One of my oldest possessions is a book titled “Arturo e Clementina” (“Arthur and Clementine” in English). It was published in the 70s as part of a series called, in Italy, “editions on the side of little girls.” (In English the series is called “non-sexist children literature,” which I think may be a misnomer. “Non-misogynistic” might have been more accurate.) The book is out of print now, and often wretchedly expensive, but a summary, lacking some of the subtlety, can be found here.
The book is the tale of two tortoises, Arthur and Clementine, who marry after a whirlwind romance. Clementine is looking forward to a life of activities and adventures with Arthur. Arthur does not disabuse her of her notions, but he has other plans.
Every time Clementine tells him that she would like to do something or go somewhere, he poo-poos her ideas. He explains to her that she’s just not good enough to learn or do anything much at all. Instead, he buys her stuff. He buys her heavy stuff that she hasn’t asked for and doesn’t want, and ties it to her shell. He buys her so much stuff, in fact, that after a while she can’t move anymore, and has to rely on Arthur to feed her.
Until one day Clementine has enough, and leaves her shell to go for a walk. She’s back on time for lunch, so Arthur doesn’t find out. She enjoys her little escapade so much that she goes off again, and again, and soon enough it becomes a habit. Arthur notices that the house is not kept properly and that Clementine is uncharacteristically happy. He makes sure to tell her that her smiles”look idiotic,” but at this point she’s too happy to care about his criticisms. Until one day Arthur comes back home, and Clementine isn’t there. She’s done a runner, leaving her shell and her possessions behind, and she’s never seen again. Arthur consoles himself by telling all his friends how ungrateful she was: “I bought her everything she could possibly want. Just think, she had twenty-five floors filled with treasures…”
This book has shaped the way in which I look at the world so deeply and at such an early age that I have no idea what my life might have been like without it. I don’t know what kind of person I would have been, what kind of things I would have done, if this story and its lessons hadn’t lodged itself in my three-year-old brain. It was certainly instrumental in me leaving home, and not feeling half as bad about it as I was told I should. It was instrumental in me breaking up with guys who insisted that they looooved me, but whose love demanded that I become something I’m not. Something lesser. Something secondary; a satellite, rotating around them, content with reflecting their brilliance.
I thought the book was great, until a friend read it and pointed something out to me. All the way through her relationship, Clementine does not set or enforce boundaries. She’s constantly asking Arthur for his permission to do or be, rather than doing or being. She’s constantly bowing down to his superior knowledge, even when he’s telling her that she’s careless, or clumsy, or stupid. She allows him to control her life. And then she just dumps him, without giving him the chance to make things right. What is this, a book to teach little girls how to get a divorce?
At that point, I was deeply immersed in learning self-defence. And, in self-defence, boundary setting is A Critical Thing. If you don’t state your boundaries, you can’t expect people to respect them. You can’t blame people for failing to read your mind. You sure as hell can’t punish them for it. So when my friend pointed out Clementine’s lack of clearly-stated boundaries, I had to agree. Clementine consistently failed to stand her ground, and then just abandoned her poor husband. How was he supposed to know that he was doing anything wrong?
That was three years ago. It’s taken me this long to realise that this interpretation is kinda true, but it’s also kinda bullshit.
I’m reminded of Shamus Young’s “Philosophy of Moderation,” which I personally consider to be the ultimate statement on the safe, sane, and pleasant running of an online community (the highlight is mine):
We’ve all seen a rule along the lines of, “You will not use any forum or other community section to post or transmit any material that is abusive, hateful, racist, bigoted, sexist, harassing, threatening, inflammatory, defamatory, knowingly false, vulgar, obscene, sexually-oriented, profane or is otherwise offensive or in violation of any applicable law, rule or regulation.” The thing is, sane people know this. They understand it without being told. Nobody needs to post rules on the door to Olive Garden telling customers not to spit or punch. If someone breaks these rules then they’re sick, and we call the cops. The crazy people are the only ones who need these things explained to them, and even when you do explain it to them, they just see your rules as a problem to solve. The problem isn’t that they broke the rules regarding saying hateful things, the problem is that they wanted to say something hateful in the first place.
The problem isn’t that Arthur broke the rules regarding treating his partner badly. The problem is that Arthur wanted to treat his partner badly in the first place.
Yes, Clementine’s inability to defend herself from Arthur’s belittling, insulting, infantilising, manipulative, controlling, oppressive behaviour is an issue. But the real problem is that Arthur thinks it’s OK to belittle, insult, infantilise, manipulate, control, and oppress his partner. He doesn’t do it once, or over a specific sticking point: he does it all the time. It’s his thing. And he not only doesn’t see it as a problem, but he absolutely believes that Clementine taking issue with it is further proof that she’s an idiot. He sees her unhappiness not as a relationship issue, or, heaven forfend, as the direct result of his behaviour: he sees it as proof that she’s a fool incapable of comprehending that her life, as he is making it, is precisely as it should be. The unhappier she is with her life, the more she’s proving unfit to self-determine.
If Clementine wanted to change his behaviour towards her for good, she would have to push him through a major paradigm shift about how their relationship should work (hint: it shouldn’t rotate around him). Until or unless she achieves that, she would have to challenge and fight him all the time, on all fronts. She would have to fight him to assert her intelligence, her abilities, her right to self-determine. She would have to fight him to make him treat her as an actual human person. And, whether that war is winnable or not, it sounds utterly exhausting, and utterly unlike a loving relationship.
And now I’m wondering how often we fall for this. In self-defence, we’re so keen to tell people about boundary settings that we sometimes forget that having to constantly defend your boundaries can be the sign that a situation is already compromised beyond repair, and you should just look for the exit sign. That it can be the sign that you’re dealing with somebody who is quite simply not OK, because OK people wouldn’t dream to treat you like that. Particularly when applied to intimate situations, or those in which a party is inherently vulnerable (e.g. in patient-therapist relationship), our love affair with boundary setting could do more harm than good.