Sunday, April 17, 2011

My Squick Is Not Your Squick

Yesterday I read Brier's Bargain by Carol Lynne, and it kind of squicked me out.  You see, Brier was abused as a child, and brain damage from that abuse left him mentally handicapped.  His partner, Jackie, is of normal intelligence.

Brier is a sweet, caring person, and he's described as being high functioning.  He holds down a 40 hour a week job (although it's at a company where his twin brother is a long time employee, and it's not entirely clear what he does for those 40 hours), he gets his driver's license during the course of the story, and buys a car with his own money saved for the purpose.  But he's also described as being child-like and having problems controlling his temper (a not-uncommon problem for people who've had head injuries).

This book was actually kind of odd.  It's labeled as being the first book in the series, but it obviously picks up in the middle of the story.  After reading it I did a little research and discovered that Lynne changed publishers, and she had to change the name of the series, although it's a continuation of the old one.  As the story starts, Brier is going about his daily life and missing his lover, Jackie.  Jackie is on assignment in the Middle East.  Brier hasn't heard from Jackie in a while, and as a reader it's not clear if the relationship is real or if it's all in Brier's mind.  It turns out that Jackie was injured in an explosion, and everyone kept the news from Brier.

Jackie comes home missing part of his leg, and Brier settles in to take care of him.  At this point it's clear that there really is a relationship between the two men.  What's not clear is why.  We never get to see the falling in love portion of the relationship, even in flashback.  Why did Jackie, a man who's highly skilled and speaks at least two languages, fall in love with a man with the mind of a child, who at 35 is just learning to take care of himself?

There was more that left a bad taste in my mouth, like the fact that Brier was sexually abused while institutionalized.  It left me wondering if Brier really had the capacity to consent to a sexual relationship.  At one point Brier asks Jackie about sex with girls.  His only knowledge or experience of sex was with his abuser and then Jackie.  Can anyone really be gay or straight when they're so ignorant of their options?  I don't doubt that Brier loves Jackie.  But in a way it feels like a continuation of the abuse, not a choice freely made.  Would I feel differently if this was a straight relationship instead of a gay one?  I'd like to think not, but I might.  Would I feel differently if Brier was of normal intelligence?  Definitely.

My discomfort with this story has me thinking about disability and my attitude toward different types.  Brier has no problem with Jackie losing part of his leg.  It makes no difference at all in the way he feels about him.  He works hard to learn how to care for Jackie, because he doesn't want his lover to be in pain.  And yet it's a little creepy to me that Jackie takes the same attitude toward Brier and his disabilities.  People who are mentally handicapped are just as worthy of love as everyone else.  But it squicks me when that love comes from someone of normal intelligence.  It feels like the partner of normal intelligence is somehow taking advantage.  And in this situation Brier's history of abuse just increases that feeling.

Am I a terrible person for feeling this way?  I like to think that I believe that everyone is equal and deserves equal respect.  (Except, you know, for asshats who have personally shown that they don't deserve my respect.)  Does this squick come from a reasonable urge to protect someone who may not have the capacity to make the best decisions for themselves, or is my inner asshat showing?  I don't think any less of Jackie because of his physical disability, and would think quite a bit less of anyone who would hold it against him.

The choice of Brier as a romantic lead was a bold one.  I'm all for pushing boundaries and giving all kinds of people a voice in fiction.  But this one left me unsettled.

If anyone wants to check out the book in question, Brier's Bargain will be available tomorrow, Monday, for free from All Romance eBooks.  Or, you can weigh in now and tell me I'm an asshat.


  1. I think I'll pass on this one.

    Any reference to child abuse and particularly the type listed in this book squicks me out to no end. I would freak out/have nightmares/etc.

    While I applaud the choice to make Brier a romantic lead, I think it sounds like the relationship wasn't drawn deftly wnough to rule out exploitation. Maybe it's a problem of execution in this delicate subject?

    idk but it does NOT sound like anything I could read comfortably.

    It actually proves you're a kind and compassionate person to be troubled by the idea that Brier is being taken advantage of!

  2. No, I don't think you're guilty of asshattery here. I can't really say for certain, because I haven't read it, but I think I'd probably have the same reaction.

  3. Anonymous10:30 PM

    I am, sometimes yes, I admit it, an asshat (of sorts) sorry. I judge. In this case, I don't think that you are being one at all though. I'm with you here, all for everyone and anyone being portrayed in fiction, it needs to be done. This was just not done well, it sounds like. Especially, as you say, this is only Brier's second relationship, and the first one doesn't actually count. Ick. You have done us a service by going where many of us could/would not.

    You are brave and open-minded, no asshattery in evidence on your part.

  4. Well, I didn't go into this planning to take one for the team, LOL! I had heard that Lynne was a seriously under-read and underrated m/m writer, so I decided to check her out. There was nothing in the blurb I read to suggest that Brier had this issue. So it was a total surprise to me. I think maybe if I'd known what I was getting into I would have been prepared and maybe less squicked out. But more likely I think I just wouldn't have bought the book in the first place.

    I've now read the second and third book in this series also (they're short), and I think this author just isn't for me. Book two raised some similar issues for me, with one of the heroes having serious abuse (I mean BAD) in his immediate past. (And by "immediate past" I mean like three weeks ago.)

    The relationship went from zero to "I love you" over the course of a long weekend. The younger, abused hero hadn't experienced a brain injury like Brier did, but he was traumatized, under active threat by a real sick puppy, and had never witnessed or been part of any healthy, loving relationship. And this character has a history of suicide attempts in his teens, which isn't that far back when you consider that he's in his mid-twenties now. I know that heightened emotions are a staple of romantic suspense, but everything that Jared had been put through made the rush to love and commitment suspicious and unlikely.

    The third book featured two heroes who were physically and emotionally healthy for the most part. Or, you know, as healthy as any of us are. This one was a much more satisfying read, although still too short.

    I've got one more of Ms Lynne's books in the TBR file. I'll probably read that one but no more by the author.

  5. This makes me think of two things.

    An example of a romance between someone mentally challenged, and someone not, that was sensitively handled, is Colleen McCullough's Tim. It's very sweet. You could make that a gay romance and it would still be sweet. (Though it wouldn't work cause the family would never support it. But you get my drift.)

    The Brier character also sounds a lot like the character of Cyril in the show Oz, except that he wasn't gay. Highly functioning, with a brother, sexually abused, childlike with capacity for great temper. Played by a very hot actor. So I can kind of see an author wanting to take a character like that and see if they can make a good romance out of it, gay or otherwise (and Oz also had a very hot gay romance in it). So I guess... I could see how this book might come about.

    But it sounds like the ick-factor fail should lie at the feet of the author, not you. I would absolutely need to be shown the two of them falling in love--I'd have to understand how this came about, to feel comfortable. She took on a lot of sensitive issues for one book!

  6. Interesting. I'll have to see if I can get a hold of a copy of Tim. As a side note, McCullough also wrote The Ladies of Missalonghi, which is a total rip-off of one of my favorite books ever-- The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery.


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