"There will be someone for you, my daughter," a dying mother assures a young woman in Nancy Richards-Akers' last novel, "So Wild A Kiss." "A loving man to cosset and protect you ..."
A self-described "chronic daydreamer," Nancy Richards-Akers was the author of 16 romance novels, popular fantasies in which virile, perfect men -- at once thrillingly tough and emotionally sensitive -- made love and war with equal ease. Her eventful stories of spunky Celtic heroines and the sexy heroes who wooed and defended them always ended happily ever after.
Nancy's own story, however, did not have a happy ending. She was shot twice in the back of the head by her abusive husband, Jeremy Ray Akers, on the night of June 5, as she sat in her red Jeep Wrangler outside her former home in an upscale area of Washington, D.C. The couple's school-age children witnessed their mother's murder, and 11-year-old Zeb called 911. Ninety minutes later, as park police approached him across the grassy area in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Jeremy Akers put the barrel of a shotgun in his own mouth and pulled the trigger.
The close-knit romance writers' community was devastated by the news of Richards-Akers' murder. It was the third such death by domestic violence among romance writers in the past three years (novelists Pamela Macaluso and Ann Wassall were also shot by their husbands in 1997 and 1996, according to the Romance Writers of America). At the "Avon Ladies" bulletin board on the Web site of Richards-Akers' publisher, Avon Books, messages of distress about her orphaned children, calls for action against domestic violence and stunned, disbelieving grief at the loss of a beloved friend flooded in as soon as the news broke.
The grisly deaths raised inevitable questions and strong emotions among the women (and a few men) who make their living celebrating romantic love. A June 8 Washington Post article on the murder, written by Cheryl Thompson, was based almost entirely on interviews with Jeremy Akers' friends, and seemed in some respects to be sympathetic toward him and critical of Richards-Akers. (Thompson did not respond to requests for comment, but the Post story explained that the writer's friends and family could not be reached.) Under the headline "Jealousy Suspected in Slaying of Novelist: Friends Call Lawyer Who Killed Wife a Doting Father," the article quoted a family friend as saying that Richards-Akers had included elements of her intense and volatile husband's character in the warrior heroes of her books. Worse yet, Richards-Akers was purported to have found her husband's aggressive nature appealing, at least in the earlier years of their marriage, and one friend of her husband's indicated that Richards-Akers had only grown "tired" of him when she "didn't need him financially" any more.
The article's overall impression, the angry romance community felt, was that Richards-Akers had known what she was doing in marrying a brutal man, and thus she had somehow chosen her fate.
"I think what bothers me the most is that the article attempts to explain or justify his behavior," wrote reader Tiffany Hunalec. "Violence in our culture is so common, but even worse is the attitude that somehow the woman must have done something to deserve it, or that she in some way is a catalyst that brings out her husband's bad side." Another furious woman wrote that the Post's article should have been entitled "Ode to a Killer." Roberta Stahlman, a frequent contributor at the Avon Ladies board, was particularly outraged at the suggestion that Jeremy Akers' personality figured in her books: "To say that a man who would beat and kill his wife could possibly be a hero of a romance novel is ludicrous."
Yet by all accounts, Richards-Akers was -- on the surface, at least -- an example of what's known in romance industry jargon as the "alpha male archetype," the type that frequently figures as the hero of romances. An environmental lawyer and former Marine who earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, Jeremy Akers was described by friends as "brilliant" and "headstrong," and as "a James Bond type" who had "woman after woman." He indulged in hobbies like skiing, scuba diving, alligator hunting and gun collecting. But he evidently had a hard time controlling himself, and that's where he departed from the romance-novel ideal.
In February Nancy Richards-Akers characterized her husband in e-mail correspondence as a "violent, possessive, terrorist control-freak." He was, neighbors said, blunt and opinionated, a vocal man with highly conservative political views, which he often expressed aggressively, to the extent of invading others' personal space during conversations and forcing them to step back. Police had been called to the Akers home in recent years, and Richards-Akers had finally fled for good last summer with a broken nose and two black eyes. "If I hadn't left," she told a friend, "my children might have witnessed my death."
It's true that romance novels in the '70s and '80s often featured men much like Jeremy as testosterone-powered, tortured outlaws or warrior kings who all too often actively abused their heroines, earning the genre the contemptuous sobriquet of "bodice-rippers." In today's romances, however, the male characters' aggressive impulses tend to be more controlled, and most of the violence that remains is only undertaken in order to protect women and children. The amount of tenderness in the genre has risen, and there has been an enormous growth in the number of so-called "beta male" heroes, whose masculine strength is of the gentle, intelligent and unflinchingly honorable variety.
Still, there is no question that the more commonplace romance hero is still very much a tough guy, at least by day, and Richards-Akers' work was appreciated by some readers for precisely this aspect. "Personally, I like the violent man in my romance fiction," wrote romance reader Lynn Cardarelli, who calls herself a "politically incorrect workaholic." But, she says, "Not in my life. Fiction is just that -- it allows us to explore different lives, different attitudes -- and it can feed our dark side. Nancy was writing about some very violent times. I don't think any of us wants to go back to that period, but it is like taking a very fast, dangerous ride when reading one of her books. You walk on the edge, danger is present at all times, it fires the imagination -- and makes for some nice dreams."
But dreams, writers and readers of romance insist, are all that these novels are. They don't feel that reading or writing romances increases their tolerance for violence or influences their choices of partners. Elaine Wethington, a sociologist at Cornell University who has made several studies of the $1 billion romance-novel phenomenon, says that her research indicates that the influence works the other way around: "I don't believe romance novels influence the average reader's choice of men, over and above the other social influences on mate choice. The novels reflect what social scientists have found when analyzing mate choice across societies: Women tend to be attracted to, and to marry, successful men (who in many cases are aggressive and tough)." Wethington notes, too, that studies of romance readers have discovered that, far from using romance fiction as a primer for their relationships, readers indulge in romances primarily as an escape from everyday life.
Robert Vaughan, a military historian and author of over 36 romances under various feminine pseudonyms, agrees with that idea, and he thinks that Richards-Akers' writing might have helped her to cope with her difficult situation. Writers, he says, "become as much a part of their books as do the readers, and they escape into the worlds they have created. If their own personal life is in some sort of turmoil ... for example, if they are living with an abusive partner ... then that escape is more necessary."
But ultimately fantasy alone was not enough for Nancy Richards-Akers, and physical escape became her only remaining option. Stella Kyung, a columnist for the Web magazine Disceptatio, sees the final months of Richards-Akers' life as remarkably similar to a recurring theme in current romance novels, in which a woman strives to break free of restricting or damaging circumstances into a new life. In novels like Julie Garwood's "Saving Grace," Kyung says, heroines who have endured abusive marriages are healed by the love of a man who helps them realize that they deserve better.
Richards-Akers' friends say that she made just that kind of transition this spring, and had found a new and restorative love with a man she described as "truly sweet and generous," a writer of children's poetry. But apparently it was knowledge of this relationship, combined with an impending divorce hearing, that was the catalyst for Jeremy Akers' terminal rage. His friends said that he felt he was losing control of his family. It "drove Jeremy nuts" that his wife was with another man in the company of his children, according to Don Boswell, Jeremy's friend and law partner. Nancy Richards-Akers' nightmare of a year earlier -- that her children would witness their mother's murder -- came true.
The romance community has already embarked on efforts to ensure that Nancy Richards-Akers' legacy will be a positive one. Pamela Britton, a writer with rival publisher HarperCollins, is one of several authors who has suggested that the most appropriate memorial might be a book whose proceeds could be contributed to efforts aimed at stopping domestic violence. Vickie McCloud, Richards-Akers' friend and a co-founder of the RBL Romantica! discussion board, is determined that "a voice silenced by violence is going to cause a lot of noise for the good of all women."
Akers proclaimed on her own Web site that "All my fiction is inspired by real life," and that "romance allows me to find the happy ending, to modify reality just enough to give it hope." These words were part of what prompted reader Melissa Titsworth to declare Richards-Akers and the other murdered writers "valiant" women. Even as they were creating the hopeful, exhilarating literature that provided emotional respite for their readers, they were contending with the disconnects between the worlds they wrote about and their own lives. "Can you imagine," Titsworth says, "how hard it would be to spend eight hours a day writing about love and trust when the one person in the world who you are supposed to hold most dear terrifies you? When you realize that the man you have been married to for 20 years can't possibly love you? How hard it must be to pour your heart and soul into a manuscript about the beginning of a man and woman's glorious life together when you are struggling with the decision of leaving your husband in order to save your own life. Nancy, Pam and Ann were, to me, the bravest of women."