living with somebody who's so much older than you, you are the person who always has more energy, and you are the person who is always the one who looks better, even when you look horrible. And suddenly, without him, I am my age without any kind of context. My age was always in relationship to his age. And suddenly, when he died, I found myself to be this age. And the most profound thing about growing old without him is understanding what he had been through that I couldn't even perceive. And that, to me, I find quite fascinating.

On meeting her second husband, Martino, on match.com

Jill Ciment is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida in Gainesville.<br>
Arnold Mesches / Random House
Random House
Jill Ciment is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

I was with Arnold since I was a child. [After his death] I just had this extraordinary experience. I met someone and I'm remarried. … There's not much of an age gap between us. This is the saddest thing: I've never known a young man. Because when I met [Martino], he was already 70. So I've never had the experience of dating a young man. So I guess that's not going to be part of my life story.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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