When I heard about a new Netflix film May December, I was intrigued. But as I read the movie’s premise, I could feel my stomach tighten and my jaw clench, not only because of the disturbing subject matter but because I have a real-life history with the real-life woman fictionalized in this film. Seeing her name in print again threw me back to childhood memories that feel more powerful and nefarious all these years later, because they’ve been reawakened at a time of virulent antisemitism all around us.
I grew up in Costa Mesa, Calif., in the 1960s and 70s. Proud and outspoken about our heritage, religion, and ethnicity, my family was quite well known as “The Jews” in our virtually all-white, Christian, politically conservative town. In fact, moving to Costa Mesa just months after new laws permitted Jews to own homes there, our unexpected presence prompted our county’s newspaper, The Daily Pilot, to publish photographs of us enacting Jewish rituals before each Jewish holiday –for years – to acquaint our homogenous neighbors with the only diversity in their midst.
This background is to explain that most folks knew we were Jewish and landed on one or more of these opinions about us – we were inherently evil, causing most of the world’s problems, and going to hell: We were personally responsible for killing Jesus and were to be avoided at all costs – not only for the sin of being Jewish but also because my parents were vocal Democrats; we needed to be saved; or, we were a curiosity and, despite having been raised with distrust and disdain for Jews, they were still willing to get to know us.
The Bass family, with daughters Mary Jo and Andrea who were the same ages as me and my sister Suzanne, lived across the street. We attended public school, and they attended a Catholic girls’ school. I’d say that Mr. and Mrs. Bass family fell into the hybrid Jew-tolerant but still believed that we were descended from Christ-killers category. After playing together for years, our afternoons took an exciting turn when Mary Kay Schmitz joined the Bass carpool home from the Cornelia Connelly School of the Holy Child Jesus. Though the Schmitz family resided in Irvine, a town 15 minutes south of Costa Mesa, Mrs. Bass agreed to bring Mary Kay to their home after school every day until after dinner, when her mom could pick her up there. This kindness was extended because Mr. Schmitz was a State Legislator living mostly in the state capitol, Sacramento, and Mary Kay’s mother had five other children to contend with.
Mary Kay was tall, blonde, beautiful, and most intriguingly, co-captain of her school’s drill team. It was exciting to be part of the Marys’ shared afterschool activities. Not only did they choreograph drill team routines, but their masterpieces would eventually be performed at the Catholic boys’ school football games. Since our front lawn was bigger, so more representative of a football field than the Bass’s, the Marys came to our house most afternoons and allowed Suzanne and me to pretend to be in the drill team too.
We’d spend hours jumping, kicking, lifting, and marching in unison. But one day, instead of joining us in double cartwheels on the lawn, Mary Kay stood on the sidewalk, her back straight, her sweet smile gone, as she announced, “My dad said I’m not allowed over at your house anymore because you’re Jewish. You are a sinner who’s going to hell and a bad influence on me. We’re not friends anymore, so me and Mary Jo are gonna stay over to her house from now on.”
I felt kicked in the gut by an errant drill-teamer leg as she marched away to continue playing on the Bass’s much smaller lawn. The blow could have been softened if she’d expressed some remorse at having to give up our friendship and choreographic collaboration, but she didn’t. She never spoke to me again, not even when I rode my bike past the Bass’s yard to assess the drill team moves that they created without me.
I was not oblivious to antisemitism, but this was the first time I felt it aimed directly at me. And, like the throbbing ache of a shot that persists long after you’ve left the doctor’s office, the pain of this memory continued to sting for a long time because it was injected right into my innocence.
To understand just how misdirected Mr. Schmitz’s concerns were about who might negatively influence his daughter, I offer this excerpt from historylink.org:
“Mary Katherine Schmitz, born on January 30, 1962, grew up as one of six children in a devout Catholic family in Orange County, California. Her father, John George Schmitz (1930-2001), was an ultra-conservative Republican state senator and one-term Congressman who led southern California’s right wing in the 1960s and 70s. In 1972, he replaced George Wallace as the presidential candidate of the American Independent Party, after Wallace was paralyzed by a would-be assassin. Her mother, Mary, was a homemaker who was active in anti-feminist causes, including the campaign against the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Schmitz’s political career came to an end in 1982, when it was revealed that he had fathered two out-of-wedlock children with a former student, a young woman he had met while teaching political science at Santa Ana College.”
After reading about Mary Kay’s family, I’m sort of surprised that my mom let me play with her.
It wasn’t until 20 years after the fateful day on my lawn that I saw Mary Kay again. While watching the evening news one night, the anchor reported on a married, mother of four, 6th grade teacher in Seattle who had been accused (later convicted and imprisoned) of repeatedly having sex with her 12-year-old student. I was repulsed by her actions and felt deep sadness for the boy, a victim of her grooming and pedophilia, but when they showed a picture of the defendant: a beautiful, blond, angelic looking woman, shock layered atop my disgust. Even though I couldn’t see her muscular, drill team-created arms, there was Mary Kay Schmitz, now called Mary Kay Letourneau, in an orange jumpsuit in a courtroom instead of in her grey and maroon Catholic school uniform. The expose reported additional shameful facts about her father, who was considered so racist and antisemitic that even the organization he led, The John Birch Society, (a sort-of wealthy, northern-man’s KKK), rescinded his membership.
I’m quite certain that, despite her father’s belief that I was the worst possible influence on his daughter, it wasn’t the little Jewish girl doing the splits with Mary Kay that led to her egregious sins. Instead, it was likely the household she was raised in that distorted her reality, enabled abhorrent behavior to take root, and fueled her inability to comprehend the pain and trauma her actions caused others, particularly the vulnerable boy with whom she ended up having two children before he turned 15. With my adult insight into her twisted upbringing, I can now, at least, assess my last encounter with her in that context.
I don’t know if Mr. Schmitz’s deliberate white supremacist and antisemitic indoctrination stayed imprinted on Mary Kay as an adult. On top of everything else, I certainly hope not. But post-October 7, seeing her name again not only brings back the pain of that decades-ago encounter, it has me thinking about how easily hate can be passed from generation to generation, running rampant through families and communities, perpetuating dangerous aftershocks long after people like John Schmitz are gone.
I’ve always assumed it was just a matter of time until the next effort to annihilate the Jewish people arose, but I expected it to come from alt-right, domestic terrorists like the Proud Boys and neo-Nazis, groups that would have considered Mary Kay’s dad a hero. After all, their ilk openly chant, “Jews will not replace us,” heil Hitler whenever possible, carried out the Tree of Life massacre, and openly plot to blow up Jewish institutions in dark web chatrooms. Their system of indoctrinating new recruits into their worldview takes its playbook from age-old antisemitic tropes and its language from the Third Reich. These are the domestic terrorist that FBI Director Christopher Wrey warned are a major danger to the safety and security of our nation.
Though the ferocity and disingenuity of the antisemitism of the far-left seemed to have snuck up on us, it too has been years and generations in the making. We spoke up, wrote letters, and tracked incidents, but didn’t take it as seriously as its far-right counterpart. Meanwhile, it was feeding upon itself in our educational system, being espoused without real consequences by newly anointed politicians, and finding voice within groups and causes that Jews have supported and aligned with for years. It took only days for some of the same people who talk of “being triggered,” demand “safe spaces,” proclaim that “words are violence” and that “rape is a weapon of the patriarchy,” to align themselves with a terrorist entity whose methods are violence, rape, and mass murder, and whose stated goal is the extermination of the Jewish people.
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The root causes of Jew-hatred are as old as time, but the ways it is transmitted just keep getting more creative, mutating like a virus and taking hold in easily susceptible “hosts” who then continue to pass it along. Antisemitism from the right, left, or any other direction is always a problem, but perhaps even more so now, as Jew-hatred is the point at which these otherwise antithetical movements find commonality.
Many of today’s newly radicalized antisemites will have kids themselves one day. Just as Mr. Schmitz was intent on transmitting his hate-filled worldview to and through his impressionable daughter all those years ago, will the next generation of children be indoctrinated into the cult of Jew-hatred by their parents? And, as vilifying Jews has become so normalized and trendy at each pole of the political spectrum; offering a metaphorical ticket to acceptance into simplistic “group think” clubs for a whole lot of young people who are desperate for belonging, will their actions make this current historic level of antisemitism seem mild by comparison? Sadly, to me it seems likely because antisemitism is the gift that keeps on giving.