I'm most recently a writer. In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot. As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades. An unwilling transplant from the South, twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US. Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect. When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do. Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!
Thursday, February 12, 2015
What I Should Have Said About 50 Shades, Etc.
First a story, then a confession.
I'm a writer of love stories. So it's only fitting that I tell one here. It may sound familiar. But I swear it's original. I haven't borrowed the characters or the plot. They're all mine. So here goes.
Once upon a time, there was a man who lived all alone in a nice home in a prestigious neighborhood with a comfortable income from a highly respected profession. In the same city was a single mother living with her two small children in a low-income apartment complex, working full time at a minimum wage job, driving a run-down car, running out of options. Fate brought the two together and the man saw an opportunity to better both their lives. He approached the woman, stating his intention to marry her, take care of her and her children, give her the kind of life she'd never dared dream of. To convince her of his love, for he said he loved her at first sight, he showered her with gifts, practical things like groceries and car repairs, and luxurious things like clothes and lingerie and jewelry. He took her to fine restaurants and the theater, took her shopping for more clothes, and read her children bedtime stories, which was worth more than all the gifts he could ever give her. He also confessed to her how unhappy a man he was before she came along, how mistreated he'd been by his mother and his neurotic first wife and his disloyal children. Her heart went out to this sensitive, generous man and she vowed to make him as happy as was humanly possible, whatever it took. Because she loved him.
They were married, but not before the man revealed a quick temper. He even confessed that he'd hit his first wife a few times, but only to prevent an argument from escalating when she became hysterical. He was so sincere, this woman he was about to marry sympathized with his shame at resorting to such barbaric behavior. And married him anyway. Because he loved her now, and she loved him.
As soon as they were married, he began a course of instruction in everything she should do to be the perfect wife. How to dress, how to eat, how to keep house, how to discipline her children, how to satisfy his sexual needs. The right books to read, the kind of music to listen to, what to believe in. He showed her how foolish it was to waste time with her old friends, how her family resented him for giving her the things they hadn't, what she needed to do to prove her loyalty to him. If he sometimes became impatient with her progress, she understood the demands of his profession along with a new family were enough to try any man's patience and she worked harder to keep him happy. He loved her. He only wanted the best for her. He told her that so often, how could she doubt it? To prove how sorry he was for his little outbursts, there were always presents and lots of loving gestures. Life was good, until the next outburst.
People who saw them together remarked on how loving they were. It was sweet to see a couple show so much affection, to see two people so in tune with one another, who had the same tastes and shared the same opinions. Two halves of a whole. A real, modern-day romance in action.
Had those same people seen them at home, heard his tone of voice and seen her scurry to anticipate his needs, seen the children retreat to their rooms, felt the ever-present tension in the air, they might have thought differently. Or they might have said that no matter his demands or her submission, regardless of those ugly moments, never mind her isolation, theirs was a love story. They might have forgiven him, as she did, because of his sad past, and applauded her for adapting to meet the needs of a man she loved. They might have excused him for striking out at those closest to him, while putting such a good face on his professional persona, because a man had to let off a little steam somewhere.
As time passed he stopped trying to control his temper, declaring that was his personality and she should accept it, and she continued to believe if she worked harder, he'd be happier, or at least not so unhappy. Her love for him allowed her to live in denial, to make excuses, and defend his behavior. His love allowed him to tighten the control, increase the isolation, and escalate the violence of his outbursts. He'd go to any lengths to keep her. She was the light of his life, in fact his reason for living. Without her, he wouldn't be able to go on. She stayed, because she loved him, and she was terrified of what might happen to both of them if she tried to leave.
Gradually she came to the realization that a man who loves a woman doesn't control her, or change her, or criticize her, or demean her to prove his love. And a woman who loves a man shouldn't have to pretend he's never wrong, or defend his violent behavior, or choose between her husband and her family. Slowly, over a period of months, her eyes were opened to the possibility that life had more to offer than fear, and her self-respect began to return. She'd done her best. Loving him hadn't made his life better, while it had all but destroyed hers. Loving him was never going to sooth his anger or heal his old wounds. Loving him was going to kill her over time, if he didn't do it sooner. Leaving was a risk she was willing to take, once she understood the risk she took with every day she stayed. The end.
A powerful, wealthy, dominating man and a naive, submissive, loving woman. Sound familiar?It should. It's the plot for tens of thousands of popular novels. The phrase "I own you" has become interchangeable with "I love you" and a man who takes charge of a woman's life, whether she asks him to or not, has become a romantic ideal. The dark, damaged hero and the woman who'll give up everything to "heal" him works well with everything from billionaires to English lords to vampires. But in reality there's a risk to these tales. We can easily go too far under the guise of a love story, permitting dominance and abuse to be portrayed as loving. I'm not talking about BDSM, which I have no real knowledge of. I'm talking about one partner seizing power over the other in the name of love. Having lived that relationship, I can testify to just how unromantic it very quickly becomes.
Now it's confession time--As recently as last week, when I mentioned that Grey movie in a post here, I was still deluding myself about certain books and the frightening way they reflect our culture and our attitudes toward domestic abuse. Thanks to a number of articles, blog posts, and reviews I've seen since, not to mention the social media discussions making the rounds, I'm now off the fence. My indifference, my take or leave it, that's your opinion and I respect it, what harm can it do, it's just a movie I won't see based on a book I haven't read, no need to comment attitude is gone. What changed my mind? I finally recognized the striking similarities between that story and my own.
I would refer you to the post here titled "Why I Stayed" for more on my personal journey. For now, let me say I'm shocked and embarrassed that I failed to see sooner how closely my experience fits the genre of so many novels currently riding the wave of success E.L James achieved with her books. I did not read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I have read others with the same plot and fallen for the same premise I've heard stated by others--it's a love story. Yes, it is. But it's the kind of love story that, in real life, rarely if ever ends happily. Rarely does the woman change the man by staying, by surviving the manipulation, the disrespect, the domination and isolation. And rarely does the abusive behavior end because the man sees the error of his ways when faced with losing the woman he loves.
By the time I understood how my marriage must end, with me walking away and not looking back, I also understood that "I love you" is a relative phrase. At its purest, it expresses caring, support, respect and admiration. At its worst, it expresses ownership, denying the "beloved" the right to be themselves. That is not love, my friends. That is abuse. Whether it be physical or psychological, the end result is destruction of another human being through dominance. Romanticizing manipulation, pretending it represents the desire to nurture and protect, is sending a message to our sons that love means taking not giving, and our daughters that to be loved requires self-denial and submission. That message has taken generations to discredit. How can we justify promoting it under the guise of romance now?
I would never presume to tell anyone what they can write or what they can read. And I certainly have nothing to say to the choices consenting adults make in their most private lives. But please, for the love of women and men, don't ignore the converse reality of these beguiling fantasies. On paper, even on film, they may have a certain appeal, an innocent means to escape the daily grind. In reality, down the street or across the office from you right this minute, there's a woman who's suffered at the hand of a man she loves. Statistics tell us three in five women will meet with abuse from a man she knows. That's you, me and one other woman out of five in a room. I dare say most thought at some point they loved and were loved by that man. Until our eyes are opened, along with our minds, those numbers will remain unchanged. How can we be outraged by the sight of a man striking a woman in an elevator, and become aroused by a man inflicting pain on a woman in a "playroom?" That may sound harsh, but so is being on the receiving end of "punishment," wherever it takes place.
My apologies to anyone with whom I've discussed this subject if I failed to state my position. I missed an chance to express the need for a united voice against domestic abuse of every kind. As a woman, a writer, and a survivor, I know my position and my responsibility. Read what you like, see the film, engage in the fantasies. But please don't be deluded into believing these fictional relationships translate into real life love stories. Love does not control or punish. Love never manipulates or demands submission. Remember that except in the rarest of cases such as these, only fictional love will overcome the odds to reach that happily ever after.