Recently Salon posted an article about the author of The Feminist and the Cowboy, a romance novel that was poised to become the next 50 Shades phenomenon when it ran into a minor snag.
The Feminist, who was also the author, broke up with her Cowboy. More than that, she wrote a long essay on her blog about how their relationship had not been so much a rough and ready awakening to love as much as a rude descent into emotional and physical abuse. Unfortunately her publisher and her agent didn’t have much support for her as she came to these realizations (nor really should they; she pays them to make her as much money as possible), and all in all the Salon article reads pretty grim.
I found a couple of takeaway thoughts, though, as I read it, and I’d like to share them, if you don’t mind.
La Coeur a Ses Raisons…
“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.” – Pascal
The first thing that I see getting lost in both the article and in the comments surrounding it is the fact that we are talking about two different things: there is the romance which she wrote, “a kind of love-letter to the cowboy”, and there is the actual relationship that she had with him. The first is intended as a romantic fiction, and while I’m sure many things are based on reality it is still fiction, designed to be an escape.
Most people know this, much as they know that Jason Bourne didn’t really kill a swathe through Berlin, Gina Torres wasn’t really a Browncoat, and Caractacus Potts didn’t really invent a flying car. But we enjoy reading those stories, and in the case of romances, it is often because it triggers some desires that we hold even if they are not acted upon. We can enjoy the idea of a dashing swashbuckler sweeping us off the manor wall without ever leaving the couch where the three-year-old has a fever. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if you find something that makes your heart go pitter-pat, it really doesn’t matter how much you tell yourself that you shouldn’t. That kind of reaction is visceral, subconscious, and far beyond your control.
What you can control is what you do about it. In the case of the Feminist, what she did was first get involved with the man and all his sexy ways, then wrote an entire novel about an idealized version of the two of them, and then finally decided that reality dictated that it would be better if she left the relationship. While the manner of her leaving was not pleasant (if you read the article, the true story actually reads more tragically than any fiction) the fact is she did leave.
She left when she realized that while it’s true you have to love yourself in order to love someone else, sometimes you have to love yourself enough to leave them. That’s a very hard decision to make, and I’m filled with admiration for her ability to do it.
What We Take With Us
The second troubling aspect of the comments for me was that, in the article, she talks about her new boyfriend, and the fact that he thanked the Cowboy for her transformation from the person she was to the person she is. She also said she was glad of the changes that her experience with the relationship had wrought in her. She likes who she is now, and has made literally bone-shattering decisions in order to be that way.
Yet many commenters seem to think she still needs help. That she needs to go back to being more of a “feminist”, as if choosing what kind of life and role you want to have is only feminist if it fits within a certain paradigm. I’ve seen this kind of thing before, the women I know who are looked down on by their “sisters” because they choose to marry, choose to stay home with the kids, choose to not pursue a typical career. I won’t go into that subject, because it falls dangerously close to an entirely different rant. Rather, I would like to focus on another aspect:
They (the commenters) act as though the Feminist could have simply abandoned the lessons, the experiences, the feelings that she shared with the Cowboy. As if there was some reset button that could be pushed to clear the past away.
I got news for them: there ain’t no goin’ back. That river has flowed, that bell has rung, that snowcone has melted, and there ain’t nuthin’ you can do about it.
Sometimes, you can choose what you take with you. You can choose what lessons you learn, what frame you put the memories into. You can take the time to sit and contemplate your reactions to the things that remind you of the good times, the bad times, and sometimes – if you’re lucky – you can begin to let the love that was shape and support the love that is, whatever form it takes.
I don’t know Alisa Valdes. But I choose to hope that when she says she is glad for her time with the Cowboy, and that she is now with someone who is not abusive but who is also not a model of feminist pride, that she is choosing to curate her own life, decorating the structure of experience with the memories that evoke the kind of life she wants to have now.
I choose to look at her as an example for other people I know who have done the same, and for my own efforts to better develop that skill.
You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)
And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.
PS You have to be brave.
– Jeannette Winterson