Fictional portrayals of mental illness and mental health issues have the power to shape public perceptions. There are a number of resources devoted to these portrayals in electronic media (e.g., the Media Watch Committee of the American Psychological Association), but popular fiction books receive comparatively little attention.
This limited attention represents a significant missed opportunity to inform public viewpoints about mental health, mental illness, and mental health treatment. Books that may perpetuate stigmatizing stereotypes or offer misleading characterizations of complex issues merit notice and discussion. The Gambler by Jordan Silver (published in 2014) is one such book.
The gambler herself is Jenna, a young woman with autism whose savant abilities are exploited by a criminal gang to which her brother has become beholden. At a high-stakes poker game one night, Jenna is struck in the face by that brother, angering Stefano Andros, another one of the players. Andros is particularly enraged by the assault because of his close relationship with his (now deceased) sister, who also had autism. He therefore kidnaps Jenna from the poker table and takes her to his home, where in short order he begins a sexual relationship with her.
Depictions of love and sexual awakening blossoming between female kidnapping victims and their male captors are a well-worn trope in the genre, particularly several decades ago. Allowing for the suspension of disbelief required to accept that virginal women will eagerly welcome the advances of the men who kidnapped them (an allowance that likely demands its own discussion) does not diminish the question of sexual exploitation of a vulnerable person. Jenna’s perceived “consent” is not at issue; she is depicted as a willing and excited partner. However, questions of her capacity to consent are left grossly underacknowledged.
In this book, Jenna’s autism is manifested as childlike innocence and wonder at small pleasures, porous interpersonal boundaries (like accepting her kidnapper as her friend and exhibiting no sense of him as a stranger), and limited but appropriate verbalizations. Jenna can speak only in 2-word phrases. She can, however, text at a staggering speed; her communication impairments are cast as speech difficulties rather than more encompassing language ones.
Through Andros’s eyes, we see her requiring supervision in the bath, greedily seeking chocolate at every meal, and watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. Yet these evident developmental disabilities do nothing to decrease his lust for her, a desire on which he acts within the first 24 hours of her capture. He takes some pleasure in her delight at what he describes as her “new kissing game.” Images of her childlike behaviors are juxtaposed with descriptions of sexual behaviors; in one such scene, Jenna sits on the bed playing with her butterfly garden almost immediately following penetrative activity.
Andros is in no way a nice man. He and his grandfather head an involved criminal enterprise, and Andros himself is described killing multiple people and ordering hits on many more. In one particularly gruesome scene, he eviscerates a victim and rips out the heart. Disturbingly, however, his sexual relationship with Jenna is not depicted as yet another manifestation of his antisocial and exploitative tendencies. Rather, the relationship is painted as a counterpoint to his negative side. Readers are told that Jenna is “good for him.”
Earlier this month, NPR published a troubling series of reports on the sexual abuse and assault of people with intellectual disabilities. The report emphasizes the elevated risk of victimization in this population, noting that assaults occur at more than 7 times the rate of assaults in populations without intellectual disabilities. The reporting also notes that while some victims more readily identified the behavior as rape, other victims had been misled to believe that there was some sort of romantic connection between them and the perpetrators. Advocates and commentators noted the lack of public outcry that could be expected given these staggering statistics. In this context, deceptive depictions of consent and intimacy can be particularly damaging.
Consensual sexuality is often an important aspect of adult life, and respect for human dignity suggests that no population, regardless of mental disorder or disability, should face a blanket prohibition on expression of that sexuality. Recognizing this in no way negates the need for heightened vigilance against exploitation and abuse. Depictions of “romance” such as the one in The Gambler warrant confrontation.
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