As an antidote to the terrible things that are going on in our world right now, many of us turn to fantasy and escapism. As a psychotherapist, I encourage clients to find something that works for them – and not to be ashamed of what they’re watching or reading, as long as it isn’t hurting anyone else. My husband and I are mystery fans. We like the kind where there are clear good guys and bad guys, and everything ends well.
I stopped reading one of my favorite authors, Martha Grimes, because she killed a dog in one book and tortured a child in another. That’s not what I want in escapist literature. Also, I will admit it, I like a little romance sprinkled in with my mysteries. But most important, I don’t want to worry that the good guy turns out to be the bad guy (Which means I’m not loving a lot of shows that have come out in recent years – I won’t mention them by name in case you haven’t seen them.) To paraphrase Susan Silverman, the fictional psychotherapist and love interest in Robert Parker’s Spencer series, I spend my days dealing with complexity; to relax, I want simplicity – and I want the good guys to win.
Given how picky I am, I was running out of good mysteries when some friends, also psychotherapists, told me – with a great deal of embarrassment – that they were reading historical romances for escape and self-soothing. “They actually have a lot of the psychology right,” these friends told me. “And at least the ones written in recent years have good values – imperfect, strong, and loving men and women struggling to cope with relational and life difficulties.”
I had also read both historical and contemporary romance novels as a way of soothing and re-setting myself during difficult times. During six painful years trying to become pregnant, I snorfed down romances in which the heroine struggled with terrible events and difficult relationships but ended up with the love of her life and a baby on the way. Those stories not only took me out of my own pain, but also gave me a sense of hope. Maybe my own difficulties could be resolved – obviously, not as easily as they happened in fiction, but in some way or another.
Many, many people read romance as a way of both escaping and re-setting. In fact, romance and suspense/thriller genres are among the most popular genres of fiction sold in the United states. Yet Eloisa James, a New York Times best- selling author of historical romance novels, has described the shame that many people feel about reading – and writing these novels. In an article in More magazine she writes about her “double life,” in which she hid her successful career from colleagues at her other, equally successful, albeit less financially so, profession. Her other persona was Mary Bly, who graduated from Harvard University and earned an MPhil from Oxford and a Phd in Renaissace studies from Yale before becoming a professor of English literature at Fordham University. (She’s also the daughter of poet and activist Robert Bly).
As a psychotherapist, I have numerous clients who read Eloisa James’ books, as well as other romance – both contemporary and historical – as a means of self-soothing. Many women agree with what Dr. Bly/Ms. James told an interviewer for the Yale Alumni Magazine,“Romance has been associated with sex, with women’s desire—it’s written by women, for women.” These facts bring out misogyny and American Puritanism, according to Dr. Bly.
For many of my clients, the joy of the genre is the way that the women in these books often learn to be strong, to enjoy their bodies and their minds, and find people who support those strengths. Oh yes, there’s also the sex, and there’s the HEA (happily ever after) ending. “In a world where everything is falling apart,” one client told me recently, “I can escape for a little while with people who have terrible difficulties but discover hidden strengths and find out that there are other caring, strong, and supportive people in the world. And they eventually end up happy.”
Dr. Bly put it this way: “Romance functions as escapism, and there are various times when everyone escapes. I sell a tremendous amount to women in the military. And I have a lot of readers who are going through chemo. Or some write and say, ‘My sister was dying. I read your book aloud and it made her laugh.’ And I get a lot of letters that say, ‘I read your books and I realize I don’t have to put up with my relationship anymore.’”
The world is complex, complicated, and confusing – maybe especially right now. We are all suffering, although unquestionably there are those who are suffering more than others. Escaping into fantasy will not solve these problems. But having a little respite from time to time gives our bodies, our minds, and our psyches a chance to reset – which is crucial to our ability to power on.