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 whether we’ve done it “correctly.” This isn’t an especially intuitive role for a reader of fiction to take, and Choi leverages it to place us into the story. We don’t know exactly what happened, but neither do the characters.
Once Karen—in the second, self-aware portion of the text—has given a full dressing-down of the inaccuracies in Sarah’s initial written account, she remarks, “We never know, when life reunites us with someone, how closely our stories will match.” When she meets Sarah again after more than a decade, the difference in the depth of their memories is shocking. She was, in her own words, obsessed by Sarah. Now, she realizes that it was an entirely one-way street. Sarah was, she recalls, “the best friend Karen ever had, while Karen was, at the time, the only friend Sarah had with a car.”
When we reach the third chapter, Claire’s account casts doubt on the already murky facts of the first two. In Sarah’s text, Mr. Kingsley is an out, married gay man whose tendency to overreach into his students’ lives is not (as far as we know) sexual in nature. Karen’s text does not challenge those assertions outright, but it does suggest that his character has been altered in a substantial way.
Claire’s experience with Robert Lord—a man in a long-term position of power over a drama department, with a similarly regal name to the Mr. Kingsley we’ve come to know—uproots those prior assumptions at the eleventh hour to suggest that we might know even less than we think.
Coming of Age and Earned Wisdom
At the time Karen couldn’t have explained her decision to call her father and not her mother but it was part of that beginning of true adult life . . . to seek out superior judgment, to acknowledge there was such a thing. (214)
Throughout all three sections of the narrative, Choi draws clear lines of growth that demarcate the moment a character goes from not knowing something to knowing it. By treating the state of not knowing as a distinct state of its own—akin to wonder or curiosity—rather than the lack of future knowledge, Choi highlights what it actually means to learn something: it’s not about a sudden injection of information where there wasn’t any. It’s about treating one’s understanding as malleable and subject to change as lessons are learned.
When a character confesses to Sarah that he is gay, she is astonished to realize what she’d subconsciously known all along:
Sarah cannot believe she never realized—but that was fifteen in a nutshell, she’ll think when she’s twice, and then three times, that age. The obvious and the oblivious sharing the same mental space. (77)
Toward the end of her chapter, Karen quips, “Nothing feels safer than watching a show from the wings” (232). That feeling of omniscient safety—securely apart from the action—is the hard-won reward of many years spent with the spotlight behind her. From the safe, objective remove of the wings, she can finally see and know all.