Stockhome Syndrome? What’s that?

Title: Devil in Disguise
Author: Jessica Steele
Harlequin Romance
Published: August 1981

Reasons I might actually remember this one: I don’t know if I’m just having a streak of fantastically bad luck, or if vintage romance novels really do use rape in their plots so frequently that it’s not unusual to grab two at random and get back-to-back nightmares of sexual coersion. But whatever the reason, this one was as disturbing and anxiety-inducing a read as the last one.
I want to be fair here. There were parts of this book I really liked. The heroine, still living at home at nineteen (and neither employed nor in school), had a sort of idyllic family life, with doting parents and two older brothers. Granted they were the teensiest bit smothery, on account of her Traumatic Background Event, but honestly I would rather have been at home myself at nineteen so I felt pangs of envy.

The hero, if you can overlook his one enormous flaw, was broody and inscrutable but also tender, considerate, and given to muttering Endearments in a Foreign language. Those are all things I like.

But then, getting to that enormous flaw, there’s the bit where he kidnaps her. See, he thinks one of her adoring brothers has seduced his sister. So in revenge, he’s kidnapped the heroine (he lied to her, making her think her brother had been injured, and whisked her off to Greece) and intends that she “suffer the same fate” (his words, not mine) that his sister suffered. If the heroine doesn’t come “voluntarily” to his bed, he’ll have her brother killed or maimed (he’s holding the brother captive on an island).

So…yeah. “Voluntarily.” He actually explicitly states that this isn’t rape, and that he won’t rape her, and I have a sickening feeling that possibly the law would have been on his side on that one. But the thing that pushes this book over into nightmare territory, and had me reading it with a clenched stomach, is that the heroine’s Traumatic Background Event was a stranger beating her up and trying to rape her when she was fourteen. So she’s not, you know, indignant and angry: she’s terrified, shaking, and sick at the thought of any sex. She has night terrors in which she relieves the attack. She suffered trauma-induced mutism for a year after the attack. Even non-kidnap-y consensual sex has been completely off the table for her, and now this.

I’m sorry. I know it was written in a different era, and the past is another country and all that, but it was impossible for me to get past my own horror and relax into this story. At all.

Now, I remember once reading somewhere that one possible function of rape in romance narratives is that they, in a sense, reassure the reader, or at least give the reader a non-brain-exploding way of thinking about rape, because of course in the romance novel the rape victim emerges triumphant: the rapist loves her, so she has power over him, and instead of being shunned or blamed or discarded she achieves social status and what-have-you. It’s one of those theories that I find intriguing, but have never been entirely convinced by. But I have to say, in fairness to this book and this author: this book, more than any romance novel I can remember reading, does lend a certain credence to that idea.

The heroine at the outset is still deeply traumatized by her attack, and sees herself as weak and cowardly and “nothing.” By the end of the book, the hero has been brought to the point of confessing his love for her, asking her to marry him, apologizing to her and to her brother, and admitting his sister was lying all along; the heroine, in pointed contrast, is buying new clothes, trying a couple of casual dates with her brother’s friend, no longer having nightmares or sleeping with the door open, and is newly aware that she has sexual desires (not that she ever uses the word sexual even in internal monologues) and has not had that ruined for her forever.

So in a sense, the book shows you a young woman falling in love and that being a healing experience for her, and that’s great. I would just have been a hell of a lot more comfortable if it had all come about throug their being snowed in at a cabin or something, rather than his being a kidnapper and revenge-seducer.

Active Ingredients:
Virgin Heroine
Greek Billionaire
Traumatic Background Event
Kindly Servants
Endearments in a Foreign Language
Seduction as Revenge
Hero Insults Heroine by Refusing to Believe she is a Virgin


One thought on “Stockhome Syndrome? What’s that?

  1. Yuck. That's all I can say. Yuck. It's amazing that our society – then and still – encourages this kind of passive bullshit as being appropriate – nay, laudatory – for women. That's some kind of fucked up. Not to mention the fact that, had she actually been kidnapped by this jackwagon, the last thing she'd feel is grateful – traumatized (again) and emotionally crippled for life, yeah. I bet that's not in the book.

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