Monica Mares and Caleb Peterson say they are in love with each other.
She is his mother. He is her son.
The state of New Mexico, where they live, calls their sexual relationship incest and has charged both with the crime.
They face separate jury trials over the next few weeks — Peterson on Aug. 25, Mares on Sept. 16. They’ve been banned by the courts from having any more contact with each other.
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But the two are unapologetic about their relationship and have been talking to the media to explain it.
They’ve been subject to scorn since their secret love became public in February. Mares says she’s been attacked outside her home and has received death threats. People call her “Incest.”
On Facebook, people have accused them of having a “disgusting” and “gross” relationship.
The prosecutor for the case says she has heard no sympathy for Mares and that people tend to see Peterson, 19, as a victim.
The two gave separate interviews to London’s Daily Mail, published this week, in which they declared they are “madly in love.”
Mares, 36, gave birth to Peterson when she was 16 and gave him up for adoption shortly after he was born.
She told the Daily Mail that they reconnected last year on Facebook. She hadn’t seen him since he was a baby until she picked him up at his adoptive father’s house in Texas and brought him to her home in Clovis.
She said she got “butterflies” in her stomach when they met.
“I met him outside, and I knew it was him when he came towards me. He was crying, and he gave me a hug. It was almost love at first sight, but first it was mother love. He gave me a mother hug,” she said.
“He came home in the truck and came to live with me, and we were both happy as mother and son.”
Then, she said, she started getting “crazy” feelings about her son, like she had met “somebody new in my life and I fell in love with him.”
She said that when she shared her feelings with him he told her was in love with her, too. They began a sexual relationship.
The two say they are speaking publicly to raise awareness of genetic sexual attraction, or GSA — sexual attraction between biological relatives who meet for the first time as adults.
Some psychologists believe it happens because people are often attracted to people who are like themselves. People who grow up together develop a sexual aversion to being attracted to each other like that. Researchers suggest that kind of reverse sexual imprinting evolved to prevent biological relatives from inbreeding.
“If he had been with me all his life I don’t think anything would have happened between us,” Mares told the Daily Mail.
Mic reports that although research on the topic is limited, one estimate suggests that GSA happens in as many as half post-adoption reunions.
“Their unconscious minds want to have what they would have had: the intimate closeness, touch, feel of mother and child,” psychotherapist Joe Soll told Mic.
“That force of nature is so powerful that they can get carried away without being aware of it and wind up in sexual behavior.”
Peterson told the Daily Mail he never considered Mares his mother.
“I never thought I was crazy for having these feelings because I didn’t see her as my mom, it was more like going to a club and meeting a random person. It didn’t feel wrong, it felt normal.”
One of the most recent high-profile cases involving genetic sexual attraction occurred in 2011 when Julie DeNeen reconnected with her estranged father, sparks flew and she began feeling “this strange falling in love” feeling with him, ABC News reported at the time.
They never had sex but crossed “embarrassing, confusing, amazing and overwhelming” physical boundaries, DeNeen told ABC before they ended that part of their relationship. It nearly destroyed her 10-year marriage.
“I realized how similar we were,” she told ABC. “We could finish each other’s sentences. It was a combination of elations. And there was the adrenaline and on top of the grief, thinking why can’t you go back in time.
“And in that combination of grief and need and feeling that you fit with someone, you get a concoction that made things very confusing.”
DeNeen went on to help start an online forum for others who have dealt with GSA. But not everyone believes it exists.
David Finkelhor, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, tells USA Today he is skeptical of stories about long-separated family members being inherently attracted to each other.
“The vast majority of people getting back in touch with relatives would vastly prefer to have a good long-term relationship with their mother or sister they did not know than jeopardize that relationship by sexualizing it,” said Finkelhor, who is also director of the Crimes against Children Research Center.
He sees danger in normalizing incest, especially when it comes to an older parent and younger person. The type of relationship has the similar imbalance of power in a teacher-student relationship, he said.
“When you are the professional in the parental role, you have the power,” Ludwig said. “It is your role to set appropriate boundaries.”
Mares and Peterson kept their relationship secret while living together in Mares’ mobile home with her two youngest children, the Daily Mail reports. But police found out about it on Feb. 25 when they responded to an argument the family had with neighbors.
They were charged in March with incest, a fourth-degree felony in New Mexico, and arraigned separately in April.
“Caleb stated his mother had always had bad luck with men and had been in abusive relationships all her life,” the criminal complaint said.
“Caleb felt if he was there to take care of her, she would not have to deal with abusive men anymore and he would take care of the household and his younger brothers.”
The felony charges they face carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Reeb told the News-Journal that if Mares and Peterson are prosecuted and law enforcement finds out they have reunited after serving their sentences, there will be more consequences.
From what Mares told the Daily Mail, that seems a very real possibility.
“He is the love of my life, and I don’t want to lose him,” she said. “My kids love him, my whole family does. Nothing can come between us not courts, or jail, nothing.
“I have to be with him. When I get out of prison I will move out of Clovis to a state that allows us to be together.”