Recently I succumbed to the urge to read a certain popular series. Pretty much everyone on the planet will know exactly what I’m talking about when I mention the Twilight ‘saga’ from Stephanie Meyer. Not only were the four main novels in the series wildly popular, but they’ve all been made into movies as well. I also read two books complementary to the four main ones, and I have to say they really scare me.
No, I don’t mean scared in the sense of lying awake at night, afraid a vampire was going to come out of my closet. What scared me was the fact that these novels didn’t seem to get a lot of flak from parents. Sure, the storyline itself is entertaining. The problem is the fact that the two main characters have serious mental health issues.
The four main books are written in the first person, which I always find annoying anyway. I prefer third person omniscient, myself, but that’s purely an aesthetic and personal viewpoint. The perspective is that of a teenage girl who becomes completely obsessed with what looks like a teenage boy, but is in fact a man who’s closer to a hundred years old. If we saw a 100-year-old man walking down the street with a 17-year-old on his arm, in most responsible people that would bring on a large measure of disgust for the dirty old man and his perverted proclivities.
In addition to that, the male love interest leaves her because he thinks it will be safer for her not to be exposed to him and his vampire ‘family’ any longer. When this happens she basically loses her mind. She becomes nearly catatonic in her grief, and when she comes out of that she’s still living life in such a robotic fashion that she’s startled to realize she’s more like a zombie than a human being. Now that’s what we call an obsession.
Even after she realizes what she’s doing, and starts to live her life again, she starts taking risks with her life because she starts hearing his voice in her head whenever she does anything that might kill her. At first I thought maybe there was a psychic thing going on in the stories, but it turns out she was really hearing voices – well, one voice anyway – and the voice wasn’t actually there. So, now she’s obsessed and schizophrenic. She’s having auditory hallucinations brought on by adrenaline spikes.
Eventually her obsession comes back to her, and suddenly she’s alive again. However, she can’t stand to spend even an hour or two away from him without feeling like there’s a big hole in her chest where her heart used to be.
Worse than that, though, is the fact that he spends a fair bit of time stalking her before they’re even together. He went through her house, he was in her room while she was sleeping and watched her pretty much every night. He looked through her things, including her books and music. When they do finally become an official couple, he sneaks into her room to stay with her every single night. At least by then she knows about it and is actually asking him to stay with her. In fact, she’s not actually asking. It’s more like pleading.
I was teenager once myself, and I remember the volatility that comes along with that. I think we’re all a little unbalanced when it comes to first loves. I had a couple of them. My relationships when I was a teenager were monogamous ones that lasted at least a year each. The entire year I was fourteen I was with one guy and he actually asked me to marry him – he was nineteen, so looking back that seems a little off-kilter to me. I had my first major obsession when I was fifteen and sixteen. It was a tumultuous relationship with a Roman Catholic whose mother didn’t approve. I did my share of stupid things, but the heartbreak was over a couple of weeks after he dumped me. I’m not one to hang on. It probably has something to do with having a healthy (or sinful) measure of pride. There was no way I was going to prostrate myself before someone who didn’t want me.
I was also a parent to a teenager. My daughter had her own mild obsession, and eventually her feelings were no longer ‘unrequited,’ but they grew apart and it was over. Basically she had a lot of interest in what he was doing, and in his life in general, but stalking is not something that was ever in her character – even less so than it was in mine. In fact, when I was a teenager I longed desperately to fall in love, get married, and make lots of babies with a man who adored me. My daughter has little interest in that, though she does want a kid one day. She’s not a lesbian, so it isn’t about her orientation. She just doesn’t like the idea of spending that much time with another person, which the exception of her own child. Thankfully she hasn’t made me a grandmother yet, because I’m just not ready for that. I’m still vaguely within the age of being able to have kids myself, so it just seems too weird to me.
Now my daughter is almost halfway through her twenties, and completely skipped out on any mental health problems associated with teenage crushes. I’m in my early forties. The funny thing is, I personally feel the danger of books like the Twilight series. Romance novels are often the same, too. There’s still an envy there for me. At my age the statistics aren’t good when it comes to me finding anyone I can give my whole heart to. I’ve had moments where I thought I’d be able to, but the feelings weren’t reciprocated so I shut my own feelings down right away. It’s not that I don’t have them; I just don’t let my brain run off with my heart.
Still, there’s a sadness and envy invoked by obsessive love stories, even for me. I think we’re all somewhat conditioned to think of that as the only real love there is. Even when we know better logically, a part of us still wants that unquestioning devotion and adoration. Beneath the tough exterior beats the heart of a marshmallow, I guess. I know better than to ever put myself in that position with anyone, because I’ve seen where those situations usually lead. Besides, I’m not really that mentally unhealthy anyway, that I absolutely can’t live without someone. The proof is in the pudding in my case, seeing as I’ve been separated for a long time. There was an interruption of less than four months, where I was seeing someone, but it never got to the ‘I love you’ stage.
After I was done reading the Twilight books I felt sad. I didn’t want the stories to end, because a very dangerous and insidious part of myself wanted to live vicariously through an obsessive love story. As an adult woman with a better understanding of mental health, however, I can deal with those feeling in a positive manner. Teenagers, on the other hand, do not have the life experience to see the books for what they really are. They’re unrealistic, and they’re very dangerous. Showing teenagers a happy ending within such an unhealthy context can breed an unhealthy real-life situation. Even with a parent telling them that the relationship in the series is not a good one, and explaining why, no teenager is going to believe it unless they’ve already been given a very good background in what it means to be in a healthy relationship. Considering the statistics on divorce and domestic violence, however, those teachings are very limited.
Speaking from a bizarre personal perspective, I was lucky in one way. I had a terrible childhood, being raised by terrible grandparents, yet it was my physically abusive grandmother who gave me my foothold on reality and feminism. She wore the pants in that house, and she’s the one who told me (the first time she saw me reading a romance), that reality was not anything like its portrayal in romance novels. For many years, historical romances were my very favourite books. Eventually, after years of personal experience that was contrary to the happy endings I was reading about, I realized she was right about that one thing. It was also because of her that I never felt I was anything less worthy than any man, because I was raised in a home where a woman was deferred to in all things.
Teenagers, especially those who come from broken homes, are looking desperately for role models for every aspect of their lives. If their parents don’t have a successful relationship, they look for people who do – even if they happen to be fictional, dangerous, and unrealistic. With few real human relationships to look up to, they look to movies, books, music, and any other form of entertainment. The Twilight series gives them characters with a happy ending, but if either of those people were living in the real world (vampire lore aside), the ending would probably be very different. Obsession is not love. Obsession often becomes possession. Even within the books, right from the beginning they claim ownership of one another, and grant ownership to each other.
The very real need some people have to ‘belong’ to someone else stems from emptiness within. There is a hole inside them, desperately wanting to be filled – just like the movie Jerry Maguire, with the whole, “You complete me,” thing. Nobody completes anyone else. We’re all individual human beings. My former mother-in-law used to tell me that if I’d wanted to accomplish my own things in life, I probably shouldn’t have gotten married. Um, what? I wasn’t allowed aspirations and goals because I was married??? Her son was allowed those dreams, though. Right. That makes total sense. Never mind the fact that I was the breadwinner in the family at the time, and he was disabled. Reaching for goals was my way of looking to be a better provider, but that wasn’t allowed because I was supposed to be nothing but a wife. Of course, this advice was coming from a divorced woman who had been nothing but a wife to her husband, yet he left her anyway. I always felt like saying, “So how did that work out for you?”
My view on the subject, and something that came up during a discussing about one of the guests we had on the show recently, is that people shouldn’t even get into a relationship until the hole inside them is filled and they’re a whole person. Until then you don’t know who you are or what will be best for you. You’re still striving and your core personality is still forming. The guest on the show was saying all women want men to take charge, which is completely overstating what women want. I’m certainly not one of those women who want a man taking charge. If there’s a decisions to be made that will affect me, then I want to be a part of making the decision. I don’t want anyone arbitrarily making choices for me.
Thankfully that notion brings to heel any thought of having a man swoop in and rescue me from my own life, which is what a lot of romance novels are about. The man comes along and everything that was wrong in a woman’s life is miraculously fixed by him. It doesn’t work that way, especially if you’re a woman who’s the least bit independent. Men seem to feel as if they have to fix everything, even when a woman has a problem and she wants to vent about it. Men will try to tell her how to fix it, rather than just listening and letting her vent.
Often the ‘fixing’ comes in the form of advice, but sometimes it involves actually doing what the woman should be capable of doing herself. Some women do like that, but there’s a trade-off that I would personally never be willing to make. When you allow someone to ‘fix’ your life, you’re also allowing them to take over decision-making, which renders a woman useless and redundant to her own life. Suddenly the man is taking charge of her, rather than simply her problems – and mostly because there’s now the unspoken agreement between them that she can’t handle the herculean chore of running her own life without his help.
Not being able to run your own life, and having someone do it for you, puts you in the category of being a child. It’s not just women who are placed there, but on average it’s almost always the female in a relationship. There are women to this day who work, but allow their husbands to interfere with problems they face in the workplace. Husbands who feel their wives aren’t treated well, or properly (as in sexual harassment cases), will come charging in to confront the supposedly guilty party. Now consider how this woman will be treated in the workplace from now on. Sure, maybe the original problem never rears its head again, but then she’ll never be respected again either. She will be known as someone who can’t handle real responsibility. If she wasn’t in a position of authority, she will never be promoted to one. If she was already in a position of authority, her authority will not be respected and she will not gain additional authority.
This is also the danger in reporting sexual harassment if it’s done in a place that doesn’t really respect legislation. Suddenly she’s a woman who ‘can’t handle a joke’ or simply can’t enforce her own authority. Speaking personally on that, I’ve always just given as good as I’ve gotten when the harassment was directed toward me. No man ever dared to step over the line with me either, but then I have the sort of personality that makes it very clear I would never tolerate it. People just know that I have indelible lines that can’t be crossed. On the other hand, when I saw other women being harassed I did report it, in writing, so that there was no way the company could get away with not doing something about it. Reporting someone else being harassed doesn’t have the same connotation of being a whiner who can’t handle things. I was also in a position of authority within the company, and it was my duty to do something about it.
The tiny part of me that would want a man to swoop in and be my dream-come-true/knight-in-shining-armour, is the part of me that’s tired, I think. I’ve spent my life fighting to keep my head above water, against some rather interesting odds. I’ve had many challenges, and I think it might be nice to one day not have to be the one who does all the struggling, so therein lies the answer to my wishful thinking. The few times I think like that, I remind myself of the price to be paid for wallowing in that fantasy. I’ve made the mistake of going there on occasion in my romantic history, and after a few decades of being slapped for it I’m now fully conscious of that price. I always have much less of a fight to keep my head above water when I count only on myself to keep me afloat.
What I really need, if I ever have another serious relationship, is someone who is capable of running their own life, and someone who has my back that I can fully trust to be there for me emotionally, but not someone who tries to take over the running of my life. Decisions can be made mutually, compromises are perfectly fine, and acceptance of who I really am is mandatory. That last thing is so vital, though, and very few people are actually capable of acceptance when it comes to their life partner. Especially when their life partner has some unusual quirks.
Speaking from personal experience, there are very few people in the world who accept the fact that I sleep during the day, and that has always been my natural pattern. Never mind the fact that I crack every joint in my body, and swear like the proverbial sailor. I can be harsh, too. I’m not unforgiving, but there are people I’ve removed from my life because I also don’t forget. My mother and step-father are good examples. I may have forgiven the fact that my mother left me when I was four years old, and knowingly left me in the care of monsters – her parents. I could never forget it, though. I could never forget the fact that she suspected my grandfather of molesting me, and still left me there. Two deep betrayals that made it impossible for me to ever trust her, or allow myself to love her. The childish yearnings for motherly love disappeared within me forever. I do not want any kind of mother in my life. My step-father turned out to be a faithless jerk who fooled around on my mother, and that shows me a character flaw so important to me that I could never trust him either.
So, I can forgive, but when a person shows their colours you can’t simply forget about them. You have to factor those flaws into the big picture. In some cases a person’s flaws make them more human and lovable. There’s a quote from the movie Hellboy that says, “You like someone for their qualities, but you love them for their flaws,” and I think that’s very true. Perfect people aren’t even very likeable, never mind lovable. There is too much envy involved when another person is ‘perfect,’ along with self-consciousness because we know we aren’t perfect. Of course, no one is actually perfect, but sometimes a person views another unrealistically as being being perfect.
Maybe my imperfections will be lovable to someone some day. I hope so. For the most part I’m content with my life, and I could probably be content to be alone for the remainder of it. It’s not really what I want if I’m being honest with myself. If I wanted to be alone, I wouldn’t feel sad after reading books like Twilight. I wouldn’t have registered with an online dating site a year ago – a profile that I deleted when I started dating someone exclusively. I haven’t done a new profile yet because I’m just not ready to start up with a stranger again, and it takes a long time to really get to know someone enough to love them – either on the basis of friendship, or on romantic love. Attraction comes instantly, as does infatuation, but the kind of love where you would notice someone was missing from your life if they weren’t there…that takes time. Starting a brand new relationship with a stranger is not something I’ve got the time or energy for right now.
I was talking to a friend about how holding hands with someone can feel weird, and he said that if I was madly in love with them then I would probably want to. He’s right. I would. I would feel the need for physical closeness. I’m actually very affectionate that way when I love someone, or even when I’m in a romantic relationship where I really like them. It’s the only kind of relationship where I can be really touchy-feely. I can hug my daughter, but neither of us likes hugging very much so it only happens on occasions like birthdays, or when there’s a death of one of our pets. When I lost Stimpy (my first ferret), I think my daughter was afraid to hug me, because I was already falling to pieces. Getting comfort when you’re like that can sometimes be just enough to break you. The stiff upper lip starts to quiver, and then you’re a blubbering mess.
Back to the topic at hand, however. Obsessive love and stalking are so prevalent in all forms of media that it has become absorbed almost to our cores. I think almost everyone I know has that little piece inside them that wishes they could have that. I’m sure I’m not alone there, or how would the writers of romantic fiction ever make any money? Rom-coms wouldn’t make a penny at the box office, either. Men are told to be persistent, despite the fact that it’s actually harassment to keep going after a woman who says no. It’s part of the rape culture. Men are rewarded for persistence by eventually getting their rocks off, even if it’s not consensual – often because the woman gets tired of being harassed and gives in to what she starts thinking is inevitable.
Romance novels used to be called ‘bodice rippers’ for a good reason. Almost every book involved rape in some form or another – usually a man was ‘pushed beyond reason’ into ‘giving her what she really wants.’ Apparently forcing a woman into sex solved all relationship problems – yes, that was sarcasm. This was only twenty years ago, and despite the fact that publishers are telling would-be authors that they don’t want that kind of book, they’re still publishing books about very unhealthy relationships. I actually wrote a historical romance many years ago. It sits (completed) in a box somewhere. It will never be published under my own name, because I will never allow myself to be pigeon-holed as a romance writer. Once that happens you’re rarely seen as any other kind of writer.
A good example is Nora Roberts. Under her own name she writes romances. Under the pseudonym of J. D. Robb she writes what’s called the ‘in death’ series. All but one title uses the words ‘in death,’ such as, “Naked in Death” and “Glory in Death.” The books’ main character is a female kick-ass cop in the future. For a long time, because it was known to be a pseudonym of Nora Roberts, those books were always put in the romance section of every book store I went into. There are romantic relationships within the series, but the books are mainly about the main character being a homicide cop. They’re murder-mysteries, and yet they were labeled as romance. Now when I go in the book store, though, they’re finally filed under the main fiction section. I haven’t seen them in the romance section for quite a while, but it still took a long time for the series to be recognized for what it really was.
Another reason I don’t think I’ll submit my romance novel for publication is that I’m rather ashamed of it. I’m just as guilty of writing anti-feminist crap as any other romance writer. I would have to cut and slash the novel to ribbons in order to fix the problem. I don’t want to be another Stephanie Meyer, creating mentally ill characters for people (particularly teenagers) to emulate. I would prefer to be responsible with my writing and portray women as something other than helpless victims to their own ineptitude. So, despite my (not-so-secret-now) wishing that I might have that sort of unhealthy connection with a man, I know better than to fall for it. I can only hope that most teenagers will outgrow their interest in the series.
Maybe there’s an antidote. Maybe one day I’ll write about the kind of relationship that’s real and healthy. Two people dedicated and devoted to one another, without having to give up who they are. People who don’t orient themselves to their partners to the exclusion of all else in their lives. Now that would be a relationship worth emulating. They say, “Write what you know,” though, and I have no personal experience from which to draw.