My preadolescent self can best be described as a typical, obsessive, dramatic teen. I went from obsession to obsession and was often infatuated with fictional characters, both male and female, as well as the actors who depicted them. To me, they were perfect. Let me give you an impression of the extent of these obsessions: when I was 13 years old, I was absolutely in love with Harry Potter. So, my mom transformed my room into what can only be described as a Hogwarts dorm room, with my very own Nimbus 2000, house flags, Harry Potter bedding, and a handmade Hedwig nightlight.
These were phases I went through – that’s how my family referred to them, and that’s how I see them now. I still have a tendency to go through phases of fascination focussing on a particular character or person (I’ll watch all their films, listen to their music, watch interviews on YouTube, etc.). Some of them stick, others I outgrow. But they can no longer be referred to as obsessions. They’ve become semi-healthy admirations.
For the longest time, I wasn’t quite sure why I was consumed with young adult fantasy romances involving, for example, vampires. Why teen girls in general were known to be infatuated with this kind of fiction. Looking back, I finally understand it was related to my obsession with sexy, dominant, manipulative, older men in YA fiction. Now, I wonder why these kinds of unhealthy, and often abusive, relationships are featured in YA so prominently, and what kind of effect this has on its readers, particularly (pre)adolescent girls. Debra Merskin argues that, in Twilight (Meyer, 2005), “the characterization of Edward as a desirable male poses a danger to real girls-as-eventual women’s sense of self and development of the idea of the power dynamics in real relationships” (159). I cannot say I disagree, at least not anymore, knowing what it did. Merskin goes on to say that “Bella is completely under the spell of this very dangerous man, that she loses any sense of self-preservation” (170). I so badly want to say that this did not apply to me.
During Christmas 2007, I first read Twilight, followed by another 10 times after that. I was 15, and it was approximately two and a half years after I’d met Dave, the dominant male in my story. I finished the last book of the series, Breaking Dawn (Meyer, 2008) during my summer vacation in Greece in 2009. At that point I’d read the second novel in the series, New Moon (Meyer, 2006), about 5 times and the third, Eclipse (Meyer, 2007), 7 times. I was dating Abel, who was 14 years old, and made him read the series as well, which is hilarious now, because I cannot imagine that he actually enjoyed them. We broke up a few weeks after I turned 17, in February of 2010. Abel felt unheard, unimportant, and unloved, because I couldn’t cut Dave out of my life. I was unhealthily attached to Dave, just like Bella was to Edward.
What didn’t help is that Dave referred to me as ‘forbidden fruit’ when we started dating, a term Edward Cullen also uses, which is why the apple is so prominently featured on the cover of the first instalment. My relationship with Dave felt like my own personal Twilight. Dave used the term because he technically was not allowed to date me, as he was a camp counsellor, where I was a camper and 5 years his junior. Much like Bella, I lost all sense of self-preservation.
At 19, a year and a half after we dated, I took a six-week trip to Australia. While over there I found The Dark Heroine by Abigail Gibbs (2012). Simply put, 17-year-old Violet is kidnapped by royal vampires and held captive until she agrees to become one as well, or until she dies. The dominant male in this tale is Kaspar Varn, a character much darker than sparkly Edward Cullen. Now I would call Kaspar abusive, but that’s not how 19-year-old Alyssa saw it. To her, he was “more misunderstood than monstrous” (Merskin 160). Just like Dave. I loved the book, because I understood Violet. Well, mostly I envied her. Kaspar changed for her, but more importantly, she enabled him to love her back. He became a gentler character (as much as can be expected of a predator, which is what vampires are). Yet, I had been unable to do the same with Dave the year prior. I couldn’t tear down his walls.
As Bella was able to change Edward, and later Violet with Kaspar, this gave me unrealistic expectations of myself and Dave, even when we were not together. I let the emotional and sexual abuse happen because I was convinced I needed to help him. If I loved him enough, like these characters had with their counterparts, he would be okay. He would be able to love me. He needed to be the priority, and so he was.
Not too long after my trip to Australia, I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (James, 2011-2012). Again, I was faced with a handsome, abusive male. Again, I envied the heroine for her ability to change said male, namely Christian Grey, into a loving gentleman. How did she do it? Why had I been unable to do the same? Should I have tried harder? Wasn’t my love enough?
It took me 8 years to realise why those questions should not make sense. Why they were wrong, on so many different levels. I always put the blame on myself. It had been my fault. I could not help him, fix him, save him. I gave up too soon. I was not strong enough, not good enough. I never referred to Dave’s behaviour as abusive, and I still find it difficult to do so now. Because I loved him. Part of me even misses him. When I read my diaries of that time, the Alyssa who was dating Dave seems like a different person. Now, it seems like he was gaslighting me, like I was suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome, a term also used in The Dark Heroine to describe Violet’s situation (517).
But it makes sense now. I understand why I loved the Beast from Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale & Wise, 1991), Edward Cullen from Twilight (Meyer, 2005), Kaspar Varn from The Dark Heroine (Gibbs, 2012), Christian Grey from Fifty Shades (James, 2011), Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries (Smith, 1991), Captain Hook from Once Upon a Time (Horowitz, 2011-2018), Flynn Rider from Tangled (Howard, 2010), and Kaz from Six of Crows (Bardugo, 2015), to name a few. The list goes on and on, and I keep adding new names to it because they are everywhere. To me they were, and still are on some level, Dave. They were dominant, powerful, lonely, unreachable, distant. They were abusive, and I was submissive. What kind of message is this recurring power structure in YA novels sending to (pre)adolescents about the dynamics of relationships? Especially as these books are essentially written or published for them. I always thought Disney princess films set unrealistic expectations for romance. But what if novels, films and series, such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, set unrealistic standards for relationships?
Dave was like Edward, just not in the way I initially imagined. He tried to control me, by “belittling” me (Merkin 167). He forbade me to tell other camp counsellors about our relationship. He manipulated me to get what he wanted from me. Not just mentally, but physically, sexually, as well. So in response, I behaved like Bella, because that’s what I thought he wanted from me, and I thought that was normal. As Anna Silver puts it, I, much like Bella, “obediently” submitted to my Edward’s dominance (125). But Edward changes and Bella gains confidence and equality – because they are not real. Their relationship is not real.
More than a year ago, my then boyfriend Fabian and I were talking about these characters as he was reading Autumn Rose (2013), the sequel to The Dark Heroine. He told me there is a difference between myself and Bella (Twilight), Violet (THD) and Anastasia (FSOG), and it cannot be found in my inability to change Dave, but rather in their fictitious nature. Why was I using YA fiction as a sort of relationship handbook or guideline? I’d never looked at it that way, and while I understand the relevance of Fabian’s argument, this did not comfort me, because the pain was real.
While now, as an adult, I still adore reading The Dark Heroine, I finally understand how this kind of novel might prompt unhealthy ideas of what relationships should look like, in a time in which girls are vulnerable and developing themselves romantically. Now, I understand why I was envious of these female characters. Not because they were stronger than I was, because I was strong in my own way; I was envious of them because no matter the situation, no matter the form or the extent of the abuse, they were always equal to their partners, or at least viewed as such, at some point, by their significant other. And I was never Dave’s equal.
By Alyssa Vreeken
Merskin, Debra. “A Boyfriend to Die For: Edward Cullen as Compensated Psychopath in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 35.2 (2011): 157-78. Web. 8 Oct. 2018.
Silver, Anna. “Twilight is Not Good for Maidens: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series.” Studies in the Novel 42.1 (2010): 121-38. JSTOR. Web. 8 Oct. 2018.
 In order to protect myself, as it were, I have changed his name.