Healing is “that function in which a representative [...] person helps a debilitated person to be restored to a condition of wholeness, on the assumption that this restoration achieves also a new level of spiritual insight and welfare” (Clebsch and Jaekle 8). Hope, which brings with it “a new level of spiritual insight and welfare” is, as we have seen, a medicine in plentiful supply in the romance author’s pharmacy. Indeed, hope is such an important feature of romance reading that Janice Radway, having studied romance readers, “found it impossible to ignore their [...] fervent insistence that romance reading creates a feeling of hope, provides emotional sustenance, and produces a fully visceral sense of well-being” (12). Romance fiction is thus an ideal treatment for hopelessness, which pastoral theologian Andrew D. Lester has described as being “like an infection that invades a person’s being and causes a sickness of the spirit. Despair is a serious spiritual disease” (72).
Maysie Greig, writing in the 1930s, felt that “happy love stories” were an antidote to this illness:
You can so infect people with your own misery that you can make them miserable when they were quite happy and contented before. To be happy is as though you opened every window in your mind and let in strong, clean sunlight. That is why I think every one should try to be happy, and read stories that make one happy, rather than those that increase one's sense of futility and despair. (qtd. in Anderson 1982, 318)
In an article published in 1988, Amal Treacher, a feminist academic, bore witness to the fact that romance could function as an cure, albeit a temporary one, for depression:
I pick up and read romantic fiction when I am feeling depressed, unloved and unloveable, and somehow, through the process of reading, I manage to feel loved even if in fleeting and intangible moments. What the books satiate, even if very fleetingly, is the longing to be loved[,] to feel full, whole, integrated. (82)
Many readers “pick up and read romantic fiction” when they are already feeling happy and loved; they are not readers in need of pastoral care. For those readers who do require pastoral assistance, however, it appears that some degree of healing can be produced by romances, probably through their general emphasis on the positive and hopeful in life (central to which, of course, is love).
Some romances, however, attempt to heal very specific hurts. The advice imparted by one Barbara Cartland heroine may, admittedly, seem to some to be too trivial to classify as healing: in one novel the heroine advises the mother of a baby who “is teething” (109) to use honey to “soothe him and make him sleep [...] Just give him a little on the tip of your finger, [...] and put half a teaspoonful in his bottle. [...] I promise you it will keep him from crying, and it will also make him grow strong. Honey is very good for babies” (110). Parents who have experienced a baby who “cries not only all day, but also at night” (109) will no doubt consider this situation rather less trivial and, indeed, will well understand how parents such as this tired mother, with a husband who is made “very angry” (109) by the crying, will almost certainly achieve “a new level of spiritual insight and welfare” once their sleep ceases to be disturbed. Furthermore, Cartland’s intent here was almost certainly to perform a “helping act”: she believed so strongly in the benefits of honey that she wrote The Magic of Honey Cookbook (1976), presumably to encourage the consumption of a substance she considered to be "the greatest medicine [...] in the world" (9).
An authorial intent to provide healing to those in a more serious situation can be discerned in Lucy Monroe’s Blackmailed into Marriage (2005), in which the author explicitly stated that she included information regarding one particular “physiological sexual dysfunction” and its treatment,
for the tens of thousands of women who suffer in silence [...]. Only one in ten will seek treatment and of those, less than thirty percent will be willing to undergo physiological treatment such as the dilation procedure for vaginismus. I hope that if you are one of the women suffering in silence, you will be silent no longer, but most of all that you will realize that it’s not your fault. (187)
Monroe appears to have been intent not just on guiding readers towards physical healing but also on healing their emotional pain.
This dual intent is also apparent with regards to the information concerning miscarriage which is provided by Holley Trent’s The Coyote’s Bride (2018). Here the heroine’s doctor states that although “Nobody talks about it [...] it's more common than you think" and the text provides a warning that it is possible for some miscarriages to require "immediate treatment" and a blood transfusion, though “The anemia from the blood [...] lost from the complications would eventually correct.” The information was included for pastoral reasons, as Trent made explicit in an author’s note at the end of the book:
in this story, my intention wasn't to downplay the heartache of pregnancy loss but to educate readers about how common miscarriages are. They were discussed in hushed tones when I was growing up, and so when I experienced a string of them, for a while, I thought they were all my fault. I wondered what I could do differently.
And like Lily, I had one of those situations that should have resolved itself uneventfully but ended up sending me to the hospital (in an ambulance). The doctors said it was a fluke.
Trent added on her blog that
That was an experience I inserted into the history of my character Lily, not because I wanted to shock or upset readers, but because I hoped that if I could reach a few who needed that story at that exact moment and who felt empowered by her rebound-in-progress, it’d be worth it.
The information thus serves to direct readers towards physical healing should they experience the type of miscarriage which requires urgent medical attention but, perhaps more importantly, it seeks to produce emotional healing.
Prevention is often preferable to healing damage which has already occurred and it is logical, therefore, that some romances offer guidance on how to avoid injury. Leigh Michaels' story which included information about carbon monoxide was mentioned in the previous section and Joanna Chambers’ Unnatural (2017) depicts a child being saved because the hero has learned from tragic prior experience to recognise the signs of drowning. As the author observes in a note to the reader,
The instinctive, and uncontrollable, response of a drowning person is to extend the arms laterally, pressing down on the water, and lift the chin—both actions allowing the victim to continue breathing as long as possible. The victim goes very still and is unable to wave or shout out to signal their distress, usually quietly sinking below the water within a minute or so.
While Chambers does not state that the information is intended to benefit readers should they find themselves in similar circumstances to the hero, her note explicitly claims that her depiction of drowning differs from (and thus, by implication, counters) the way in which it “is often depicted on film [...], with the victim shown to be violently and noisily struggling in the water.”
Another romance which appears to intentionally impart information in order to preserve its readers and their loved-ones from harm is Brenda Jackson’s Tonight and Forever (1995) in which the depiction of condom-use “can be seen as teaching, or endeavoring to teach, socially responsible behavior to a community of readers who could potentially be affected by HIV/AIDS” (Moody-Freeman 2016, 120):
Given the sexual health environment of the mid to late 1990s, the years in which Jackson’s first novels were published, these eroticized and romanticized depictions of safe sex practices might well be read as a deliberate, didactic intervention by the novelist, aimed at illustrating to her readers how they can experience pleasure even as they choose to become responsible agents accountable for their own healthy sexual practices. (Moody-Freeman 2016, 112-13)
Certainly feminist romance reader and academic Jenni M. Simon, who was at school in the 1990s, relates that her health classes taught her only
how my body worked as a site of reproduction and pleasure for a man. I learned how to protect myself and what to be fearful of. However, nowhere in that education was a tutorial on why I still wanted to have sex—despite the unpleasant outcomes. (ix)
Her first romance novel gave her information which enabled her to understand her sexuality differently, and she remains
forever grateful for the person who introduced me to the romance genre. [...] I learned more from that book about my body and what I should expect from a partner than the state issued textbook I was provided in Health class. (ix)
Certain environments are perhaps more conducive to healing than others. For mental health issues, for example, the privacy of a therapist’s couch may be beneficial. Gail Araujo, in her summary of the interviews she held with nine romance readers found that this was the type of environment romance novels could provide. They served as a safe space in which readers could:
escape into themselves, a place where there will [be] no judgments, and where they can explore their feelings about issues without having to explain or justify the need for these explorations or their ultimate feelings about them. Although all of the women have strong social networks of friends and other women with whom they can share their thoughts and feelings, there is always the fear or sense that these moments of sharing may come with judgments or the giving of advice. Reading as an emotionally interpretive act provides a private outlet for women to confide and confess their feelings and thoughts without this judgment or the need for justification. (52)
Similarly, reader and writer Robin Lovett found that romance was “an excellent place […] to recover from sexual assault” in part because
Page after page, romance novels say to the reader, “You are in control. You decide. You deserve what you want.” With my everyday hypervigilance degrading my needs and telling me that going after what I wanted would put my life in danger, to read romance heroines doing just that and thriving reinforced all the wisdom my therapist could supply.
It may be argued that some or all of these examples do not fulfill all the criteria established for pastoral healing. If so, romance may not be alone in finding it difficult to perform this function, for at a time when physical healing is most often performed by medical professionals who may also, along with psychologists and counsellors, undertake emotional healing, “Of the four functions of pastoral care, healing seems [...] most problematical in itself” (Clebsch and Jaekle 42).