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.