**trigger warning for attempted rape and sexual assault**
Remember all of Marcus’ brooding last week? Marcus decides he’s had enough of Hadassah’s resistance to his advances, and when she walks into the villa he orders her to come to his chambers. She obeys, full of trepidation, and he closes the door behind her.
Turning slightly, he looked back at her. His own longing was mirrored in her eyes, mingled with confusion and fear. “Hadassah,” he breathed, and everything the felt for her was in her name. “I have waited—”
“No,” she said in a soft cry and moved to flee.
Marcus caught her before she could open the door. Forcing her around, he pressed her back against it. “Why do you fight your feelings? You love me.” He cupped her face.
“Marcus, don’t!” she said in anguish.
“Admit it,” he said and lowered his mouth to take hers.
And this is what passes for Christian romance.
I knew when I decided to review this book that there was something off about Marcus’ “relationship” with Hadassah, but it had been a decade and more since I’d read the book. I didn’t remember how abusive Marcus was. In fact, I don’t think I fully realized this was abuse when I read this book. I knew he tried to rape her, but I read it all as fornication. The problem was that Marcus didn’t believe in saving sex for marriage, like Hadassah did, not that he was an abusive. The problem was that he didn’t understand that sex was “worth the wait.”
All of this “you actually want me” stuff is really damaging. I think Rivers thinks it’s sexy—and I’m sure trashy secular romance novels engage in this trope too. But it is a claim abusers make, both to justify their abuse and to get inside their victims’ heads.
I’d rather not have to quote that much of this passage, but I feel I need to to make it clear just how despicable Marcus is.
“You love me!” he said fiercely and this time captured her chin and listed her face to him. He covered her mouth with his, kissing her with all the intense passion that had been growing in him for months. He drank of her like a man dying of thirst. Her body melted gradually into his, and he knew he couldn’t wait any longer. Catching her up in his arms, he carried her across the room to his couch.
“No!” she cried and began to struggle again.
“Stop fighting me,” he said hoarsely. He saw the darkness of her eyes and the flush of her skin. “Stop fighting yourself.” He caught her wrists. “I left Rome to be with you. I’ve waited for you longer than I’ve ever waited for any woman.”
“Marcus, don’t bring this sin upon yourself.”
“‘Sin,'” he sneered and took her mouth again. She clutched at his tunic, half-pushing, half-clinging. She kept begging him to stop, and her pleas only made him more determined to prove her desire was no less than his own. She trembled beneath his touch, and he could feel the heat of her skin—but he also tasted the saltiness of tears.
“God, help me!” she cried.
“God,” he said, suddenly furious. All gentleness was forgotten in an explosion of frustration. “Yes, pray to a god. Pray to Venus. Pray to Eros that you might behave like a normal woman!” He felt the neckline of her tunic tear in his hand and heard her soft, frightened cry.
Hadassah is literally crying and Marcus keeps going. When she cries out to her god to help her, Marcus is “furious” and becomes rough with her. This whole section is horrific. Marcus is sneering at her and yelling at her. He says she owes it to him because he “left Rome to be with” her even though she never asked him to do this. This is textbook abuse.
Meanwhile, Rivers keeps dropping in mentions of Hadassah’s own desire for Marcus, because that is apparently very important and something we really need to know. In fact, there are hints that the battle is still within Hadassah.
This whole scene would feel a lot less out of place if Marcus were the lecherous Roman Hadassah must escape, while maintaining her purity, to eventually win her freedom and run off to join the Apostle John and become his right-hand assistant in sharing the gospel across the city. Even Hadassah’s inner turmoil could be worked into this version of the story, where she would face both the lecherous intent of her master, Marcus, and the well intentioned advances of a kind, handsome, but non-Christian fellow slave. Or perhaps she would have made a vow of perpetual chastity.
The trouble is that we all know that she ends up marrying Marcus. You know, a man who has sexually assaulted her multiple times and even attempted to rape her. This isn’t a lecherous master she must escape to push forward the plot—this is the man she will marry. And here he is, trying to rape her. In a Christian romance novel.
When Marcus rips Hadassah’s tunic, her cry startles him, and he steps back and stops assaulting her.
“Hadassah,” he groaned, filled with self-loathing. “I didn’t mean—“
Yes you did, you disgusting prick.
He broke off, stunned into silence by the sight of her still, white face. Her eyes were closed and she was not moving. All the breath went out of him as he looked at her still form. “Hadassah!” Cradling her in his arms, he brushed the hair back from her face and laid his hand over her heart, terrified that her god had struck her dead to save her purity. But her heart beat against his palm, and relief flooded him—until it came to him with a sickening blow that he had been about to rape her.
No shit, dude.
And yeah, Hadassah has fainted. How many more tropes can we draw on, here? As Marcus holds her and touches her she begins to stir; he turns away and brings her wine. He’s so very, very sorry. He puts his hands over hers, apologizing. He touches her hair, saying he’s sorry. He can’t stop touching her even now. Hadassah starts to cry.
“Don’t cry. Hadassah, don’t cry. Please. … Nothing happened. You needn’t cry.”
Of course, I’m not writing this book. Rivers is. As Hadassah sobs, Marcus promises her that he’s “never lost control like that before” and that he “never meant to hurt” her. But because this is Rivers’ book, it turns out that Hadassah is actually sobbing in gratefulness that he stopped. She tells him that “the Lord will bless” him for stopping. This angers Marcus.
He came back and forced her to look at him. “Is this love I have for you what you would call a blessing?” He saw his grip was hurting her and let her go.
Holy hell, stop touching her!!
Because this is Rivers’ book and not mine, Marcus and Hadassah proceed to have a lengthy conversation that goes on for four pages. Hadassah is very concerned for Marcus’ soul, you see. She suggests that Marcus’ love for her may be God’s way of trying to work on him. Marcus laughs and rejects the idea outright.
“I want to know what it is in you that makes you cling to this unseen god of yours. Tell me.”
Hadassah looked up at him and knew she loved him as she would never love another. Why, God? Why this man who doesn’t understand? Why this man who willfully rejects you? Are you cruel, as Marcus says?
“I don’t know, Marcus,” she said, deeply shaken. She still trembled with a strange, heavy longing for him and was afraid at how easy it would be to surrender to the sensations Marcus stirred in her.
Oh, God, give me strength. I have none of my own. The way he looks at me makes me melt inside. He makes me weak.
In the hands of a different author, this could be interesting. It’s not uncommon for domestic violence victims to face inner turmoil like this, and conflicted feelings. A novel in which a woman tries to gain strength to leave an abusive partner—and has to work through identifying his behavior as abusive—could be deeply riveting.
The problem is that Rivers does not appear to see Hadassah as a victim of domestic violence. Rivers, in other words, is not trying to tease out toxic thought patterns or the inner conflict of survivors of violence. In her hands, Marcus’ problem is not that he’s an abuser; it’s that he’s not saved. And so we get to see Hadassah sit and discuss religion and philosophy with the man who just attempted to rape her, conflicted only by her deep love and physical desire for him.
When he looked at her like that, she couldn’t think. She lowered her eyes.
Marcus came to her and tipped her chin up. “You can’t answer, can you? You think this god of yours is everything. That he’s enough. I tell you he isn’t. Can he hold you, Hadassah? Can he touch you? Can he kiss you?” His hand spread gently against her cheek, and when he saw how her eyes closed, his pulse jumped.
There’s more of this, more handsy Marcus explaining to Hadassah just how much she wants him and how he’ll totally fulfill her needs better than her god. We get four straight pages of this. Finally, Marcus despairs of convincing her.
“I would have to command you, wouldn’t I?” …
“You won’t command me.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“You’re an honorable man.”
Oh, honey, no.
Hadassah needs an intervention. She needs girlfriends who tell her that Marcus is a cad. If she took this to the Apostle John you’d better believe she’d portray herself as the problem. She’d tell him of her sin, of her desire for Marcus and her weakness, and he’d take her portrayal of the situation at face value, never realizing that she’s being preyed on by an angry, violent abuser.
Also, last time I checked Hadassah was Julia’s slave, not Marcus’ slave.
I feel the need to emphasize, again, how popular this book is in evangelical circles. It was published in the 1990s; it’s possible that its popularity has waned since. But when I first started mentioning this book on my blog, I was amazed at how many commenters who were raised in evangelical homes and communities declared that they’d read it too. Francine Rivers is no fringe author. Her books are the big time, in evangelical circles.
There are lots of trashy romance novels out there. LOTS. The problem is that, as with Martha Findley’s Elsie Dinsmore series, these books are meant to be prescriptive. Hadassah is intended to serve as a role model. Julia is intended to serve as a model of all the bad things that happen to young women who are worldly and materialistic and not Christian. We are meant to put ourselves in Hadassah’s shoes, and to learn from her example. And what, exactly, were we learning?
That said, these books do sometimes fill a role similar to that of your typical smut romance novels. As an evangelical teen, this was some of the only smut I was allowed to read. Thinking about it now, I’m vaguely curious what role these books may have played in shaping my sexual kinks and fantasies as an adult. I reread and reread these sections. The few times I had access to comparative consensual smut, I had to read it in secret and knew it was a no-no; these books, in contrast, were approved and could be reread multiple times.
If you made it this far, congrats. If I remember correctly, this is the only time Marcus tries to rape Hadassah, so there’s that.