“Romance” Novels

Today I will risk the daggers and arrows as I pluck out the feather from the featherbed of lies by looking at how this country demeans women in the way they look at romance.

Several years ago, my family faced serious economic problems.  I thought that I could make some reasonable money writing romance novels and get the family through.  Come with me over the fold as I tell you about my excursion into romance novel writing.


So I decided to research the writing of romance novels.  I mean, really, how hard could it be to write one?  They all seemed to be from a formula, and once I had that formula down, I should be able to crank them out with sufficient regularity to pay the bills.  So I went out and bought a few random Romance Novels from the local grocery store.  I was right – they are written to a formula that one could easily master and crank them out.  But there was something else about them that prevented me from ever writing one.

Romance writing is good money.  55% of all books sold in 2004 were Romance Novels, and there are 2000 new titles published every year.  It is a half a billion a year industry.  As I read the books, I found that I could almost make a database of names, places, events etc. and have the database write the novel by randomly selecting names from the name category, places from the places category and tailoring events from the event category.  Easy money, right?  Well, except one thing.  I had a serious problem with what passed as romantic events.

At the time, I was volunteering with homeless children and with a battered women’s shelter.  To work at the shelter, we had training about what constituted an abuser.  I noticed that the grand climax of every one of these novels was a situation that would have been prosecuted as domestic violence.  In other words, the most “romantic” part of the novel was abuse.  In one case, he slapped her, she slapped him back, he grabbed her arm and had his way with her.  For some reason halfway through she quit struggling and they had a fantastic night of sex.  Excuse me?  In another, it was alcohol.  The one that bugged me most was one where a woman was being nanny to a widower’s daughter in the outback.  Nobody around for miles.  When she finally got too frustrated for words, she tried to leave on foot.  He somehow found her and LASSOED her!  Then his horse kept her on the ground while he ran over to her and … well, you know the rest.  Whenever she would try to get up and get the rope off and run the horse would jerk her down.  This is not romantic.  This is violence.

Then as I read more, I realized that before these romantic climaxes, the relationships were toxic all around.  He (the main character was always a woman) would flirt with an ex to make her jealous.  She would say ugly things to hurt his feelings.  He would say ugly things to hurt his feelings.  She would be sensitive.  He would be insulting.  She would be vengeful … and on and on.  This is how they discovered their deep love for each other?

Finally, I saw how women were portrayed.  While it seemed that she was strong, she was really weak and helpless.  Needy.  Dependent.  Unworthy of respect.  He was strong.  He seemed cold on the outside but it hid a wall of passion.  Stereotypes from the 50s, and never really true stereotypes at that.

Then I would visit my women at the shelter.  One told me that her husband beat her up for talking with an old schooldays friend who happened to be male.  “He just couldn’t help himself, he gets so jealous,” she said.  Where did I see those words?  In the denouement of almost all of these romance novels.  He would explain his behavior by “I couldn’t help myself.  I love you so much and I got jealous.”  Love?  Love does not wish to harm.  Love does not take advantage of the incapacitated.  Love does not tie someone up and take advantage.  Love trusts the person loved.  Where there is no trust there is no love.

Another woman told me, “I thought if I loved him enough he would change.”  Like they do in romance novels.  But not in real life.  You don’t change other people.  Either they change themselves or they remain the same.

So 55% of all books bought in this country are this genre?  Half a billion dollars worth?  Enough to support 2000 titles a year?  Tell me that our 12 year old girls aren’t reading these and thinking this is what love and romance are all about.  Tell me some don’t fall into the hands of boys wondering what girls are looking for.  Tell me that the HUGE numbers of mothers reading them aren’t at least unconsciously passing these notions on to their children.

Remember what that senator said about rape victims?  That when it is inevitable, she should lie back and enjoy it?  The women in these books not only do that, they participate.  That is the message.  The other message is that it is not rape if it is an acquaintance.  Rape only happens when the man is a stranger and ugly.  Even when a stranger, if he isn’t ugly, she secretly wanted it.  Ken Buck, who ran in Colorado for Senate this year declined to prosecute a case a few years ago.  A young woman had attended a party for football recruits.  She was raped.  The players admitted she had said no.  But Ken insisted it was a case of “buyer’s remorse.”  Not rape.

What bothers me most is that these are novels by women for women.  The biggest readers of these novels are women who are alone and lonely and vulnerable.  Women are pushing these dangerous notions to other women.  They are depicting toxic and dangerous relationships as romantic.  The women who read them are then out looking for this as indicators of love.  By the time they realize that love should not hurt so much, it is too late.  They are in one of those relationships that is hard to get out of alive.

The feather I am pulling out here is the one that says that these novels are light-hearted, romantic fun.  They are not.  They are pushing a dangerous notion of love and romance into our society.  These attitudes have been there for generations, but these novels make it harder to counter, to get the neanderthal ideas about women removed from our society.  The writers of these novels are making a lot of money telling girls that love hurts.  They undermine respect for women.  This is another lump for our featherbed of lies.

I saw the sun come up this morning

Note:  This has not been my experience.  It is the result of conversations I have had with battered women.

I saw the sun come up this morning
And found myself wishing
That things were simple and easy so
Like they used to be

I watched the early light tint the clouds
As litter scattered across the skies
Leaves wrenched from branches thrown randomly on the lawn
Papers, a broken glass hurled around my room

I still felt the storm of last night
The house shaking in the wind’s fury
And in the rage in your voice
The slapping of rain on the window
And your hand against my face
The branch from the spruce beat the roof
While your fists beat my shoulders and arms
And an unknown object hit the outside wall
As I hit the dresser and fell
The thunder did not quite drown out
The slamming of your car door or the tires raking the gravel
As you drove away

I watched the fire-orange-that –hurt-my-eyes slip the skyline
Illuminating the red blotches on my face as reminders of your anger
And Jesus knew I ached and throbbed with all your hurts and empty cups, and missed (oh, god) I missed what used to be

And then the all over blue washed the sky
Saying, hoity-toity like, it always goes this way and drops of water
Don’t care if it’s streets or cheeks they spatter

© Julia F. Varnell-Sarjeant 6/13/2010

Poem To the Blessed Mother

Poem to the Blessed Mother

The Blessed Mother walks the streets of the inner city
Spirit now, her body lacks substance
She moves invisibly, soundlessly
Unlike the caterwauling of the drunks leaving the bar
Shouting; screeching of tires
And the occasional siren

The Blessed Mother sees a barred doorway of a shop closed for the evening
In this doorway is a mother lying in front of her children
Hiding her young ones from the ravenous predators
Who would do them harm
The mother’s eyes are watchful and fearful
The Blessed Mother longs to gather these in her arms
As a hen gathers her chicks under her wings
But as Spirit She has no arms to gather them
Blessed Mother, make me your arms

The Blessed Mother hears a young girl
Sobbing into her pillow in the dark
The cuts and bruises on her face will heal
The hurt in her heart may not
The Blessed Mother longs to sit down and talk to the girl
To let her pour a torrent of aching words
To let her know her pain matters
And that someone loves her.
But the Blessed Mother has no way to show she is listening
Blessed Mother, make me your ears

The Blessed Mother hears from many houses
The grumbling of empty stomachs
She hears the tears of those meals were small
Or nonexistent.  She longs
To carry meals to them, to feed them with her own hands
But as Spirit she has no hands
And cannot carry food
Blessed mother, make me your hands

The Blessed Mother hears the cries of the veteran
Reliving battles, with all the fear and death and stink
Reliving the tension of being on alert
Reliving every buddy lost
Filled with guilt of coming home alive
Envying those who did not
Angry that, having served long and well
His country, having used him up, has thrown the veteran
Aside as last week’s trash
Pretending those who came home broken do not exist
The Blessed Mother would like to cry out to an ungrateful nation
To shame them for demanding that soldiers give their all
And giving nothing in return
But as Spirit, she has no voice
To cry out for those who sacrificed
At the behest of the wealthy leaders for whom war is a game
Blessed Mother, make me your voice

The Blessed Mother sees the pain
Of those who were created different
Their orientation, their color, their person, their gender
Suffering because God’s plan for their lives
Did not match the plan of the few who call themselves chosen
The ones who claim to follow her son
But ignore every word he says
Or twist it to the kind of hate
Her son did not know
The Blessed Mother would like to give them love
But has no way to show it
To care for those society distains
Blessed Mother, make me your heart

The Blessed Mother longs to work in this world
To bring love, peace and justice where it is not
Blessed Mother, live through me

“But he loves me so much he can’t help it”

Today the feather I pull out of the featherbed as I look at abusers and their many faces.  This diary is not about lies conservatives tell, although I must admit that in my personal experience abusers are more apt to spew conservative talking points than not.  This is a universal problem that knows no particular demographic, not in terms of income, ethnic background, education, religion, or sexual orientation.  All demographics have this challenge.  One, in particular, financial abuse, is rarely discussed.

One thing we do not do enough, and we need to do routinely, is discuss the warning signs of an abuser.

When I was a speaker for Planned Parenthood, I spoke at battered women’s shelters.  This also meant I listened.  Before I could speak there, I underwent training from Planned Parenthood.  Their training was excellent, and I have been very aware of the warning signs since, I needed a refresher to do this diary.  I will be sharing from sites I found last night throughout this diary.

There is no big A on the forehead, no telltale ugliness in the eyes or countenance.  As stated in Hidden Hurt:Domestic Abuse Information, from which I have pulled much of today’s information (although there are many sites, some of which I list later)

In actual fact one of the main problems encountered by victims, friends, family and various agencies dealing with the consequences of an abusive relationship, is how ‘normal’ the abuser seemed, how unlike the image so frequently portrayed by the media. We may expect an abuser to be male, big, working-class, prone to being drunk, un-shaven, heterosexual, … (fill in the blanks!). However, an abuser is just as likely to be gay, a white-collar worker, a religious leader or clean-shaven. Sometimes the abuser is also a woman.

In other words, he OR she could be the nice neighbor next door who shovels your walk or brings you homemade cookies, your coworker, or your cousin.  The same could be said about the abused.  When you meet someone new, it is hard to recognize this person could be one who would wind up trying to abuse you.  Here, from the same website along with commentary from my own observations and other resources,  is what to look for:

Jealousy This manifests in the abuser getting abnormally angry or annoyed when the victim speaks to anybody of the opposite sex (or same sex in the case of gay abusers, that will be understood through the rest of this diary), or even looks at them.  The abuser also gets upset when the victim is noticed by somebody of the opposite sex either by speaking or just looking (often the abuser will say someone is looking when they actually may not be).  The abuser will check cell phone messages, car mileage, look at the clothes in the closet to ensure the victim is not dressing outside of the abuser’s boundaries when the abuser is not there.  The abuser will try to control what the victim wears to discourage any interest.  He/she makes accusations based on the flimsiest of evidence, such as a casual remark or a glance from a stranger.  The abuser justifies this behavior by saying, “I just can’t help it, I love you so much that the thought of you with anybody else makes me crazy.”  The abuser can become jealous of friends and family, trying to limit interactions with them.  This ties in with the Isolation behavior.

Controlling Behavior  This manifests with the abuser telling the victim what to do, when to do it, how to do it.  As mentioned before, it includes control over what the victim wears, eats, drinks, where they go to dine, where and when to shop (even for groceries).  While most of the abuse situations I have seen involve an abusive man with a woman victim, this is an area that goes both ways.  The abuser creates a set of rules for the victim to follow, but does not have to follow him/her self.  He/she also sets up  a set of definitions and expects the victim to adhere to them.  For example, in last night’s diary, the abuser defined “respect” in a very restrictive way and then complained about the lack of respect.  Nobody could enforce this definition of respect on a stranger, but the victim is expected to enforce it anyway.

Controlling behavior can extend to the financial area, where the victim is supposed to turn over the paycheck to the abuser and then seek permission to buy anything, even though the victim is contributing to the total household income.  Often the abuser will not allow the victim to see bills, but the victim is on all the credit lines and shares equal responsibility.  It can even extend to tax returns.  The result is  the victim is left in financial ruin when the relationship ends.

Quick Involvement  When the abuser finds his victim, he/she wants to get into the relationship right away.  He/she does not want the victim to have time to think about what is happening.  This is a reliance on the early “love rush,” trying to circumvent the rational questions that come when a relationship is given time to mature.  The abuser uses the feelings of romantic involvement against the victim.

Unrealistic Expectations  In this behavior, the abuser wants the perfect romantic partner, with perfect sex, perfect home cleanliness, perfectly timed emotional support.  In one case I heard about, the man beat the wife because she burned his toast one morning.  In spite of having two children to watch as she cooked, she was supposed to watch the toaster and pull it out at the exact right time.  Other times she was beat because the eggs were too dry, the dinner was not on the table when he got home, the newspapers had not been put out, or the children were crying.

Isolation  Here the abuser does not want the partner to see anybody but him or her self.  Family visits are either restricted or eliminated, calls to family are on a timer.  The victim cannot visit friends, go for “girl’s night out” or “boy’s night out,” or sometimes even take the children on a play date.  Interestingly, the abuser gets to do all these things.  The abuser uses the phrase, “I am all you need, you shouldn’t need anybody else if you really love me.”

Blame-Shifting For ProblemsThe abuser says, “It is your fault I got laid off.  If I hadn’t had to come home to dinner, they would have kept me.”  “It is your fault I hit you.  Paying for your upkeep has me under too much stress.”  Whatever goes wrong in the abuser’s life is the fault of the partner or some outside entity.  The government is to blame, the boss is to blame, the neighbor is to blame, and on and on.  If the children misbehave, it isn’t that they are children, the victim (or the school, or the caregiver) is too strict, too lenient, too lazy, etc.

Blame-Shifting For Feelings  Here is where the words, “You made me so mad I couldn’t help myself” come in.  “I have told you many times that I want … and you didn’t do it!”  “You just want to annoy me and I will teach you not to.”  The victim becomes responsible for the very emotional state and feelings of the abuser.

Hypersensitivity  The abuser is able to take a simple, meaningless statement and read into it something that he/she feels is an affront.  This not only happens in marriage or partnerships but also between children and parents.  “You gave me that look” may be legitimate, but it may also be an example of hypersensitivity.  (I have had people ask me about a look I gave them when I was trying, through my nearsightedness, to see their faces.  These were not abusers, but if they were, they would have reacted more.)

Cruelty To AnimalsThis speaks for itself.  Someone willing to harm a helpless animal will probably not stop there.  Research is still ongoing about this relationship, but there appears to be a correlation.

Cruelty To ChildrenAn abuser often has expectations of behavior in children that don’t make sense.  They will expect a three year old to act like a perfect lady or gentleman.  They are prepared to take out their frustration on the children because the children are weaker and helpless against the abuser.

‘Playful’ Use Of Force In Sex Abusers often have fantasies in which they have absolute control. In many cases, they feel that they have no control outside the home so they try to enforce control in the bedroom.  The opposite has also been known to be true, in which someone who is always in control in the office (an upper level manager, for example) feels a need to be in control when he/she comes home.  This type of abuse can be manifested in painful “rough” sex, or in demeaning sex.  There is a need to be careful here, because not all who engage in rough sex are abusers, but if the other person is reluctant and needs convincing or coercion, there is apt to be a problem.  Forced sex is always a sign of an abuser (in addition to being rape).

Rigid Gender Roles This is an almost universal trait.  Men will expect to be in total control of the household with the woman serving him hand and foot.  She may be “allowed” to work outside the home, but he controls the right to work and the job she can have, as well as the hours.  Whether she works or not, she is to maintain an immaculate house, have dinner ready when he wants it, have it hot and perfect.  She is in total charge of raising the children, including bathing, dressing, feeding.  Often she will have to serve them separately from him.  In the case of women, she will expect him to provide for her every material need, calling him “not a real man” and a wimp if he cannot earn enough to satisfy her wants.  In addition, she may make him keep house or hire a housekeeper and deal with the children while she does whatever she does.

Verbal Abuse  Again a nearly universal abuser trait, the abuser will begin to eat away at the victim’s self esteem with hateful words.  This is often a form of grooming for more violent abuse.  Things like ugly, fat, lazy and stupid are aimed at the victim.  Pretty soon the abuser will tell the victim that nobody else would put up with the victim and the victim believes it.  I have seen women in the shelters absolutely broken just because of the things they have been told so often they come to believe it.

Dr. Jeckyll And Mr. Hyde  The abuser will have an episode of violence followed by being a very contrite, sweet and charming person.  They will change, they will never let it happen again.  The abuser will bring flowers and candy, take the victim to a nice dinner or prepare a special dinner at home, cry, compliment.  The words “but I just can’t live without you.  If you leave me, I will kill myself” may be used.

Drink Or Substance Abuse  We all have heard about the violent drunk.  We have also heard stories of some things people do when on a drug binge.

History Of Battering Or Sexual Violence  If you hear that the person you are seeing has been arrested for a violent sexual offense or if someone who knows that person tells you of similar events, run.  Enough said.

Negative Attitude Toward Women  Or women.  The abuser is likely to talk about women in derogatory terms, saying they belong pregnant and in the kitchen, should not be taking good work from men, talk about how unstable they are, etc.  I wonder how many congresspersons are closet abusers?

Threatening Violence  In the diary that motivated this one, the person in question showed the diarist that he owned a gun.  He made the showing of it seem quite innocuous, but he did it.  Abusers will let the victim know they have weapons and know what to do with them.  They may couch it in, “I don’t know why I still have this thing but …” but they ensure the victim knows that if she is not compliant, her safety is at risk.

Breaking Or Striking Objects  This is a sign of a temper that is out of control.  However, abusers also use the act of violence against an object to instill fear and obedience.  The message is that the next thing broken could be the victim.

Any Force During An Argument  One thing we always told women at the shelters is that if he hits you once, he will hit you again.  Harder.  Once the abuser gets away with it, he knows he can do it again.  He may even try to see what the limits are.  Even loud shouting and threatening or intimidating behavior is a warning sign.

Types of abuse

Abuse comes in five major categories:

Physical  From the domestic violence websited cited above:

He came upstairs and asked me to get out of bed to help him look for a work shirt. I didn’t get out of bed. I replied that I wanted to go to sleep. He suddenly turned on me. He kicked me out of bed, somehow got me in the position of being flat on my back. He stood on me and spat in my face. (Charlotte’s Story)

I had a client once who was buying a house with her husband.  I got a call one day, he had thrown her across the dresser because the bed wasn’t made properly.  We cancelled the transaction and she got a divorce.

We all know about physical abuse when it results in a hospital visit, but milder forms of violence are also abusive:  kicking, shoving, slapping, spitting, choking, pinching, hair pulling, dragging, burning, use of physical restraints during sex (against the partner’s will), weapon wielding, and even dangerous driving if it is intended to frighten.  It often starts small, almost hard to recognize, and grows.

Verbal  Verbal abuse consists of name calling and degrading statements.  The abuser repeatedly tells the victim that she is unworthy and deserves to be mistreated, that she caused the abuse because of her stupidity, laziness, ugliness, and so on.  The abuser ignores the feelings of the victim.  Many times the verbal attacks occur in front of other people (remember the OJ Simpson trial where Nicole was demeaned at dinner with friends?) in situations where the victim has been taught not to respond.

Emotional Emotional abuse can involve threats about doing harm, calling the police, threats about the children (harming them, running away with them, calling social services and having them removed).  Emotional abusers work to make the victim dependent on them and afraid to leave.  They create in the victim a broken self image and the idea that their survival depends on being compliant to the abuser.  They also create fear that the abuser will harm the victim or the victim’s children.  It may go to the extreme of withholding necessities such as food, locking them up in a closet, not allowing them to leave the house.

Sexual  This was discussed above.

Financial  Again discussed above, this is becoming more and more recognized.  The abuser makes the victim financially dependent (how will you raise these kids when you can’t even earn a nickel and you owe so much money?  Nobody will even give you a credit card without me!).  Abusers often forbid the victim the right to work so they cannot earn their own money, enforcing the dependency.  They often hide the money.  This happens with the abuser keeping bank statements and bills from the victim, moving money into secret accounts, putting the victim on all the credit lines but not letting the victim know what they are, what they are for or how much they are.  Again, instances of financial abuse are finally becoming recognized as actual abuse.

One thing to remember in this discussion:  Victims can also be abusers.  In some cases, there is an abuse/abuse situation going on.  One may abuse in some ways victimizing the other, while in turn the other may abuse in the same or another way.  Victims may also become pass-along abusers.  Not having any power in their relationship with the abusers, they in turn regain that power by abusing others.  It escalates, and it becomes a learned behavior.  Some have been around abuse so long they think it is normal.

The lies I wish to pull out of the featherbed here are three fold. First, abuse only happens in certain demographics, in certain types of families, in certain belief systems, in certain ethnic backgrounds, etc.  It can and does happen in almost every neighborhood or community regardless of demographics.   Second, the idea that the abuser loves the victim so much he can’t help himself.  (Note that if the abuser was so enraged he couldn’t control himself, how does he control his blows so there are no visible bruises?)  Third, that the abuser will change.  I talked to many women at the shelter who thought they could love their abusers enough to change them.  The only change that happened, or will happen, is the abuse gets worse.  Finally, if you are a victim, there is nothing you can do about it.  There is.  First … get with a domestic violence organization and make a plan.  Hide away some money – there is always a way to do it.  Pack a small bag for yourself and one for each child.  Figure out a day when you will get out.  Have someone meet you – you can’t do it alone.  Go somewhere he can’t find you.  Get to a shelter whose location is secret.  The domestic violence organization will help with all this, they have done it before.  Finally, remember, no matter what you have been led to believe, you deserve better.

The links I promised:

Hidden Hurt: Domestic Abuse Information,
Signs of an Abuser