Last Reviewed on February 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
Power, Autonomy, and Consent
Many of the relationships in Trust Exercise demonstrate a marked power imbalance, both between individuals and among groups of multiple characters.
Broadly speaking, the relationships between Mr. Kingsley and his students are electrified by his power over them. He demands honesty and authenticity from his charges at all times, inserting himself into their personal lives and expecting that they bare everything for the sake of their craft. One by one, he takes them under his wing, offering and retracting emotional intimacy and “safe” authority on a whim. This causes trouble for several characters—Sarah, Manuel, and potentially Claire, if one chooses to assume that Robert Lord and Mr. Kingsley are analogous.
The romantic power imbalance is perhaps best exemplified in the relationship between Karen and Martin. When they meet, Karen is a high school sophomore and Martin is a man of forty. Neither seems especially bothered by the difference, and it’s only mentioned briefly by other characters. Eventually, even Karen’s mother excitedly helps her prepare for a visit to see him. It ends poorly—Martin completely ignores her, and Karen is forced to bear his daughter in secret and give her up for adoption. This experience leads to the end of her friendship with Sarah and takes years of therapy for her to process fully.
At one point, when they’re fully grown, Karen asks David if he doesn’t believe that Martin slept with his students. He believes it, he says—just like he believes they slept with him, too. When David begins to get worked up about the allegations against Martin, he tells Karen, apropos of nothing, “you weren’t some helpless victim.”
And she agrees, both verbally and safely—within the privacy, that is, of her first-person narration. She was an active participant in what happened between them. It’s only as Karen gets older that she begins to process her feelings fully, and even then, she does not actively condemn him to others.
As Karen begins to realize that her own feelings are more complex than she had thought, she grapples with the consequences of her relationship as, primarily, something she did, and not something that was done to her. She notes,
The fact remains that she wanted him. Her wanting means that she chose. She doesn’t have a case here, she’s fully aware; this would be why she’s kept her mouth shut and her problem to herself. (205)
Though the age difference is less shocking between Liam and Sarah—he’s twenty-four to her sixteen—consent between them is still treated as a grey area within the text. On their dinner date, Sarah plays the role of an interested party to disguise her apathy. When they sleep together at Mr. Kingsley’s house after dinner, her reciprocal interest in him is not fully expressed in the text. Her role in their sexual encounter seems to be almost entirely passive, and consent between them is left undefined—even in a moment of immense pleasure, she shouts “no” instead of yes.
Things are a little bit more clear-cut in the third narrative, when Claire meets Robert Lord. In their encounter, her lack of consent is very explicit, and she openly rejects his advances. Even so, he chooses to call it a “misunderstanding,” using language that papers over what really happened: he forces himself on her, then uses his position of power to make her feel like she has to apologize for rejecting him.
Perspective and Unreliable Narration
By structuring Trust Exercise as three narratives that overlap but are not perfectly congruent, Choi highlights the ambiguity of perspective in all forms of storytelling. She gives readers three different looks into one story, but even more crucially, she does not tell us who to believe. We’re left to fill in some blanks on our own, without ever knowing...
(The entire section contains 1169 words.)
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