Content Warning: This article addresses themes of abuse.
Gabrielle Zevin’s acclaimed 2022 novel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, is first and foremost a story of friendship. Sam Masur and Sadie Green’s chance childhood meeting in a hospital game room sparks a lifetime of collaboration, misunderstandings, fighting, reconciling, comfort, and support. As the two re-connect in college, form a partnership to create video games, and rocket to stardom together, Zevin deftly portrays the roller-coaster trajectory of a friendship between two brilliant, sensitive creatives. That friendship is sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frustrating; it can vanish without a trace, then steal back into one’s life just when it’s most needed.
But alongside this moving storyline runs a darker thread: Sadie’s ongoing relationship with Dov Mizrah, her one-time Advanced Games professor. Sadie’s deep admiration of Dov’s talent and intelligence develops into an infatuation that gets her pulled in over her head. And it highlights the problem with the idea of consent being the be-all and end-all of a sexual relationship, instead of the bare minimum we should require.
From the very beginning, Dov shows a disturbing skill at manipulation, a knowledge of how to stay just barely on the right side of the line in his relations with a student, or at least to make her think he’s on the right side. The narrative suggests that she’s still his student when he seduces her, but Sadie claims that it happened after she was finished with his class. The murkiness of the timing just adds to what Dov admits is the “shady” aspect of the whole thing, and it’s not helped by the way that Sadie feels about their involvement: “She learned so much from him. It was like having seminar all the time.”
The shadiness also displays itself in the way that Dov straightforwardly tells Sadie that he’s wrong to be with her, yet does it anyway; in the way he praises her while also continually “trying to find fault with her”; in the way he both encourages her work and undermines her confidence. It’s very clear that he always has the upper hand—and nowhere more so, ironically, than when the subject of consent comes up. The first time this happens is when Dov is trying out a new game that Sadie and Sam have created, and Sadie is eagerly waiting for his opinion.
“I can feel you watching me. I can hear you breathing.” He took her hand and he escorted her into his bedroom. … “Take off your clothes.”
“I don’t want to,” she said. “Dov, it’s freezing in here.”
“Take. Off. Your. Clothes. You know what happens when you disobey.”
Sadie took off her clothes.
… Dov wasn’t abusive. He always sought consent. But he liked handcuffs and other more complicated props and ordering her around. He liked making her strip and tying her up and gagging her on occasion; he liked to slap her and spank her and pull her hair. … When he hurt her—and he never hurt her much—he was always tender and sorry after.
Desperate for both Dov’s personal and professional approval, Sadie goes along with it all. And she defends Dov to Marx, a friend who’s gone into the video game business with her and Sam, when Marx notices her bruises and welts:
“It’s a game we like to play,” she said.
“Some bondage stuff,” she said. “He never takes it too far. He always has my consent.”
“Do you like it?” he asked.
Sadie considered the question. She took another swig of her drink. “Sometimes.” She smiled her crooked smile, and there was an apologetic look in her eyes, as if she knew she had betrayed Dov by admitting that she only sometimes enjoyed sex with him. “But he’s great. I mean, he’s been really great for me,” she said. “And for all of us, too.”
The language here is interesting. Games are Sadie’s whole life: They drive her, inspire her, serve as the foundation of her closest friendships. But in trying to reframe the troubling thing that’s happening to her, to toss it off as no big deal, she uses the word “game” in a dismissive way that is utterly foreign to her. It hints at the way that Dov’s involvement in every aspect of her life makes her violate her own values.
Sadie’s plight reads like a response to a question asked by columnist Christine Emba in her book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, published just a few months before Zevin’s book. “Nonconsensual sex is always wrong,” Emba affirms, before asking, “But the inverse is tricky: Is consensual sex always right?”
Emba shares with us the stories of a number of women who have known experiences like Sadie’s—feeling pressured to consent to acts they did not want to do. Which, of course, goes against the very definition of consent. But having paid lip service to the idea—consenting because they felt they had to, because they couldn’t come up with a good reason not to—these women were left hurting, but without any way to understand or express why. “It’s not like I was being forced into anything or that I feel unsafe, but it’s not … good,” one woman told Emba. “And I don’t like how I feel afterwards.”
Though Emba doesn’t fully embrace traditional Christian teachings on sex, she’s strongly influenced by Catholic thought. She borrows from Thomas Aquinas (who in turn had borrowed from Aristotle) to propose a sexual ethic that goes beyond consent: “willing the good of the other.” She explains,
Willing the good means caring enough about another person to consider how your actions (and the consequences thereof) might affect them—and choosing not to act if the outcome for the other person would be negative. … It makes it our responsibility to seek out and form an understanding of what the good actually is. This involves a certain level of maturity and self-knowledge on our own parts: an understanding that if we aren’t able to do this, in the moment or more broadly, maybe we shouldn’t be having sex.
Dov clearly does not care about what’s good for Sadie. That’s why his ongoing presence in Zevin’s story even after Sadie, with help from Sam and Marx, finally breaks free from him is a source of uneasiness. Always apologetic and self-deprecating right alongside his assertiveness, Dov morphs into a sort of wise uncle figure, offering advice or admiration or even tough love at key points in Sadie’s life. Emba’s book helps explain why that’s such a problem—because these offerings are coming from someone who, when he was in a position of power over Sadie, did not will her good.
Even back when she was in that situation, under his power, Sadie understood this at a gut level: “He wouldn’t have sex without her consent, but he felt free to make her uncomfortable and embarrassed”—for instance, handcuffing her to his bed and leaving her there for hours. And that understanding bleeds over into other areas of her life, causing serious damage. When Sadie realizes that Sam once did something that brought her and Dov back together after their first breakup, instead of recognizing and accepting that Sam didn’t really understand what was at stake for her at the time, she becomes so angry with Sam that it causes a serious rupture in their friendship.
No wonder Dov sticks in the craw of many readers who have otherwise enjoyed the book. Author Gabrielle Zevin said in an interview, “With regard to Dov, I’ve had some younger readers ask, ‘why isn’t he punished?’ And I’ll say, ‘because the book ends in 2011.’” Before the #MeToo movement, the Dovs of the world often got away with their abuse and exploitation.
A lot has changed for the better since then, but as Emba reminds us—and as the role of consent in Sadie’s story suggests—a lot still needs to change. What people like Dov do is not a game, but deadly serious—and consent, essential as it is, is still not enough to save us from the harm that they cause. That’s why the ethic that Emba draws from Aquinas—to will the highest good of another, and to know that we deserve to be with those who will our highest good—is a true game-changer.