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REAL LIFE

On-Screen Romance Would Make Hard Reality

June 14, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the going gets tough, the not-so-tough retreat to their dreams. Sometimes, this is a bad idea.

Take Francesa Johnson, a dissatisfied 45-year-old immigrant farm wife in Iowa, married to a nice man who wears overalls and prefers farm reports to poetry. Where another woman might take a class or a trip, Francesca embarks on a passionate, secret, four-day affair with Clint Eastwood posing as a photographer for National Geographic. She lives on the memory the rest of her boring days.

The story of "The Bridges of Madison County" has hit a nerve with both men and women as phenomenal book sales, box office receipts and widespread tissue shortages attest.

Surely, it resonates with aging boomers who like to think that even if there's snow on the roof, there's still a fire in the chimney. Or maybe with the growing camp of people who see no problem with ultimately sacrificing individual happiness on the altar of family values. Or most probably with the vast throngs of people who have found life to be disappointing and don't know how else to fix it.

One main problem here for women, said New York therapist Olga Silverstein, is that Francesca "has no life and the movie does not decry the fact that she has no life. It applauds the fact that she has no life."

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Another is that the story tends to promote unrealistic expectations and destructive illusions. Armond Aserinsky, a psychologist who specializes in movies, said, "It gets people to believing that's how life should be. 'I ought to be in love. I ought to have the grand passion. I deserve it. It can exist. If it isn't existing, something's wrong with me.' So people go around looking for that and nothing measures up in real life.

"If you do have it, it can't last more than a week."

Those of us who know this want to take Meryl Streep by the shoulders and cry out in a slight Italian accent, "Francesca, Francesca, it would never have worked out anyway! You have so much to offer! Don't waste your life reading Harlequin novels and pining for Prince Charming! Why don't you take up photography and writing bad poetry yourself?"

Then, too, there is the bothersome problem of living with a shameful secret. Suzanne Stutman, president of the Institute for Mental Health Initiatives in Washington, said that when the unfaithful can't confess indiscretions with their partners, they sometimes "cut themselves off from the relationship and spend many hours fantasizing, thinking about the secret. They don't do the kinds of things needed in a relationship to make it work."

In real life, of course, most women don't want to end up like Francesca Johnson, dreaming of Robert Kincaid until they wither and die, said Nancy Kalish, psychology professor at Cal State Sacramento. "They want to go find him."

After reading "The Bridges of Madison County," Kalish decided to contact her college boyfriend, whom she hadn't seen in 25 years--ever since he backed out of their engagement.

As it turned out, he had just separated from his wife. After three weeks of a fairy-tale romance, he gave her a two-carat ring.

Then he said it was a mistake.

Six weeks later, he called her again.

Then he left again.

This time around, it took her a year to get over it.

On the plus side, her experience gave her a career boost. She now directs "The Lost Love Project," an international study of 800 people who have reunited with lost loves from their youth.

She said it also made her feel young again.

And at least, she said, she was finally able to let go of her fantasy that the relationship might have worked out.

"It was worthwhile to have that closure," she said. If he came back again, she said, "I would not do it."

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