Phantom Waltz by Catherine Anderson

Phantom Waltz - Catherine Anderson

Originally posted at Love in the Margins.

 

If you know me at all, your heart just skipped a beat when you saw the title for this review. For years I have told anyone who would listen, and a few who wouldn’t, that this was the worst portrayal of disability I have ever read. Of the dozens of romances I have read featuring disabled main characters, I’ve run across many more misses than hits. Only this book, though, has made me too angry to review it.

 

Over three years of trying to read this book to give it the sound thrashing it deserves, I’ve never been able to sit down and read straight through. Every time I’ve tried, I’d want to Tweet something off every page I read. The patronizing fuckery is thick on the ground in this book, and all that Tweeting and blockquote collecting makes for a slow read. As a result, I’ve read this book the way children of the 80s and 90s watched movies on TV – in little chunks here and there over a long stretch of time.

Because I didn’t read this book in the conventional way, I’m not going to review it conventionally. Instead I offer you:

 

Eight Easy Steps For Writing An Offensive Portrayal of Disability

 

Step 1: Immediately frame the disabled character’s life in terms of what it lacks compared to a non-disabled experience.

 

Anderson wastes no time framing this story from an ableist perspective. About five pages in, our hero – millionaire cattle rancher Ryan Kendrick – asks Bethany Coulter out on a date.

 

'“How about dinner and dancing? We’ll go out, have a fine meal, get to know each other a little better. Then we’ll cut a rug. I’m hell on wheels at country western, and I know of a great band.”

Her mouth curved in a wistful smile. “You like to dance, do you?”

“I love to dance. How about you?”

She averted her gaze. Ryan wanted to kick himself for coming on too fast. So much for that legendary charm his brother teased him about. Well, it was too late now. All he could do was go for it and hope for the best.

“I used to enjoy dancing very much.” She tapped a pen on the work surface beside her computer, her small hand clenched so tightly over its length that her dainty knuckles went white.'

 

This is ten years post-injury, but that’s almost beside the point. The important thing here is to quickly establish that Bethany is a victim. Dancing isn’t a fond memory for her, it’s a present injustice. Disability causes her suffering, though she endures it with Christ-like stoicism, because she’s a good girl. Only harlots speak up.

 

Step 2: Write rejection into the disabled character’s past, and tie it to her injury.

 

'“Yes. Paul.” The name stuck at the back of her throat and became a huge, dry lump she couldn’t swallow. “And he wasn’t really rotten, just a nice young man who wanted to have a normal life, and there were no guarantees he could ever have one with me.”

 

“So the nice young man walked out on you.”'

 

This is a key element of any romance with a disabled protagonist. You must have a past relationship that ended as a direct result of the injury that disabled them. Not only does it reinforce that character’s silently-suffering victimhood, it creates an opportunity for the non-disabled character. If the conventional wisdom is that disabled people are damaged goods and often discarded, then what a champion this non-disabled character is! Sure he could go to the pet store to get a nice looking dog, but he’ll do the right thing and adopt from the shelter, because that’s the kinda guy he is.

 

'“Going by things she said, I got the feeling that most men run the other direction when they realize she’s in a wheelchair.” He shrugged. “Hell, to be honest, when I first realized she was a paraplegic, I wanted to run myself, only I’d already asked her out, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. If I’d started crawfishing, it would have been obvious why.” He swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment. “So I took her on a date, thinking it’d only be for an evening, and that afterward I could do a graceful fade-out.”'

 

See? What a gem!

 

Step 3: Have the hero discuss his attraction to the local paraplegic girl with his mother, getting into intimate detail about sexual function and other medical issues.

 

This clever step kills two birds with one stone. For one, it strips the disabled character of her dignity and humanity, which would only get in your way. Preserving her privacy and giving her agency just complicates things. Ryan’s doing her a favor here. It’s not like she’s going to turn him down or something. God, like anyone else would want her, right?

 

Most importantly, though, it lets you show off all your research in a big info dump. You had fascinating conversations with nurses and doctors, so show off what you learned!

 

'Ann laughed and leaned sideways, bumping him with her shoulder again. “Where did you get the idea paraplegics can’t have sex?”

 

“That’s obvious, isn’t it? She’s paralyzed, Mom. No sensation from the waist down. Maybe some men wouldn’t care, but I like partners who enjoy that particular activity as much as I do.”

 

“You’re making an idiotic assumption. A common one, but it’s dead wrong. I know about these things.

 

Whether or not she has feeling in certain places depends on the location and severity of her injury. Some paraplegics, especially women, enjoy normal intimate relationships.”'

 

Thanks mom!

 

Step 4: Tell the reader that the heroine pees normally.

 

Seriously. This is critical information. No one wants a heroine who uses a catheter. That’s crazy talk.

 

'Ryan circled that, wondering how “feeling here and there” could make her life easier. Paralyzed was paralyzed. Right?

 

Apparently noticing the bewildered look on his face, she grinned. “That’s a polite way of saying it. You’ll have to ferret out the rest by yourself.”

 

She was referring to continence, he realized, an ability many paraplegics didn’t have.'

 

Step 5: Give the heroine an overprotective brother who feels entitled to control who sleeps with her.

 

The whole reason you’re writing a disabled heroine in the first place is to create a caretaker fantasy. Women are under incredible pressure in real life and the allure of a male figure who shields them from harm is incredibly potent. The disabled heroine is the exaggerated stand-in for the reader. She’s all their insecurities and vulnerabilities dialed up to 11. Naturally she needs a brother who’s prepared to put a fist into the face of any man who dares to make a move on his sister. Only the hero gets through when he proves himself worthy. If only we could have all had such a sibling. So many bad relationships could have been avoided!

 

'“Don’t come sniffing around my sister,” Jake ground out. “If I can’t kick your ass, I’ve got four brothers who’ll be standing in line behind me. Nobody makes her cry and gets away with it.”'

 

If you really want to go above and beyond, have the hero negotiate with the brother for the right to plow his sister, after expressly telling her that he wants to just be friends. It’s not like she has any wants of her own.

 

Step 6: Make a big deal out of the heroine’s sexual function, and tie the hero’s legitimacy as her mate to the ability to make her orgasm.

 

I don’t think there’s anyone in this book that doesn’t have at least one conversation about Bethany’s ability to have sex. Ryan’s mother, Bethany’s brother, a random bar fly, the elderly ranch foreman – everyone’s talking about whether or not sex with Bethany will be any good. And rightly so, as a woman’s value is, naturally, tied to her desirability as a sexual partner. Sure, this is all incredibly dehumanizing to appropriate disability as a metaphor for being unloved and undesirable, but it’s just fiction, amirite?

 

And you must make sure the heroine orgasms. I’m not sure why, really, but it’s one of romance’s laws. So make a huge plot point of it, even though many paraplegic women live full, sexual lives without vaginal sensation or orgasm. Rulez is rulez.

 

'He’d felt the tension in her body afterward—the kind of tension that told a man he’d failed to bring a woman to completion. If I can’t feel anything, I think I’ll die. Oh, she’d tried to hide her disappointment, hugging him and burrowing her cheek against his shoulder, saying how lovely it had been. But he’d known, and he’d wanted to weep.'

 

Step 7: Write an in-depth conversation between the hero and the heroine’s doctor about her ability to have children. Don’t include the heroine.

 

Of course she has to be fertile. You can use the specter of childlessness as a conflict driver, but you have to resolve it. The best way to do this is to have the hero talk with a doctor about her, without her knowledge, and reveal that she was misinformed about her body’s capabilities. Her body is just a medical curiosity, after all.

 

'“You think she can have babies, don’t you?”

 

The doctor glanced toward the hallway. “I don’t advise you to tell her that, not until I’m sure. I wouldn’t want to give her false hope and then disappoint her. I’m certainly no spinal specialist.”'

 

Step 8: Create an amazing black moment involving a picnic, a charging bear and a martyr.

 

This is just brilliant, really. Every disability themed romance has a black moment where the disabled character has something happen to them to make them extra vulnerable and it causes them to push the non-disabled character away so they won’t be a burden to them. It’s a crucial step to show how “independent” and “selfless” the disabled character is to not impose their awful life onto the superior life lived by an able-bodied person. The non-disabled character then looks like a saint for accepting the “broken” person anyway.

 

This book’s black moment is played by Yogi Bear’s evil twin.

 

'“Mrrrhaw!”

 

The sound came from behind them. Only halfway to the horses, Ryan whirled to see what in the hell it was. When he saw the bear charging across the flat toward them, his heart stuttered to a stop and felt as if it just hung in his chest like a chunk of ice. The animal was huge, and it ran with incredible speed-—its fat and fur jolting with every impact of its paws on the earth.

 

“Mrrrhaw!”

 

“Oh, my God,” Bethany cried. “Oh, my Godl”

 

Ryan glanced frantically at the rifle leaning against the pine only a few feet away where he’d left it in order to carry Bethany. If he put her down, he might be able to reach the weapon before the bear caught him. Big problem. There was every chance the animal would stay on course, charging blindly. If so, it would be on Bethany before Ryan could get off a shot. There might also be lag time after he fired. Bears were notorious for taking lead and not going down immediately.

 

Bethany could be killed.'

 

The bear attacks Ryan, shatters his hip, and strands them in the wilderness. Bethany feels responsible, so she decides to leave him and move to Seattle. Because the selfless thing to do is abandon your husband while he’s sedated and recovering from surgery.

 

—-

 

And that’s where I’ll stop. I could pull quotes from this book all day, it’s so completely fucking ridiculous. That elderly ranch foreman I mentioned? Bethany not only discusses her sex life with him, he gets drunk and helps her practice faking orgasm. I am dead serious.

 

'He had a bad feeling this might call for more showing than telling. He did most things better when he was stone-cold sober, but going on like a woman having an orgasm wasn’t going to be one of them. He hurried to the office, fetched his flask, and returned to the stall posthaste.'

 

Additionally, the heroine’s injury is an incomplete L2, but she uses a powerchair. I’d chalk that up to ignorance, but Anderson put so much effort into stripping Bethany of agency, dignity and humanity that I wonder if it was a conscious decision to make her less able and more vulnerable. It’s a lot harder to make a pitiable creature out of someone driving a sedan rather than a ramp van and maneuvering easily in a lightweight, low-profile manual wheelchair. It’s like she’s meant to be able enough to pee normally and have vaginal orgasms but must be visibly crippled enough to make the Beauty and the Beast metaphor work. That’s just blatant appropriation, son.

 

Final Assessment: No one should ever read this book. Not even for research. F