Discussion: The Absence of Non-Impactive Abusive Behavior in Books

Earlier this week I was reading a book where the primary villain of the book was also a domestic abuser. His girlfriend put up with being hit and the like because ‘he gave her what she needed in bed’. Other than the fact that this was acknowledged (he smacked her around, she acknowledged some of the behavior was unhealthy, etc.), it didn’t really play a part in the book. Now, while I ranted about the use of sexuality and sex in the book, I did not directly address this in my review. Because this question occurred to me:

 Is it wrong to demand we not see evidence of unhealthy relationships in books where destroying/getting away from/overcoming those relationships is not the goal of the book?

The book that most people are going to think of when it comes to this question is probably Fifty Shades of Grey. However, in that book, the relationship (unhealthy, unrealistic, and twisted though it might be) was the primary focus of the book. This is not a discussion post about books where the unhealthy relationship is the main factor.

But it’s not just romantic relationships in books either.

For example, alcoholism is not necessarily a precursor to physical, sexual, or mental abuse, yet it is not possible to have a healthy relationship with an alcoholic. When you hear people talk about their alcoholic parents, they might say “Well, s/he never beat me or anything like that, but…” And that but tells you everything you need to know.

The fact is, unhealthy relationships are a part of the real world, and one might argue that to keep fiction realistic, we should not exclude the mention of unhealthy relationships.

This is one of those things where I think it’s easy to act/speak out against something you disagree with without stopping to consider if you’re truly being reasonable.

Bad people exist. And the things they do aren’t always necessarily of the murder, robbery, and mass destruction variety. Sometimes they present perfectly normal on the outside, and then they go home and knock the ever-lovin’ hell out of their partner. Maybe they don’t even physically touch them, but they get their rocks off by making them feel like they’re worthless. It happens. So why are we so against it being portrayed casually in fiction?

Graciekat says: I think that the portrayal of unhealthy relationships should be present. I think trying to get into the psychology of the victim and yes, even the abuser as well, can be very important. My issue with some of the more recent examples is that it’s not being portrayed as unhealthy. They’re being portrayed as the normal and something that should be aspired to. Abnormal and unhealthy is being portrayed as romantic, loving and charming. I think the responsibility of the author lies not in trying to leave them out, but rather in how they are portrayed. It can be challenging.As Lilyn said above, it’s very easy for a person to rationalize an unhealthy relationship or habit of any kind. A skilled author can explore those rationalizations through the eyes of the character or the people around him/her. I do not think that it’s necessary to glamorize or shrug off the effects of it, even if it’s a side character with little to no plot motivation. Whether or not the characters in question overcome their challenges or roles is immaterial but in how the author as the omniscient narrator (barring first person) chooses to present the behaviors.

One of my fellow bookworms thought maybe it had something to do with the train wreck mentality coupled with the few books the average person reads per year.  Ie: If we’re going to read about bad crap, we want that bad crap to be the primary focus of what we’re reading. 

It’s sort of funny to be writing this up because as people who read a lot of horror you’d think we’d see pretty much everything. But that’s not really the case at all. Even in horror, while you might see rape, murder, and general evil – you don’t see a lot of casual mentions of bad relationships that don’t have a direct impact on the plot.

Another question that pops up as a direct follow-up is then: When authors do have abusive or destructive behaviors in books, and it’s not about them… are they tacitly saying that these behaviors are normal? I want to say of course not. I think most people will say of course not. But there’s also people who genuinely believe that violence in old-school cartoons like Tom and Jerry led to increased incidences of violence from kids. So….  Maybe authors don’t mention abusive/destructive relationships because they are afraid of this backlash?

Overall, it’s definitely a question to chew on for a while.

 Is it wrong to demand we not see evidence of unhealthy relationships in books where destroying/getting away from/overcoming those relationships is not the goal of the book?

When authors do have abusive or destructive behaviors in books, and it’s not about them… are they tacitly saying that these behaviors are normal?

Mind you, we are not arguing for the inclusion of these types of relationships in books. Merely wondering about their absence.

What do you all think?