My book club, mostly women with kids in high school and college, picked Fifty Shades of Grey for this month’s book. It was with a wink and a nudge, based on the titillating reviews we’d heard about this “instant” soft-porn international bestseller. I read it, and I have to say it is the most disturbing book I’ve read in a long time.
Much has been said about its lack of literary quality, and I agree the writing is mediocre at best. What I found unsettling, though, is author E. L. James’ unveiling of a manipulation, the slow descent of a young, but insecure, woman into an abusive relationship.
When the book opens, we encounter Anastasia Steele, a soon-to-be-college-graduate who is conscripted to interview the CEO of Grey Enterprises because her college roommate, the editor of the campus newspaper, gets sick on the eve of the interview. Of course there is instant attraction between Miss Steele and the accomplished Mr. Grey, who, despite his enormous success, is only a few years older than she.
He pursues her, but has something in mind outside of what most of us would consider a “normal” relationship. He wants to abuse her, take her into his Red Room of Pain and do all kinds of unspeakable things to her. He proposes this as a business arrangement. She would sign a contract. He would become the “dominant” and she would be the “submissive.” He tells her she would have control to the extent that she can declare certain acts “hard” or “soft” stops, like red and yellow lights.
Already this is a set-up of such bizarre circumstances that I wondered how the author would pull this off. But despite the awful prose, she manages to evoke the slow seduction, the infinitesimal movement toward complete psychological manipulation that occurs when a twisted man makes a women believe he is doing it all for her.
When Grey first proposes the “contract” that will give him permission to abuse her, she thinks, naturally, “No way!”
He tells her part of the deal, under the contract, is he will never sleep with her through the night, she is forbidden to look him in the eyes, and she can’t touch him. Then he sleeps with her, twice. Lets her touch him. Leads her to believe that she is more to him than his previous “submissives,” whom he freely acknowledges.
James does a skillful job of showing this young woman’s descent into delusion, believing Mr. Grey’s seductive web of lies, despite all evidence to the contrary.
That Anastasia seems to know this on some level, that she questions herself while still falling under his influence and ultimately agrees to his degradations, is depressing and revolting. Why would a young woman do those things? That is the overarching question, and there is no adequate answer in Fifty Shades. Too many women find themselves in abusive relationships because they believe a man can give them something they can't give themselves, that he can somehow fill a need she can’t seem to fill on her own.
“Saturday Night Live” did a very funny skit about the book, implying that women the world over were reading the book for its (actually, limited) sex scenes. But Fifty Shades of Grey is more stomach-turning than titillating. As the mother of a 20-year-old young woman, I worry about the message she and others will take away from the cultural response to this book. It’s hard enough for young women to navigate the roiling waters of romantic relationships, let alone having to wonder if being sexually active might include acceptance of physical abuse.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a twisted tale of seduction, wherein a smart young woman confuses Grey’s sadistic yearnings for some semblance of love. It’s all wrong. And, sadly, a story that probably would be familiar to legions of abused women.
Wish I could get my money back.