October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time when I hope people whose lives are not affected directly by violence think about those whose lives are. Maybe calling attention to domestic violence with purple ribbons, 5K walks, and blog posts this month will result in increased sympathy for survivors of abuse and increased funding for domestic violence services year round, not only during the month of October. It may sound cliché to say that our goal is to “break the cycle,” but it’s true: much of the point is to raise awareness to reduce the level of violence that carries through to the next generation.
To acknowledge Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I decided to revisit Anita Shreve’s novel Strange Fits of Passion, which I discussed in a previous post, Do We Throw “The Book” At Battered Women Who Kill Their Abusers? In that post, I provide background on how the American justice system has treated women* who have killed their abusers in self-defense. It receives several visits per week through various search engines, and the search terms that lead people to my blog suggest that my readers range from people who are curious about this topic to women who may be survivors of abuse themselves (if you’re looking for resources, see NNEDV).
Shreve’s novel is a gripping fictional account of a woman’s escape from her abusive partner and of what she ultimately feels forced to do to save her life. Each chapter of the novel is an interview of a witness, each with a different perspective on “the truth” that ultimately results in an article about the events and an interview with her child, grown up, years later. It is a fascinating and horrifying story with twists and turns that will keep readers engaged from the beginning to the end.
While I appreciate this novel’s nuanced look at domestic violence and its attempt to show change in attitudes between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, there are two aspects of the paperback book I purchased over the summer that make me uncomfortable: the title and the cover.
The title, Strange Fits of Passion, comes from Wordsworth, and it is unclear whether readers should interpret “passion” the way it would have been interpreted in Wordsworth’s time (grief) or the way it is interpreted now (ardent love). Coupled with the intimate cover on a recent edition of the book*, it would be easy to equate “passion” with “love,” which would be incongruous with the brutal portrayal of abuse and its consequences in the novel. There is also an ambiguity over what the “strange fits” are (the abuse or the homicide). I balk at equating abuse with “strange fits of passion.” Abuse is not about passion; it is a pattern of intimidation and control, not a sudden “fit.” To see it as such may bolster myths that wrongly suggest that abuse can be excused as a temporary loss of control caused by strong romantic feelings.
The cover, designed by Kimberly Glyder (and on the left below), further supports domestic violence myths with the wife’s “come hither” smile and the portrayal of intimacy that suggests that this is a romantic relationship as opposed to an abusive one. This cover belongs on a romance novel, not on an emotionally harrowing book about abuse. There were better covers in previous editions of this book, like the one pictured on the right below, which clearly shows the control element of intimate partner violence:
Adding to the misleading design is a ridiculous misquote from a Cosmopolitan review of the book on the cover of the recent edition: “Superbly rendered… both touching and romantic.” When I read that, I was flabbergasted — did Cosmopolitan really call this story about domestic violence and death “romantic”? Of course not, and that fact becomes clear when you see the excerpts from reviews on the first page of the same edition (see comparison below; click on the image to see it more clearly). This is the actual quote: “Superbly rendered… both touching and troubling.” “Troubling” is a much more appropriate description of the themes in this novel. Replacing “troubling” with “romantic” is an egregious error in this context, and I hope people remember that the next time they say that only Indie books contain these kinds of errors.
The publisher, Harcourt, Inc. (which is now called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), did a poor job with this cover, which almost deterred me from buying the book. As I have explained in a previous post, Cover Art: What Does It Say About The Book?, I try not to judge books by their covers alone, and I am glad I gave Shreve’s novel a chance. It is well-worth reading. If you purchase it, as opposed to checking it out of the library, I recommend the ebook, which would allow you to avoid the cover completely as you read. If only the ebook ($9.99) weren’t more expensive than the bargain paperback ($5.98) on Amazon.
* Men are also victims of domestic violence; however, women are disproportionately victims of intimate partner violence based on coercive control.
*There are many covers for this book. This one still seems to be available as a bargain book through Amazon.