Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Teen Relationship Violence: Breathing Underwater

Alex Flinn's Breathing Underwater tells the story of Nick, a sixteen-year-old boy who has kind of a nice life. He's pretty popular. He has a nice car. He's smart and gets good grades. He also has a crap homelife and, at the very beginning of the book, is in serious trouble for physically assaulting his girlfriend, Caitlin.

Ms. Flinn--yep, the author's a woman (and also happens to have written Beastly ... perhaps you've heard of it)--worked at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office and saw the aftermath of dating and domestic violence firsthand. She managed to make Nick both sympathetic and um, what's the word ... I-wish-I-could-smack-him-upside-the-head-ish? Figuratively speaking, of course.

Now, a few bits of reality: recent research indicates that dating violence is not uncommon in teens. In fact, based on surveys and interviews of thousands of teens in different regions of the country, it looks like at least 10% experienced relationship violence in the last year. Even more experienced emotional or verbal abuse.

Well. That's terrifying. And just one of many scary numbers associated with dating/domestic violence (including both opposite- and same-sex relationships). But teen dating violence isn't quite the same as violence between adults. For one thing--in about half of abusive teen dating relationships, the girl is physically aggressive, too. Yep. And in some cases, the girl is the only aggressor.

BUT--the most severe violence is perpetrated by boys, and the victims are disproportionately girls. Here's a really interesting article with all the research results you could want. It also talks about other ways teen partner violence is different from adult relationship violence.

What's fascinating about Breathing Underwater is that it's from the perspective of the abuser. It was realistic and believable, and it made me wince and squirm at certain points. However, I found it a little textbook and neat in its portrayal of Nick's thoughts/justifications, but I suppose I like reading things that are a bit more visceral, with more ragged edges, more eccentricity. Nevertheless, I think Breathing Underwater is a very accessible book, and I can totally see why it's taught in some high school classrooms.

And finally, here's something I was struck with while reading this book: some of the things Nick was thinking, as well as some of the things he did, were eerily similar to the actions of heroes in certain romance novels, both adult and the occasional YA (yeah, my reading tastes are somewhat promiscuous; double-entendre intended).

Stalking? Mm-hmm. Wishing the girly would cover up so only he could see her? Well, yes. Overwhelming rage if another dude thinks she's attractive, or if she smiles at said dude? Uh-huh.

I've never been much of a fan of the alpha hero (just ask my long-suffering beta numero uno, who must tolerate my screwed-up emo-heroes ... and on occasion endure my various pronouncements about wanting to knee hers in the balls). And after Breathing Underwater, I found the line between alpha-hero-macho-guy and domestic-violence-perpetrator all the more blurry.

For an utterly kick-ass post about this phenomenon, check out my agency mate Jaime Reed's blog. Really, you must. I can't say it any better than she does.

So: Have you read Breathing Underwater? Have you read others about relationship violence--in YA or adult fiction? And what about YA romance, ala Twilight? Are you comfortable with that portrayal of teen romance, or does it give you the shivers? Does it lead kids in the right direction? Make them more vulnerable to getting hurt in relationships? Neither?


  1. Yes, Sarah hates, hates, hates, the macho alpha hero. Sometimes she sent me crying with a reaction to something my hero did. Kidding. But close. ;-)

    Breathing Underwater sounds like a good book! I've never understood the concept of domestic violence (I'm one of those people who would wack a man upside the head with frying pan if he touched me) so it's always nice to get somewhate of an inside look. Recommend me a good book from the victim standpoint, Dr. B!


  2. Well, if you hit your partner upside the head with a skillet, that's also domestic violence ... actually, research shows that when women get violent, it's often in self-defense. A good book from the perspective of the abused: how about Dreamland, by Sarah Dessen?

  3. Breathing Underwater sounds like a really good book! I think I need to snag a copy quickly!!

    I think with YA it allows teens to experience the extremes and not-so-extremes while reading stories. I think the romance in Twilight is great as long as teens don't think that's what they should expect out of a mate. Yes, men should still be chivalorous, don't date a jerk. However just know there aren't very many Edward Cullen's out there.

  4. I agree, Jen! But one thing research also shows: one of the reasons teens get violent in relationships is because they have over-romanticized, idealized expectations, and it's hard to cope when those get violated. I'm a sucker for a super-romantic book if there ever was one, but I wonder if it doesn't make real life a letdown sometimes.

  5. I'm glad a book like this is out there to open a discussion on this. I get the feeling that many victims don't talk about it and the more discussion and openness about it, the better. I don't know if I could read this; I'd be squirming the whole time.
    Great post, Sarah!

  6. Interesting. I did research on relationship abuse for a project I have planned. I got the idea the stats were greater than that in teens. Or maybe I got that idea from all the education campaigns going on in the states.

    I like the alpha male but not in YA. Only in romantic suspense. And he can't be bordering on abusive (or even close). The alpha male part comes out when he defends his love interest from the evil dudes. ;)

  7. Stina--the results can vary from study to study, and it's difficult to pinpoint, but these were stats on actual physical abuse. Like I said--it's more like 20-30% report emotional/verbal abuse.

    I'm not totally against the alpha male; I'm just picky. It has to be done well. And I will admit, when his inner thoughts stray toward the super-possessive, I start to feel a little icked out.

  8. My niece's daughters wanted their boyfriends to be as protective of them as Edward is to Bella in Twilight. Is that still a dream of teen girls? To be protected? And perhaps girls can't tell the difference between being protected and over protection.

  9. Wow, such awful stats. I'm not surprised at her experience in Dade county. I lived there in college and never dated. The macho-abusive additude didn't work for me. Yep, many men are like that. I know it sounds like I'm sterotyping, but I'm not. It is just my "personal" experience.

  10. I haven't read this and I must say that I don't often care for characters that are THAT flawed, but I imagine if it were written well enough I would read just about anything.

    I worry that in our society, with all the images and ideas our children are bombarded with, the instances of this kind of thing are going to increase.

    It is curious though, how much repression can play a role. I mean for example in Japan they pretty much accept all forms of disturbing media. Rape in comic books and cartoons? Sure. Child pornography? Okay. Extreme violence in film and art? Why not. They even allow prostitution. I'm not saying we should do any of that over here, but it does make one wonder when you find out that Japan has one of the lowest rates of violent and sexual crime of all nations.

  11. Wow, this is really interesting. I haven't come across this book before, though I'll certainly have to put it on the TBR pile! It's good that we get to see the abuser's POV. (As uncomfortable as that may be.)

  12. hi miss sarah! im thinking this book is too old for me but for sure im gonna tell my brothers an my sister cause i think they could maybe wanna read it. whats double entendre? could coming out of being hurt when you were just little make you hurt wanna hurt your girlfriend or boyfriend when you get to being a teen?
    ...hugs from lenny

  13. I haven't yet read the Twilight series, but I have heard of the controversy over Edwards' behaviour and how girls are idolizing his character. I, for one, am glad my daughters are too strong willed and independent to want a 'protector'.
    I'll have to find Breathing Underwater; sounds like something I should read.

  14. All I'm saying regarding Twilight is it worries me that it almost romanticizes stalking. I mean, he sneaks into her room and watches her sleep. And when she finds out, she doesn't mind at all. That's not romantic, that's CREEPY.

    I haven't read Breathing Underwater yet, but I might have to check it out. I've been a little wary of Flinn ever since I read Beastly. I wasn't really okay with the romance in that book either.

  15. When will violence stop? Violence has become dominant in this world, even our young ones exhibit violent actions. I just wonder how people are satisfied with such a violent world. Why can’t we respect one another and we can enjoy our lives better.