[Content note: discussions of abuse and coercion]
- Paul, Michael’s brother-in-law, returns.
- He recognizes Angel, thinks she deceived Michael about her profession.
- Paul leaves to get supplies, demands sex in order to take Angel with him.
- The Palace burned down, so Angel’s money is gone.
- She returns to prostitution.
- Michael finds her, fights everyone in the saloon, takes her back to the farm.
- Angel tells Michael about her past.
As you can see, stuff actually happens in these three chapters (14-16), and there’s so much to dig into. So much. It’s a little overwhelming, especially since this section pushed almost every single one of my buttons. One of the first is how magnificently obtuse Francine is about her own characters. We’ve seen this before, but it becomes a problem in this section when she introduces us to Paul. He’s been trying to “get rich quick” in the mountains, but is returning in an almost prodigal-son-like fashion to the farm, where he also has a cabin apparently.
Francine is attempting to give us a foil for Michael. We’ve only been watching how Michael interacts with Angel, so we’re given Paul in order to demonstrate just how wonderful and supportive and nice Michael actually is, because look at what this horrible brute does to Angel.
He makes an almost-incredible amount of assumptions about Angel– beginning with a bunch of (coughnothistoricallyaccuratecough) stereotypes about prostitutes, leading to the belief that Angel is deceiving Michael about what she used to do for a living, and ends with him convinced that she’s a stone-hearted bitch (a phrase Francine very awkwardly avoids using, which reminds me of the note in the beginning about her editor cleaning the book up for a “Christian” audience). He’s horrifically judgmental, calls her a liar repeatedly, and constantly thinks about being horribly violent toward her. It’s all capped off with him forcing Angel to have sex to “pay” him for the ride into town.
All of this is supposed to be in contrast with Michael … except it isn’t.
Since the very beginning, Michael has done nothing but make assumptions about Angel based on those not-historically-accurate stereotypes– she’s a prostitute, so she only understands one kind of “love.” She’s a prostitute, so she’s shallow and manipulative. She’s a prostitute, so she thinks being on a farm is boring drudgery. Etc. He’s also countermanded her about her own feelings and wants and ideas almost every single time she’s expressed any. A typical interaction is “I want XYZ” and he says “No, you don’t.” And then oh there’s this:
He didn’t want to pity her. He wanted to shake her until her teeth feel out. He wanted to kill her. (204).
This isn’t him being overly dramatic, either, because of what happened earlier: He’s taking her back to the farm while she repeatedly tells him to let her off the wagon. When he refuses, she throws herself off and runs away. He chases her down and starts dragging her back to the wagon while she resists, and then we read:
He almost hit her back, but he knew if he hit her once, he wouldn’t stop … If he had hit her back once, he would have killed her. (195) [On recalling finding her at the saloon] If he hadn’t seen her eyes or heard the way she said his name, he would have killed them both. (196)
Francine has made it as clear as she possibly could that Michael actually literally wanted to murder Angel, but through mountains of restraint somehow managed not to beat her to death. She does all of that, and yet the reader is still supposed to see Michael as fundamentally different and better than Paul. The way Michael and Paul treat Angel is fundamentally the same, but again, Michael didn’t have sex with her and reads the Bible a lot so he’s the nice one– ignore the murderous rages, those are fine.
One of the biggest problems with this section of the book is that it buys into common — but false– narratives about abuse. Setting aside the fact that Michael wants to beat his wife to death, he does actually restrain himself from physical violence toward her. Paul does not– during the ride into town, he “hits every hole in the road, bouncing and jarring her … He enjoyed her discomfort” (185). The book condemns his behavior here and in other places– physically hurting Angel is clearly out of bounds for Francine.
The narrative condemns physical abuse while giving us a character who emotionally abuses and psychologically torments his spouse and describing emotional abuse as not just normal, but praiseworthy. Francine utterly ignores the fact that not all abuse looks the same– and when Angel reacts to Michael, the text makes it clear that she’s reacting to her past with Duke, not Michael, and her reactions aren’t trustworthy. Her responses to Michael’s incredibly ominous behavior are supposed to be considered unreliable, instead of a realistic depiction of how a victim would react to someone who’s been emotionally abusing them. When I got to this scene, I wanted to cry:
“Because I love you,” he said thickly. He swung her around in front of him, his eyes tormented. “That simple, Amanda. I love you. When are you going to understand what that means?”
Her throat tightened, and she hung her head.
They walked the rest of the way in silence. He lifted her onto the wagon seat. She shifted over as he pulled himself up beside her. She looked at him bleakly. “Your kind of love can’t feel good.”
“Does your kind feel any better? … I felt like killing you when I walked in that room, but I didn’t. I feel like beating sense into you right now, but I won’t …” (197)
I wanted to scream. This is not what love is. If you haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s a relevant scene:
Yondu: When I picked you up as a kid, these boys wanted to eat you. They ain’t never tasted Terran before. I saved your life!
Quill: Oh, will you shut up about that? God! Twenty years, you’ve been throwing that in my face, like it’s some great thing, not eating me! Normal people don’t even think about eating someone else! Much less that person having to be grateful for it!
I’m a big fan of that scene, because as extreme as the Ravagers eating Quill would have been, this thought is practically textbook abuse and Quill’s response is completely brilliant and true. When Michael defines “love,” he says that it’s not killing her and not beating her, like she’s supposed to be grateful.
There aren’t words to describe how horrific and excruciating it is that when Francine is describing what love means, her definition matches that of conservative Christianity’s perfectly. When they say that God loves us, what they mean is that despite all his wrath and fury, he doesn’t murder us where we stand, and we’re supposed to fall down on our faces in worship. “I want to kill you, but I won’t” is part of the bedrock of evangelical theology, and it’s incorporated into any theological discussion of God’s love. It’s sickening.
Another classic sign that Michael is an abuser appears in his internal dialogue after the return to the farm– Angel “betrayed” him. She doesn’t have a conscience. She cut him to ribbons. She should feel ashamed of herself, she was his wife and she left him and had sex with all those other men he could just kill her.
This is textbook abusive entitlement. He practically abducts a delirious woman, manipulates her into “marrying” him, absconds with her to an isolated area she can’t escape, refuses to help her, forces her to work for him, cook for him, refuses to even use her goddamn name, all while she is constantly telling him she doesn’t want to be there, she doesn’t want to be his wife, she wants to leave. And yet when she does exactly all of that it’s such a betrayal he wants to kill her.
And Michael is considered one of the most wildly romantic figures in all of Christian fiction.
I promised at the beginning of the series that we’d be talking about survival sex, and we’ve gotten there. Here’s a quick definition and two very good articles about it:
Survival sex is, quite simply, exchanging one’s body for basic subsistence needs, including clothing, food, and shelter.
So, pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Much of the conversation about survival sex focuses on homeless youth because they’re especially at risk, but I think many of us have known an adult woman who had sex with someone in order to have a place to live. It can also appear in abusive relationships– having sex in order to prevent verbal/physical beatings, or to extend to “honeymoon phase.” It’s sex that, given a more ideal set of circumstances, would not happen. It’s sex with consent, but without autonomy. Things like survival sex is why I balk at reductionist approaches to consent— it’s possible that someone can consent, but for their choices to be so bounded that they don’t actually have a choice. It’s consent coerced by circumstances.
This is clearly what is happening to Angel– when she returns to Pair-a-Dice, winter is approaching and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. No food, no shelter, no money. When the saloon owner offers an upstairs room for her to get “back in business” (190), she has no other option. It’s that or either die of starvation or exposure– even if she wanted to go back to the farm and the man who’s been emotionally abusing her, lying to her, and manhandling her, it’s 30 miles away. So, thinking “I’m never going to be free,” (191), she uses sex to survive.
After Michael beats up everyone in the saloon and forces her to come back with him, Francine writes this internal thought process for Angel:
Angel felt the building warm of the sun on her shoulders and remembered Michael dragging her with him through the night to face the sunrise. “That’s the life I want to give you.” She hadn’t understood then what he offered. She had not comprehended until she walked up the stairs at the Silver Dollar Saloon and sold her soul into slavery again …
What have I done? Why did I throw it all away? Paul’s words came back: “You’re not even worth two bits.” It was true … it hadn’t even taken a day for her to fall right back into her old ways …
It was all her fault. All the ifs flooded her: If she had never left Duke … if she had never gotten on that barkentine … if she hadn’t sold herself to any passerby on the muddy streets of San Francisco or gone with Duchess … if she had ignored Paul … if she had stayed here and never left … if she hadn’t gone back to Pair-a-Dice or gone up those stairs with Murphy …
Michael had taken her straight out of the abyss and offered her a chance– and she had thrown it away. (200-202)
Francine is oh-so-conveniently leaving out the rather important fact that what Angel chose for herself was a cabin in the woods– independence and freedom. Given the information she had access to, Michael was not the “chance” she’d thrown away. She had her own chance that she’d worked for. She had a plan that was simple and completely achievable. That the Palace burned down and the Duchess left with all of her money is not something she knew when she left the farm. She didn’t choose Murphy and the Saloon; circumstances limited her. But ten pages of the book make it clear that it was really all her fault and she needs redemption and forgiveness, with God repeating “seventy times seven” in Michael’s head.
This book is grotesque.