There Is No Safe Word In An Abusive Relationship: A Look At The Fifty Shades Trilogy


Disclaimer: This piece was not written with the intent of serving as a commentary on the literary merit of the Fifty Shades of Grey novel itself or the trilogy series. This piece was written as a rebuttal to the argument presented by many (see this NY Daily News article, this Twitter campaign, and countless blogs written on the subject matter) that the relationship depicted between Christian and Ana is one of abuse. As a person who has had to endure physical, mental, and emotional abuse (and who has read the entire series multiple times); in my opinion and experience, this notion of the relationship between these two main characters being classified as an “abusive relationship” could not be further from the truth. If you have yet to read the series and plan to, you may want to stop reading now as the discussion to follow will include spoilers and actual passages from the series.

In an article I read on TC, Julia High wrote something that really hit home for me. She stated, “I feel this constant need to be perfect for my friends and for my husband. I worry that any mistake will be the excuse someone needed to abandon me, and I hold myself to a ridiculous standards because I believe that no one could love me as-is. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I knowingly allow people to mistreat, take advantage of, and even abuse me rather than risk losing a friendship or relationship by asking them to stop.” These feelings are ones I’ve carried with me for as long as I can remember and it wasn’t until I read this article that I could actually put these feelings into words.

Our “family temper” was (and still is) somewhat legendary. If my father, grandfather, uncle, or aunt acted out of anger their actions were justified with the comment, “Oh that’s just the X-family temper.”  This phrase was said so often by so many people in my life that I grew up believing that this was normal thing; every family had a temper. They couldn’t be held accountable for their actions because it was just the X-family temper at work; it wasn’t their fault.

When I was about 7 years old, I knocked over my glass during dinner and milk spilled all over the table. My father slammed his fist down and screamed at me to go get a towel as I sobbed to myself and my mother and sister sat in stunned silence. After I had cleaned up the milk, I sat back down at the dinner table and ate my dinner in silence while the rest of the family laughed and joked with Dad like nothing had happened. Even 17 years later, the thought of this moment still sends a chill down my spine.

When I was about 10 years old, my parents came home after a night out and the babysitter told my mother that a dish that was given to her by my great-grandmother had been broken and had to be thrown out. My extremely intoxicated father then proceeded to come into my room and spank me until my butt was black and blue. The entire time I screamed, “No, Daddy, I didn’t do it!” but he didn’t stop until I got the punishment he felt I deserved… my sister and our friend were actually the ones who broke the dish that night while playing in the kitchen.

Throughout my childhood, my house was in constant turmoil although to the outside world everything appeared normal. My mother would stay in bed or on the couch for days (suffering from depression), you never knew what kind of mood my father would be in, and everyone walked around on eggshells just trying to keep the peace. There were many nights where my sister and I would sit in our room, holding each other and our dog tightly, shaking in fear while we listened through the closed door as my dad screamed at and hit my mother; never leaving a visible bruise. She would end up in the bathroom sobbing or vacuuming up broken glass, while my dad went to their bedroom or sat on the couch watching television. The next morning both would act like nothing happened and we would be “treated” to a $20 bill, new toy, or trip to a baseball game. My father used money to control everyone and everything in our lives. His actions would be excused with bribes to my sister and I, and his function as the breadwinner of our house ensured my mother was kept in her place.

Growing up, I was my mom’s confidante. I am the oldest in my family and my mother would tell me everything, including how she couldn’t afford our bills and how far in debt we were. From about age 5, I knew what money was and how much stress it caused my mom. At age 15, I gave my mother the money I had made from my summer job so she could make our mortgage payment without having to ask my dad for more money. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the money or that my mother had spent all our money frivolously; my father only gave her a certain “allowance” from his weekly paycheck, without regard for how much the bills actually were that month. She didn’t want to ask him for more because she lived in fear of his “family temper” and wanted to avoid it at all costs. This ensured our family was buried in credit card debt and, as a result, creditors were calling our house daily; we would just let the answering machine pick up and screen our calls when we were home and when Dad was home we’d answer the phone and tell the caller they had the wrong number.

As young as age 6, I remember my mom telling me that we would be moving schools and going to live with grandma for a while and how great it would be when it was just the three of us (my sister, mom, and I). We never did make that particular move she had planned so long ago; the house we grew up in is still my father’s house today.

When I was 16 years old, I had just gotten home from school and my mother called to say, “Pack a bag, I’m coming to get you.” I had an hour to pack everything up with my two younger sisters before my mom got home from work; we were leaving my Dad. He got home from work just as we had the car loaded with only the few things we could gather. On my way out the door I said to my father, “If you touch my things I will never forgive you.” I knew deep down, even though he was the man that had caused all of this abuse and suffering, I would be back.

The night we left, I slept on the couch in my mom’s parent’s basement apartment with my two sisters, my dog, and my mother. Less than a week later, my youngest sister and I moved back in with my father, and my mother and middle sister stayed with grandparents. For weeks after my mother left, my Dad would wake up during the night screaming or sobbing. I’d sit by his bedside at 2:00 am just holding his hand and listening to him while said whatever he needed to; then at 6:30 am I’d get dressed and head to school. I didn’t talk to anyone about what had happened, lost 30 pounds from not eating because of the stress, and threw myself even further into my schoolwork (even though I was already a straight-A student). School was and had always been my sanctuary where I could be a regular kid, without all of the extra baggage the surrounded my family. All 5 of my classes in my senior year of high school were Advanced Placement (AP) classes. I earned so many college credits in high school that I was able to graduate college an entire year early.

My mother and father have been divorced for almost 7 years now and it’s taken that long to even get them in the same room together and speaking to each other. I got married this past year to a wonderful guy who absolutely worships and adores me, despite all of my past scars that sometimes surface in times of trouble or stress. Both my mother and father walked me down the aisle, one on each arm, to give me away. To me, that act closed a chapter of my life and helped me start a new one. A new life with my new husband. My husband and I now live in peace, in an apartment that is only chaotic when I host a girl’s night with friends, and we only yell when our downstairs neighbor has his stereo up too loud.

Growing up, I didn’t dream of what college I wanted to go to, meeting my prince charming, or having a fairy-tale princess wedding. I could only ever focus on one day at a time, because the world seemed like too big of a task to take on and I never knew what tomorrow would bring.

I was living day after day with pure fear.

Below is an excerpt from the Fifty Shades Freed novel. Ana and Christian are now married and the following scene takes place in their (BDSM) playroom shortly after a “dramatic” plot event in which Ana’s former boss was apprehended after attempting to break into the Grey’s home while both were out. The story is narrated from Ana’s perspective.

But he gazes down at me, implacable. He’s just going to continue. For how long? Can I play this game? No. No. No – I can’t do this. I know he’s not going to stop. He’s going to continue to torture me. HIs hand travels down my body once more. No … And the dam bursts – all the apprehension, the anxiety, and the fear from the last couple of days overwhelming me anew as tears spring to my eyes. I turn away from him. This is not love. It’s revenge.

“Red,” I whimper. “Red. Red.” The tears course down my face.

He stills. “No!” He gasps, stunned. “Jesus Christ, no.”

He moves quickly, unclipping my hands, clasping me around my waist and leaning down to unclip my ankles, while I put my head in my hands and weep.

“No, no, no. Ana, please. No.”

Picking me up, he mores to the bed, sitting down and cradling me in his lap while I sob inconsolably. I’m overwhelmed…. my body wound up to breaking point, my mind a blank, and my emotions scattered to the wind. He reaches behind him, drags the satin sheet off the four-poster bed, and drapes it around me. The cool sheets feel alien and unwelcome against my sensitized skin. He wraps his arms around me, hugging me close, rocking me gently backward and forward.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Christian murmurs, his voice raw. He kisses my hair over and over again. “Ana, forgive me, please.”

I had no “safe word” growing up. I endured mental, physical, and emotional abuse (beyond even what I’ve detailed here) and there was no magic phrase I could say that would make it stop. Nothing I said could make the person inflicting the abuse stop, hold me close, tell me they love me, and say they were sorry; no matter how desperately I wanted them to. There was no one to come to my rescue; the adults in my life turned a blind eye to what was happening, I had no visible bruises, I was a straight-A seemingly “perfect” student, and I was terrified. I only escaped the abuse after I went to college, and even then it wasn’t until I was living on my own that I felt I had full control of my life and actually felt like I was “freed” of some of my darkest fears.

The Fifty Shades series does detail some things that made me uncomfortable, especially given my past. The way E.L. James describes the tone of Christian’s voice and his reactions to certain situations was tough for me to read in some spots – the scene when Ana tells Christian she’s pregnant comes to mind specifically. The problem I have is in understanding those who claim the book glamorizes something often referred to as Intimate Partner Violence.

Before Ana and Christian have sex he not only shows her his BDSM-style playroom, but also gives her a contract outlining exactly what he’s expecting out of their relationship. She knew what she was getting into from the beginning (or at least by Chapter 7 of the first book in the trilogy) and she still agreed to give her virginity to him. Throughout the trilogy, they consistently have dialogue discussing their relationship and their feelings for each other. They talk about Christian’s past, Ana’s desire for “more” out of their relationship, their deepest fears, and a whole host of other issues. In my personal experience with abuse, there is never a discussion of feelings. The situation in which I was living, the fear, and the feelings were all hidden from the rest of the world and definitely not discussed by those experiencing them day after day. I was born into a family with a temper, I was never given a choice or a “safe word” and some days this absolutely broke me emotionally and physically.

Would I want my now 15 year old youngest sister modeling her relationship with her significant other after the one depicted between Christian and Ana? Honestly, I can’t say that I would. Then again I’d have a problem with her modeling her relationship after ANY relationship depicted in a novel classified as “Erotic Fiction” at the age of 15 (or age 20, 25, 50, or ever…). There’s a reason the series is a work of fiction and in my opinion we should treat it as such.