Parental Abuse and the Romance Protagonist

Bitchery reader Dalia sent us the following email:

I’m looking to read up on romance novels containing a certain storyline and I was wondering if you could help me by (if you’re interested yourself in finding out, I know this could come across as presumptuous!) putting the question up on your site?

I’m looking for romances with a side story line featuring either the heroine or the hero with serious relationship issues with either one or both their parents. Not salad dressing sort of issues like Penelope Featherington & her obnoxious mother dressing her in green (Julia Quinn in whichever Bridgerton series instalment that was). More in line with Kevin’s tv star mother giving him up when he was a baby in SEP’s ‘Heart of Mine’ in terms of ‘seriousness’, for example.

Thanks a lot if you can help me.

Parental dysfunction?! Mega Angst Dysfunction of parental origin!? Oooh, there’s hardly ANY of that in Romancelandia! *snort*

So what do I do when someone says, “Got any romances like this?” I think of, like, two or three, then ask Candy, whose brain flies through the data like one of those rotating shirt hangers at the dry cleaners on high speed and comes up with fifteen thousand examples. And then, as usual, we start talking about WHY this subset exists, and how it came to be:

Sarah: Now, that’s an interesting subset. There’s a good number of “my parents abused me” stories, including a Julia Quinn, “The Duke & I,” wherein the hero was abused and rejected by his father for having a pronounced stutter. Does Samuel in “The Shadow and the Star” count?

Candy: Oh, man, there are quite a few books like that. Many of my favorites feature parents of mucho fucked-uppedness.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase: Sebastian Dain’s father is verbally and emotionally abusive to him. Quite horribly so. The book kicks off showing us what a douche Dain’s father is, and it’s very effective.

Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney: Carrie’s stepfather is physically and sexually abusive.

The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale: Zenia and her relationship with Hester Stanhope—now that’s some dysfunction cakes right there. Arden’s dad is shitty to him for being shy and having a stutter, but it’s nothing near the dysfunctionality of Hester and Zenia’s relationship.

Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale: Sheridan’s dad sends him to the motherfucking Navy when he’s 10 years old. For a lark. Sheridan’s dad explains a lot about Sheridan.

Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale: Faelan’s mother does unspeakable things to him—but we don’t find out what until the end of the book.

Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale: Allegreto’s father trains him to be an assassin, and some of the things he conditions Allegreto into doing…yeah.

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie: Min’s mom isn’t abusive, but her obsession with weight inflicts some lasting damage on Min. (Man, can I ever identify with Min.) But Cal’s parents…oy.

My Lady Notorious by Jo Beverley: Some of the things Chastity’s father does to her to make her marry the man he chooses for her are pretty horrific.

I know there are a lot more—some Judith McNaught mothers are pretty awful, but I can’t remember specifics.

Also, Lucien’s dad in Lucien’s Fall. What a douche!

Here’s an interesting pattern to ponder: heroes with awful parents, but especially awful mothers, are allowed to be assholes who take out their mother-issues (especially their distrust and rage) on the heroines. Heroines with awful parents, however, generally aren’t allowed this latitude, especially in historicals. They’re supposed to suck it up, be sugary-sweet and direct the rage and grief inwards.

Sarah: You know, you have a very good point there – heroines with horrible parentage are supposed to suck it up and rise above with the healing power of the hero’s Luuuurrrve® – almost like a Cinderella-Forgiveness mystique. Cinderella never gets mad. It’s not supposed to have any lasting damage or do psychological harm, all that abuse. It’s supposed to make her, or any other heroine, more gentle and kind, more generous and loving, more wholesome and pukefully perfect in spite of the horrid abuse she lives through. There’s no rage or grief, just generous forgiveness. It’s very odd.

Yet heroes abused are petulant little boys inside who rage against their grief by taking it out, Freudian style, on the newer woman figure in their lives. Such a peculiar trend.

However, in Kinsale’s Dream Hunter, Zenia definitely bears long-term psychosis for her mother’s abuse, because woo damn is she a nutjob. But even then, is there a difference in how her neuroses are treated and play out in the story when she’s hiding as a boy vs. revealed as a girl? Once she’s ensconced in a corset and ruffles, is she just a nutjob anomaly to the Cinderella-Forgiveness rule, instead of a victimized boy-girl who has been denigrated into psychological damage?

Candy: Abused heroes having more latitude to be assholes vs. heroines isn’t all that surprising, because they’re embodying our cultural expectations. Weren’t there studies a little while back showing how when men failed at a task, they tended to blame the task as being difficult or being rigged, while women tended to blame themselves and their inadequacy? (This is me dredging up memories of psychology classes I took ten years ago, so I’m probably full of shit; I suppose I should look something up on PubMed or Google Scholar.) At any rate, this is just another example of the double standards men and women are subjected to. It’s more acceptable for a man to be angry, but it’s not acceptable for him to cry; it’s more acceptable for a woman to cry, but lord forbid she be angry.

I do admire Kinsale for allowing Zenia to be a mess; I just wish she hadn’t crossed the line from “Damn, I can see what she’s going through and why she’s being such a buttmunch” to “OK, she needs to get over this.”

Your hypothesis re: Zenia is interesting, but I think you should turn this to the Bitchery and let them duke it out, because it’s been ten, eleven years since I’ve read the book and I’m really not equipped to analyze it meaningfully.

So, members of the esteemed Bitchery – what do you think? Is there a difference in attitude and characterization between heroines who are victims of parental abuse and heroes? Does the source, father or mother, make a difference? And what books of hella-abuse from parental-fucked-uppedness do you recall?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Robin says:

    How about Dearly Beloved by Putney or Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold?  Almost all of Crusie’s books have at least one bad parent, from Anyone but You to Welcome to Temptation—and they all have a significant impact on the adult child and his/her relationship.  Oh, then there’s Linda Howard’s Shades of Twilight and After the Night.  Maybe it would be easier to compile a list of books that DON’T have a shiteously destructive parent.

    And am I the only one who feels that the sheer number of bad mothers in Romance is a scandal?  The contrast of the “bad mother” to the “good mother” in the person of the heroine is a bit troubling to me, as is the proliferation of bad parents in general in the genre.  Although, it does make for an interesting analysis vis a vis the way Romance idealizes the family structure, and how the “good” family is drawn.

  2. 2
    sleeky says:

    Lady of Desire by Galaen Foley – bad dad

    The Devil You Know by Liz Carlyle – bad dad

    The Rose and the Shield by Sara Bennet – bad dad

    It’s in His Kiss by Julia Quinn – bad dad, or possibly bad uncle

    Shadows and Lace by Teresa Medeiros – crappy, if not actively evil dad

  3. 3
    Jess says:

    The one that leapt to mind was Carolina Moon, I believe that was the title from Nora Roberts.  Horribly abusive father.  And, of course, Eve Dallas. It hard to come up with more childhood abuses than Eve suffered.

    It is interesting, because more often than not abusive parents are seeminly put forth as a valid excuse to explain why the men in a book are such obnoxious asshats, and women are such wimps. I think Eve is one of the very few cases where a woman develops a serious backbone despite the abuse.

    This particular plot device is so common, IMO, because there’s an endless amount of character development that can derive from it. If done well.

    Although, more often than not it seems to be a thinly veiled excuse for the hero to behave badly.

  4. 4
    Candy says:

    Hmm, who had the bad parents in To Have and To Hold? I remember Rachel’s awful husband, but I don’t remember anything about either her or Sebastian’s family.

    I’d forgotten about Alex’s parents in Anyone But You. Well, it was mostly his dad, but his mother(s) didn’t seem particularly functional as mothers, either.

    The obsession with bad mothers in Romance almost has Freudian overtones, doesn’t it? But then literature has a Thing in general about bad


    parents (literary fiction is lousy with ‘em; Sacred Hunger, The Corrections, Music for Torching, Perfume, The Sound and the Fury—and those are just a very few titles off the top of my head). It’s so easy to write about, and let’s face it, nobody can fuck you up quite like momma can. Need instant angst? Just add Mom! Have mom be a slutty hobag, or a control freak, or just be plain doggone INSANE (ref. entire Malloren series), and you’re guaranteed at least 200 pages of internal conflict. It’s kind of like homosexuality/bisexuality for Instant Evil++ Villainy, only more Oedipal.

    How do you see the good family being drawn in romance, Robin?

  5. 5
    sara says:

    Nora Roberts’s entire J.D. Robb “In Death” series—the heroine was sexually abused by her father to the point that she killed him when she was eight, and the hero’s father was a murdering drunken abusive asswipe who killed his (the hero’s) mother.

    What I really like about the series is how the two, Eve and Roarke, start out as incredibly damaged people who are not victims of their childhoods. Yes, what they went through as kids informs the adults they are, and might have fucked them up more if not for their marriage, but they don’t make excuses for it.

    What I love about Nora’s writing is that she gives her female characters (and the male ones as well) full rein to be complete, effed-up, self-destructive jerks when it’s warranted. Eve is not a nice little lady because of her abusive background, she’s hard and doesn’t trust people and often punches people in the face. And I LOVE that.

  6. 6
    sara says:

    Huh. That took me so long to write that Jess scooped me.

  7. 7
    Jess says:

    *hangs head*

    Sorry Sara.  Though you did a much better job of explaining. I think that’s what made me enjoy the In Death books so much. Because their pasts didn’t just turn the hero and heroine into dysfunctional disasters, but gave depth to their characters and explained so much about their personalities.

    Instead of wanting to smack them and telling them to get over themselves, you want to see how they continue to evolve and meet each challenge in life.

  8. 8
    Robin says:

    Hmm, who had the bad parents in To Have and To Hold? I remember Rachel’s awful husband, but I don’t remember anything about either her or Sebastian’s family.

    Sebastian’s father, IIRC.  When he had to go back for his father’s funeral, didn’t we get a bunch of info about how emotionally and physically abusive his father was?  I could be remembering completely wrong, here, but for some reason it’s sticking.

    How do you see the good family being drawn in romance, Robin?

    Good question, Candy, and one to which I don’t have an immediate answer.  One thing I do think, though, is that in Romance bad parents play a special role because the genre has an implicit moral approach to the whole notion of family.  One a surface level, there seems to be some contrast being drawn between a family built on this incredible love and passion between the hero and heroine and one built on, well, convenience or power or something in the bad parents.  But I don’t think the contrast always works that way, because of the way Romance can often emphasize more traditional gender expectations for the hero and heroine, as well.  So the bad mommy who married daddy for money is supposed to be a contrast to the selfless nurturing heroine, but then the heroine is herself an embodiment of some problematic stereotypes.  I actually don’t think there’s one answer to this question, but it’s something that always strikes me as an issue in Romance that’s not talked about a lot.

  9. 9
    Chicklet says:

    People have mentioned some of Nora Roberts’s other books, but there’s also the entire Chesapeake Bay series—each of the four heroes was rescued from abuse and/or neglect by Ray and Stella Quinn. IIRC, three of them had mothers who were drunks and/or druggies and/or prostitutes, and the fourth had a (physically) abusive father.

    My verification word is “study49.” Apparently, the internet gods are reminding me what I need to do tonight.

  10. 10
    Shaunee says:

    Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop.  We follow the heroine Janelle from adolescence to her early twenties, I think.  Her family, in general, is pretty horrific—blind to her abilities/destiny and forever sticking her in a mental institution to fix it.  While there she is, as so many of the young occupants were, brutally raped.  (It’s sort of the place to go if you’re a young lord who gets off on sexually abusing children.) It’s extremely discomfiting and very effective.

    At any rate, Janelle grows up to be seriously Big Time, kicks everyone’s ass, et cetera, but when she confronts the mom with her true ass-kicking witchy self, the mom freaks; calls her disgusting or some such.  Still Janelle prevails.

    The heroes, Daemon and Lucivar corner the market on fucked-up mother figures.  Incest makes an appearance, but they seem to be healed by their quest to save the world and the love they find.

    Good stuff, but even as wretched as the parental/guardian abuse was, it didn’t seem to me to be the primary cause of hatred of all females everywhere because they’re money-grubbing sluts like dear old mom as it is in some romance.  The Black Jewels is fantasy so that could be the reason for the difference.  Don’t know.

  11. 11
    Elle says:

    Hmm, who had the bad parents in To Have and To Hold? I remember Rachel’s awful husband, but I don’t remember anything about either her or Sebastian’s family.

    Robin is correct, Sebastian’s father was horribly cold and abusive.  And the rest of his family was not exactly warm and fuzzy either.  But Bad Daddy was set up as Exhibit A for “Why Sebastian Is the Jerk that He Is” at the beginning of the story.

    The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale: Zenia and her relationship with Hester Stanhope—now that’s some dysfunction cakes right there. Arden’s dad is shitty to him for being shy and having a stutter, but it’s nothing near the dysfunctionality of Hester and Zenia’s relationship.

    Yes, Zenia and her mother had a very dysfunctional relationship.  But Arden’s mom and dad were not really shitty to him (IMO), just really unbearably overprotective and (once he became an adult) very awkward in his presence.  I do not recall Arden having a stutter, although I may be wrong.  (Famous romance stutterers include the hero of Julia Quinn’s “The Duke and I”, the heroine of Lisa Kleypas’ “The Devil in Winter”, the heroine of Georgette Heyer’s “A Marriage of Convenience”, and Stuart from Judith Ivory’s “Untie My Heart”.)

    I really disliked Zenia in “The Dream Hunter” in the second half of the story when I first read the book, but on re-read I found her psychological issues that sprang from her mother and her upbringing really fascinating and noticed that the misconnects between Arden and her were not *all* her fault.  The beauty of the characters of Zenia and Arden is how complementary they are—both unhappy and uncomfortable in the surroundings of their birth and upbringing and longing for the freedom (in Arden’s case) or security (in Zenia’s case) of a foreign land.  Zenia raised by a controlling but neglectful mother and Arden by controlling but overprotective parents.  Both *so* protective of their hard-won independence.  This is definitely a book that I liked much better on the re-read.

  12. 12
    jmc says:



    Four more Putney books to add to the list, all from her Fallen Angels series:

    One Perfect Rose & Shattered Rainbows  The father of the two heroes of these books more or less pitted them against each other, and disowned the younger son.  The dad doesn’t appear in the books, but the information given makes him seem like an @sshole, with complications caused by a tempestuous marriage to a woman who may have foisted off a bastard on him.

    Thunder & Roses:  Nick, abandoned by his sick mother to his grandfather’s care.  Gramps hated him and thought his impure blood sullied the family line, and always let him know it.

    Angel Rogue.  Bluff British father thought Robin too effeminate and lazy.  Robin ran and away and became a spy.  I’ll show you, daddy!

    The basis of the group of friends was that their families sucked, so they became each others families.

  13. 13
    Dalia says:

    Thanks a lot everybody.

    I’ve got a nice, long list to go through now.


  14. 14

    You guys beat me to the punch again, naming my top choices.  Just to chime in anyway (because as a former boss said, “Darlene believes everyone is entitled to her opinion”), I would’ve put Eve Dallas and Roarke at the top of that abuse list, followed by Sebastian Dain from Lord of Scoundrels.

    Some other SEP’s with parenting issues include Hot Shots with the heroine’s controlling, distant father, and a similar situation for Judith McNaught’s heroine in Perfect (Or was it Paradise? My office is being painted and the books are away).

  15. 15
    Candy says:

    I do not recall Arden having a stutter, although I may be wrong.

    Heh, I may very well have imagined this—for some reason, I remember part of Arden’s reticence and the reason why everyone thinks he’s cold and snobbish is because he had a debilitating stutter as a child and he’s very cautious of speaking. Though now that I think about it, maybe I’m confusing Ransom for Arden…. O People Who Have Read TDH more recently than I have: am I wrong? Did I imagine Arden’s stutter?

  16. 16
    Candy says:

    Darlene: The heroine’s father in Paradise was pretty douchey, if memory serves correctly. Also, the heroine’s father in Kingdom of Dreams.

    Hmmm, another rule of Romancelandia: If hero and father or heroine’s father are at odds, the father has to be an utter douchebag.

  17. 17

    Thanks, Candy.  Paradise was the one I was thinking of, with the dead baby and all that angst.

  18. 18
    seton says:

    THE PERFECT RAKE by Anne Gracie—grandfather is a piece of work

    THE CHARMER by Madeline Hunter—both H/H have really horrible fathers

  19. 19
    seton says:

    PASSION by Lisa Valdez—Mark’s mother made Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver

  20. 20
    Zoe Archer says:

    I would be hard pressed to come up with romance novels that featured parents where there *wasn’t* some form of dysfunction.  One seldom reads about a hero or heroine’s parents and learn that the parents loved each other, and their child, as well.  I seem to recall that in Judith McNaught’s “Something Wonderful,” the heroine’s father was dead and her mother was a shrill recluse.  The hero’s parents were wildly and blatantly unfaithful to each other as well as emotionally unavailable to their son.  The result: a perfect romance match.

    “Something Wonderful” features the two prominent family structures in romance, which is either one or more abusive parents, or the absent parent.  Neither of these frequently-employed models much surprise me.  Psychological analysis of fairy tales has pointed out that the hero or heroine of the story often comes from an incomplete or unsatisfying family in order to precipitate their movement into the larger world.  If the family unit was complete and sound, there would be no crisis which forces the h/h into their adventure and symbolic road to maturity.  For example, if Jack had both his parents, he and his mother might not be as desperately poor, nor would his mother send him to the market to sell the cow and set in motion the chain of events which lead him to climb the beanstalk (hello Senor Phallic Symbol!) and ultimately make his fortune.  I believe Bruno Bettelheim discussed this in “The Uses of Enchantment,” though I’m not entirely certain.

    It has been postulated in “Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women” that not only does the heroine represent and serve as a cipher for the reader, but that the hero does, as well, and they both form the dual nature of the reader’s consciousness.  With this in mind, it would make sense that one or both of the protagonists suffer from some sort of parental trauma which is healed over the course of the novel. 

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of Byron McBroodersons carrying on for twenty odd years because he caught Mommy schtupping the tutor and now all people with boobies are whores, including you, Miss Feisty Bluestocking.  Nor do I believe that he should trill happily after suffering from childhood abuse.  I think that there is a happy medium somewhere in the midst this, whereby our hero (and, yes, heroine) is accountable for their actions as an adult, and behaves accordingly. 

    While I adore La Nora, I have been nursing a pet theory about her hero Grayson from “Born In Ice.”  I think that he’s attracted to Bree precisely because she represents the mothering he never received.  He’s aroused by the sight of her disinfecting a bathroom.  I think that qualifies as somewhat Oedipal…

  21. 21
    Michelle says:

    Gotta go with the In Death series.  Start with Naked in Death.

  22. 22
    Beth says:

    Arden didn’t stutter. And his mom was a total bitch to him in his adulthood.

  23. 23
    Bithalynn says:

    A lot of Nora Roberts’ characters have a bad parent. Angelina in Midnight Bayou had a mother that was a druggie and slept with A’s boyfriend when A was a teenager. Stella in Blue Dahlia had a pretty bad mom too IIRC. Hmm, my word veri is policy81. Maybe that’s where in the Romance Writer’s Handbook we’d find the rule regarding abusive/neglectful parents?

  24. 24
    Lisa says:

    Lady’s Companion and With This Ring by Carla Kelly and pretty damn near everything by Dinah McCall.

  25. 25
    Dalia says:

    What I’m looking for in particular is not ‘bad’ parents but ‘bad’ relationships – where no singular party is wholly at fault and throughout the course of the novel, the hero/ine and the parent(s) work through their problems (or attempt to do so).

  26. 26
    SB Sarah says:

    I remember thinking when I started reading the Bridgerton series that Julia Quinn’s efforts to portray a functional loving family in that time period were exceptional and definitely refreshing. Of course, there is no father because he died tragically, but there was definitely a parental level of function and caring that continued past the father’s death. That death did affect his children, but it wasn’t because he was a douche.

  27. 27
    Elle says:

    What I’m looking for in particular is not ‘bad’ parents but ‘bad’ relationships – where no singular party is wholly at fault and throughout the course of the novel, the hero/ine and the parent(s) work through their problems (or attempt to do so).

    Ah.  Well, I think that Kinsale’s “The Dream Hunter” is an excellent example of the type of complex, dysfunctional relationship between father and son that you describe.  There is really a very poignant scene near the end of the book involving Arden and his father.

    There is a series of historical mysteries set in the Regency period written by C.S. Harris (AKA Candice Proctor) featuring a nobleman hero, Sebastian St. Cyr, who has a very interesting, complex relationship with his father.

    Mary Balogh’s “A Summer to Remember” features a hero who believes that he has always been a disappointment to his father.  The two work on their dysfunctional relationship during the course the book.

    Another book with a dysfunction mother/son combination is Sutcliffe’s “Darking, I Listen” which features a mother who was so interested in furthering her young son’s career as a child star that she turned a blind eye to obvious signs of child abuse.

    The father in Judith McNaught’s “Paradise” is a control freak who believes that his daughter is a whore, because he thought that her mother was a whore, etc., etc.  Paradoxically, no one is good enough for her.  He is *extremely* manipulative and his bad behavior sets up the whole Big Mis between the hero and heroine.  He gets off waaay too easily in the end, IMO. 

    Books in which the offending parent is blithely forgiven by everyone at the end of the story always leave me shaking my head….“Well, he *did* sell me into slavery and then try to murder me, but he *is* my dad and I guess that for the purposes of family harmony and the HEA we should all kiss and make up….”

  28. 28

    Dalia—Someone who does a lot of difficult father/son relationships is Jayne Anne Krentz.  They’re dysfunctional in the sense that oftentimes the father doesn’t understand the son, his career choices, his taste in women and his motivation ‘til the heroine explains it all to him and brings them together with her sweetness and light

  29. 29
    Myriantha Fatalis says:

    Quoth Zoe Archer:

    I would be hard pressed to come up with romance novels that featured parents where there *wasn’t* some form of dysfunction.  One seldom reads about a hero or heroine’s parents and learn that the parents loved each other, and their child, as well.

    Actually, this kinda-sorta happens fairly often in the Regency state of Romancelandia.

    One common scenario is based on the “runaway love match” device.  Although the parents were forbidden to marry—usually forbidden due to class or financial differences—they provide a loving home environment, replete with public displays of affection.  Frequently there is financial instability, whether from a life spent following the drum or from the gambling habit of the genial-yet-spendthrift father.  Familial tension is provided by grandparents and other family members who cast off the unrepentant parents and with whom the hero/ine must come to terms.

    The other major scenario involves an idyllic period of childhood lasting until the death of one or both parents.  Enter the wicked stepparent, unscrupulous uncle, lecherous guardian, or whomever.  While the abuse is still being performed by someone in a parental role, the hero/ine still has the memories of “what marriage can be”.

  30. 30

    I have to nominate one of my own books.  I don’t usually write about famiial dysfunction.  But in my BODY OF LIES, the heroine Alexandra Waters’ father Sammy raped her when she was fourteen, “gave” her, as he was dying, to the hero when she was seventeen (luckily our hero sort of misinterpreted the “gift”) and in between was, as one of my reader’s described it, a hot mess. 

    But I agree with whoever said that often times poor parenting as the reason why heroes behave badly or heroines become wimps can be overused.  Undoubtedly in fiction as well as life, our relationship with our parents shapes us, but not all of us in the same way.  And how come no one ever seems to see a shrink?  Please, if you’re that messed up, quit dating people and get some help first.  Historical characters please ignore the last comment.

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