In Their Own Way

I’m not alone in my fascination with the iconic musical The Phantom of the Opera. I’ll happily sing along with the soundtrack—much to the dismay of anyone within earshot of my tune-deaf performance. After all, it was the soundtrack that I fell in love with from the first listen!

More recently, I’ve looked at the relationship dynamics of the characters from the perspective of healthy relationships versus all-the-red-flags relationships. As much as he’s romanticized, the Phantom is absolutely the story’s antagonist. The creepy stalker/manipulator behavior is problematic enough, but we can’t ignore the extortion, destruction of property, assault, and murder. His rap sheet grows worse as the musical progresses.

And yet—his tragic backstory elicits our sympathy. Childhood trauma of that kind does terrible damage, to be sure. While one cannot approve of the deep bitterness and the actions he took as a result, we can understand it. How many of us, when subjected to injustice and betrayal—real or perceived—don’t experience anger and even the desire for retribution? The point I’m making is that while the Phantom is not a good character, he is an understandable one.

While pondering all of this, it rather struck me that while the Phantom did not love Christine in a healthy way, he did love her “in his own way”. What I mean is that I’m sure from his perspective he did love her deeply. Unfortunately, his concept of what real love is and what it looks like in action was terribly flawed. I’ve heard the phrase “they love you/me in their own way” applied in cases of abusive relationships in the past. It seemed like most of the time someone was using that line to try and say that the abusive party was expressing “love” in an unhealthy way because that was the best they could do—typically because of some past hurt and trauma of their own.

It’s common to find that abusers were themselves abused, but a reason is not an excuse. Past trauma or abuse may be a reason why someone expresses “love” in an abusive fashion, but it never excuses it. The Phantom of the Opera was a victim of terrible trauma that was not his fault and nor he did not choose it. He did choose to take actions that, while perhaps understandable, were still wrong and the responsibility for them rests solely on his shoulders.

That’s one of the particularly crummy things about being a victim of abuse. You didn’t choose what happened to you, but you’re the one who has to put in the work to heal from the trauma. You have to be intentional about not perpetuating the cycle of victim to abuser. It’s hard not to become one of those people who “loves others in their own way”. Ultimately, it’s worth the effort it takes to break that cycle. The Phantom makes for a compelling and interesting character in an unforgettable musical, but one we would—or should—aspire to become.