Venus and Adonis by Rubens

My late husband actor Tom O’Rourke had no interest in romance. For all the usual reasons, with the support of most of our American culture, he regarded romance as steamy pulp for sex starved females and not worthy of serious consideration. But, I, Marcy the brainy intellectual, was hooked on romance, so it was impossible for me to accept his and our culture’s denigration of something that to me seemed central to life. If I liked it so much, there must be SOMETHING in romance that the contemporary culture was overlooking.

Aspiring to be a writer, I spent about 8 years in the morning hours from 4 am till 7 am working on my first romance novel, THE LAST BEST PLACE, the story of a modern woman rediscovering the joys of vive la difference in the form of a cowboy in Montana. When it was completed, I asked Tom to read and critique it chapter by chapter for me. The result was one of the strangest months in our life and should have been a very clear warning signal that something was terribly wrong. The image that comes to mind of Tom as he read and destroyed each chapter of my book is his whole person recoiling at every word. I remember he looked like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of OZ when confronted with water that would melt her. His criticism was scathing. He accused me of oversimplification, frivolity, ridiculousness, of not doing enough research, and of pretty much every offense he could think of to hurl at my book. It was shocking. I laughingly (or stupidly, as I realize now.) referred to our editing sessions as ‘the crucifixion’ because it was so punishing. The very idea of a romance novel seemed to outrage him. ‘Why?’ I should have asked myself. Instead, I just told myself men are just like that. As you can see, sexism works both ways.

Although it’s certainly true that men don’t haunt the romance aisles grabbing up hot new Silhouette Romance paperbacks, romantic feelings are explored in much of the great literature from every culture in the world, most of which was written by men, until recently.

My not seeing that his response was way out of proportion to whatever flaws my book may have had was the failure of my personal romance. I missed the clue that something was terribly wrong. I attributed his behavior to the ‘real men think romance is dumb’ bias that I had grown up with. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Romance was the third rail in our marriage, the one thing that could destroy Tom utterly. If he accepted romance as a worthy goal, all his sick sexual misbehavior could no longer be justified and his character and personality would self-destruct.  

The kinds of personal narrative stories that Tom preferred were about friends. For instance, one of his favorite shows was LOVEJOY about a man who scavenges antiques for a living, but is something of a vagabond. He has great friends and woman he works with who is an English aristocrat, but married to someone else. It’s a male fantasy I suppose to live without any female ties and yet have a competent woman to fall back on, while you pursue sexual gratification where you may. But I wonder how many men or women can sustain that kind of lonely existence. Tom couldn’t. He’d learned that lesson before we met, so he didn’t let me get away, he just lied to me. Not really much a friend, but the best he could do, given his psychological handicap.

The cast of the BBC series LOVEJOY 
I guess I was the Lady Jane type character to Tom

Like Tom, many people sneer at romance as escapist frivolity. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what psychological inhibitions against love are lurking in their subconscious. But, I beg to differ. Romances are the exploration of how we connect intimately with another person, which is probably the most essential task of being human. Romance unites one of our basic instincts, the sexual drive, to our mind and our body. And it is our mind that unites our soul to god. What could be more important than that?

There are genre romance novels and there are character based romance novels. The usual genre based romance novels mainly celebrate our delight in personal differences overcome by sexual attraction. No bad thing at all. But romance novels can go much deeper into our psyches.

Because the nature of romance in real life is unique to each person’s experiences, romance novels offer a better way to isolate and understand the mechanism of romance as it operates on character. Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBLITY is a perfect example of how to contrast the effect of romance on differing character types. One heroine has an excess of good sense, the other an excess of sensibility. Both women’s characters are wrought to a better understanding of themselves by forming romantic attachments. And since there is only one author of these two characters, we can also say that in many people good sense and vibrant sensibility are always in conflict to find balance in our characters.

My own romance story, my 35-year marriage to Tom, was an almost complete failure. He never connected intimately with me. His sex problem kept him locked in a war with himself, pretending to happily married, but driven to chase women every time he was out of my sight. I missed so many of the obvious clues. I trusted Tom. I assumed that love meant he would trust me, too, and that we would be able to face whatever problems occurred in our marriage together. His sex problem was so longstanding and deep seated in his unconscious that it had complete control of him. Love did not triumph. If God is love, somehow Tom lost his way to God, but he did keep trying. He stayed with his family to the end.

This is the strangest afterlife story you will ever read. A man with a divided soul, one in hell and one in heaven, came back to confess the truth and expose how the devil ruined his life. A must read for anyone struggling to reconcile sin and mental illness.


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