Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few months, you've probably heard of EL James' "erotic" novel, 50 Shades of Grey. There are also two subsequent sequels available (yippee!) - 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed. The book has been dubbed "mommy porn" and has become a best-seller, with talk of a movie (yippee yet again!) in the pipeline.
Now, I am a writer and I am painfully aware that when one - pretty much unknown - writer elects to openly criticise a much more successful writer's work, that it can come across as sour grapes. Trust me, I know from personal experience (after all, I'm a children's writer who doesn't think the Harry Potter books live up to their hype) that people are all-too-quick to dismiss the views of a struggling writer dishing out criticism of one more famous. It's for that reason that I will be wearing two hats whilst writing this blog (and that's quite a challenge for someone who really doesn't suit headgear): That of a writer, which fits rather snugly and in which I feel incredibly comfortable. The other is that of a survivor (I will NOT say "victim") of an emotionally abusive relationship. That hat does not sit well upon my head at all, but nevertheless, I find myself in a position to wear it.
So let's start with the writer's hat, shall we?
50 Shades of Grey is not a well written book. It is strewn with so many errors, I almost felt offended on behalf of the writers of fan fiction everywhere when I read it. Because of course, that is what this book (or rather, these books - I find it hard to believe it wasn't just one long story, chopped up into three in order to make as much money as possible from the hype) began life as - a Twilight fan fiction. Now I openly admit that I have never read Twilight, nor have I seen any of the films. But a little digging around on the Internet was all it took to realise how many characters and scenes were basically plagiarised without second thought. Now okay, as a fan fiction story, of course the characters would be the same, or at least similar. But when a publisher takes the story on and puts it out there for the world to see, shouldn't something be altered to make it less bloody obvious that so much of the characterisation and background to the story is another writer's work?!
Blatant plagiarism aside, the book is technically bad too. Here's a fun little game for those of you with a copy to play: Try seeing how many times a character (usually Christian, but occasionally it'll fall to someone else) "presses their lips into a hard line." Go on, have a look. I haven't counted myself (because I worry that if I pick the book up ever again, I might lose the will to live), but I would estimate it happens at least 45-50 times. In 26 chapters. That might not sound like a lot, but when you think that boils down to a probable minimum of twice a chapter, it soon starts to grate. It's as though EL James thought to herself: "Hang on, I must prove how wonderful a writer I am by never using simple, one word phrases like "frown," when I can dress it up with several words instead!"
She also writes "erotica" that is laced with so much childish stupidity that it subtly detracts from the "erotic" bits. For example, the lead female character, Ana, refers to "down there," so as to avoid any actual wording of her sexual organs. Yes, EL James uses that hideous term "my sex" as well ("his tongue traces the length of my sex"), but far too often, Ana reverts to the childlike use of "down there," which, far from being sexy, actually made my toes curl. Whether with disgust, or simply because Ana herself is a dreadful, deeply unpleasant character (seriously, I have never read a book where I hated the lead characters more than I did in this excuse for literature) and I generally curled my toes at everything she said and did, I do not know.
The book also focuses on utterly trivial matters, such as what music Christian has on his iPod, or listing literally EVERY PART of the "contract" Ana has to consider signing before she can enjoy sexy times in Christian's "Red Room of Pain," whilst stubbornly refusing to give any characters beyond Ana and Christian a real chance to develop. We know almost nothing of Kate, Ana's roommate and supposed best friend, beyond the fact that Ana seems to hate her for being pretty. Oh and for being supportive to her. And for showing any kind of interest in her relationship with Christian. See what I mean about Ana being a bit of a shitty character?! Even her best friend is painted as some kind of pretty monster for simply doing things a best friend would usually do.
I could go on and on (don't worry, I won't) about EL James' confusing tendency to attach one character's speech to another character's actions, or the utterly infuriating presence of Ana's "Subconcious" and "Inner Goddess," both of whom I ended up hating even more than Ana herself, which I didn't actually think was humanly possible. I could tear my hair out over EL James' insistence that American heroines use words and phrases like "jeez," "double crap," and "oh my!" at every given moment of their waking lives. But my real issue with this book lies in its portrayal of Christian Grey as a romantic hero and of his relationship with Ana as some kind of passionate ideal that we women should all be searching for. Not to mention the fact that Christian's personality and his treatment of Ana (more on that later), is excused by his past, seemingly making it all okay.
Christian Grey, I make NO apology for saying, is an emotionally abusive man. When I say this to friends and colleagues who think this book (and the sequels to it) are the best thing since The Rampant Rabbit, I get reactions ranging from confused disagreement to actual anger. But let me say this loud and clear: CHRISTIAN GREY IS AN EMOTIONALLY ABUSIVE MAN.
How do I know this? How can I state this so clearly in shout-y capitals?
Because I knew a man just like him.
When I first met my ex, I had every feeling described in this book and more. He was gorgeous. He was witty. He was fiercely intelligent. In every way I could possibly imagine, I was inferior to him. Much like Ana spends most of the first book (at least the early chapters) going on (and on and on and on...) about the fact that she simply isn't good enough for Christian Grey - about the fact that she doesn't think she's pretty or clever enough for a man like him - I could barely believe that a man like my ex had taken more than a passing glance at me. He was totally and utterly out of my league. And the problem was, I am pretty sure he was intelligent enough to know that I was having those exact thoughts. Far more dangerously, I am utterly certain that he used my lack of self esteem (destroyed by years of bullying, as documented here in an earlier blog) to his advantage.
Ana has nagging doubts about Christian Grey from the moment she meets him. She describes him as "autocratic and cold, at least on the surface..." and immediately she begins to wonder what makes him the way he is. Christian, for his part, warns her off in no uncertain terms: "I don't do hearts and flowers, Ana..." He tells her he'd be "bad" for her.
And my ex? You got it in one. I had the "I'm a bad man" speech, too. I had the "warning."
Women everywhere have been reading 50 Shades... and getting their knickers in a knot over this: "Ooh, he's a bit dangerous; I should stay away, but damnit, I don't want to, cos this is so FREAKIN' HOT!!"
I'm not going to criticise EL James here (don't worry, I'll more than make up for it later), because you know what? It IS hot. When my ex told me he was "fucked up," and "a bad man," I reacted with intrigue. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why. So I can't rubbish the idea that a female character would be turned on by a man trying to warn her of how dangerous he is, because I know from experience that it DOES get you all hot and bothered, with a side-order of immense compassion thrown in for good measure. All of that is shown in the book and all of it is correct.
But very early on in the story, I began to see how potentially dangerous this book and its depiction of what is an emotionally abusive relationship, could really be.
Ana's "relationship" with Christian Grey immediately raises some disturbing questions as to what is healthy and what is just plain wrong. Shortly after their initial meeting and the beginning of their flirtation, not to mention the start of much musing over what kind of man Christian really is, Ana goes to a club and, in a drunken haze, calls him. He can tell she has been drinking and tells her "I'm coming to get you." Ana hangs up before - and this is crucial - she can tell him where she is. Later on, Christian arrives as Ana is being ill outside the club. Oh, swoon! What a saviour! But hang on... How did he know where to find her? That's right, he traced her mobile phone and STALKED her. He then takes her home. Aw, bless, how sweet! But hang on... By the time he takes her home, Ana is extremely drunk and not far off passing out. She is not in a position to say "yes" to being taken to a virtual stranger's house several miles away, WITHOUT the knowledge of her friends, who are still inside the club. If this happened in real life, it would not be hot or sexy. It would be hugely disturbing. But hey, because Christian Grey is so good looking, stalking a woman and manipulating her into going home with him without having the decency to tell her worried friends where he's taking her is just fine.
Except of course it isn't. It is, as I have said, extremely manipulative and controlling - let's not forget, at this point in the book, although there is an attraction between them, there is no real "relationship" between Ana and Christian. He had no reason to suspect that she was in danger when she called him, yet he took it upon himself to trace her call, turn up unannounced and take her back to his house, miles away from all of her friends, whilst ignoring her request to tell them where she was going. Alarm bells should have been ringing so loudly, it would have been audible above the music in the club.
But Christian is in no way painted as being at all out of order for what he does. Indeed, Ana gushes about him "saving" her. When thinking about the fact that he has stalked her by tracing her phone, she tells herself "somehow, because it's him, I don't mind."
Again, I have to take a break here and say "you know what? I used to say that." The number of times my ex made comments about my weight (I'm a UK size 10, but he used to call me "chubby" at best, "fat" at worst), subtly controlled who I saw by telling me in no uncertain terms that so and so was "violent," or "a bad friend" and that he wouldn't accompany me to see them, thus ensuring that, because I was so under his spell, I ditched them instead of him, or the number of times he manipulated me into putting up with shit I would never have tolerated from anyone else (such as his sleeping with other women and telling me I had no right to complain), simply because it was him probably runs into hundreds, if not thousands. It's a hallmark of the abusive relationship. A woman who has been drawn under a man's spell and who has started the process of being manipulated, will excuse any number of insulting, or even dangerous behaviours. To display that in a book is fine. In fact, it's a good thing - why should we hide the fact that abuse can and does happen in relationships?! But the dangerous thing here is that this is not a book that discusses abuse and sensibly and sensitively portrays the effects it has on the victim. It is a book that holds up this man - this man Who by only chapter four, has stalked a woman and shown himself to have a dangerously controlling nature as well as a questionable temper - as a romantic hero. Someone we should all aspire to being with.
Christian's controlling nature only becomes more evident from here on in. Upon waking up in a strange bed, Ana is told "if you were mine, you wouldn't be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday."
The stunt she pulled? Oh yes, she went out with her friends on a largely empty stomach (because she was in knots, thinking about HIM and how "dangerous" he is and therefore felt unable to eat) and got herself drunk. For those that don't know, Ana is supposed to be a college student. Show me a college student who has never gone out and gotten drunk with their mates and I would say "grab me a camera," because we'd be looking at a pretty rare example. So here, Christian Grey is not only telling her she doesn't have the right to go out and do as she pleases, even though he acknowledges that she doesn't belong to him, he's also suggesting that he would cause her physical harm if she WERE his and she went out and did something that normal students do all the time.
Let me remind you once again, that this is a man being held up as a ROMANTIC HERO.
Of course EL James makes it all okay, by suggesting that Christian is only upset because Ana put herself at risk. Aw, he's worried about her! He only said what he did because he cares!
You know what my ex used to say to me? "I act this way because I care, Emsy." It's not an excuse.
Speaking of excuses, I mentioned earlier that Christian Grey's warnings to Ana that he was messed up and she should walk away were actually pretty hot, having experienced the same thing. I stand by that. But why IS Christian Grey the controlling, manipulative, not-really-sexy bastard that he is? Because he was abused as a child.
Now, not for one second am I going to trivialise child abuse. Not for a fleeting moment would I ever dream of suggesting that a child experiencing sexual abuse, physical pain or emotional neglect is anything but utterly tragic. Is it an excuse for growing up and becoming an abuser though? Can all the bad things an abuser does be excused by his/her terrible childhood? I don't believe so.
My ex told me he was abused by his parents. Physically beaten. Emotionally neglected. My heart broke into pieces as he, over time, told me stories about his loveless upbringing. I wanted to love him in the way he had missed out on and more. I wanted to close the wounds his childhood had caused and "love him better." To this day, for all he did to me, if as a child, he really did experience half of what he told me, then I sympathise with that little boy with all my heart and soul.
But that innocent little boy grew into a manipulative, controlling, emotionally abusive man. And no matter how much sympathy I have for his childhood plight, I cannot and will not allow it to excuse the way he behaved towards me. This is a man who allowed me to believe for 5 months that we were in a relationship, before coldly telling me I was "just a friend I happen to have been fucking." This is a man who, just five days later, told me he hadn't meant those words and blamed (for the first time, but in no way the last) his bad childhood on the fact that he had said such hurtful things and pushed me away. This is a man who told me he "didn't know how to be in a "normal" relationship" and told me he "needed" me. This is a man I believed wholeheartedly. Because why would he lie?
Well obviously he lied so he could continue to use me. Not just sexually, but emotionally too. So I would continue to pick him up from work and drive him back home. So I would help him to move house not once, but three times, with very little thanks and absolutely no petrol money for my trouble. So he would always have dependable "Emsy," when there was nobody else around. Of course I was never good enough to be referred to as a "girlfriend." I was always "just a friend." But a friend he would hold, kiss and whisper "I love you" to in the darkness. A "friend" he would plead with to stay, telling me I was "abandoning" him when I left to return home. A "friend" he dangled the prospect of a proper relationship with so many times I lost count.
In her "erotic" novel, EL James describes the way that Christian messes with Ana's head, causing her to question what she does and doesn't want, before being manipulated into a BDSM relationship she is not entirely certain she is ready for. Of course those hoodwinked into thinking Christian is some form of loveable sex God will pick me up here by saying that Ana agrees to the relationship herself. I point you in the direction of the line in which Ana asks what will happen if she says no to his conditions and he replies: "Then I will find ways of making you change your mind."
Aw, how loveable and jokey. Except that no, it's not. He's essentially putting pressure on her to do exactly as he wants, which, if you remove your blinkers and read the book with clear eyes, you'll see is something he does CONSTANTLY. And pressurising someone, manipulating them into thinking you're right and they should do whatever you ask of them, is just another sign of abuse.
In my own relationship, I was told that I would only be a "fuck buddy" and that my ex would be free to sleep around with whoever he wanted, without any comeback from me. Now I may not be the toughest girl in the world, but I do know what I will and won't accept and that's just a massive no-no. I told him so. I told him I had real, very strong feelings for him and couldn't agree to being a meaningless shag, a nameless notch on his bedpost. And every time I tried to walk away? He found "ways of making me change my mind." I would get the "I was abused as a child, you're getting too close and I don't know how to deal with my feelings for you..." treatment. Or, far, far worse, he would tell me he loved me and couldn't live without me, but that I had to be "patient" with him, because of what he had been through and that my requests for a normal level of respect were "clingy and desperate" and showing I didn't understand him, when he was TRYING SO HARD. So it was ME at fault for wanting respect and normality in our relationship and it was ME who had to change and do as he asked in order to eventually gain the things I wanted.
And lo, a carrot was dangled in front of my nose. He DOES love me, he doesn't REALLY want me as just a "fuck buddy," he wants REAL relationship, he just doesn't know how to go about it! Poor baby!
In 50 Shades, Christian frequently tells Ana that nobody has ever affected him the way she has. What EL James wants us to see, is a damaged man, slowly learning to love again, perhaps fighting against it as it's such an unknown emotion, but in the end, becoming "cured" of his demons. And what is truly terrifying, is knowing that it's working. That is EXACTLY the way women all over the UK and America (and presumably the wider world) are seeing this book. Except it's really not like that. Read the words, they're there in black and white!
Christian tells Ana he is affected by her in a way that no other woman has ever affected him, that's true. But he also frequently manipulates and controls her, refusing to listen to her when she protests about expensive gifts, or certain "rules" of their relationship "contract." Even when Christian offers to follow her wishes and have a "vanilla relationship," without the BDSM aspects that Ana is uncomfortable with, his subtle manipulation and controlling tendencies don't fade. He's just telling her what she wants to hear. The pretence of trying hard to give her what he wants is there, but the undertones of pressurising, manipulating and intimidating her don't go away. You only have to read the book carefully to see between the lines. Ana is often portrayed as confused and not knowing what to do for the best. She is intimidated by Christian, she doesn't know how to react to him. Is that love? Really?!
My ex used to tell me: "No woman has ever gotten as close to me as you. Nobody has ever affected me the way you do. It scares me." That could be a line straight out of 50 Shades. I stayed because I believed him, which is exactly how Ana feels. When she thinks of leaving him, she is tortured by thoughts that she will be "abandoning" this "poor man." When I told my ex, not just once, but many times, that I couldn't do it anymore, that it was too painful to hear about other women and be expected to put up and shut up about it, he would wail "don't leave me Emsy. Please don't abandon me like everyone else has." That is NOT sexy. It's not hot. It's not "erotica." It's emotional manipulation, pure and simple. And to my shame, it worked. I stayed. And I stayed silent.
In the book, Ana never feels able to open up to her closest friends and family members about what Christian is really like. She keeps his controlling nature, the conditions he imposes on their relationship and the confusion he causes her almost exclusively to herself. Yet another sign of an abusive relationship! Even now, to this day, my parents - unless they read this blog - don't know the extent of what I went through. And of course I have only shared the tip of the iceberg here. And why do they not know? Because I felt too ashamed, too confused, too full of the belief that it was all my fault to tell them. To tell anybody. When I DID talk to people, I made dozens of excuses for his behaviour, blamed his "messed up past" (much like Ana does in the book) and the rest of the time, I went through the whole experience entirely alone. Isolated. Thus making him the only person I could talk to. And therefore handing him more power.
And let me say this as an aside - emotional abuse is something too few people are able to understand, which is why so many people continue to remain silent both during their experiences and afterwards. When I did begin to tentatively open up, I had questions such as "oh why didn't you just walk away?!" tossed at me as though they were accusations. I had one person, who was until this point, one of my closest friends and a woman in her 40's who claims to be compassionate, read a full account of what I had gone through, coupled with an apology (which I now see I really didn't have to give) for any "distant" behaviour I may have exhibited during the relationship and respond with a single line email: "That's right Emma. Make it all about YOU." And the girl who actually introduced me to my ex and who was also once one of my best friends? She has been telling people I am a liar and that I'm making all this up. And the worst thing is, I have no way of proving her wrong. Emotional abuse leaves only invisible scars. There is nothing tangible. My "wounds" are not something you can physically see, but that does not make them any less real. And with her glorification of abuse as romance, EL James has reopened several of them.
I understand that this book is more often than not being read by women who haven't been through what I experienced and perhaps I am more alert to the warning signs now. Perhaps the women reading this and loving Christian Grey are glossing over the stalker-tendencies and the emotional manipulation. But I can't. Because I do see those signs and I know where they lead.
They lead to a place where your self-worth is eroded through barbed comments. If I ate my dinner with any gusto, I would get "haha, you greedy fat bitch." And then a warm smile,because he couldn't possibly have MEANT it to upset me.
They lead to a place where everything you do is wrong. When we went to see a musical together at the theatre, I cried and reached out for his hand during an emotional moment, only to be told I had "fucking ruined the whole thing" by "being a spoilt little drama queen." He went on and on at me for so long after we had left the theatre that I actually ended up begging for forgiveness, in spite of having done nothing wrong.
They lead to a place where you can never win, because the rules constantly change. I wore a dress once and he told me I was so sexy he could barely keep his hands off me. The next time I wore it, he told me I looked like a slut and it was obvious I was only wearing it to seduce him and he found me "fucking disgusting."
They lead to a place where he controls everything. He would get me all worked up, then encourage me to satisfy his sexual needs before rolling over and going to sleep, warning me not to cuddle or touch him, because if I did, it was "clingy and horrible." I would go to sleep completely unsatisfied, but feeling as though I deserved to feel that way because I had done something horribly wrong to this poor man who had already suffered enough in his life, without having to deal with such a needy, unsympathetic bitch as me.
It was like living on a yoyo string. One minute he pulled me close, telling me loved me, that I had saved his life. The next, I'd receive a text about him sleeping with some random girl and he would expect me to listen "as a mate, because that's all you fucking are, why don't you understand, are you fucking stupid or something?!"
And why did I stay? Why did I put up with such abuse? Because I was manipulated into thinking I deserved it. That I WAS being clingy. That I was asking too much of him, that I didn't understand him and that I was treating HIM unfairly. Because he would beg me, whenever I said I had had enough, not to go, because he DID love me. Because he manipulated me into believing that if I played by his rules, if I did what he asked of me, eventually, we would be okay. We'd have the relationship I so desperately wanted from him. Because I believed - thanks to him - that it was entirely my fault that we didn't have it yet.
And how does the 50 Shades trilogy end? Ana's love "cures" Christian. He tells her he loves her and they get married and have children.
One of the biggest reasons women - and indeed men - stay in abusive relationships is because they believe that they will one day get that "happy ever after" moment. THIS is why these books are so utterly dangerous. Not only does EL James provide us with a manipulative, controlling and potentially violent man (I have no issue with BDSM, but in the first book alone, Christian mentions wanting to "beat" or "spank" Ana as punishment, rather than for sexual gratification on more than one occasion) and holds him up as some kind of romantic ideal, she also uses his own abusive past as an excuse for his abusive present. We are supposed to feel so sorry for Christian, so sad that he is "fifty shades of fucked up," that we conveniently overlook all the warning signs that prove that he is NOT a nice guy. And then to cap it all off? She suggests that with time and patience, Ana's love "fixes" him. Way to send out a positive message to women in abusive relationships, EL James. Congratulations.
Had I read this book whilst I was still with my ex, I might well have been tempted to stay for even longer than the 18+ months I did. Because whatever you say about fiction, it can and does influence real life.
Had I stayed with my ex any longer, I am not even sure I would be around now to GET so mad at EL James. I was suicidally depressed. I hated my "clingy," "slutty," "fat" self. I hated myself for not being able to "save" him. I hated myself for "abandoning" him. A couple of months before the end, I found myself outside my best friend's house in the early hours of the morning, practically lying in the street, howling hysterically because he had told me he was going on a date with another woman and would never, EVER love me. This is after telling me he loved me more than he had ever loved any woman, remember. This is after him begging me never to leave him, because I had changed his whole world. I was back on the yoyo string and not on the nice end. I was so rarely on the nice end...
Yet here is this best selling book, suggesting that if you stay with a man, even after you've tried to walk away, even when you have huge doubts about the kind of relationship he wants... Everything will be rosy in the end.
Do you want to know how my relationship ended? With him staring me in the eyes and admitting "of course I fucking used you. Of course I don't give a shit how much pain I've caused you. You deserve it, because you let me do it to you, because you're pathetic and weak."
I walked out of his house and resolved to seek help. I had counselling and now I am receiving help from a centre for abused women. It's only through that help that I am even able to admit that he abused me; I was so manipulated that for months after I finally walked away for good, I honestly believed I WAS at fault and that he had done no wrong. Everything that had happened, I had entirely brought on myself and I thoroughly deserved it for not being good enough to "fix" the situation.
And now, as I am finally beginning to recover and move forward, a book comes along. A book with a male character EXACTLY like my ex. A situation HORRIBLY similar and a girl equally as confused and unsure as I felt. And what does the writer do? She holds up this man as a romantic ideal and suggests that staying with an abusive man can magically cure him.
At the end of the first book in the trilogy, Ana leaves Christian. If you ask me, she should never have gone back. At least, had she walked away and stayed away, the writer might have correctly put across that a man who controls, manipulates, stalks, confuses and intimidates a woman is no hero. Instead, this book series is, in my eyes, at best offensive. At worst, downright dangerous in the way it glorifies abuse.
There DOES need to be a place in literature for abusive relationships to be shown. But they need to be shown for the hugely damaging, potentially life-destroying relationships that they are, not displayed as some kind of passionate example of what "real" love is. Real love involves respect, mutual equality and understanding. None of which is evident in an abusive relationship - they certainly weren't features of mine - and none of which is truly displayed in this book.
My recommendation, should anyone wish to read a book that describes an abusive relationship responsibly - ie truthfully, without glorification and with an ending appropriate to the situation - is Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, in which the abuser is painted as anything but a romantic hero. Abuse is not romantic and Christian Grey is no hero.
I would like to dedicate this blog post to my family for supporting me through my own experience, to my best friend Lydia, without whom I am not even sure I would have survived it, to my closest friends, the aforementioned Lydia, plus Kate, Kirstie and Lizzie, for always being there for me, to my amazing support worker, for the help she has given me so far and the help I know she will continue to give for as long as I need it and to every woman or man going through an abusive relationship. Please don't let this book hurt or upset you the way it has me. Please don't believe that you can "love someone better." Walk away and be the person you were born to be. Know that there are people out there who will understand and help you.
And to those who still think Christian Grey is the epitome of all that's hot, I beg you to re-read what I have written, because to all intents and purposes, I WAS in a relationship with Christian Grey, just without the whips and with a different name. And it wasn't hot. It was abuse.
If you want to read something sexy, cast your literary net a little wider. Besides, there's better erotica on the Internet. And most of it is better written, too.