The last nail has been hammered in. The crowd outside the Lewes crown court dissipates. The paparazzi photographers stash their phallic zoom lenses into velcro-zipped bags with the vaguely disgruntled air of a man sheathing his penis after a disappointing pee. The Black Maria drives away, soon lost in the crush of early rush-hour traffic. The crucifixion of Jeremy Forrest is complete.

On Friday 21 June 2013, 30-year-old mathematics teacher Forrest was convicted of child abduction and sexual activity with a child, his sentence five and a half years’ imprisonment. The phrase “sexual activity with a child” generates the most repugnant impressions in the reader’s mind. Yet what actually transpired between Forrest and Megan Stammers, 15 years old when said activity occurred, suggests those impressions—along with the stigma that will attach to Forrest for the rest of his life—are somewhat misplaced.

Media frenzy

The details of the case were widely reported by UK media during the frenzied week of Stammers’ disappearance and subsequent discovery in France in September 2012. Forrest and Stammers developed an inappropriate relationship during a school trip to Los Angeles which escalated to the exchanging of texts and intimate images. Rumour of their potentially illegal relationship ultimately led the police to confiscate her mobile, precipitating what legally constituted Forrest’s abduction of Stammers but bore all the hallmarks of the quixotic elopement of a tragically besotted couple.

The assumption here is that age is a guarantor of maturity. In the case of Jeremy Forrest this assumption seems false.

The prosecution was keen to quash the romantic angle. “This is not Romeo and Juliet,” said Richard Barton QC. “This is a 15-year-old girl with her own vulnerabilities, and a 30-year-old teacher.” The assumption here is that age is a guarantor of maturity. In the case of Forrest this assumption seems false. Much of his behaviour has the whiff—at times faint, at others fairly reeking—of emotional immaturity. This is hard to objectify but the clues are there: Forrest’s musical alter ego Jeremy Ayre, the mascara-eyed young girl tattoo, the online post that his feelings for Stammers hit him “like heroin”, the pathetic fake CV he peddled in Bordeaux. None of these are the behaviour of a mature adult. Instead, they all smack of little boy lost—lost, that is, until that magical moment in LA when Megan reached out to him.

Thelma and Louise

When this line of enquiry is followed, the vortex of the Forrest-Stammers case comes into sharp relief. Him, the disaffected, less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kid for whom music was a refuge. Her, unconsciously looking for both a father figure and a knight in shining armour while simultaneously attaining sexual maturity. What happened in Forrest’s formative years is largely unknown, but one can hazard a guess: not much. Loneliness, alienation, a sexual vacuum; natural maturation stalled. Forrest’s behaviour towards Stammers strongly suggests she was the all-consuming teenage love he never had. Each held the key to the other’s disaffection. Click. This was always going to be less Romeo and Juliet and more Thelma and Louise.

There is no question that Forrest failed in his duty of care towards Stammers. Judge Lawson QC observed in his sentencing remarks that Forrest “chose to ignore the cardinal rule of teaching” when he should have known better. Why didn’t he seek help? Was he really a cold, manipulative groomer, leveraging the naïve and innocent Stammers away from the bosom of her family into a position where he could sexually exploit her?

A simple law, though not one on the statue books, is at work here. As social philosopher Edward Carpenter observed as long ago as 1899 in Civilisation: its Cause and Cure, “feeling precedes thinking”. We react rationally to situations only when they don’t pull our emotional triggers. The more a situation triggers us emotionally, the less we are able to respond rationally. A tipping point is finally reached where rationality ceases. Forrest’s behaviour is most consistent with that of a helplessly lovelorn teenager, rendered knock-kneed and mindless by the swirling torrent of unsatisfied desires that the relationship with Stammers promised to allay.

Continued in Part II.