A KKK Kidnapping, The Love Laws, and The Shape of Water

“They are the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” –Arundhati Roy

Love is often written about as something infinite. Something boundless. Something that overcomes constraint and ignores convention. This is a lie. Love is restricted and dictated by society just as much as our morality and relationships are. There is a finite amount of love circulating the universe it would seem, and there is a hierarchy of love-receivers. Who we can love is regulated by other people, and if we don’t adhere to the love laws, the consequences can be disastrous.

Isabel Jones was 21 years old when she was kidnapped by KKK members from her home in Oakville, Ontario. It was 1930, and Isabel was a white woman living with her fiancé, a man presumed to be black. Her fiancé, Ira Johnson, was actually of mixed Cherokee and white descent, but their engagement still broke the love laws in Canada at the time, which were unwritten, but still very real. The wedding could not go on, Isabel’s mother called the KKK on her daughter with the intention of separating them. 75 KKK members marched in Oakville; they built a huge cross and burnt it in front of the couple’s home, and proceeded to hold Isabel captive in a Salvation Army for several days. When the police arrived, many KKK members took off their hoods smilingly to shake the chief of police’s hand. With a huge push from black lawyers in Toronto, one Klansman was given a $50 fine.

Since there was no written law against interracial relationships in Canada in 1930, the KKK stepped in as an institution for upholding the status quo. They were (and still are) terrorists, but they were also prominent and respected community members and business people. Disturbingly, they believed they were doing the right thing. The love laws are so powerful that they infiltrated Isabel’s family through her mother’s mind, they infiltrated the church through the KKK and they infiltrated the justice system through the police, who did very little for Isabel and Ira. The couple’s transgression was seen by some as a disgusting breach of the norm. A defiling of the power dynamic that existed between white people and people of colour. An unlawful allotment of love to someone deemed less worthy.

The incident was not isolated either, but happened as part of a system. In 1939, 18-year-old Velma Demerson was pregnant and arrested in Toronto for being unmarried and living with her Chinese boyfriend. She was incarcerated for seven months in a tiny cell, and had experiments performed on her by a doctor who believed her genitals held the clue to the cause of her immorality. The police arrested her because of Velma’s father, his disagreement with her love, and his account of her behaviour. She was charged with being “incorrigible and unmanageable”.

If my parents (a black man and white woman) had met during the 1930s in my hometown, it is very possible that they would have had the KKK or the police called on them for breaking the love laws. We live twenty minutes away from where Isabel and Ira lived. It’s difficult to imagine a world where there’s a cross burning and 75 members of a white supremacist Christian terrorist group standing outside of my door. And Isabel and Ira could have counted themselves lucky; at least their love wasn’t breaking any written laws, like they would have been a few hours across the border in the United States. We live in different times now, (although the KKK is still very much active and alive in Canada). My parents have faced discrimination for their “unconventional” marriage and our strange family portrait, but I am not suggesting that the love laws have remained the same since the 1930s. Some would say that with the rise of same-sex, interracial and open relationships, we no longer have any love laws at all. But is that true?

“Love is love”. Even when my gay friends have been attacked in the Paris metro, and white women who date black men are called “night-riders” in my high-school.  We can shrug and say that there will always be assholes in the world. However, the people in relationships that defy convention, experience love differently as soon as they step out of their front doors, even today. We like to think that we have the choice to love whoever we want, that it’s no longer dictated to us by society, that the love laws have all been broken. This idea is exactly what Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things argued against in 1997, and it’s what Guillermo Del Toro argues against in his 2017 film The Shape of Water. Both texts reveal how deeply the love laws infiltrate not only our current society but also our own perceptions of what is normal. When we learn to defy them, our perceptions are cracked open like a delicate shell, and our own prejudices lay sadly revealed like an egg dropped to the floor.

[SPOILERS] In The God of Small Things, four characters defy the love laws with violent consequences. The novel is set in India, in 1969. Ammu is an upper-caste divorced mother of twins, and she falls in love with Velutha, an untouchable. (Read about India’s caste system here and here). Ammu’s children love Velutha because he is kind to them, and their love for him leads to her loving him as well. This love is not allowed. Velutha’s father finds out about their affair and tells Ammu’s family, knowing that Velutha will be severely punished, perhaps even killed. The family finds a way to punish the lovers by blaming Velutha for the disappearance of Ammu’s children and niece. (A disappearance that he had nothing to do with). When the police find Velutha, they beat him to death in a horrifically graphic passage, with the twins as wide-eyed witnesses. Most disturbing is the lack of actual passion in the policemen’s actions. They are not angry, they are simply “history’s henchmen”, there to enforce the love laws. When he dies, Velutha is still wearing the nail polish that the children painted on his fingers. Breaking the laws not only results in the violent death of a kind and gentle man, but it also psychologically destroys Ammu and her children.

Just like with Isabel Jones and Velma Demerson in the 1930s, it is family on the frontlines of upholding the love laws in The God of Small Things. It is your family that first tells you who is acceptable to love, and they are the first people to intervene when they believe the laws have been broken. Outside of the family, the legal justice system and its enforcers also uphold the love laws, whether these are written or not, acting as “history’s henchmen” to dictate who can be loved, and how, and how much. What we don’t realize is how deep the love laws can be rooted in our own perceptions. While we may consider ourselves liberated, accepting and without judgement, they still affect our decisions and allotments of love.

In The Shape of Water, Elisa is a mute character who falls in love with a demi-god brought into the high-security government laboratory that she works in as a cleaner. Like Elisa, the creature is unable to communicate using his voice, but their love transcends language. Elisa first breaks through their differences with a boiled egg, offered to him from her lunch. An egg represents the potential for new life, for fertility, for growth. It represents Elisa’s hope that maybe someone can love her, can understand her loneliness. An egg is also vulnerable to being cracked, just like their newfound emotional safety and common understanding is. She recognizes the creature as human when nobody else can because of her own struggle to be recognized as human, despite her disability. Both Elisa and the creature lack the means to speak for and assert themselves and their identity, and they are first linked by their common suffering. However, it takes hindsight to understand their relationship. The creature still looks like a monster. He is ugly, scaly and violent. When I was watching the film and they were having sex, I found myself looking away and saying “no no no”. I was disgusted. They broke the love laws that I subscribed to.

The Shape of Water reveals the love laws within our own psyches by placing the audience into a position of judgement and disgust as we watch Elisa with the creature. We know that he has human emotion and we know that he loves her, but we still see him as inferior. As wrong. One of the functions of the love laws is to determine who is human and who is not. People of colour, disabled, gay and transgender people are often deemed less than human, as is Velutha in The God of Small Things, all according to the love laws. The way I reacted to Elisa and the demi-god is mirrored in the way gay love and sex is treated in the film. A closeted gay character has his heart broken by a man who finds him disgusting because of his sexuality. The audience judges the love-law enforcer as a homophobic asshole, while simulataneously squirming in their seats over Elisa and the creature. By putting the love laws into a new context, we recognize their presence and power in our own minds, and we realize they have far from disappeared from society or from ourselves.

In The God of Small Things, the love laws are broken again when Ammu’s twins grow up and try to heal from their trauma by having sex with each other. Incest is one love law that transcends most cultures. Just like with Elisa and the creature, we squirm at this development in the relationship between two consenting adults because it breaks our own love laws. The novel thus makes us aware of their existence in our own minds. We find the twins guilty of giving too much of the wrong kind of love to each other, and we deem them unseemly at best, disgusting or inhuman at worst. Would we try to stop this kind of love? Does that make us “history’s henchmen” too?

There is a victory in each of these stories, a satisfying punch in the throat to inequality. In The Shape of Water, it is the marginalized characters who are able to recognize Elisa and the creature’s love, and [SPOILERS] they eventually rally to do everything they can to save the couple from destruction. The black female character, the gay character, the immigrant and the disabled character don’t benefit from the love laws and because these characters have already been marginalized, they already have to find ways to operate outside of society’s constraints. They are able to dig the love laws out of their own psyches and overcome them, which suggests that it is those on the margins who often rise up to burn the laws down.

Elisa and the creature are not given a neat, happy ending. Whether Elisa dies or not is left ambiguous, and it’s up to the viewer to imagine her living happily in love and outside of constraint. We get to choose whether we are hopeful or not. Similarly, The God of Small Things ends with a tender love scene between Ammu and Velutha. We imagine them living outside of constraint, even though that’s not the reality that we know is coming for them. Both texts point out the love laws as they exist in society and as they exist in our own psyches, and we are forced into discomfort. But they also allow us to be hopeful. Isabel Jones and Ira Johnson got married one month after Isabel was kidnapped by the KKK, in 1930, when the love laws were much stricter. They overcame adversity, and so do interracial, same-sex or non-conventional couples before and since them. It is possible to free ourselves from constraint, but the love laws are powerful, and we should never allow ourselves to be too comfortable with them, or to lose hope.

 

Photo courtesy of Digital Trends

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