Recent events have revealed that a surprising number of powerful men are, to put it gently, deranged. Until now, these men were routinely forgiven for their obsessive and extreme behavior because boys will be boys, or because geniuses have eccentricities, or because there are all sorts of completely normal reasons why someone might install a remote-control lock on his office door. As we ask ourselves how we could have been so stupid, one answer might lie deep below the surface, in the stories we tell ourselves about what counts as normal “romantic” pursuit. So here’s a thought experiment for our times: Which of the following people is crazy?
Case 1: You’re a young man with a promising future, until an old flame of yours reappears and turns your life upside down. Under the guise of a friendship with your old flame’s husband, you begin spending every evening in her home, joining her family for dinner and then hanging around until the wee hours, to the point where you have no life beyond these moments in her presence. Over the years, you pocket small items belonging to her—lipsticks, keys, jewelry—which you regard as sacred. You eventually build a private museum devoted to her, enshrining everything she ever touched.
Case 2: You’re a young man with a promising future, until an old flame of yours reappears and turns your life upside down. Under the guise of eccentricity for which the wealthy are forgiven, you purchase a mansion overlooking her home, and then rent out a neighboring property to an unwitting relative of hers, whom you quickly befriend—for the sole purpose of having a spy on the inside tracking her every move. Befriending her husband and throwing lavish open-door parties out of the hope that she’ll attend, you devote every action in your life to being in her presence.
Case 3: You’re a young woman with a promising future, until an old flame of yours reappears and turns your life upside down. Under the guise of looking for a change of scene, you pass up a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity and move from your cosmopolitan city to the no-name town where your old flame lives. There you spend every waking moment worming your way into his social circle, befriending his girlfriend and other friends, creating elaborate excuses for making your presence essential, and contriving ever more outlandish schemes just to be near him, out of the distant hope that one day he might return your love.
All of these situations are disturbing, to say the least; in some of their details, they may even meet the legal definition of stalking. They’re also all imaginary. The first is the plot of The Museum of Innocence, a 2009 international bestseller by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. The second is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 American masterpiece The Great Gatsby. The third is the premise of the current hit TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. All three have protagonists whose behavior could be charitably described as unhinged. Yet only one of these works has the word “crazy” in the title, and it’s the one where the woman plays the lead.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as advertised, focuses on its unrequited lover’s madness; its only claim to being a “romance” is its brilliant skewering of romantic-comedy clichés. Its masterfully created heroine’s yearning for love is portrayed as pathetic or pathological, just as it was for earlier fictional women like Emma Bovary and Lily Bart. But the other two works I described above, despite featuring protagonists equally certifiable and behavior equally extreme, are universally acclaimed as masterful tales of true love, their male protagonists romantic rather than pathetic. There’s also one more important difference. In Museum of Innocence and Gatsby, the object of the stalker’s pursuit never files that restraining order. Instead, she loves him back after all, fulfilling the man’s fantasy while conveniently justifying his disturbing actions. These obsessive male stalkers aren’t crazy, you see. They’re devoted, and their devotion is rewarded. Only the woman with identical behavior is insane.
I’ve recently been reminded of how deeply embedded this understanding of heterosexual “romance” is. My newest novel is about two former lovers who find themselves immortal—to the delight of the man, who can now pursue the woman forever, and to the dismay of the woman, who realizes her ex is literally never going away. In my mind the story is, among other things, an epic tale of stalking. But many readers see it as an epic tale of true love. I don’t fault these readers; I’m not even convinced they’re wrong. Yet I am intrigued by how automatically these readers give the male lead the benefit of the doubt.
As I scan my shelves, I discover this male-stalker-as-romantic-ideal pattern again and again. In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, a canonical classic made into multiple films, a man’s obsession with his married ex-lover leads him to employ a private investigator to stalk her, since her choice to dump him after a World War II bombing otherwise can’t be explained. By reading a diary the gumshoe lifts on his behalf, he learns that of course she still loves him, but simply promised God that she would leave him if he survived. As one would, apparently, when pursued by a man whose erotic devotion extends to hiring—forgive the expression—a dick.
In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the orphan Heathcliff falls in love with his adoptive sister Catherine; when she marries another and dies in childbirth, he misses her so much that he takes over her parents’ and husband’s properties, forces her daughter to marry his son, and exhumes her corpse. I guess this is sexy, which is why generations of readers have understood the book as a romantic masterpiece, one that is—according to my copy’s back flap—“the most haunting love story in the English language.” Switch the genders, and you have something more like Emily Bronte’s sister Charlotte’s novel, Jane Eyre, where the big reveal isn’t a dead ex-lover, but one who’s very much alive, and insane, and imprisoned by her husband in an attic for decades, because that’s what romantic men apparently do with women crazy enough to expect their love returned.
This pattern is extravagantly evoked in the works of the internationally bestselling author Haruki Murakami. Murakami first attained fame beyond his native Japan for his 1987 novel Norwegian Wood, about a young man obsessed with his dead friend’s girlfriend, whom he pursues into an insane asylum. (She’s the one in the asylum, needless to say.) His subsequent novels nearly all feature men who cannot let go of an old love, chasing women who tend to go missing—and who tend to provide sex at the end of the chase. These stalked women are often ciphers whose “mystery” comes from an artistic choice not to make them plausible people; some aren’t even given names. Murakami’s most recently translated fiction, a collection of stories, gives us one man after another driven to extremes by his ex- or dead wife or lover; the men all fully human, the women more often “mysterious” at best. The title of this collection, Men Without Women, says it all.
I want to be extremely clear: I love these books. They aren’t just literary masterpieces. They’re among my personal favorites, books I return to again and again. They’re also about much more than obsessive lovers, telling larger stories about the societies where these characters live. Those stories, along with their magnificently complex protagonists and the many insights that these talented artists embed on every page, give these works their enduring power. I wouldn’t change a word of any of them.
But no one would ever read these books without the entry point of a compelling character, one whose motivations, however twisted, are rendered as deeply human. Whether or not we find these leading men likable (a demand more often made of female characters), their creators have made them believable. Unlike their female love objects, they are not “mysterious.” On the contrary, we see the world from their point of view. Even if we wouldn’t make the choices they make, we understand them because their creators have made them real—and, for the record, not deranged. These men are not labeled pathetic, or sent to therapy, or locked in attics or shipped to sanatoria. Their romantic quests, however hopeless, are granted nobility.
I am not suggesting that predatory men have been inspired by great literature. (It seems no inspiration is necessary.) But it’s hard to deny the enormous generosity granted to so many obsessive male characters and that standard of generosity has also been part of real life—not in the behavior of predators, but in our responses to them, in the moments when we as a society decide whose stories we take seriously, who we believe.
I wonder how things might be different if our stories judged such men less generously—or conversely, if that same generosity were more available to women, both fictional and real. Literature's greatest power lies in how it builds our empathy, how it subtly adjusts who we find worthy of our understanding and respect. The stories we honor reflect the people we honor, and vice versa. They both reflect and shape how we understand universal human yearnings.
For now, we still consider men’s obsessions romantic and women’s obsessions crazy. Is it at all surprising, then, that we have spent so many years giving crazy men the benefit of the doubt?