I love romance and thinking about love. It’s an affliction that was only worsened by a childhood reading list of titles by authors like Sidney Sheldon, bell hooks, Cornel West and a lot of Harlequin Romances, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel.
I’m writing more about this in another book, but it’s important context: my mother, a single parent with undiagnosed bipolar and borderline personality disorders, left me alone as a child and teenager for long stretches of time while she was working or going to school.
In those long, often boring, stretches of time, I became a writer, a dreamer and a hopeful romantic. I also learned how to live by watching television, movies and reading a lot. My life experience and the people I was blessed to meet along the way helped dispel or reinforce relationship notions in one way or another.
But my earliest ideas about love and romance came from a mixture of popular culture references like The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker, the love poems of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan and so many television shows and movies from the 80s and 90s that I couldn’t even start to list them all. (Scenes from The Women of Brewster Place still pop up in my dreams, for instance.)
Having all the time in the world to jump from one seedy or sappy narrative to another was the best structure I had to craft a robust inner life. The soundtrack of my youth is all Jodeci, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Bell Biv Devoe, Johnny Gill, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Bobby Brown: baby-making music.
The images from those books – A painting of the blond Fabio caressing a damsel in his arms; descriptions of the dark-haired and ruthless Lucky Santangelo getting her revenge as a scorned lover in Los Angeles; the bucolic love stories of Danielle Steel involving horses and green fields – worked in tandem with music lyrics to feed the epic story that the love of a man was just over the adulthood horizon. To love and be loved was the central goal of womanhood, so if I was really going to grow up and be a woman, I needed to know these plots and their narrative arcs.
One of the consequences of my mother’s mental illnesses, though, was that I had a misshapen sense of what it meant to be intimate with another person. The side effects of bipolar disorder include euphoria, manic depression and violence. Almost right up until my mother died in January 2012, she was always in love with somebody or something. She was never without a suitor.
Mom loved love. “I think he’s in love with me (smiles but serious)”: this was her constant refrain. I only know of one black man she courted seriously – my father – but the rest of her lovers were like representatives of the United Nations: white, Mexican, Pakistani, Russian.
Mom was loud, bipolar and a beautiful disaster, as Kelly Clarkson sang. I was her polar opposite: quiet, observant and reserved. While she spun through the world, giggling at one intimate encounter or another, I became a student of people and relationships.
For women, mothers are the templates for womanhood and what we believe about being a woman in the world. As a result, I believed that love and sex were interchangeable. Sex in exchange for affection looked a lot like the dramatic, florid romances I read.
Unfortunately, it would take many years to learn the difference between sex and love.