Raising an 11-year-old girl in a rape culture has its challenges. The first time the two of us were driving along and heard Katy Perry sing, “Infect me with your laser, I want to be your victim—” you can imagine my reaction: as Tommy Boy would say, “I wanted to jerk the wheel into a bridge abutment!”
All I could think was, “Great. Another consensual rape lyric.” My daughter nonchalantly informed me that the song wasn’t about rape, it was about alien abduction, duh.
Oh, well. In that case. Sure.
And now—probably because the song’s got a great hook and it makes me want to slap my hands to the beat against the steering wheel while I am stopped at a red light and making googly eyes at the charming air conditioning repair guy smiling at me from the other lane—I love that song.
What woman doesn’t want to be swept away by a supernatural alien who will show her the light? Especially an 11 year old who realizes she is at the mercy of cruel, thoughtless, narrow-minded, idiotic parents for another five years, at least. I think my daughter was six the first time she asked me how old you have to be to live alone. She has subsequently informed me, spitefully, that THEN she will FINALLY have a dog AND a cat and she will work at Starbucks or Wal-Mart and drive my used Prius (which will be seven years old by then and which, in her version, I will give to her for high school graduation). The point is: Freedom. And sometimes an alien abduction is better than the devil you know.
In the current book I am reading, that unknown devil would be a heroic, strapping, Irish rapist.
Christine Monson’s Stormfire (Avon, 1984) came to my attention a few weeks ago when a Twitter friend mentioned that she had amassed 27 pages of notes about this controversial “classic” or “Old Skool” romance. I stopped after the first paragraph of her article (not wanting to read another word of analysis until I had read this miraculously outdated time warp with my own eyes) and thanked her for the recommendation, of sorts. Turns out she hadn’t meant to recommend it, but I was already gleefully finding a used copy on Amazon and hoping it would arrive in time for me to take on an upcoming trip.
There is so much I adore about this book. The cover, for one thing. I was traveling with a four year old (think: cat herding) for nearly twenty hours and it was such a joy to whip this baby out. There is nothing ambiguous about any part of this book. Just look at that cover! It screams PASSION. The crashing waves, the flaming building, the location of the hero’s hand (I am a total sucker for covers that feature the perilously high thigh grab).
There was a dour, academic-y-looking young woman sitting next to me on my flight (I later learned that she was returning to her home after attending her grandmother’s funeral, so I can see why she was a bit grim), but I swear, between my inability to restrain my, er, active child and my choice of reading material, I think she wrote me off as patently ridiculous before we pulled from the jetway. All of that is only to say that I felt not a lick of shame: I set that 568-page (tiny font) brick of a book out for all the world to see. Check me out. I may not be able to restrain a fiery four year old, but I am free to read whatever I want, Ms. Sourpuss.
Anyway, this is a rape book. Repeated rape. Starting on page 31:
Eyes dilated until they were almost black, she lapsed into paralytic terror, lips moving in a pleading whisper, “No, no...no.” as a litany, as if to herself. Sean’s eyes, boring into hers, looked into a midnight void. Relentlessly he pursued her into the void.
Rising to a kneeling position, then grasping her under the knees, he backed off the bed, pulling her with him until he stood on the floor with her defenselessly open to him, knees on either side of his thighs and feet dangling. He dragged her thighs wide. As if giving a death blow to an enemy, Sean rammed himself into her body with all the hatred pent in him, felt fragile membrane tear and heard her scream in agony. He thrust harshly, savaging her, fingers biting into her flesh when she twisted as if to escape a knife stabbing into her vitals. His hatred burst into her in a flood.
Again. Unambiguous. Unequivocal. Yes, there’s backstory and motive and centuries of Irish oppression made manifest and post-traumatic-stress and yeah, yeah, yeah, all of that is eventually revealed. But Monson brings none of that to the actual act. The sheer brutality is all that’s left. Of course, the story goes on to put him in the position of falling helplessly in love with her, his sworn enemy, “against his will,” but, yeah, not quite the same ramifications for him—having the “against-his-will” experience—as the woman. But we’ll have to deal with that in another post. For now, let’s get back to the alien invader/freedom-fighter metaphor.
After a few hundred pages and the heroine’s obligatory if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em transition from despising him as her rapist to taking him as her lover, the heroine comes to this conclusion:
“I am no longer a candidate for any man’s marriage bed, thanks to you. Used goods is what I am.” She grinned wickedly, leaning forward, not noticing his restlessness. “But a mistress can play her own game. Why shouldn’t I be a wanton, since I cannot wed? [...] To think, I’m free after all. I’ve just been too sour to realize it. [...] What do you think I should do? Should I take a great many lovers or just one rich, dotty old man? Young lovers must be like puppies: a great deal of trouble. One sweet old man would probably do nicely. Perhaps he’ll only want to stroke me once in a while.”
I can’t tell you how much this passage has affected me. I had a discussion recently with a fellow romance reader about reasons we love historical romances. It is not despite the conventions and social restraints, it is because of them. Narrowing the focus to these very precise social obligations, the authors are able to address issues of chattel, independence, love, etc. in a very direct way. And Christine Monson does it splendidly. Yes, he kidnapped her. Yes, he raped her. But what would married life have been for her anyway? Probably a contractual, parentally-sanctioned kidnapping. To be passed from one dominant male to another. Probably more rape. At the time of her abduction, her father was weighing his choices for her future, choices that best suited his diplomatic agenda, deciding between a wealthy Spaniard of questionable morality and a down-on-his-luck French royal who was willing to take her as his concubine. She was never going to be thriving in a polyamorous marriage with three strapping brothers in Texas nor living in Mexico with Billy Joe after escaping justice. In Stormfire, the heroine had no choice either way. We do.
As Alain de Botton pointed out a few weeks ago, “So hard to accept that the prison door is open and we could walk out if we truly wanted.” And a lot of women truly want to. That is to say, many women will take the devil we do NOT know just to GET OUT. How many women, even in today’s modern world of supposed freedom, are trapped in loveless marriages, trudging off to low-paying jobs, responsible for ungrateful children, or living with despotic parents who won’t let them get a pet? What price would we pay to escape? To get probed by Kanye West in the galactic equivalent of a seedy bar; to be abducted by an Irish mercenary; to kill; to be raped; to read a tawdry romance novel? For many of us, the cost of escape is worth the price.
Megan Mulry recently signed a three book deal with Sourcebooks.