He Was 47 When They Met. She Was 17. Their Life Together Was Beautiful, But … (2024)

Books

Jill Ciment and Arnold Mesches had a wonderful marriage. Her new memoir asks: What does it mean that they met when she was 17 and he was 47?

By Laura Miller

He Was 47 When They Met. She Was 17. Their Life Together Was Beautiful, But … (1)

Jill Ciment met her husband of 45 years, the painter Arnold Mesches, when he was her art teacher. He was 47; she was 17. The year was 1970, a time when, in the bohemian California circles the pair frequented, people prized sexual liberation over what they often viewed as mere propriety. Even so, her mother called Mesches a “pervert,” and Ciment and Mesches initially hid their relationship from many of their acquaintances and colleagues.

And yet, and yet. Somehow this improbable—and in contemporary eyes, inexcusable—bond led to a long and very happy marriage. Just how that happened is one of the many challenging questions animating Consent, Ciment’s enthralling new memoir. Ciment was an aspiring visual artist when she met Mesches, but she eventually turned to writing instead. She published seven novels and a memoir, Half a Life, describing her youth as the wild child of a financially precarious single mother and a father whose behavioral problems forced him out of the family home. The account in that first memoir, published in 1996, ends with the beginning of her partnership with Mesches. In Consent, Ciment revisits what she wrote back then, re-scrutinizes the memories she tapped and the story she built from them, and then brings the history of her marriage to its end, with Mesches’ death in 2016.

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At times, Ciment—a formidably assured writer—struggles to find the language to characterize Mesches. “Do I refer to him in the language of 1970, at the apex of the sexual revolution,” she asks, as a “Casanova, silver fox?” Or in the language of the ’90s, when she wrote Half a Life—the era of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, when “men who preyed on younger women were called letches, cradle-robbers, dogs”? Or with the heightened moral rhetoric of our time, post-#MeToo, as a “sexual offender, transgressor, abuser of power”? Does the way their relationship played out—a marriage that turned out to be admirably harmonious and mutually sustaining—override its sketchy beginnings?

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Any adult who has sex with a minor—the age of consent in California in 1970 was 18—is committing statutory rape, which we have increasingly come to regard as indistinguishable from other forms of rape. Being categorical on this point helps prevent predators from wriggling out from under that label by using any of a number of shopworn rationales: claiming that the child was willing, protesting that the child seemed to be of age, etc. We are certain now that what Mesches did was absolutely wrong, however Ciment felt about it at the time. Ciment, too, knows that it was wrong. “Even after more than four decades of marriage to him,” Ciment writes, “try as I might, I cannot imagine how he was justifying his behavior to himself. Was he telling himself that a 17-year-old had bewitched him?”

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Yet every categorical declaration and moral certainty eventually winds up at war with the story of some real individual. When Ciment met Mesches, he’d been married for 25 years and had two children; he also had a “mistress,” a woman his own age with whom he’d been conducting a long-term affair. He had no history of preying on teenagers or students. He taught adult education classes in life drawing, mostly to retirees and other hobbyists, a dispiriting midlife position for a painter who had once been a hot property, back when social realism and membership in the Communist Party were the rage. Ciment arrived in his life like a locomotive, convinced, partly because he matched her image of a serious painter, that he was invested with the authority to declare her a real artist. She promptly fell in love with him.

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No average teenager, Ciment was possessed of an enviable force of will and an almost terrifying certainty when it came to what she wanted. At home, she shared a bed with her mother because she had sold her own bed to turn her room into an art studio. Her fledgling affair with Mesches was interrupted when Ciment went off to live in New York City “to become—no, to be—an artist.” She made it four months before catching the Greyhound back home to Los Angeles, but considering this was New York in 1970 and she was still a teenager, the fact that she made it home in one piece is impressive. No adult in her life, it seems, could prevent her from pursuing what she imagined to be her destiny. When Mesches told Ciment that he’d left his wife, she dashed home to pack up and move in with him. Her mother wailed, “I give up! Maybe he’ll tame you!”

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He Was 47 When They Met. She Was 17. Their Life Together Was Beautiful, But … (3)

In Half a Life, written when she was in her 40s, Ciment describes how, on last day of Mesches’ class, she finally made her move, kissing him after the other students had left and asking him to sleep with her, a request he rejected. In Consent, a product of her 60s, she makes a crucial change to this story. Mesches, she insists, kissed her first. She doesn’t explain why she wrote otherwise back in the 1990s, although she clearly considers the question of who made the first move to be of great importance. (Mesches himself told her he couldn’t remember who did.) In Consent, Ciment has to imagine his bewildered reaction to this new version. “This is a reconsideration,” she explains to his ghost.

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What Ciment finds herself reconsidering, now that Mesches is gone, is her paramount question: “Can a love that starts with such an asymmetrical balance of power ever right itself?” Or, as she puts it elsewhere, “Was my marriage—the half century of intimacy, the shifting power, the artistic collaborations, the sex, the shared meals, the friends, the travels, the illnesses, the money worries, the houses, the dogs—fruit from the poisonous tree?”

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Consent becomes an assessment of this possibility, a memoir acknowledging that her marriage began with a serious transgression and weighing this against everything else it gave her. Truth be told, there’s not much of a contest. With Mesches at her side, Ciment landed a scholarship to the prestigious California Institute of the Arts. When, after graduating, she decided to turn to writing, her mother—who had by then become close friends with Mesches—protested, “But she’s never written anything, not even a book report. She doesn’t know what a run-on sentence is. She can’t spell cat.” This, Ciment admits, was true, but Mesches coached her (“He introduced me to adjectives,” she writes), reading everything she wrote, painstakingly helping her to develop her own distinctive style: lean and unsentimental, with a heady narrative pull.

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Perhaps miraculously for the daughter of an emotionally remote man in a manifestly Oedipal marriage to someone old enough to be her father, Ciment taught herself how to love Mesches. Although it was his authority that first attracted her, his vulnerability awakened her tenderness. In one of the many indelible anecdotes in Consent, Ciment describes how, as part of a work-study job at CalArts, she had the task of typing names onto form rejection letters sent to applicants for teaching jobs at the school. “One day,” she writes, “Arnold’s name appeared on the list of rejected applicants.” With great care, she typed his name into the salutation so that it was perfectly aligned with the rest of the words: “I would make sure that he never learned that he had not even rated a personal rejection from the dean.” She never told him that she’d been the one to fill out the letter. “It finally sank in,” she writes of her younger self: “To love wasn’t just to feel love, but to act lovingly.”

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Together they moved to New York, where his artistic career enjoyed a late-life revival thanks to a young art dealer who later contracted AIDS. When his dealer was kicked out of a public swimming pool because of his Kaposi sarcoma lesions, Mesches accompanied him back to the pool, insisting they both be admitted. Holding his friend’s hand, Mesches jumped into the deep end with him. “I never loved Arnold more,” Ciment writes of this moment. He was capable of great kindness and patience, and his joie de vivre was unquenchable. A novel she wrote based in part on their relationship, Heroic Measures, was made into a movie, and Mesches was asked to show Morgan Freeman how a real painter holds a brush and approaches a canvas. When they took their seats at the film’s premiere, Mesches—then 90 and using a cane—turned to Ciment and said, “This was the best summer of my life.”

You can see why she stayed married to him. By the end of Consent, it’s evident that while their relationship began with a crime, by its end it had added to the sum total of goodness and comfort in the world. It was a violation and a blessing, a doomed liaison that endured longer than many seemingly perfect matches. Perhaps this was the last thing Mesches had to teach Ciment, taught after his death: That sometimes being human means learning to live in the impossibility of two contradictory truths.

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He Was 47 When They Met. She Was 17. Their Life Together Was Beautiful, But … (2024)

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