Trigger warnings for this section.
Discussion of sex trafficking, childhood sexual abuse, rape, emotional abuse, domestic violence, and suicide.
Wrapping up the prologue and commentary on Rivers’ commentary.
Something I failed to mention last time is that Rivers has titled the different sections of her book. She also begins each chapter with a quote — Bible verses, poetry, things of that nature — that is supposed to tie into the chapter at hand. In this way, she gives us a little commentary on what we are to expect in the pages to come, along with giving us hints about how we’re to interpret what we read.
Unsurprisingly, this can be a little…problematic.
Take the prologue’s title, for example. “Child of Darkness.” I’m unable to really figure out a way that title isn’t dehumanizing. Are children without loving fathers considered children of darkness? What about children of sex workers? What about children sold into sex work? What about children who can’t stay sweet and happy and joyful in the face of having a violent hateful father, a mother who died far too young, and being a sex slave? There’s no doubt that Sarah’s life is full of darkness and evil. But she herself is not dark or evil. And the implication of saying she is hardly bears thought.
This kind of thing remains a problem throughout the book, and I’ll mention it in the analysis section of each entry of this multi-part Redeeming Love review series.
A final note: from here on out, I’ll be referring to Sarah as Angel. I’m a bit torn about this, as it’s the name that her abuser gave her. But for the majority of the book, it’s also the name she chooses to think of herself as. On a more personal note, as a fundamentalist, what I perceived to be the persona of Angel is who I most identified with. And so I use the name she referred to herself as in the book…and the name I identified with for far too long.
Overview: chapters 1-6.
We pick our story back up 14 years later in 1850, no longer in New England but instead in California. Angel works in the town of Pair-a-Dice as the highest priced sex worker in a brothel run by a woman known as the Duchess.
Angel recalls how she ended up in California from New England. She had been bent on escape, traveling by sea* to the West to start a new life by herself. When she reached the ship, however, she learned that she was 1 of 3 women surrounded by a crew of 120 men. The other 2 women, sex workers, started working right away. Angel, however, locked herself in her cabin until “she had one simple choice: go back to being a prostitute or be raped.” At the end of her journey, however, the other 2 sex workers jumped her, beat her unconscious, stole all the money she’d earned, and abandoned her onboard. Two days later, scavengers came to search the ship. They took what they could from the ship, raped Angel, then brought her to shore. As soon as they became distracted, she escaped and began living and working on the streets of Portsmouth Square.
The Duchess found her and talked her into joining her brothel in California, assuring her that work would be plenty and she’d be able to get rich working for gold diggers. Angel agreed, settling on only keeping 20% of her earnings in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing. The Duchess actually kept all of the earnings of her workers, giving them allowances when she saw fit and keeping order through the help of a sadistic man named Bret Magowan, who was only too happy to maintain order through a reign of terror. “She had fled from Duke and fallen into the hands of Duchess.”
The first chapter ends as Angel is brought back to the present, feeling hopeless, empty, and suicidal. “At eighteen, she was tired of living and resigned to the fact that nothing would ever change.”
Chapter 2 opens with the introduction of 26-year-old Christian farmer, Michael Hosea. He’s described as being a tall, strong, handsome, silent, confident man who commands respect from all who meet him. He has traveled to Pair-a-Dice to sell his vegetables to a Jewish merchant and is unloading his cart when he spots Angel walking down the street with Magowan. He’s utterly struck by her beauty and unable to keep himself from staring at her until she’s out of sight.
He hears the silent words spoken by God, “This one, beloved,” and is overjoyed — until he learns from the merchant, Joseph, that she is a sex-worker. Or, as he clarifies in disbelief, “a soiled dove.” In disgust and confusion, he gets his money from Joseph and leaves, driving by the brothel on his way out of town. The second chapter comes to a close as Michael tries saying her name out loud, and receives inaudible but certain confirmation from God that Angel is the woman he’s supposed to marry.
The third chapter opens with Angel waiting for her last clients of the day. She hears one of her coworkers and only friend, an older alcoholic woman named Lucky, laughing in an adjoining room, and recalls the one time she tried drinking with her. She ended up violently ill, learning she couldn’t hold her liquor. Her subsequent hangover caused her to dismiss paying customers, much to the Duchess’s consternation. It was at that time she learned to fear Magowan, who was sent to sober her up and instill terror to make sure she never stepped out of line again.
Angel is drawn out of her recollections as her last client knocks on her door. She’s shaking, cracking under the pressure of pretending to be okay for so many years, and is desperate to be finished for the evening.
Unsurprisingly, the man at the door is Michael Hosea. She has “an odd uneasiness” when he enters the room, but pushes it down in order to get ready to work. Michael, on the other hand, is nervous and trying to figure out how to go about wooing her since he’s a virgin and utterly unfamiliar with sex work. When she presses him to tell her what he wants, he begins talking to her, insisting that he didn’t come for sex. He asks her questions about where she lives, how old she is, trying to get to know her and feeling unprepared by God and helpless in the face of someone he thinks of as hard as marble.When she tells him he can call her whatever he wants, he names her Mara, because it means bitter. He proceeds to tell her that she is going to marry him, and he won’t have sex with her until she does. Angel becomes angry, convinced Michael is toying with her. All she wants to do is her job so she can be finished for the night. She tries repeatedly to get him into bed, but he refuses, admitting that while he’s no better than any other man who comes to her, he just wants more than sex. “[I want] everything. I want what you don’t even know you have to give.” Chapter 3 ends as the time he paid for is up and he has to leave. He assures her that he’ll be back and that all he wants is a half-hour of honest conversation. “Mister, five minutes and you’d run like the devil.”
As chapter 4 opens, we learn that Michael does come back, time and time again. As he talks to Angel each time, her restlessness and depression grow. He assures her that he can give her freedom, hope, happiness. She remembers the last man who promised her freedom and love, and sinks into a greater depression as she believes that the best she can hope for in life is to merely survive. All of his questions about what kept her at the brothel and all of his promises of freedom make Angel start to think about leaving — not with him, but striking out on her own. She’s sure she has enough gold saved up to do so, but that gold is under lock and key with the Duchess. She’s torn about what to do, but knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the one option that she doesn’t want is to go with Michael.
Angel’s annoyance grows when one of her coworkers asks her about Michael. She dodges the questions easily, and the rest of the sex workers begin to bicker amongst themselves. When the topic refuses to die, Angel finally tells the woman to invite Michael into her room and see for herself what he’s all about.
When he comes to visit her that night, her coworker offers herself to him, telling him that Angel said he’d like her better and would see it as a favor if she took him off her hands. Incensed, he continues into Angel’s room. She notices his anger and becomes afraid. She knows from experience that anger in her line of work often makes men unpredictable and dangerous. He complains to her that he’s not getting anywhere with her. She reminds him that she’s not asking him to keep coming back, and he exclaims that he doesn’t want to leave her in this “godforsaken place.” Surprised, she reminds him that it’s not his business. He insists that it is his business, became his business the minute he saw her. When she maintains that she’s not asking him to do anything for her, to spend any time with her, he becomes defensive and derisive, saying sarcastically and pointedly that she asks for nothing, needs nothing, feels nothing. She realizes that his pride is hurt and says she offered him to her coworker so he could “leave with a smile on [his] face.” He replies that hearing her say his name would make him smile, then loses himself in desire and kisses her — only to pull back when he realizes what’s happening. Angel realizes with a shock that he’s a virgin, and he tells her that he’s been waiting for the right woman. She laughs at him and tells him that he’s a fool to think she’s the right woman for him. Enraged, he leaves her room and storms out of town, telling God repeatedly along the way that she’s not good enough for him and he’s not going back for her.
The chapter closes with Angel watching him from her window, realizing he’s leaving town, and sinking into despair, afraid she’s “thrown her last chance away.”
Chapter 5 opens with a storm lasting for days, reminding Angel of her childhood with her mother on the docks shortly before her death. When Lucky comes to visit, she welcomes her company, listening to her friend recount her own childhood with dead parents and an abusive but religious aunt from whom she ran away. After this conversation, Angel decides to ask the Duchess for her money so she can leave and start a life on her own.
When Angel enters the Duchess’s room, she notices all the niceties her employer is enjoying — things like butter and cream and eggs and cheese, things the sex workers are told are too expensive for them to have — and she is angered by the injustice. She demands her portion of gold, and when the Duchess refuses, she verbally lights into the woman for her hypocrisy and excess, even threatening to strike out on her own. The Duchess becomes very composed and Angel realizes that retaliation for her outburst will be great. She wilts and and pleads, insisting that she just can’t keep doing it anymore and has to get out. Duchess promises to think about it and sends her to her room. Shortly thereafter, Magowan enters, gleefully letting her know that he’s been instructed to remind her who’s boss and won’t leave any marks that will prevent her from working.
Despondent, hopeless, desperate for any way out of her situation, Angel decides that it would be better to die than to continue living as she is. The chapter wraps up as she calculatingly taunts Magowan. He responds by losing control and viciously attacking her.
The final chapter I’m reviewing in this section begins with Michael back at home on the farm, unable to stop thinking about Angel. He thinks about her during the day while he works and dreams about her at night. When his dreams turn to nightmares, he realizes he’s stopped praying and communing with God. He vows to go back and get her, and is granted a full night of peaceful sleep.
Michael packs up his crops and heads into Pair-a-Dice again, selling everything to Joseph once again. As he leaves the mercantile, he’s approached by Lucky. She begs him to go ask Angel to marry him one more time. She refuses to explain why, and Michael becomes alarmed. He rushes to the brothel and up the stairs to Angel’s room, where the Duchess and a doctor are exiting. The Duchess tries to stop him from going into her room, but she’s so badly beaten that the doctor refuses to prevent him from going in, sensing he might save her.
Angel rouses slightly, delirious, very near death. She hears the Duchess insisting that if Michael wants to take Angel away, he has to pay for her, but she’s so disoriented that she can’t figure out who Michael is. Money is exchanged, and Michael tells her that he wants to marry her before they leave. She laughs weakly at the notion of marriage, and he insists, “Just say yes.” She manages to form the words, “Why not?” thinking that she would “wed Satan himself” if it would get her away from her current situation. She drifts in and out of consciousness during the ceremony, only barely registering that a ring is slipped onto her finger. Lucky comes to her and tearfully tells her that it was Michael’s mother’s wedding ring, and insists that she’s going to live a better life. The chapter closes with Lucky begging Angel not to forget her.
Just as Rivers was careful to label Mae as Catholic (and therefore appease her readers that Mae’s faith was just in the wrong things, not useless), she points out other Christians in this section as Not Real Christians. She specifically mentions a preacher on a street corner “preaching salvation” while his brother “fleeced the godforsaken,” and mentions Lucky’s abusive but religious aunt. It feels like constant reassurance that oh yes, bad people do bad things in the name of religion, but don’t worry! Real Christians like Michael Hosea and you aren’t like that.
Also worth mentioning is the way in which Rivers idealizes* Angel’s beauty (porcelain skin with baby blue eyes and golden silken hair). It’s as if her beauty is to juxtapose her character (more on that in a minute). Michael is also idealized, both physically and personality-wise. Everything in the book feels sanitized and stiff in that sort of way. Everyone is beautiful, unless they’re a bad guy (or unless their beauty is used to disguise their evil, like Duke symbolizing Satan’s biblical description of an angel of light). Even when people swear violently, we never hear a word of it — because we can talk about sex trafficking, child rape, and domestic violence, but heaven forbid we read any cursing. In so many ways, everything is idealized and cleaned up and therefore often feels unrealistic. However, it is a fiction book, so suspending belief is part and parcel of immersing yourself in the story. It is telling, however, that the characters chosen for us to immerse ourselves with are so very, very white. There are very few people of color in this book.
The rest of my observations for these 6 chapters fall under two categories, and are expanded upon below.
Victim-blaming and preying on the weak.
Rivers chose to give this section of the book the title “Defiance.” To be honest, this enrages me. She’s calling a woman “defiant” who was sold into sex trafficking as an 8 year old child and is clearly suffering extreme post-traumatic stress and unable to escape her oppression and the effects of her trauma. As a person with PTSD and a survivor of childhood rape myself, this utterly shakes me. I understand, from her point of view, that Angel is defiant because she won’t willingly go with Michael and live a happier life with him and God. But that’s such a reductionist view of humanity, religion, the effects of extreme physical, emotional, mental, and sexual trauma, the realities of sex trafficking and oppression, the nature of healing from abuse…it’s hard to believe someone who supposedly possesses the love of an all-loving and merciful God can make such a flat and unempathetic statement.
While it’s obvious that Rivers tries to depict sex trafficking as a terrible thing that’s difficult for its victims to escape, she also clearly judges those victims for being sex workers. She seems to have no concept whatsoever of consent, or that consent is impossible when coercion is used. This is shown repeatedly in these 6 chapters, most notably when she says that Angel had the choice of going back to sex work or being raped. If you will face violence for not having sex, it is rape regardless. Sex that is coerced through words or violence is rape.
Let me take a moment to say that sex trafficking is reprehensible. I also want to be clear that there’s a huge difference between sex work as a chosen trade and sex work as a slave*. And that difference involves consent and autonomy*. That crucial distinction is absolutely missing from the pages of this book. Sex work is seen as universally sinful and damning, regardless of how one entered it in the first place or why one remains in the trade. What’s worse, though, is that Rivers paints all sex workers as being coerced into sex work and also complicit in their own victimization for being unable to leave. This terrible misunderstanding of consent and culpability, while somewhat covert right now, will be teased out as the book continues.
Despite labeling Angel as defiant, Rivers does painstakingly work to show us Angel’s despondency. It’s very clear why Angel has hardened herself and worked so hard to not outwardly show emotion. It’s very clear why she feels so hopeless and trapped. When she decides that death would be better than life, we feel empathy for her and understand. While I do find this depiction of Angel to be understandable and accurate, I’m uneasy with it nonetheless. It seems like Rivers is painting us a picture of how Angel is “ripe for the harvest.” In my observation, Christianity in general tends to prey on vulnerability — but the way Angel is described as being so lost and in need of rescuing seems particularly insensitive as she’s also portrayed as needing saved from herself as much as from her abusive environment. She’s described as making Magowan attack her, as if he had no choice in the matter. As she’s being taken out of Pair-a-Dice, Lucky tearfully asks her if life is “really that bad.” The message seems to be contradictory: of course Angel is traumatized and living in an extremely abusive situation. But she has the power to make things better for herself by leaving with Michael, or to make things worse by provoking someone into attacking her. As if oppression can be so easily escaped. As if women are responsible when men try to kill them. As if the abused are a particularly ripe crop, ready to be plucked for induction into God’s kingdom.
“Benevolent” sexism* and our savior, Michael Hosea.
When I first read this book 10 or so years ago, I was captivated by Michael Hosea. He is clearly based on the prophet, Hosea, and is portrayed as Angel’s knight in shining armor. To me as a young adult, he was a true man of God. Selfless. Loving. Patient and kind. The kind of godly man I’d only be too happy to follow and submit to. I often prayed to be given to such a man like him.
We’re clearly supposed to identify with Angel. But we’re to aspire to be Michael.
And as I’m going through the book this time, I’m all too aware of how entitled and abusive he really is.
There are two kinds of sexism: hostile and “benevolent.” While hostile sexism “encompasses the negative equivalents on each dimension: dominative paternalism, derogatory beliefs, and heterosexual hostility,” benevolent sexism “encompasses subjectively positive (for the sexist) attitudes toward women in traditional roles: protective paternalism, idealization of women, and desire for intimate relations.” Make no mistake: despite its moniker, “benevolent” sexism is damaging every bit as much as hostile sexism. As psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske point out in their article “Hostile and Benevolent Sexism: Measuring Ambivalent Sexist Attitudes Toward Women,” “Both forms of sexism serve to justify and maintain patriarchy and traditional gender roles.”
Western Christianity as a whole tends to practice benevolent sexism, particularly when outlining the ideals of romantic relationships. My friend, Sarah Moon, wrote an article for the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences (PDF) examining evangelical Christianity’s mainstream teachings about relationships and how those teachings contribute to sexist attitudes. (Her findings are also outlined and accessible in her blog series by the same title.*) As such, it’s no surprise that the ideal man in Redeeming Love exhibits paternalistic and controlling sexist beliefs and behaviours.
Rivers’ aforementioned failure to recognize victims of sex trafficking as unable to consent and living under oppression — in short, victim-blaming them for the violence enacted upon them — is repeatedly spoken through Michael, who is literally functioning as God’s mouthpiece in this book. Michael repeatedly tells Angel that she can “just” leave with him. He constantly questions why she stays at the brothel, why she does sex work to begin with. He seems to have no concept of sex trafficking and how it removes the autonomy of its victims. Once again, it’s a reductionist view that says, “You can’t possibly want this, so why don’t you just leave?” It’s a view that denies the positive experiences of people who choose sex work while also blaming those who have no choice for being unable to escape their situation or override the effects their trauma has had on their psyche.
While I do want to concentrate my critique on the universally problematic messages of this book rather than disagreements I’ll naturally have as an atheist approaching a religiously-driven text, I simply can’t ignore the problems that arise when a man acts on the inaudible instructions of an invisible being that tell him an object of his affection is his to take regardless of her autonomy or consent. He literally sees a jaw-droppingly beautiful woman that he instantaneously desires, and is given divine authority to take her. He is using God to justify getting what he wants. The really unfortunate thing is that is not a thing of the past.* Christian men today still use the privilege afforded to them by being men (and therefore representatives of God*) to add divine authority to their desire, regardless of the consent of the women they desire. You see, men are given authority — over the earth, over women, over children — and so if God speaks to them about a woman, her word and opinion is moot. After all, man isn’t the one who was deceived in the Garden of Eden! Woman was deceived, and is therefore a less reliable receptor for and interpreter of Supernatural Insight. As an old friend told me when he and his girlfriend both prayed about the relationship and were given different answers — his answer ought to hold more weight as he was the head of the relationship in the first place.
Let me scream this so those in the back can hear me:
No one owes anyone affection or companionship against their will, regardless of the opinion of invisible deities!
Why do I bring this up, if not to just be a curmudgeoned Angry Atheist? Because male entitlement is already a thing, and the added “authority” of an all-powerful God only further empowers abuse.
When Michael first mentions to Angel the plan to marry her, it is not a question. He never asks her to marry him. He tells her that she is going to. Certainly, he tells her all sorts of nice things about how she can have a life of freedom and love and happiness with him (there’s the “benevolent” part of his sexism), but hear me out: he is not giving her an option, he’s giving her an ultimatum. And that’s even ignoring his complete lack of understanding of the complexities of being at the mercy of your abusers. He is telling her to leave one entity that denies her autonomy to come with him, another person refusing to grant her agency over her own life (while also holding her responsible for her lot in life).
Beyond that, Michael refuses to listen to what Angel has to say about her life. When she insists that she likes it where she is, he rebuts her. When she reminds him that he’s under no obligation to keep coming to see her, of course he is because God told him to. When she tells him that her life and decisions are none of his business, he literally replies that her life became his business the moment he set eyes on her. Here’s to hoping cat callers don’t start taking that approach to their already swollen sense of entitlement to women’s attention and bodies.
I’d also like to point out that, just like Duke named her for his own purposes, Michael gives Angel a name as a manipulation tool as well. More than that — he brands her as bitter, a common diss Christians dole out to those who display emotions they don’t like*.
Additionally, Angel rightly senses that he is not a safe person. When his pride is hurt, he lashes out at her. Not only does she owe him her hand in marriage, she is the source of all of his pain and fury because she just won’t do what she’s told to do. You know. By a complete stranger, after a lifetime of abuse from his gender. It’s said that Michael talks to her roughly, slamming doors, shouting at her. This is verbal and physical abuse*, and I wish I could say that it doesn’t continue throughout the rest of the book.
Angel’s consent means absolutely nothing to Michael. While I can’t really fault him for taking her away after discovering the intense danger she was in, I absolutely fault him for badgering her in the first place (at one point he calls his repeated harassment of her courtship) and I 100% fault him for coercing her to marry him while she was near death and so delirious she didn’t know who he was. She didn’t even say yes — her response was, “Why not?” immediately followed by the clarification that she would marry the devil if it meant her salvation. Rivers doesn’t even pretend that Angel was consenting — she just literally couldn’t say no. The absence of a “no” is not consent. Only the presence of an enthusiastic “yes” qualifies as consent.
And yet this is the man we are to see as the ideal. As a man of God, a catalyst for salvation.