Let's start with giving credit where credit is due. Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews wrote a review recently about Victoria Dahl's latest book, Lead Me On. I have not yet read Lead Me On, but I have met the heroine in an earlier Dahl book, Start Me Up. She's Jane Morgan, a seemingly composed administrative assistant in the SMU hero's architecture firm. I gather we learn a lot more about Jane's backstory in LMO, including her childhood in a trailer park. A large part of the character arc for Jane is getting past her own feelings about, and reactions to, her childhood. (Again, my apologies if I've misstated anything about LMO, I'm truly inferring this from Jessica's review, as well as reviews I've read elsewhere.)
I'm going to try to do justice to the nuanced perspective Jessica -- a professional philosopher (not to be confused with an "armchair philosopher" although I suspect Jessica wouldn't turn down an "endowed chair" if offered...) -- brought to this book. She reflects in her review on the role of socio-economic assumptions and prejudices in romance novels, noting that most romances are written with a middle-class perspective on the poor and the wealthy. She says,
In the US, the phrase “trailer trash” [is supposed to] say so much more about a person than how much money they have: it’s a catch all for a lot of classist moralistic judgments about the supposed sexuality or other morally significant, and blameworthy, practices of the poor (such as, paradoxically, wastefulness with money — especially the state’s money, theft, vice, etc.).Well, this got me thinking, and I commented at length at Racy Romance Reviews, but I want to spend a bit more time with this topic.
If you want the short form, it might go like this: Poor people are individuals and behave as differently from each other as they do from those in other socio-economic strata. If there's a common feature that I've observed, it's that the poor more often believe they have few or no options. Without options, they don't feel they have choices, and without the feeling that they have choices, they can't or don't feel empowered in their own lives. And without the feeling of empowerment, there is less personal responsibility and no pride in their own accomplishments. But all of these things happen in middle-class and wealthy families as well, just less frequently. Money doesn't solve problems, but it can fund some options and opportunities, and so more middle-class people can perhaps afford to solve their own problems sooner. And anyone, from any walk of life, can grow up to feel irrationally trapped by a "destiny" shaped by a powerless childhood.
But that's just words, and I like examples. So, with all identifying information removed, and certainly all privileged conversation kept privileged, I would like to tell you about three women I've encountered in my brief career as a court-appointed lawyer in a poor rural county.
I'll call the first one Agnes. She was in her 40s and had three children; one lived with his father in another state. Agnes struck me from the first as strong-willed and intelligent, but also very brittle and scared underneath her ferocity. I wasn't her favorite person from the get-go and it took a lot of work to get her to trust me even a tiny bit. She didn't drink or do drugs, and she had never been promiscuous. She was just really angry. In the end, I learned she was in an abusive relationship with the father of her youngest child, a girl. He had been charged with molesting his older daughter (by another woman) but was out on bail. His family had sufficient money to pay for his lawyer; they believed his protestations of innocence.
So why didn't Agnes kick the son of a bitch to the curb? Because she was living in his house, had lost her job, was depressed, and felt she had nowhere to go. When Agnes got depressed, the local child welfare agency took Agnes's daughter away and placed her in her paternal grandparents' house despite the fact the agency believed the father to be capable of molesting young girls. (They accepted the grandparents' insistence that their son was only in the house under supervision, but what's that insistence worth when the grandparents didn't believe him guilty?) (But just to be clear, I never saw or heard any evidence to suggest Agnes's daughter was ever molested.)
It's had a happy(ish) ending: Agnes got her daughter back, the father pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and went to jail, and Agnes moved in with a friend (but not previously her lover) with teenagers of his own and a more stable housing situation. Don't think I had anything to do with this; my principal role was to stop Agnes from yelling at various officials in open court.
I liked Agnes, and I wished she'd gotten more education; she's smart. But of course, I was judging her by my middle-class assumptions about what smart women can and should be doing. That just wasn't her perspective. She felt powerless when she was financially dependent and emotional abused by her partner. The transition to a more autonomous life was not easy. We can say, "Just move out," but it's rarely that easy, and even when it is, I suspect it doesn't feel that easy.
So -- back to romance fiction. Imagine Agnes's daughter grown up as a heroine. Maybe -- and I'm talking fiction here -- that heroine would have some anxiety about certain men. Maybe she'd only date beta guys (or even gamma guys!) as a reaction to the relationship she saw acted out between her father and her mother. Maybe she'd have trouble seeing the distinction between a powerful but respectful man and a controlling, manipulative man. Maybe that would be a real barrier to her romance with the hero. Maybe she'd have to see that she wasn't destined to relive her mother's situation (smart and strong, but primarily trapped by her own belief that there's no place to escape to) but could love and trust someone who really was different from her dad.
And the "trailer trash" portion of this story? Well the grandparents were comfortably well-off, the son had had a decent blue-collar job until his arrest, and when I met them, he and Agnes lived in a nice but run-down frame house in town. Agnes and her new partner live in a trailer, but sources tell me that it's a loving home with good values. So it's in the trailer that our heroine may just be learning new lessons about who her mother is, and thus who she may herself become.
My second example is Mirella. I met Mirella just minutes before a court hearing about whether her daughter should be removed by the child welfare agency because of her parents' drinking. Who ratted my client out? Her dad, a self-confessed active alcoholic, who drank throughout my client's childhood. You know, sometimes the obvious explanation is really obvious: Mirella's partner (and the father of the toddler the agency wanted in foster care) was a carbon copy of Mirella's dad with one important difference: Partner loved her very much and was emotionally more available to Mirella than her Dad had ever been. But Partner was an active alcoholic just like Dad; they even looked a lot alike.
Mirella had a very passive demeanor, soft-spoken and a bit downtrodden. She and Partner lived in a trailer (there are a lot of them where I live) that was scrupulously clean. (One of my efforts was to get Mirella a job cleaning houses; she'd have been great.) Although we prevailed in that first court hearing, a few months later she had a baby boy and the court ruled both infant son and toddler daughter should be in foster care. I think it was the wrong decision, but there was clearly no point appealing while Mirella and her partner were drinking. Mirella was not, I believed, an alcoholic but was enmeshed, co-dependent and enabling. Which is addiction-babble for: she was willing to drink with the Partner and wasn't willing to leave the Partner or kick him to the curb if he drank.
One way to look at this case (which is still going on, although I'm not Mirella's lawyer anymore) is that Mirella will lose her children because of the Recession. Last fall, she and Partner were sober for a good bit of time, and he was willing to go into inpatient rehab. If he had, she'd have stayed sober herself. But state budget cuts took away the disability coverage he would have needed, and he was told no inpatient slot was available, and started drinking again, which meant my client started drinking again. Another way to look at this case is that Mirella never woke up and thought, "I have to leave him even though I love him and need him. I'll never get my kids back if I don't."
I doubt this case will have a happy ending. Mirella seemed to think she was in a closed box, and no matter how close I (or anyone) set the bread crumbs leading out of the maze, and no matter how great the risk to her if she didn't try, she just couldn't see the exit. Or she saw it and didn't want to go. (And she was an awesome mother. No, really. Even the child welfare people admitted, under oath, that the children were clean, happy, well-fed, and not neglected, abused or exploited. No, this case wasn't "Let's take the kids because they ARE being mistreated," this was "Let's take the kids because they might end up being mistreated." I was never convinced the law allowed them to do that, but again, it wasn't likely to be overturned on appeal.)
If a heroine had this backstory, she'd need a backbone transplant stat! In fact, wouldn't a fictional version of Mirella seem disqualified as a potential heroine? Because, although it's super easy to see why she's making the bad choices she is or failing to make the good choices she should, we still think she should be stronger. She should see that she's going to lose her kids if she doesn't wake up and smell the toast -- as though that can be accomplished by sheer will. Me? I'd disqualify such a heroine on the grounds that, at this point, a major epiphany and course change would seem implausible. In real life, I continue to hope, because I really like Mirella-the-mom and wish Mirella-the-unloved-teenager would get out of Mirella-the-mom's way.
But this is another example of an adult recreating her childhood experience but insisting on one key difference: she picked a guy who really loved her where her dad had not. Dad valued Mirella as a caretaker, though, so she's a great caretaker today. She just can't give up Partner's love even though it comes with an addiction so severe they will lose their kids. Is she weak? or is she too scarred?
Final case: Susannah. Not a client of mine, but a woman in a case where I was representing a different party. Susannah has a made-for-TV-movie backstory. When she was a child, some babysitter molested her and when she told her mother about the abuse, her mother didn't believe her as the babysitter was a family friend and close to mom. Very bad, and we have a lot of sympathy for Susannah the child. As an adult, Susannah is seriously narcissistic -- and I mean that in the criminally self-absorbed sense, not the joking, "Enough about me, what do you think of my dress?" sense.
Susannah married her high school sweetheart and they had three boys. When the last baby was very little, someone -- no one ever copped to this -- hurt him. (Here's what I learned: injuries to infants are very subtle; X-rays are necessary even to show fractures.) All three boys went into foster care, where they stayed for years (literally) before I had anything to do with the case. When I got involved, the child welfare agency was trying to terminate Susannah & Father's parental rights so the three boys could be adopted.
I'll skip to the result: youngest boy has been adopted by very loving foster family who had cared for him since his infancy; he'll be five this year, I think. The two older boys have been placed with Susannah's parents (who are younger than I am -- maybe just about 50). But Susannah is still a problem. She feels entitled to her parents' attention, and even competes with her own sons to get it.
Susannah's parents are solidly middle-class. They both work decent jobs at a local health care facility. They own their own home. Susannah is employed, although her husband (they're on-again, off-again) is less consistently employed. No suggestion of drug use or alcohol dependency. Susannah is a shopaholic, but then a lot of people are.
But if you had been in the courtroom for the testimony I heard, you wouldn't have let Susannah (or her husband) within a country mile of these kids. For whatever reason, Susannah lacks self-awareness of her actions and their effect on her children. She just felt entitled to be the center of attention and was willing to do anything, make any scene necessary, to get that attention.
I feel pretty strongly about this woman that she needs to be slapped across the face with the reality fish. Sure what happened to her was horrible. Her family seems to have been pretty dysfunctional throughout her childhood. But that excuses none of what her anger and neediness has done to her sons. She had a duty to get her head out of her butt when she had kids. Her older sons are going to be picking up the tab for her arrogance and stubbornness for years to come.
And if one of the older boys grew up to be a romance hero, he'd have some heavy lifting to do before he could be trusted to love the heroine appropriately. He's not seen a lot of examples of healthy romantic relationships (his foster parents were very good, but even three years of good foster care after five living with Susannah's rage isn't enough to turn the tide), so he'd have to figure that out and learn that stuff some other way.
So: three women. One who had a hard time seeing her way out of an abusive relationship but made it; one who hasn't yet seen a way out of her dysfunctional relationship, despite the very real danger she'll lose her children; and one who simply doesn't care that she's a bad mother. Funny thing is, I saw a lot I admired in both of my "trailer trash" clients, but the middle class mom? Not so much.
Just to make it clear, I had other clients I didn't admire much, and some I liked but couldn't help. My dream client was one who was exemplary in making the right choices and has turned her entire life around. In her case, her parental rights were terminated even after three courts, five briefs, and a state Supreme Court case perfectly in her favor because -- I believe -- opposing counsel had more political clout in this state than I did. That was my last case; I resigned after that. I was willing to represent powerless women, but when the judiciary treats me as powerless simply because I no longer work for the number two firm in Philadelphia, I'm not willing to be a lawyer anymore. It was my choice to exercise my option to decide for myself how I will and won't be treated. But keep in mind I could, literally, afford that choice, and in that regard I know I'm very lucky.