“Carousel” Teaches Me Something About Myself

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I saw the film of the musical “Carousel” the other day at Columbus’ refurbished Ohio Theater. The setting was grand, the film bigger than life and the audience was made up almost exclusively of senior citizens from an assisted living center. This simultaneously made me feel young and old, since I’m not there yet, but not that far away.

But what did I expect? The film is 54 years old—it came out when I was four years old. The only reason I’m so familiar with it is because my mother was a musical fan and had the soundtracks of all the major musicals of the ’40s through the ’60s. I listened to them incessantly to the point where I had all the songs memorized by the time I was a teenager. My favorites were “Carousel,” “Camelot” and “West Side Story.” (I had a thing for tragic love stories.)

Because musicals were such a big part of my life, I’m sure they helped to shape my views about romance. That’s why seeing “Carousel” was such an eye-opener for me.  All these years and I never realized that one of the movie’s main themes was domestic violence.  If I ever did see the film, it was when I was very young and the soundtrack doesn’t clue you in to that aspect of the story.  So I was oblivious to the fact that the musical actually condones domestic violence. It seems it’s okay in the name of love.

The “victim” is Julie Jordan, a sweet and innocent young woman, who elopes with the local bad boy, Billy Bigelow. After their marriage, Billy can’t find work and in his frustration, hits his ever-enduring wife. The local townsfolk are scandalized, but Julie sticks with him through thick and thin, because she loves him.  One of the songs I loved the most was the one where Julie sings “what’s the use of wonderin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad…he’s your feller and you love him, and that’s all there is to that.” She also sings “Any time he needs you, you go running there like mad.”

Later on in the story, when their daughter, Louise, asks Julie if it’s possible for a slap to feel like a kiss, Julie assures her that it is. I was practically in shock by the end of the movie.

That was the model of true love that I grew up with. I internalized that message. If I was truly in love, I would put up with anything. I was determined to be just like Julie Jordan.

It wasn’t long before I found my Billy Bigelow. I was sixteen, he was two years older. He wasn’t exactly the “bad boy,” but he was suspect. For one thing, he was Jewish and that alone made him a curiosity in my all-WASP high school. He was also into theater and poetry. (I became entranced with him when I heard him recite “Babi Yar” by Yevgeny Yventushenko.) When we started dating, I was thrilled.

His former girlfriend, one of my best friends, warned me away from him. She said he was “sick.” I thought she was just jealous and to tell the truth, I was attracted to his “dark side.” It made our love seem more romantic. (I was also heavily influenced by Jane Eyre.)  He soon declared that he couldn’t live without me. He told me that I could never leave him. In a way, I was flattered. I was in love with the idea of “undying love.” It didn’t help that I had lost my virginity to him. That alone made me feel that our lives were destined to be entwined forever.

My family didn’t care for him; that made him feel threatened. He began threatening to kill them, or to have them killed. He threatened to kill me and then commit suicide. He wasn’t physically abusive, but he might as well have been. And the crazier he got, the more I held on. I would prove everyone wrong. To me, he was a “tortured soul” who needed my love to be healed.

I’d like to say that I finally mustered the courage to leave him. But it wasn’t until he went on a theater tour of Europe for a couple of months that the spell I was under began to lift. Still, I didn’t see that I had to end things for my own sake. I fell in love with someone else while he was gone and that gave me the impetus to break up with him when he returned.

But he didn’t give up. He stayed in touch with me for years. The last time I had any contact with him, I was married and had just had a daughter. He called and told me that I was the one who had “gotten away” and that he would like to see me for old times ‘ sake.  I met with him because of the misguided notion that he still had some kind of hold on me. I was in my 20s before I finally realized that he didn’t.

When I was watching “Carousel,” it suddenly hit me how twisted its message is and how much influence it had had on me as I was growing up. It conditioned me to believe that love means pain and sacrifice. The harder it was to love someone, the more determined I was to love him. I stuck to that pattern for years.

But it wasn’t until I married my fourth husband that I realized that I didn’t have to suffer for love. At first it felt funny to be in a healthy relationship. When my husband did things for me and stuck by me through my own craziness, I felt guilty and selfish. I was supposed to be sacrificing for him, not the other way around.

We’ve been married for eight years now and it probably took me at least four to begin to be comfortable being loved by man who is unselfish and giving. He’s no Billy Bigelow, that’s for sure, and I’m happy to report that I’m no longer a Julie Jordan.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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