Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Often, while reading a book that inspires conflicting feelings, I'll scurry off to Goodreads or (no, let's face it, and) Amazon, in addition to whatever other random reviews and blog posts I can find, to get an idea of other readers' perspectives. Almost as often, I will come away more disturbed than I was in the first place. Though there is no getting around the fact that I may take works of fiction a wee bit more personally than most, I've learned that if I have mixed feelings, other readers have also reacted strongly.

This is what happened as I read Lucy Christopher's Stolen. The more I read, the more suspicious I grew - where was this going, and were other people as uncomfortable with it as I was? In a word, no. Most readers seem to love it. This bothers me.

One might point out that I am not in the book's YA demographic, that perhaps I have no business at all reading such a book and judging it by adult standards. After all, how old is your average YA reader? 10? 12? Perhaps I'm out of touch, but the way I remember it, by high school you wouldn't be caught dead reading such a book. Would I watch Sesame Street and scoff at the rather basic lessons it teaches, smug in my ability to count to numbers so high the show does not even acknowledge their existence?

Nevertheless, while I'm not entirely clear on the author's intentions, I know for certain that many readers have fallen in love with Ty, Stolen's fictional kidnapper. Why? Because he's not like other kidnappers. He's hot. Call me a humorless, man-hating feminist, but I think a man who spots a ten-year-old girl in the park, spends the next six years alternately stalking her and building a desolate fortress in a harsh environment with the express intention of her having no chance of surviving an escape attempt, and finally drugging and abducting the object of his...um...affection, is a bad guy. Does it make me feel better about such a man if his victim's fears that he just might be a rapist hurt his feelings? Not really. In addition to their crushes on Ty, many of these readers react to his victim, Gemma, with a similar brand of envious disdain that inspired Chris Brown Can Beat Me tweets.

Initially, Gemma fights tooth and nail, and Ty ultimately tells her that if she wants to leave "I won't stop you. I'll only save you when you get lost." Which is exactly what happens. I harkened back to the first time I saw Disney's Beauty and the Beast as a teenager, and how incensed I was when, terrified by the Beast's behavior, Belle ran frantically from the castle and encountered a pack of wolves. The beast ran after her and saved her life, but it came at a cost. He suffered a thorn in his paw, which Belle helped him remove. As well she should have, because after all, his injury was all her fault.

Beast: [roaring] Aaargh! That hurts!
Belle: If you'd hold still, it wouldn't hurt as much!
Beast: Well if you hadn't have run away, this wouldn't have happened.
Belle: If you hadn't *frightened* me, I wouldn't have run away!

"If you hadn't frightened me, I wouldn't have run away!" I was much too old to shout at the screen in a movie theater. It was difficult, though, to restrain myself from yelling "What about, 'If you hadn't been holding me hostage, I wouldn't have run away?'"

Probably coincidentally (although I'm seeing many parallels, maybe it's deliberate?), SPOILER ALERT, a similar incident takes place at the end of Stolen. Gemma is bitten by a venomous snake, so Ty finally takes her off his compound to get help. Young readers seem to think Gemma should be grateful for this, when in reality it's the absolute least Ty could have done. Her being bitten by a snake was entirely his fault - as far as I know, there isn't much of a venomous snake population in London. So he "saved her life" by somewhat reluctantly agreeing to seek help, even though he knew it would mean being caught and held accountable for his crimes. Maybe he just didn't want to be a murder in addition to a kidnapper? As one reviewer wrote, "Thank fuck Gemma was kidnapped by such a gentleman!" 

Later, as Stockholm Syndrome set in, Belle sang:

"Truuuuuue, that he's no prince charming,
But there's something in him that I simply didn't seeeeee...." 

"You didn't see it," I told her, managing to say it through clenched teeth even though I was thinking rather than talking, "because he threw your dad in a dungeon, then let him go only if you would be his prisoner for the rest of your life." Belle "agreed" to this under such extreme duress, I'm not even sure it counts as agreeing. 

He had been unlawfully detaining her for months at that point, and I was angry at the implication that her initial distaste for him had been based on a shallow assessment of his appearance. It's not that I didn't like the movie - it was an animated musical, so I found it delightful. It just wasn't romantic, and it seemed to carry its own conspiracy of silence. Pointing out that any and all of their misfortunes and hard feelings were a direct result of Belle being a hostage was apparently below the belt, too petty and spiteful to say out loud. 

We're led to believe that both Ty and Beast are different from other kidnappers because their wretched past carried them on a natural path to their wretched present. As Christopher points out, "[i]t's hard to hate someone once you understand them." Fair enough. It's the same reason we don't like seeing pictures of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looking like a rock star on the cover of Rolling Stone. We'd rather think of him as a monster than someone we might actually want to get to know if we saw him on the street. We don't want to empathize with him even a little bit. But can you acknowledge the full scope of harm such a person has caused without hating them? I say you can.

Here's the thing. Everyone - literally every single person in the entire world, without exception - has good reasons for being who they are. So affording even a dangerous, violent criminal some compassion costs nothing, and can be done without shifting blame or responsibility, and without attempting to relieve them of even a little bit of the burden of the damage they have inflicted. Kidnapper Ty comes by his kidnapping ways organically, but he is still a kidnapper. 

Readers claim to empathize with Ty because they believe he cares about Gemma (who, not to put too fine a point on it, is his stalking and kidnapping victim). His insistence upon risking her life by drugging her, lack of regard for how she might feel at having her entire life taken from her, and lack of sympathy over the fact that all this would be terrifying to her are not, as a rule, considered acts of caring. Still, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and let him have it - she is extremely important to him, and he might honestly believe he loves her. In his way. The trouble is, his way is wrong. 

From a literary standpoint, I feel compelled to mention that I found both Gemma and Ty one dimensional and hard to relate to. I won't, however, assume that Christopher sees her book as a love story. Ty's semi-successful attempts to convince Gemma that he's the only one who really sees or cares about her, that he actually saved her from the life she was ultimately headed for (the way she was going, she was most likely going to end up a wealthy, attractive, highly educated London woman. Who wouldn't run screaming?), are classic manipulations, so the author could easily have intended them as such. The same goes for Gemma's Stockholm Syndrome. So I'm not criticizing her intentions, or the morality of what she's written. 

What I am trying to say is, 12-year-old girls? Kidnappers are not your friends. Even if they have pretty blue eyes and well developed abs. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing about this. I find it repulsive people found Ty romantic. I read this as a commentary on Stockholm's syndrome. It never occurred to me to consider Ty as a romantic gentleman. And I completely agree with you. Anyone who assaults/abuses you is a criminal. They are not a nice person no matter what anyone else says.