The risks of real love

I watched Ruby Sparks last night, a romantic dramedy about a writer who first dreams of, then writes about, then actually manifests the perfect girlfriend. One day she simply shows up in his house, cooking him breakfast. (Wikipedia provides all the plot details on how that works.)

Calvin the writer and his muse/creation/dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

What interested me about this movie is not the idea that a writer could fall in love with his own creation (that’s a fine literary tradition, especially among male novelists), but rather that said creation, no matter how perfect she may appear to be at her inception, is inevitably going to disappoint her creator by showing him who he really is.

The writer here, Calvin, wrote “the great American novel” 10 years prior when he was but a lad of 19, and hasn’t written anything since. Except for his brother, he has no friends at all and his last romantic relationship ended in bitter rancor on both sides. He lives in a swell house in L.A., where he sits in front of a manual typewriter sweating drops of blood onto the keys to no avail. He is hopelessly blocked, both in his life and in his own head. In his isolation and loneliness, he starts having dreams at night about a lovely, redheaded young woman who says “I’ve been looking for you.” He writes about that. He becomes obsessed with this woman, whom he imbues with every quality he wants in a girlfriend–she is a great cook, she enjoys sex, she wants to be with him wherever he goes, she doesn’t know anything whatsoever about the literary world and therefore will not compete with him there.

How she manifests in his house and how he and the people around him react to the fact of her existence are just details. Where it gets interesting to me is when Ruby starts getting tired of Calvin and his introverted, selfish, controlling ways. She points out that he has no friends and that she is lonely and bored doing nothing but watching him not write all day. She wants to go out, see other people, maybe not come home at night. He rolls a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter and makes her not only come home to him, but also to cling and weep in her desperate devotion to him. He is selfish through and through.

Despite his ability to make Ruby literally dance or sing or speak French or crawl around barking like a dog just by typing the words, Calvin never allows her to be simply herself, to make her own choices, and to be a stable, genuine adult who could stay or go of her own volition. His brother warns him that such is the nature of women: she could change her mind and leave at any time. Calvin doesn’t want Ruby’s honesty and certainly not her agency. That kind of real woman is not any man’s dream girl, apparently–far too risky. But since she is a figment of his own imagination, she cannot help but reflect him back to himself, revealing the harsh, ugly truths that lie behind his seemingly mild, nebbishy exterior. With his arrogance and cruelty, he drives Ruby away.

This movie reminded me of another movie called Lars and the Real Girl. A shy, emotionally damaged young man who is incapable of having normal social interactions even with his own family, let alone women, decides to solve the problem by ordering a “Real Doll” girl off the internet, which you can actually do (I’d link you to their website but I think it qualifies as porn and this is not that kind of blog).

Lars and his real girl.

He gives her a name, Bianca, and a back story, and proceeds to introduce her as his girlfriend to his family, coworkers and friends. Because the people around Lars care for him and want him to be happy any way he can, they accept Bianca and his relationship with her as if it were real, and for a short time, Lars is the happiest man in town. (Get the plot details at Wikipedia if you’re interested.)

But hey, funny thing, the relationship gradually goes sour after the initial rush of pride, confidence and love it gives to Lars. He does all the talking, of course, and he starts to fight with Bianca. There are long silences between them. He sulks and withdraws. Eventually, he “realizes” that Bianca is gravely ill, and in due time she “dies” in his arms. With her “death,” he begins to accept social contact with real people, including a coworker who wants very much to date him.

In both movies, a man who feels that “real” women are either inadequate or unavailable to him creates a woman according to his own ideal, and he alone determines every detail of what, who and how she is. And yet, in both cases, he destroys the relationship and the woman because she forces him to see himself all too clearly.

Everyone, male or female, has thought about “the man/woman of my dreams,” and some people go so far as to literally list every particular this perfect person must have in order to make them perfectly happy in a perfect relationship. In a telling scene in an old movie called To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, a bitter Stockard Channing, still freshly bruised from her husband’s latest assault, says that if she ran the world, she’d get rid of all the men “except Mel Gibson, but he won’t be allowed to think or speak.” Both men and women have clear ideas of how they want their dream lover to look, think and act, and real people (or even imaginary ones, apparently) never measure up.

Obviously, the mistake is in ever thinking that there is such a thing as perfection (usually meaning complete fulfillment of one’s emotional and physical needs, painless symmetry of personalities, and total absence of conflict) in people, in relationships, in love. As a friend of mine from Texas likes to say, “it’s hard to get it dead-solid perfect.” Anyone who gets really close to you will show you your true face more clearly than you have ever seen it before, and perhaps reveal things about you that you never knew or wanted to know. Relationships tend to shine bright lights into all the darkest corners of your heart and your psyche, and whatever business you have hiding there, it will come out. The farther you are from being perfect, the harder this will be (which is to say, it’s hard for everybody).

That’s the beauty and the danger of intimacy. In matters of the heart, the only way back to safety is to run full-speed toward the farthest edges of risk. If you go over the edge and no one is there to catch you, you have no reason to stick around and can move on to the next one knowing there was nothing more you could have done to “make it work” because it was never meant to be.

But if you go over the edge and you’re lucky, you fall into real love with a real person. There is no place in heaven or on earth that is safer than that.

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4 thoughts on “The risks of real love

  1. Ooh I love this post! I watched Ruby Sparks a few weeks ago and loved it (3 people had advised me to see it – know me too well.) I also felt moved to write a post but it’s nowhere near as articulate as yours! The story is gorgeous and it’sso uncomfortable when he is writing-forcing her to act a certain way.

    I really must watch Lars and the Real Girl. My boyfriend’s sister’s boyfriend (make sense? haha) REALLY looks like Ryan Gosling. It’s weird.

    I’m reading a wonderful book at the moment by Ciaran Carson ‘The Pen Friend’ and he says something like it’s the things we DON’T know about a person that makes us love them more… the constant wonder at the things they say and surprise at what they do next etc. “And it’s ignorance of the other that moves us to love the other, for there is always more to know in him or her…”

    Sorry for epic long comment, I never do that – I just found your post brilliantly thought provoking.

    • *Never* apologize for making a long comment on my blog. 😉 Thank you for reading; I’m glad you enjoyed it! I agree with you that difference is the spice in love. If we engage only with ourselves or our projections of ourselves onto other people, we cannot grow. Love not only causes change and growth, it also requires it, I think.

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