They are the bane of your existence and you hate them. They burned your kingdom, massacred your family, and left your life in shambles. To make matters worse, they torture you daily with what they’ve done and how powerless you were to prevent it. Day in and day out, they come to you in your cell, whispering about how you are nothing more than a tool, a plaything to be used for their entertainment. Hour after hour, second after second, you spend all of your mental energy thinking of ways to make them pay and finally, you have a plan. Murder. It’s the only answer and you don’t shy away from the messiness of it. You just need your chance to carry it out.
One night, they come to your cell at an hour you don’t expect. Their eyes are tired and face long, despite an obvious effort to hide both. There is a faint smell to them, not off putting, but it still fills you with dread. They’ve been drinking. Cruel without provocation already, you shudder to think of what they might be capable of once under the power of inebriation. There are no guards with them, no witnesses to whatever depravity they are about to put you through. You brace yourself against the back wall of your cell, readying for the moment when they open the bars. Today is the day it all ends. Today, you will kill them and escape. But, something happens that you hadn’t counted on. Instead of walking into your cell, they sit down, just outside of its bars. The smell of fermented berries wafts off them, hitting your nostrils even at the back of your human sized cage. The faint light from the candle they brought along frames their face, giving them a look of eerie beauty.
“I never meant to do it,” they say in a low yet mournful voice.
“What,” you venture.
“I never… I never meant to hurt you, or your people, or your family. I never meant for things to go this far. My mother, tyrant that she is, is always forcing me to do her bidding. She wants me to be just like her, evil and cold, heartless and unwilling to yield, even to decency. I never wanted to kill your people or anyone for that matter, but she made me.” Bile rises in your throat as you listen to their either needless lies, or pathetic excuses.
“No one can make a person be so cruel,” you spit out, readying yourself to strike. “No good person, no decent person, could have ever done what you did.”
“Decent,” they chuckle ruefully, before taking a sip of whatever sweet smelling liquid they brought along for the midnight confession. “I suppose there was a time when I was decent. But that’s long gone.” There’s almost a tinge of sorrow to their voice and you inch closer to your cell bars, unsure of what you’re hearing. “My mother beat and starved that out of me years ago.” They stand and you flinch, mentally preparing yourself for when they open the cell door. But instead, they begin to unbutton their shirt slowly and although the act of it intrigues you, you remain tense, not sure what their next action will be. Then, they turn and you gasp in shock. Their exposed back is lined with deep, fresh, cuts and welts in different stages of healing. Some seem as though they may have just stopped bleeding within hours of their visit to you. A lump grows in your throat.
“Who,” is all you’re able to croak out and when they turn back around to face you, you can see the faint sheen of un-shed tears in their eyes.
“I told my mother that I didn’t think it right to lay siege to your kingdom and this was her response. I spent weeks in the same cell as you, except without proper food and toileting. She took particular pleasure in stringing me up against the bars right over there.” They point to a set of bars at the far side of your cell and you see a pair of leather straps still hanging. “She’d lash and cut into me, all the while admonishing that a good leader does what’s necessary and that if I wasn’t willing to hurt others, then I’d feel the pain meant for them. When that didn’t work, she finally used the only thing that she could against me. She had my little sister, her own daughter, brought in here. She’s never harmed my sister, she’s treated like the little princess that she is. Larsa walked into my cell but before she could run to me, our mother stripped her down, strapped her against the bars and took out her favorite whip. I tried to get to her but my mother’s guards held me back. I begged her not to do it, told her that I would do anything, but she just smiled and began lashing my sister anyway.”
They took another swig. “She tore into the girl for no other reason than to hurt me. I can still hear Larsa’s screams,” they pause and chuckle sadly again, “and those of my own as our mother tore into her. By the time she was done, before she was done actually, the moment she brought my sister in, I was broken. She just wanted to hear it in my voice, to see it in my face. Larsa was taken away to the medics, barely alive and I went directly to the barracks to rally the troops. Within two hours, we were on our way to your kingdom and within a day, your family was dead and I was bringing you back as spoil for my mother.”
They lean against the bars, their dark eyes burrowing into yours. You’re not sure what you see in them, but you know it’s not something you have the will to kill anymore. You’re whole family died at their hands and your kingdom burned at their order. But you can no longer bring yourself to hate them after hearing how wicked their mother is to them and seeing the evidence of it before you. “I’m sorry,” they say before opening the cell door wide and sliding a dagger over to you. “I won’t do her bidding anymore.” They spread their arms and hold their head up high, exposing to you their neck and heart, along with a plethora of other vital organs. “Do it,” they say, a sad smile playing on lips that you hadn’t notice until now are so full and inviting. “You know you want to. I want to, but my suicide wouldn’t hurt her as much as my murder at the hands of her trophy prisoner.” You hesitate so they goad you on further. “You deserve this, I took everything from you and with me dead, you can escape. There are rebels to the North. Join them, rise up, dethrone my mother and take back what’s rightfully yours.”
You crouch down to pick up the dagger and relief floods their face. They close their eyes, readying themselves to receive your killing blow. But then, you do something that neither of you anticipated. Quickly loosening the rope around your waist that you’d fashioned into a belt, you throw your shoulder into them, knocking them off balance. You couldn’t take on their entire army, but you are more than a match for them alone, especially in their drunken state. Off guard and slow to fight back, you easily over come them, tying up their hands in the process. A fire burns in their eyes, a fire like that of the queen that called down evil upon your people a few short days ago. But you know that her spirit of wickedness is not a part of them and their kind soul is buried beneath her evil trappings. You stare into their eyes for a few moments, neither of you looking away until finally, you lean forward. Your lips meet theirs and they are just as soft and warm as you imagined only moments earlier. They are startled by the kiss but they don’t fight it. Instead, your enemy leans into your surprise affection as though it is the only one that they’ve ever received and would die of loss if it ended. When you finally pull away, they are breathless, eyes glazed over with a need you have no time to indulge.
“I don’t need your death to escape,” you say as you stand, “I will find the rebels on my own and then I will make your mother pay for what she’s done to my people. And if you stand with her when I return, I will make you pay with her.”
“I look forward to it,” they mouthed but you don’t have time to care. You run, using the lateness of the hour to your advantage. As you escape into the woods under the cover of night, you look back at the castle, your eyes focusing on where you imagine the dungeon you where kept in was and your heart leaps and sinks at the same time. Will you ever see them again? You don’t know but one thing is certain, you’re body will be back for vengeance, yet your confused and battered heart will never leave.
Although the above scenario is completely fictitious and taken from no other mind than my own, it reads like a page from a YA (Young Adult) novel, stylized after the Enemies to Lovers troupe. This is an extreme example, the more tame version being Rivals to Lovers, but the course is still the same. Protagonist meets Antagonist, they clash, they find commonality (generally through joint or shared suffering) and then they fall head over heels in love. Sounds romantic doesn’t it? And in small spurts, this troupe is relatively harmless. But just like eating decadent treats everyday, too much of this troupe can be harmful. Why? Let’s explore.
Whether you believe in evolution or God given traits for survival, one thing we can all agree on is the ingrained need for self preservation. Under extreme circumstances, the human mind will put up with and allow for things that would normally not be tolerated. Close quarters and tense situations can make for poor decisions and ill fated relationships. That seems normal enough, but when coupled with the idea that someone who hurts you deeply and repeatedly, could somehow also be seriously considered for life partner status, there is a problem.
Abusive behavior should not be romanticized or excused due to the prior trauma inflicted on the abuser. Enabling isn’t cute, it’s dangerous. But the questions arise, how much abuse is too much to take? And how much abuse must the abuser have taken in order for the torment that they cause to be excused?
You may now be saying, “Tin, what about forgiveness? What about redemption?” Well, you’d be right to bring up both of these questions. Forgiveness is the corner stone of any great civilization, and surely it is important to know that every soul can be redeemed. Here’s where the issue reasserts itself. An aggressor doesn’t deserve the gift of another’s heart just because they’ve chosen to be a better person. It is entirely possible to forgive someone without creating a romantic relationship with them. You are not required to taint your soul in order to cleanse that of another.
Romanticizing those who abuse others and then excusing said abuse because they were hurt in the past, sets a dangerous precedent for younger readers. If this troupe was more commonly used in adult fiction, its impact would probably be understated. But the fact that it finds itself in Young Adult literature geared towards adolescents and teens, is alarming. Could the Heroine falling in love with the Villain just because he’s cute and sometimes nice, but also harms and demeans her, influence younger readers to tolerate such abuse in their personal lives? Maybe. Maybe not. Just like arsenic, the poison itself isn’t as important as the dosage in which it is taken. Going forward, it remains the responsibility of all of us to not only monitor what we read but how much of what troupes we take in.