Human love affair with obsession is forever acted out in history and literature

July 06, 1994|By Karen Heller | Karen Heller,Knight-Ridder News Service

If murder is unthinkable to most people, the notion of being obsessed by love is not. The story of one person risking everything for another who does not return such ardor permeates myth, literature great and small, many movies, most soaps, all tabloids and, seemingly, half of popular music.

It is a universal idea, as old as Menelaus and Helen, David and Bathsheba, and has been so romanticized that rare is the adolescent who escapes the pull of an ostensibly tragic passion that overwhelms life.

"All the myths and legends about love end tragically," notes Diane Ackerman, author of the just-published "A Natural History of Love." "We're fascinated by love in extremes."

Perhaps that is one reason the tempestuous love story of multimillionaire football legend O. J. Simpson and his murdered ex-wife, Nicole, has struck such a chord. Their often-stormy relationship lasted 17 years; their marriage, which produced two children, seven. They fought and made up. More than once, she called the police, then declined to press charges. They divorced but continued to date.

It all ended late on the night of June 12, when Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and a friend, Ronald Goldman, 25, were stabbed to death in front of her house in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

Mr. Simpson, charged with the killings, pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors call the killings "a crime of passion."

If this concept is familiar to most people, it is because the idea of a fathomless passion spinning out of control is so common in popular culture. It is a theme that has inspired such long-running Broadway attractions as "Phantom of the Opera," hit movies such as "Fatal Attraction" and "Body Heat," and one of the world's best-selling scents -- Calvin Klein's Obsession.

No one is shocked when adolescents sing along with Guns 'N Roses: "Used to Love Her" ("But I had to kill her"). Or when Las Vegas audiences applaud Tom Jones as he belts out "Delilah" -- "I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more."

Given that romanticized images of obsessed love are so commonplace, it is perhaps not surprising that the country is having a hard time acknowledging the ugly, unromantic reality of domestic violence.

Doomed love

This year's Tony award for best Broadway musical went to Stephen Sondheim's "Passion," the story of a homely woman's fixation on a dashing cavalry officer who, initially repelled by her, ultimately succumbs to the power of her obsession.

Ms. Ackerman, the author, describes love as "this overwhelming, fascinating, thrilling, tormenting, compulsive, maniacal emotion, something we fear and crave at the same time. We understand only too well that the intensity of love is so soul-sapping."

"When it's appropriate, we feel totally blissed out," she says, "but without much effort it can swerve into an inappropriate love, which is every bit as intense and dangerous. The drama of obsession is not appropriate because it's not mutual."

Still, obsessive, violence-provoking love has proved fascinating throughout the ages. It is at the core of "The Iliad"; the Trojan

War is caused over Paris' abduction of Helen. In Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," the heroine ends her life over her doomed affair with Vronsky.

Fictional obsession may be tragic or humorous (or even, in the case of Barry Manilow's "Copacabana," painfully banal). Real-life obsession is more often ugly and brutish.

"The person who becomes obsessed by love has "an idealized view of the other person taking care of my needs," says psychologist Ann Rosen Spector, who has taught on the subject obsessive love at the Camden, N.J., campus of Rutgers University. "Ostensibly, it's about being in love with another person, but really it's about that person being in love with you, and how they'll take care of you. It's very childlike."

Such a person will do almost anything to assure that love. "When your self-esteem depends on the other person loving you, then you're relinquishing all control. Loving that other person to such extreme is tantamount to agreeing that you're worthless," says Paul Fink, a psychiatrist and director of the Einstein Center for the Study of Violence. "People who remain obsessed about a loved one have to see them, follow them, have to know they're there."

'On a roller coaster'

Such love, without repercussions of violence, is quite common, Ms. Spector says, and has much to do with a relatively low sense of self-worth. "Obsession is based on a highly romanticized view love, not a practical one," she says. "It's characterized by very strong and disruptive emotions, like being on a roller coaster. It's just black and white. You're everything, or I'm nothing."

Courtney Esposito, an authority on spousal abuse at the Einstein Center for the Study of Violence, believes "at least 50 percent of the 3,000 abused women I've counseled have also been victims of an obsessive love, and that's a low estimate."

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