Love Will Have its Sacrifices - Sexuality and Repression in Literature and Life - by Cora Haas
Love Will Have its Sacrifices:
An Examination of Sexuality and Repression in Literature and Life
06 December 2020
Vampires have held a spot of morbid curiosity in popular media for hundreds of years. While the character of the vampire has changed over time - from frightening villain to misunderstood love interest, burning in the sun to sparkling in it -vampires have none the less remained in the spotlight of the horror and supernatural genres. While the sheer drama of the vampire holds appeal, so do the metaphors that the vampire represents: morality, death, humanity, virtue, and so on. Often when readers and viewers find themselves entranced by the supernatural unknown it is for the metaphors they represent, for what can be understood in between the lines. The story of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is no different. The novel which came out in 1872, twenty-five years earlier than Bram Stoker's Dracula, tells the story of Laura, a young woman entangled in an encounter with a seductive and vampire obsessed with her. However, one of the key differences between Carmilla and Dracula is that the vampire is female, creating a homoerotic seduction between the virtuous main character, Laura, and the titular vampire, Carmilla. While Le Fanu most likely intended the story to warn against the devious and depraved homosexual lifestyle, it has a very different tone when read with modern eyes. The illness Laura suffers as the vampire Carmilla sets her sights on the innocent girl feels less like a young woman’s struggle against the depraved and more like depression caused by internalized repression of identity.
Today, society is the most accepting of LGBTQ people it has ever been, yet many queer individuals still struggle. Many LGBTQ youths are stuck in situations in which they do not feel comfortable or safe to come out, forced to repress their sexual and/or gender identities, or risk homelessness, hate crimes, or forced conversion therapy. Statistically, those who are heavily rejected and/or forced through conversion therapy due to their sexual/gender orientation are more likely to suffer from depression, to be suicidal, have higher rates of suicide, and are more likely to become addicts. The hate and discrimination preached can turn inward, causing internalized homophobia and self-loathing. So, what do a novella written over one hundred years ago and modern LGTBQ issues have in common? Forced repression, conversion, and internalized homophobia are harmful and damaging factors that too many young queer people have had to face throughout history, and by examining modern conversion therapy and dissecting the hidden sexual lessons in Carmilla, one can gain insight into how these harms present themselves and how history has dealt with it.
It is without question that in the many years since the publication of Carmilla that things have gotten better for queer people. Should Carmilla be written now, it would be likely to have a different ending - or at least a more straight forward love affair. Today in America, same-sex marriages are legal in all 50 states, activists are in positions of political power fighting for LGBTQ rights, and media representation is working to normalize LGBTQ people - which would have been unimaginable even just 50 years ago, let alone in the 1800s. But for all the progress that has been made, there is still a long way to go. Many LGBTQ people in America are still suffering. Those who choose to live their lives out and proud have to face the threat of discrimination and hate crimes, not to mention the looming concern about rights being revoked by anti-LGBTQ politicians in office. For those from conservative homes or areas, coming out and living authentically is not a simple step, sometimes it is not even an option. For plenty of young people in unaccepting homes, one looming threat is conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy, which consists of behavioral modification therapies and aversion therapies, gained popularity in the mid-20th century, though “cures” for homosexuality have been around throughout history.
In the 1960s conversion therapy clinics utilized practices to “turn” queer youth heterosexual which included “using commercial sex workers to engage homosexuals, orgasmic reconditioning, and emphasis on marriage to an opposite-sex partner,” as well as “electroshock, chemical, and deprivation [therapies]” (Streed, et al. 501). As the understandings of human sexual and gender identity grew, it has become acknowledged that conversion therapy was in fact damaging rather than the saving grace it had been portrayed as.
Today conversion therapy has been deeply condemned and denounced by many professional associations, such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association. Conversion therapy has been found to result in serious trauma, such as PTSD. A 2018 study conducted by The Family Acceptance Project consisting of 245 queer young adults found that “participants whose parents and other caregivers had encouraged them to attend conversion therapy had higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts…than those who weren’t exposed to such efforts to change their sexual orientation” (Qtd in Streed, et al 501). A different study conducted by San Francisco State University documented that those who were “highly rejected by their parents and caregivers” due to their sexual or gender orientations were “8.4x more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9x more likely report high levels of depression, 3.4x more likely to use illegal drugs, [and] 3.4x more likely to be at high risk of HIV and STDs” than those who were not rejected or rejected to a lesser extent (“Conversion Therapy”). The trauma endured is long-lasting and incredibly damaging.
So how exactly does sexual repression and trauma play into Carmilla? It is important to examine classic literature with the context of the time period, but it can be equally important to examine it from a modern perspective. Time offers perspective, and perspective offers change. Meanings can change. Or at least be perceived in a new light. Carmilla is a story that can most certainly be appreciated with a modern eye. While there are plenty of cases of modern readers interpreting sexuality in classic novels with little to go on, that is not the case in Carmilla. Queer author and essayist Carmen Maria Machado remarked on just how clearly the homoerotic themes prevail throughout the book, stating “The imposition of contemporary sexual understanding onto historical figures remains a sticking point for queer theorists and historians the world over, but there is far less ambiguity in the case of [Carmilla] than one might think” (v). Machado certainly isn’t wrong, what with passages such as this;
“I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on.”
“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.” How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!
Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs that almost turned to sobs. She pressed in mine a hand that trembled; her soft cheek was glowing against my own. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.” (Le Fanu 53)
The titular character, Carmilla, is most certainly infatuated with the virtuous Laura. At times it seems as though Laura reciprocates, though Le Fanu chooses to write Laura’s desires as tinged with disgust, “I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence,” (37). As Le Fanu writes it, the closer Carmilla and Laura get and the bolder Carmilla’s declarations and actions become, the more Laura begins to deteriorate. Laura’s deterioration is an interesting one; she is trapped by dreams, but they are not all terrible, and while she physically becomes weaker, it is her mind that is most affected. Laura describes a “strange melancholy” that comes over her, accompanied by “dim thoughts of death” (Le Fanu 68). But what is startling is that these thoughts are not entirely unwelcome, “an idea that I was slowly declining took gentle, and somehow not unwelcome, possession of me. If it was sad, the state of mind it induced was also sweet” (Le Fanu 69). What Laura describes is like hearing someone suffering from depression talk about their own morbid thoughts. For those who are suicidal, thoughts of self-destruction and death can almost feel like a fantasy.
It is particularly interesting when paired with the content of her dreams, which often contained an unknown woman whispering and kissing her;
Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand were drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, and there the caress fixed itself. My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly then came a sobbing that rose into a sense of strangulation and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me and I became unconscious. (Le Fanu 69)
All the while Carmilla cares for Laura, with Laura claiming that the more “[Carmilla] doted on me with increasing ardor the more my strength and spirits waned” (Le Fanu 68). When compared to the other vampire attack induced illnesses that the villagers suffered in the book, Laura’s suffering is nothing of the kind, making it seem less like an illness of the sort at all.
Laura’s illness is fascinating to dissect on its own, but especially when paired with its source material. The inspiration for the story comes from a series of letters exchanged between Veronika Hausle, the real-life Laura, and Doctor Peter Fontenon, the inspiration behind the Carmilla character Doctor Hesselius, in which Veronika details her encounters with her own “Carmilla,” Marcia Maren. In the novella, any attraction Laura feels towards Carmilla is also tinged with disgust. However, Veronika detailed not the confusing mix of repulsion and attraction of her book counterpart but simply desire. She even goes as far as describing physical arousal and encounters. In fact, the final line of the quote regarding Laura’s dreams in the previous paragraph (“My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly then came a sobbing that rose into a sense of strangulation and turned into a dreadful convulsion”) is pulled directly from one of Veronika’s letters depicting a romantic encounter between her and Marcia (Machado vi). The line takes on a very different meaning with that context. At the end of Carmilla, Laura fears for Carmilla’s return, however in reality Veronika longed for the return of Marcia. Veronika wrote “I long for the door to open. I long to feel her run along my skin like so much smoke. I long for her to take me to the place where she went at night; together we would not be lonely anymore” (Qtd in Machado v-vi). But Veronika also feared her sexual awakening with Marcia, writing that she felt as though “I had left my old world behind…But despite the excitement, I missed my old world where I understood every crevice, every stone. Now, I existed somewhere wild and open, a forest much larger than the one outside the manor-house. A forest I could never imagine understanding without any intimacy. Marcia did this to me. Marcia brought me here” (Qtd in Machado vii) . For a young woman in her time, there would have been no real option to embrace her newfound identity. There would have been no way for Veronika to even seek out the knowledge to understand her sexual identity, nor room to question it. She would have simply had to repress that part of herself and likely always feel the shame of it looming. Veronika would go on to marry a Romanian viscount, but Marcia would not be forgotten. Veronika died in childbirth, clutching a wild rose which, according to her letters, had been a symbol of affection between the two girls.
From a modern perspective, and with the context of knowing the source material Carmilla was based on, the story feels less like the villainous Carmilla draining away Laura’s vitality and more like depression brought about by Laura’s desires and repression. The “illness” that takes Laura comes on as she grows closer to Carmilla, which would mean she would be growing closer to having to confront her own attractions. The dreams that plague her are those of sensual encounters with another woman, which distresses her. When Carmilla tries to help, Laura only feels it worsens her “melancholy.” Le Fanu tries to write Laura as virtuous and turned off by Carmilla’s advances, but he does not change the story enough from its source material to make it believable that Laura does not also desire Carmilla. Vampire or not, the story reads today as the struggles of two female lovers; one struggling with her identity and the other with persecution due to her identity, with lesbianism metaphorically turned into vampirism. It is simply tinged heteronormative by its heterosexual male author.
The story of Carmilla offers an interesting historical perspective into the harms of repressing one’s identity due to social norms, which is an issue that is still prevalent today, drawing connections regarding repression and internalized homophobia across generations and bringing understanding of the harm that comes from it.
Carmilla and Laura were not allowed to have a happy ending due to the nature of their society, nor were Veronika and Marcia. Today, we can hope that LGBTQ youth they are allowed their happy endings, ones without having to hide their identity or fear of conversion therapies. Yet despite being condemned by major medical associations and having been the topic of many studies regarding their damaging nature, conversion therapy is still fully legal for minors in 29 states and 4 US territories. A 2018 study conducted by UCLA Williams Institute found that “698,000 LGBT adults (ages 18-59) in the U.S. have received conversion therapy, including about 350,000 LGBT adults who were subjected to the practice as adolescents” and estimated that “57,000 youth (ages 13-17) across all states will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18” (Mallory et al.). This does not even cover the rest of the world, where situations are far worse and far more dangerous in many countries. Society still needs to become more accepting, it needs to become better. If the statistics regarding conversion therapy are anything to go off of, it is clear that acceptance leads to healthier and happier individuals. Society itself cannot hope to become more emotionally advanced if it does not allow its members to succeed. With the knowledge and understanding of modern society has, we have no excuse not to become more accepting.
“Conversion Therapy.” GLAAD, www.glaad.org/conversiontherapy?response_type=embed.
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. “Carmilla,” edited by Carmen Maria Machado, Lanternfish Press, 2019
Machado, Carmen Maria. You are Mine; Obsession, Odylic Influences, and Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 2019, Lanternfish Press, pp. i-ix.
Mallory, Christy, et al. “Conversion Therapy and LGBT Youth.” Williams Institute, 21 May 2020, williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/conversion-therapy-and-lgbt-youth/?response_type=embed.
Streed,Carl G.,,Jr, et al. "Changing Medical Practice, Not Patients — Putting an End to Conversion Therapy." The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 381, no. 6, 2019, pp. 500-502. ProQuest, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu:2048/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/docview/2269432136?accountid=8387, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp1903161.