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My Harlequin History: In the absence of role models, media.

December 30, 2013

Beginning thoughts:

Before I decided which book to pick up first or whether I wanted to come up with some sort of thesis and go from there, I realized my base premise could be wrong. Until I sat down and started writing, I began with the idea that because I grew up without parents who’d ever been together in the traditional sense that I lacked strong role models for relationships. But then I realized someone who grew up with a traditional family might challenge this, and rightfully so. I assume that it’s quite easy to have parents who have a fantastic relationship but give no sign of how to recreate that. I remember that when my husband and I had been together a couple of years, my daughter said, “You guys don’t fight.” Of course we fight, in our own way. Mostly, we disagree. But we do fight, on occasion.  But what she meant was, “You don’t have shouting matches where I can see and hear them, so I assume there are no disagreements at all.” I had to correct her, and I also had to explain to her that what she sees is the tip of the relationship iceberg. This is when I realized that even good parents (which she says I am, but I think that’s because I take her to the bookstore a lot) can believe they’re setting an example, but don’t recognize that without words to back up actions, the actions create a high expectation that oftentimes children fail to recreate in a way that leads to self-blame. “Why can’t I be as happy as my parents were?” When you see only sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, you don’t know how to deal with rain and peas, even though rain and peas have always existed.

Ewww, peas.

Children’s perceptions of adults are often skewed, no matter how much a parent tries for clarity. Adulthood is so completely different from this thing we call childhood, and adolescence, and teen-age. It comes with little in the way of official guidebooks, but lots of unofficial ones that often contradict one another.  Even if many minors had a guidebook, they’d never believe it.

Me today:

I have been happily married for over three years. It sounds like so little when I type it, even when you tack on the year my husband and I dated beforehand. But unlike my other relationships, this one is solid, functional. We have not lived a charmed life together for the past four years. We’ve switched off working not out of desire to, but recession and necessity, and often lived separately because of this. Adjusting to military life has been, frankly, awful, and we’ve made some giant mistakes. But we made them together, for rational reasons, and that’s made all the difference.

I came to my husband broken and rebuilt. I wanted to say “reborn,” but that makes it sound easy. It was not easy. He came to me cynical but willing to believe in a good thing when it presented itself. That optimism has carried me through a lot, and in return, my optimism has carried him too. When he’s upset, no matter what I felt the second before, almost always I feel a calm fall over me. My mind clears up and I can deal when he can’t, just like he does for me.

Over these four-plus years, I have added something new to my list of what makes a good relationship. I originally believed that love just was–and that would be when I read Harlequins, which I’ll get to in a moment–and then I realized how important compatibility was. Then, later, after years of dating people who should’ve stayed friends in the first place, I realized that attraction had to be another aspect of this. Finally, when I met my husband, I realized something I’d been missing my entire dating life: consideration. Not in my partners, but myself.  And I had to see it in extreme examples to finally recognize it for what it was.  Some might call it kindness, but I think kind people can become inconsiderate when heated. My husband is considerate not just when he says thank you every time I make him tea, or remembers to ask me if I’d like a cup as well when he goes to boil water, but also when we disagree. There are no knock-down, drag-out fights because we are considerate of each other. We rarely get to the point of being heated because we are considerate. And this by no means guarantees happiness, nor a lack of mistakes, but consideration creates empathy where love hasn’t in the past.  Consideration is what gets us moving instead of saying we’ll get to something later, which I’ve found has a huge effect on my domestic happiness, and it is what keeps me from lashing out at my partners, as I’ve done in the past, and they to me.  It’s a whole new way of living, and fighting, and it’s made all the difference.  It made him be more than the person I wanted to be with; it made him the person I want to stay with.

This is not to say that I am the most mellow person now. My temper still flares. Consideration, built up day by day, sometimes reminds me to check my words before I use them. Usually. Still, this is a world of change from the dramatic person I was when I used the media as my romantic role model. If I say I am a better person because of my relationship, it is because I learned consideration, something that’s rarely, if ever, seen in the books that formed my view of relationships.

Is it fair to blame Harlequin for years of mistakes? Of course not. That’s why I’m not doing that. I’m not blaming my parents, either. But these things shaped my perceptions of relationships. As I said, children see adults in a skewed manner. I don’t believe they take fiction for fact, but they work on the idea that fiction is a reflection of fact, and Harlequins are not science fiction or fantasy. If the people are more beautiful than real life, if the men are richer–there’s your fiction, yes? Or at least, that’s what I think I was pulling from them subconsciously.

Me early on:

I started reading when I was around five or six years old, I think. I don’t remember learning to read, so much as knowing how to read. I was immediately put into the highest reading classes at school, until the school decided there wasn’t a class high enough for me, so I had to go to the next grade up to find people who were reading at my level. Because this was the early 1980s, there was nowhere near what we have now in terms of scope and classification, so it was not unusual for me to bring home Stephen King with Judy Blume, or V.C. Andrews with Madeleine L’Engle. Other than the book Scruples, there was nothing I was forbidden from reading no matter my age. My favorite books as a kid were The Monster at the End of This Book, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, and Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon.

The first Harlequin I remember reading was when I was about nine. It was a book called Catspaw II. This can’t be accurate, though, now that I’m thinking about it. It’s funny because I’ve been spouting this as God’s honest truth for so long, but I remember that there was a huge advertising push for it and I now believe I was lent it because I wanted to read it so badly. There was a brief excerpt from it in other books, and it sounded so funny. The copy belonged to the mother of a girl who lived a few doors’ down from us. I think my friend must’ve lent me another book with the advertisement, and then said, “Oh, we have that too!” But if there was a first book, it’s completely lost to my memory. All I remember is Catspaw II, which was more like a heist movie than a romance novel. I loved it. But I never thought of it as realistic, because it’s about thieves. It was like my favorite movie at the time, Clue. It was not part of the regular Harlequin line. But I think I did take the love of witty repartee as something I wanted in my relationship. I’ll discuss that more when I get into the book itself.

The oldest I could’ve been when I started collecting Harlequins at yard sales was thirteen. I remember my mom and I still lived with my aunt and cousin, and I remember that the development used to have a yard sale in the pool parking lot. I bought out of paper bags of Harlequins from neighbors I’d never met. When I was a freshman in high school, my friends introduced me to a used bookstore that had an entire room of romance. I couldn’t find Catspaw II, but I would trade in old books for “new.” By the time I was out of high school, I was uninterested in Harlequins. After my pregnancy book cravings for romance (I’ll get to that too), and then my divorce, my love of romance slowly died out, replaced at first by chick lit, but then I gave up the genres almost entirely as I got older and could no longer bear the sexism and gender essentialism. I eventually got rid of the romances, and then bought them back out of a sense of nostalgia (with the help of some friends), but also to do this project. I believe I have all of the ones I owned, although it is of course not all of the ones I read.

My parents:

I mentioned above that my parents were never together in the traditional sense. If you ask them, you’ll get two very different stories about what happened, and I could not tell you which is the truth, for my mother is honest but I can imagine her softening the story for my benefit, and my father is dishonest, but mostly to himself. My mother was an Army brat, and I believe her family had been stationed so that she and her siblings went to the same school as my father and his siblings, but I’m not positive about that anymore. I do think she lived there twice, but I could be wrong about that too.

His sisters were some of her dearest friends for a long time, and I want to believe that she and my father hooked up more out of friendship than anything else. My father was, and is, a musician, but I don’t figure my mother for the groupie type. The friendship with my aunts helped mold that perception. Certainly, my dad never acted like she was a groupie, but my dad never acts like any relationship he has is anything but Serious Business.

I don’t think they were Serious Business, though. I never have.  My mother says my father proposed when she told him she was pregnant; he says that absolutely did not happen. My mother knows a bad deal when she sees one, and no matter whether there was asking, there was no marriage. This was a big deal in the 1970s, or at least it felt like it when I was growing up, as most of my friends had married parents. Not really happily married, as the number of divorces seemed to go up every year, but I was the only bastard I knew of in my school.

I don’t remember a time where I didn’t know the word bastard, or that I was one, and fortunately, children can be as permissive as they can be judgmental. Just as when we had one Latina girl in our class of otherwise black and white and we just tilted our heads then shrugged and moved on, every kid I met would ask the following:

“Are you parents together?”
“So they’re divorced?”
“…So what are they?”

By the time I was in third grade, this was a great game to me, confusing people with the puzzle of my parents’ non-relationship.

My parents did not get along well, but they managed. My father started a serious relationship with my half-sister’s mother at some point and my half-sister is a year and a half younger than me. I don’t remember a time where I didn’t know that my dad’s girlfriend, eventually wife, was jealous of my mother and I.  I was never one of those kids who believed or wanted to believe that my parents were going to get back together. (Trying not to crack up at the thought of it. It is truly absurd, and kinda gross.) I couldn’t understand why my sister’s mother was unhappy, since she had my father and my half-sister, and my dad was willing to spend very little time with me because of her jealousy. But I also don’t remember a time when I didn’t know she was an addict. I do have a very early memory of me and my mom being at my dad’s and her place, my baby sister crying on the bed, and me not understanding why her mother wasn’t taking care of her. I remember my mother and my sister’s mother having a very quiet conversation, and being surprised that there was no yelling or obvious resentment. My next memory of my stepmother is her and my father’s wedding reception, where I remember her vigorously shaking my sister off of her leg when my sister was trying to get her attention. I thought that was pretty awful.

Were my mother and I really invited to the reception, despite my stepmother’s jealousy? Was this another party? I don’t think so.  I really think we were there.  So maybe things weren’t as bad as I thought, but I do remember my early years being mostly fatherless.

When I was about six or seven, my father decided he didn’t want anything to do with the harder drugs that my stepmother and his band mates were getting into, and he split from her and the band and told my mother that he wanted a closer and more consistent relationship with me. This was a strange and stressful time for me. At least once, my dad took me out of school to have lunch, and that was odd. Maybe he took me to the doctor’s too; I don’t remember. But leaving school with my dad, feeling like, “Really? This is important enough to miss school?” was just bizarre.

I had no idea what to call him, so I called him by his first name, Stan. Adults found this adorable. I seemed to be a perfect mix of my mother’s and father’s features; whichever parent the person speaking knew best was the one I looked exactly like.

My father was surrounded by young women who wanted to be with him.  Occasionally, he’d date some real bimbos–there was one in a pair of strategically-ripped jeans that I’d love to forget, the girl and the jeans, but I can’t, due to seeing-your-dad’s-girlfriend’s-ass-related trauma–but mostly, he dated some great women who were too good for him.

My father is the worst kind of serial monogamist: the one who wants to be able to commit but can’t.  Over and again over, he makes the same mistakes, and the one that’s always worse for it is the woman he dates.  He’s a walking stereotype type of the egotistical guitar player/lead vocalist who’s so busy chasing his dream of rock stardom that he never emotionally grows up, and from him I learned many lessons on what not to do in a relationship, including my favorite: don’t date someone closer to your children’s age than your own; s/he will outgrow you.

My mother, on the other hand, refrained from dating altogether.  I believe she was seeing someone when I was a baby, or a toddler, but by the time I could form memories, she’d considered it all too much effort and instead focused on her career and her child.  To that end, from her I learned nothing in the realm of romance and relationships, except maybe that single parenthood was tough.  She was, essentially, a void.  It’s comical, but one time about ten years ago, we were all driving home from some sort of town function, and my mother offered a ride to a neighbor.  My boyfriend at the time and I just stood there in awe, because we’d never seen a non-relative male in my mother’s car before, not one her own age and with no other people in the car.  In fact, when she made a joking comment about finding a rich guy when we all went to Europe, I was surprised, because it was the first time I’d ever heard her say anything about men at all.  My father thought she was a lesbian for a long time.  I just thought of her as a non-dater, because that’s what she was.  But I suppose after a while I thought of her asexual by default.

Between the two of them, I’d learned some things to avoid but little else.  The only stable couple I was around as a child was my grandparents, and to me, they were too old to understand; the world had changed and whatever they had done to get where they were was obsolete.  (See what I mean about skewed perceptions?)

So in the absence of role models, media.

The Harlequin project:

My goal is to look at the Harlequin novels of my youth and examine them on multiple levels. On a snarky, once-I-was-an-English-major level, I want to look at the writing of each book, the restrictions and freedoms of the Harlequin formula, and romance genre cliches. On a slightly more academic and perhaps sociological level, I’d like to argue that there is a cyclical reflection of and addition to perception of gender roles and romance in society in these books and this genre.  Finally, I want to discuss how these books affected me and my own personal romantic journey, consciously or otherwise.  I do not know at this time whether I plan to bring in academic research to this project, but probably so.  I’m a little out of practice, I must admit.

In conclusion:

I reread these books when I first purchased them a few years ago, and I can already tell you this: many of them are horrifying, some of them are funny, some are incredibly romantic, some made me cry, and one made me gasp aloud with a parallel to my own romantic life.

I’m really looking forward to this project.

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