In The Power of Courage: An Uplifting Saga of Moving Beyond Abuse by Charol Messenger, a memoir of an abusive relationship, Messenger takes us day by day through the twists and turns of an affair that turns very bad very quickly, becoming emotionally, psychologically, and physically dangerous. In fact, and this is one of the strangest things about this story, it doesn’t really turn bad. It starts out that way.
I have been told that during performances of Shakespeare’s Othello, audiences often shout and leap from their seats in an attempt to stop Othello from killing Desdemona. I felt much the same thing reading Courage. For the first quarter or so of the book, I kept wanting to shout at the narrator, shake her, even, at times, to make her see what is so obvious to the reader, but she seems blind to: that he is a garden-variety jerk, and within ten pages, you realize he is a psychopath as well.
Never does the “Svengali” behave like a typical Svengali. There is no period of charm and trust-building. He is a total opportunistic prick from their first meeting when he smokes in Messenger’s car without asking, makes outrageously racist and sexist comments, and makes it very clear that he is controlling and manipulative. The Svengali, Joey Estanopolous, is a handsome (if somewhat lacking in hygiene skills), Greek-American with an obsession about a local sheriff he believes responsible for the murders for which Ted Bundy was executed. Charol meets him when he approaches her about ghostwriting a true crime book that would reveal the truth. His story is as outrageous as his behavior, but again, Messenger is so eager to write the book (she can be as grandiose as he at times, seeing bestseller lists before she even looks at his notes) she doesn’t seem to notice the classic pathology sitting across from her in a coffee shop. (Armchair psychologists will enjoy diagnosing Joey, and my guess is most of them will nail it.)
So I began this book thinking how ridiculous it all was. Messenger was lonely and naïve, yes, but how could anyone be so naïve as to walk into something like this? Yet Messenger does an amazing job of trapping the reader, just as she was trapped. By the second half of the book, I was unable to stop reading, despite my aversion to what was going on, and got an increasingly powerful insight into what it must have been like for Messenger—and for the many other women in similar situations. Never again will I wonder how women get caught up in this kind of relationship, why they don’t just boot the b*stard out, call the police, get a restraining order. Messenger has very cleverly shown me that this kind of relationship is far more complex than I had realized, and far more difficult to extract oneself from the longer it goes on. (If there is any message in Messenger’s book, it is something along the lines of “if he’s a total prick when you meet him, forget any romantic images you may have of Rhett Butler and run, not walk, the other way before the second date.” And perhaps, “Don’t take romance novels seriously.”)
Messenger uses her deep New Age spirituality to both sustain her and eventually support her in getting free. And in the end, I came to see what looked at first like a far too passive response as something to respect, after a fashion, rather than scorn. The Power of Courage is well written, and rewarding in its way, for all the disturbing elements of the story. Messenger made it out, and readers will too, and will be the stronger for the experience.