In the 1932 film adaptation of the 1922 British play A Bill of Divorcement, Katharine Hepburn (in her film debut) plays a woman on the verge of marriage. That is, until her father, who has been incarcerated in a mental institution for the past twenty years, shows up on her doorstep. Hepburn's character, Sydney Fairfield, had been told by her family that her father's mental illness was the result of shell shock he suffered during his military service in World War I. But her father's escape from the asylum brings the truth to light: Mr. Fairfield suffers from an inherited mental illness, an illness to which previous generations of Fairfields have also succumbed. And which Sydney—and Sydney's future children—may also someday face.
Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore as daughter and father
In good 1930s melodrama form, the selfless Sydney gives up her fiancé and offers to live with and care for her mentally ill father. There is no romantic ending here—unless one considers refusing to give birth to potentially "abnormal" children, and self-sacrificing one's own romantic future to care for a parent, a satisfying happily ever after (as, apparently, did the reviewer for the New York Times, which deemed the "closing scene" "splendid"). Even though there is no way to know for certain that she will inherit her father's illness, Sydney refuses to gamble, refuses take a chance on love.
Today, with the advent of genetic testing for many inherited health issues, it's possible (at least for those with insurance that will cover it) to be tested and find out far more precisely just what the odds are that one will suffer from, or be a genetic carrier of, certain diseases. How has such technology, and the scientific advances that have accompanied it, affected the world of romance?
Sonali Dev's A Bollywood Bride and Kelly Hunter's Pursued by the Rogue both are built upon fear-of-inheriting-a-parent's-illness plotlines. For the heroine of Hunter's contemporary romance novella, Dawn Turner, genetic testing would reveal a definite "yes or no." With a father who suffers from Huntington disease, Dawn has either inherited the faulty HTT gene that causes the progressive brain disorder or hasn't. Dawn has spent her professional life researching technology related to gene mapping, but has not wanted to find out her own HTT status. Dawn has told herself that when she turns thirty, she'll get tested; since the onset of Huntington disease in adults typically does not occur until one's thirties or forties, knowing that she's a positive before then will only place a too-heavy emotional burden on her already difficult life.
For Dev's heroine, Ria Parkar, the situation is more complicated. Her mother's mental illness is never named beyond the general label "psychosis" ("a break from reality, often involving seeing hearing and believing things that aren't real," NAMI), but most mental illnesses that manifest psychotic behavior are not caused by a mutation in one single gene. As a study published last year in Nature revealed, scientists have "identified 128 gene variants associated with schizophrenia, in 108 distinct locations in the human genome." Genetic counselors and doctors can guesstimate Ria's inheritance risk ("Genetically the doctors had pinned Ria's chances at thirty-five percent" [Loc 872]), but Ria, unlike Dawn, cannot be tested and know for certain. And since Ria is a major Bollywood film star, she's kept the secret of her mother's illness—and her own potential genetic carrier status—deeply hidden.
To know or not to know; or to know but to not be certain—these are the "numbers games" that both Ria and Dawn are forced to play as they confront not only their own futures, but the futures of the men they love. Both heroines, intriguingly, have more in common than just a parent with an inheritable illness. Both have suffered early traumas, some as a result of their parent's illness, others unrelated, traumas that influence how they view relationships. Both fear that they are starting to show symptoms of inheriting their parent's illness. Both fell early and deeply for young men during their adolescences, young men who, for various reasons, they were forced to leave behind. And now, both are forced to confront those first loves again, as they struggle to come to terms with their relationships with their parents, their potential future health problems, and the scars and pain that their past and present traumas have dealt them.
The one major difference between the two books is in their choice of point of view. Both use third person, but Rogue uses a dual POV, while Bride focalizes the story entirely through Ria's eyes. Both choices work beautifully to highlight each book's larger themes. The dual viewpoint in Rogue shows how not knowing her HTT status has served not to free Dawn from pain, but to isolate her from emotional connection, the kind of connection that we see and value in the viewpoint of Dawn's first love and current friends-with-benefits guy Finn, the youngest boy in a large, close-knit Irish family. And using third person single POV allows Dev to create an at times almost detached, even dream-like narrative, one which if it were in the first person we might fear was the result of pending psychosis or mental illness in Ria. Instead, third person creates just enough of a sense of distance to make us unsure, wondering whether we are reading about a woman still haunted by past trauma, or one on the verge of mental breakdown in the present.
Since these are both romance novels, you'll probably have guessed that neither ends with the melancholy but noble self-sacrifice required of Katharine Hepburn's Sydney. In fact, both insist that self-sacrifice is in many ways the coward's way out, a way of running away from confronting and accepting the fears that genetic illnesses force us to confront, whether we are romantically partnered or no.
Can you think of other romances in which the possibility of negative genetic inheritance plays a role in a romantic relationship?
It seems almost impossible to imagine that fewer than four years lie between the repeal of the American military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the U. S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Until September 20th of 2011, gays and lesbians who disclosed their sexual orientations could be discharged from service for creating "an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order, and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability" (10 U. S. C. 654(b)). But by June 26, 2015, gay personnel were not only free to talk about their sexual partners, they were also guaranteed the right to marry them.
Given the short span of time the American military has had to adjust to such a head-spinning change, it should be no surprise that military culture does not often provide support to or even tolerance of its homosexual members. Particularly if those members are women. Just by being women, lesbians challenge the traditionally male-centric culture of the military. And by refusing to desire the men who embrace that male-centric culture, lesbians in the services are doubly "tainted." As naval police officer Kim Lockhoff explains to her partner about her former posting:
"I was . . . I didn't party with the guys, that's for sure. I pretty much kept my head down. When a guy came on to me, I tried to be polite about not being interested, but somehow that got turned into me being a cold fish . . . . One of the guys spent half the Naval Ball hitting on me. When I turned him down for the hundredth time that night, he went and told the others he couldn't get through the razor wire in Lockhoff's pants." She laughed bitterly. "And the [nick]name stuck" (58).
To Kim, "Razor Wire" is more than just a disrespectful moniker. It's a potential threat: "A few times, I overheard guys in my command saying I just needed a dick to pound some sense into me so I'd stop being such a bitch" (59). And so when she is posted to Okinawa, Kim decides to present herself entirely differently, a friendly, hard-drinking party girl. But this self-presentation doesn't mitigate the problem:
"I tried to be what I thought they wanted girls in the Navy to be, and . . . It's like, now that they think I'm a slut, they're offended as hell if I reject them. All the guys at my last command thought I was a bitch for shutting them all out. All the guys here think I'm a bitch because they think I'm sleeping with everyone but them" (61).
Given Kim's reputation as a "whore," it's little wonder that she's more than a little reluctant to report a sexual assault she experienced. Add the fact that her attacker is a respected superior officer, and reluctance turns to outright rejection.
Readers might expect that a fellow woman serving in the naval police might have more sympathy. But when Kim turns to Reese Marion for advice, she's hurt, but not all that surprised, to find that culture trumps gender. Reese has already formed an opinion about Kim Lockhoff, and it's not a flattering one:
Alejandro always thought it was entertaining as hell, watching me straighten out girls who had no business in the Navy, never mind as cops. Especially when the girl in question was a vapid twit like MA3 Lockhoff. The kind who used her pretty little smile and her petty not-so-little tits to bend every man on the island to her cute little will. MA3 Lockhoff was one of the reasons we got emails before every formal event reminding the female service members to please not dress like whores this time. Women like her drove me insane, and Alejandro lived to watch them do it. (10)
As Reese has learned over her years in the navy, "fitting in with these guys was the safest approach. If they're being crass, be crasser. If they're drunk, get drunker. If they think a girl's a slut, declare her a whore with a pussy like a wizard's sleeve" (45). Even if you're nauseated by the sexist motto espoused by many of those same guys, that "you can't rape the willing," it's almost impossible not to let the assumptions behind it infiltrate into your own unconsciousness, to automatically assume that any woman who makes an accusation of rape must be lying.
Even, horrifyingly, when you've experienced sexual assault yourself.
Only when Reece forces herself to step back from her own preconceived judgments, and truly listen to what Kim has to say, can the two women take the first tentative steps toward friendship. And then toward something even stronger. . .
A former high school teacher of mine often argued that you "can't legislate morality," a contention I frequently challenged with no little vehemence. As the Supreme Court's decision this June shows, you can legislate morality. Culture, though, may take a little more time to catch up.