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Crimes of “Passion”?

“Mama was a looker, Lord how she shined

Papa was a good’n, but the jealous kind

Papa loved Mama, Mama loved men

Mama’s in the graveyard, Papa’s in the pen”

—“Papa Loved Mama,” Garth Brooks

As I walked out of the movie Kinsey a few weeks ago (caution some plot spoilers in this column. Go see Kinsey if you haven’t. It’s brilliant), I turned to the people I was with and said “See, that movie proves that people are just uncreative.”

They looked at me like we’d come out of a different movie. Wasn’t Kinsey all about the variety and creativity of human sexual experience? But that wasn’t what I meant.

What I meant was that despite our collective obsession with fidelity, adultery, love triangles, etc., it took a docudrama to actually give us a believable portrayal of an open relationship that didn’t implode by the end of the film. And it did it without pretending that it’s easy or simple. People cried, got angry, were uncertain, let things go in unforseen directions. No one was perfect. But they were also unfailingly honest, kind, and willing to make changes. No one in Hollywood could think of that on their own?

The surprise was even greater after my disappointment with A Home at the End of the World, which promised in its tag line, “Family can be whatever you want it to be.” Although the film really was challenging and fun in most of its portrayal of a three-person relationship, in the end it succumbed to a few basic assumptions about how such a thing would work: One person will get the short end of the stick, someone will always be left out, communication about these things are impossible, the relationship is not ultimately workable. What a heartbreak.

OK, so aside from people with a vested interest in open relationships or polyamory, why should this little blind spot matter? As one online description of Copacabana reads, “love and romance become embroiled in jealousy and murder . . . good old-fashioned feel-good entertainment.” Why fight what people like to see?

Well, it’s partly because Timothy Gray has been weighing on my mind lately. Timothy Gray was murdered in Delmar last fall. He was a victim of deranged jealousy, allegedly killed by a man who had some interest in or past entanglement with Gray’s longtime girlfriend. Knowing a little bit about the pain felt by his friends and family, I find it hard to quash my discomfort at being constantly entertained by things that make light of murderous jealousy.

I’m not going get into the circular ridiculousness of whether art mirrors society or vice versa. Suffice it to say that both in our art and in real life we have a serious problem. Sexual jealousy is honored, revered, elevated to the status of “proof of true love.” We suspect those who don’t act on it. It’s sung about constantly, written about constantly, portrayed dramatically constantly.

Most of us who absorb the constant messages we’re surrounded by about jealousy do not murder, no matter how howlingly jealous we become. But studies have shown that those who do often have had no other brushes with the law.

We do tolerate or excuse just about everything up to and sometimes including murder based on our belief that jealousy is something innate, unmanagable, and uncontrollable. Violent jealousy is seen as a biological reaction, an unavoidable primal urge. Even the district attorney’s language describing the Gray murder case brings us into the realm of the animalistic: “It appears they had mutual interest in a female.”

Screaming fights because a partner looked at an attractive person on the street. Refusing to allow exes to be discussed. Reading diaries. Harrassing people who left you, or their new partners. Hiring private investigators. It’s all considered normal, though similar things wouldn’t be accepted in response to other forms of betrayal or lying.

And considering stuff like this par for the course really does bleed into looking the other way on more serious crimes. While we’ve come, in this country at least, to not officially consider murder an acceptable manifestation of jealousy, it’s scarily common to regard a jealousy murder in the same light as a Robin Hood robbery, even (or especially) for judges. (“Would have done the same” they say.) Cheating, suspected cheating, suspected interest in someone else, or even having a partner decide to leave and have a new relationship are all seen as murder defenses in many states, the so-called “crime of passion.” These criminals are often treated more lightly than people who kill their longtime abusers to escape them. A “crime of passion” defense might not get you off the hook every time, but it’ll often get your charges downgraded from murder to manslaughter.

The number of people who expressed support for the woman who a few years ago ran over her husband in the parking lot of the hotel where she’d followed him and his mistress was frightening. So was the police calling it “unfortunate circumstances for such a polished and accomplished young lady” when Miss Savannah shot her boyfriend for two-timing her last year.

This too is sung about constantly, usually from the murderer’s point of view, portrayed as the sympathetic tragic hero whom we’re supposed to feel sorry for languishing in jail.

I’m not saying that cheating and betrayal aren’t wrong or aren’t painful, or that insecurities are easy to get over. (I’ve met people who say they never even feel jealousy, and I don’t trust them farther than I could spit.) Not everyone will want to go the direction of Kinsey. That’s not the point. Healthy monogamy does not require a bedrock of insane jealousy. It can exist without condoning antisocial or violent behavior in the name of protecting it. (Indeed, I might line up with those who say healthy monogamy can only exist that way.)

In the meantime, we need more exposure to people being creative and sane about issues of relationship insecurity and jealousy. And we need to call our legal system out whenever it tries to excuse violence in the name of jealousy. Someday the phrase “crime of passion” will be shortened—to “crime.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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