I’m writing this blog because it’s a rock in my shoe. It’s a pebble, knocking around my brain and leaving me unable to focus on anything else. You see, I just finished a book called Pure, by Terra ElanMcVoy. When I first saw the bright yellow cover with the big symbolic daisy on the front I was skeptical. By the time I finished reading the back cover I knew I was going to leave it on the shelf. The teaser was about a group of five young high school girls, all with big, blingy purity rings, and the deep, heartfelt, syrupy promises they made to each other and to god. Naturally, the central conflict in the book revolves around the challenge to this promise represented by one girl’s decision to date. Every other book I’ve ever read about these kinds of promises has been too preachy to bear. I never went in for purity rings, even when I was a Christian. I put the book back.
Ten minutes later I pulled it off the shelf again. Thirty minutes later I left the library with it in hand. I finished the book just over an hour ago.
THE FOLLOWING DISCUSSION REVEALS THE MAJOR PLOT POINTS OF THE BOOK.
It wasn’t what I expected. The main conflict wasn’t over dating, or even some reckless sexual decision made by the token “bad girl.” It was the thoughtful decision of a supporting character which threw the delicate world of these high school girls in peril. After discussing it for weeks, Cara and her long-term boyfriend, Michael, decide to have sex. It a safe, consensual act; an act that only brings them closer as a couple. But it involves Cara breaking her promise to abstain from sex until marriage, symbolized by the purity ring her brother presented to her years ago.
One of her friends shuns her, unable to condone even friendship with a girl who has “broken her vow.” The friendship group splinters. Most tragically, one of the girls tells a youth group leader, who in turn tells her parents. Her eldest brother, the one who presented her with the purity ring, is “crushed.” Together he and her other two brothers smash up Michael’s car with baseball bats, and spray-paint a threat to “castrate him like a horse.” Cara’s parents announce that she has broken their trust and until further notice is under complete lockdown. She can only go to school and back home. She may not use the telephone, her cell phone is confiscated, and her computer privileges are terminated. She is also forbidden to see Michael again.
As with most star-crossed lovers, things end badly between Cara and Michael. Michael, who is also a young teenager, is too scared to fight for Cara in the face of property destruction and physical threats from three older guys known for physically punishing people who get on their bad side. Cara is disappointed in Michael for not trying harder to reach out to her in the aftermath of her parent’s judgment. Their relationship, one which only days ago had held naïvely sincere promises of marriage, effectively fizzles out.
The story ultimately isn’t about Cara and Michael. It’s about the girls. It’s about the meaning of purity, and the significance of the promises we make to ourselves, to one another, and to god. It is also about how people grow and change, and how occasionally their promises must change with them. The girls are reunited, and ultimately decide that their promises about their bodies are separate from their commitment as friends.
The story is refreshingly nuanced and ends beautifully, but I can’t appreciate it because all I can think is “What about Michael?”
Michael isn’t a man. He’s a kid, a kid who loved a girl and who dared to express that love physically. Having been threatened with violence, and stripped of any opportunity to see his love again (he goes to a different school), it’s not surprising he fades out of the picture. You can’t really blame him. They’re too young to marry, too young to run away, there’s nothing to be done. Cara’s brothers and parents effectively accomplished their goal of separating them, what I can’t understand is why?
Why was it so important that Cara never see Michael again? Why was it so heartbreaking/enraging/disappointing to her brothers and parents that Cara chose to have sex? What do they hope to accomplish by removing their daughter from a loving, supportive relationship? What are they so afraid of?
When I was younger the answers to these questions revolved around disease, pregnancy, the innate sexual immorality of men, and abortion; but now, with my knowledge of fluid bonding, birth control, and feminism those reasons don’t cut it anymore, and the whole story surrounding the early termination of what was a beautiful first love seems brutal, unnecessary, and sad. I suppose this story really hits home because I know it isn’t “just fiction.” I know Cara in in real life. She is a grandmother, an acquaintance, and a childhood friend. I know that in at least one case, she never found another Michael, just cheep imitations who were strong enough to hold her, but never loved her quite as well.
There’s a moment in the book where the narrating character is talking with Cara about the girl who shunned her. Cara displays a surprising level of insight:
“She’s still mad at you, though.”
“Well, she probably should be.” This takes me by surprise, and Cara sees it. “I did something she thinks isn’t just, you know, bad, but is totally immoral and against God,” she explains. “Totally unforgiveable.
“But nothing is—”
She shakes her head. “That’s according to you and me. But to my brothers in their way, to Morgan in hers, to a lot of other people, it’s not. They’ve got their rules—whatever they are. They need them. And even though I’ve seen it differently, I can’t necessarily ask them to change their own worldview. The way that makes things work for them.”
This was the first time in the story when I felt compelled to have any sympathy for Cara’s brothers, for her parents, and for Morgan, the friend who shunned her. Perhaps some people—people like Cara’s brothers, parents, and ex-friend—need absolute worldviews to make sense of the world, even if the only “absolute” is that in this moment, they are right. Perhaps for some people, to be stripped of certainty is to be stripped of the ability to function. Perhaps their minds protect them from complete world-collapse by resisting certain ideas, and this is okay. Is thinking of them this way an exercise is empathy, arrogance, or hopelessness? On some level, am I this way too?
Pure created a lot of feelings for me which I’m not sure I can wrap up into a neat conclusion:
I’m angry at how many young men and women have been hurt by (to my mind) misguided parents and guardians who do not trust them to make important decisions about their own bodies (body shame, slut shame, and the manhood myth take many forms).
I’m remembering my own Cara moment—much less tragic, since I was twenty at the time and there was really nothing my parents could do but express disappointment.
I’m intrigued by the suggestion in the book that for devoutly Christian girls, prayer and Bible study were unable to provide clear-cut answers about sexual purity.
I’m recalling a time when my school’s sex education furnished me with negative, fearful notions about men, which despite great progress, continue to haunt my marriage.
I’m thinking about the kind of parent I want to be one day, and what I will teach my own children about love.♦