I’m a little surprised that more romance characters aren’t in therapy. Love is awesome, but it can’t fix *everything*.
— Elisabeth Lane (@elisabethjlane) March 19, 2015
I idly posted this on Twitter this morning, the result of a book I was reading, Living in Secret by Jackie Ashenden. I don’t want to give away any spoilers and I’ll review it at some point soon, but there seem to have been a lot of strong feelings turned up by my musing and I just wanted to, well, talk about it in more detail. This isn’t going to be precisely confessional–that’s not where I’m at with this stuff. But it will talk about mental health, a little bit about faith, some of the difficulties of depression and the role of romantic fiction in portraying both the fantasy and the realism of finding love in the broken places. Please exercise self-care going into this one and be kind and generous to each other in the comments, if you have any.
The hero and heroine in Living in Secret have both done things they aren’t proud of, that they have been hiding from themselves and each other for many years. And there’s a scene for each of them in the book when each describes the feeling of being hollowed out in the wake of confession, of an entirely satisfying and healthy emptiness where before there was only pain and guilt and loss and hurt. And these characters weren’t in therapy, either of them. And I wasn’t really wishing for them to have been because Ashenden did a fine job with the whole mess. But that empty feeling…it was familiar to me from my own experiences with therapy and with depression.
Normally when we think of emptiness, I think we think of something sad or lacking. After all, we’d rather have a full belly or a heart full of love or a half-full glass. It’s an expression of optimism, hope, satiety…fullness is good. It’s been a long time since I was actively in therapy, but I remember this one moment of walking out of my therapist’s office in Dupont Circle early one summer evening after an intense discussion during one of our ubiquitous DC thunderstorms. And as I walked to the Metro, there was just this…lightness. The horrible summer humidity had melted away after the storm. The city smelled all fresh and clean and still a little bit charged. I didn’t feel happy, not just yet. But I felt empty–a good emptiness. The characters in Living in Secret are struggling more with guilt than depression, but when Ashenden described that emptiness, I knew just what she meant.
Most of the romance I love features quite broken people. My interest in this stems in part from my faith. Peculiarly perhaps, the idea of a humanity made in God’s image, but broken and in need of redemption, a redemption that is on-going and yet to be completed, is comforting to me. It’s less the presence of God in my life (find Jesus and you will be saved is sooo not my thing) than it is the idea that there is love out there for everyone and everything. And yes, I’m well aware that many Christians miss the point on this. For that I’m truly sorry every day. But that concept: that imperfection is what is expected of us and expected of life is so counter to my own instincts that it’s, well, freeing.
So in terms of how redemption plays out in romance, particularly high-angst ones that involve weighty challenges like mental illness, trauma, anger management, the pain of loss of any kind, I sometimes have mixed feelings. Certainly the fantasy of redemption–of anyone and everyone finding love and being made whole by that love–is something that drives a lot of my romance reading. And I’m not sure I’ve said this before, but I am especially pleased when love and sex have a metaphysical effect on healing. It’s not a very Christian ideal, but whatever. I am large. The idea that the elemental physicality of intimate union with another person could quite literally heal someone body and soul is super powerful. I’m not sure how much I believe in it in a naturalistic sense, but there’s absolutely nothing I like better than to see it in romance. It’s the kiss at the end of Beauty and the Beast, for heaven’s sake.
But there’s something about that kiss that I’ve felt and that I know from talking to others about this, one of my very favorite tropes: sometimes some of us don’t want to see the Beast change into a prince. Sometimes we want to see him stay a Beast. Because he’s sexy and primal and that’s who we fell in love with over the course of the story, but for me at least as much, because he’s imperfect. When loneliness, desperation, fear and hopelessness have been hollowed out of a person and love has slowly crept in to take its place, well, that’s enough for me. I don’t need the total redemption. The totally transformative power of love is something that I think has to happen over time, probably growing in the space after the happy ending, particularly in the case of the kinds of extreme difficulty that we get in high angst romance. And in the sometimes whirlwind courtships we get, as Ana Coqui pointed out.
And so this morning when I said that I was surprised that more romance characters aren’t portrayed in therapy, this is the context for that statement. It wasn’t the therapy that I’m exactly interested in, I guess. It’s the hollowing out. The cool freshness after a thunderstorm. That moment of emptiness prior to reconciliation. It’s the space a writer makes for hope to creep in. And in the case of romance, love too. It isn’t about being deserving for me or being totally healed, neither of which hold any power at all. At bottom, I don’t believe in total redemption or total perfection and I’m more likely to adore books that withhold it: that show that a selfish person is still just a little bit selfish, that a person with depression might still get depressed sometimes, that an irresponsible person is still sometimes irresponsible (or at least irrepressible–like Henry Page at the end of yesterday’s review book Tempest).
And that their beloved loves them anyway. Even if they never turn into a Prince. That space is a space I can live in.