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talking about teen dating violence with elin stebbins waldal, author of “tornado warning”
Last week, Chris Keith, blogger at Adventures of a Thrifty Mommy, was murdered — along with her oldest son — by her estranged husband, who then killed himself. The other three children were at their grandparents’ house.
This is a tragic and, unfortunately not uncommon, story.
The blogging community has come together to pay tribute, and you can read some of the posts here.
In memory of Chris, I am reposting this powerful interview with my great friend, Elin Stebbins Waldal.
Not all kisses are loving, as Elin reveals so bravely and intimately in Tornado Warning: A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and Its Effect on a Woman’s Life. Elin has written a painfully honest account of her own experiences, sharing her personal teenage diary entries along with her adult perspective. This is an important and ultimately empowering book which should be read and discussed by all parents and teenagers.
I literally read your book in one sitting, silently begging you on every page to leave the abusive Derrick. It took a lot of courage for you to write your story. Why did you decide after all this time to share this with the public?
Reading the entire Twilight Saga was the catalyst for me to share my story now. Those books lit a fire inside me — I could not bear the thought of made-up stories existing without a counter-message told from the perspective of the teen I was. The Twilight books invoked such a visceral response in me because they are riddled with unhealthy relationship behaviors. Here is one example of many I found disturbing when put in context to the readership of tweens and teens:
“When you love the one who is killing you, it left you no options. How could you run, how could you fight, when doing so would hurt that beloved one? If your life was all you had to give your beloved, how could you not give it?” – from Breaking Dawn
I knew I could not remain silent for another minute. There is nothing glamorous about living with someone who threatens to kill you.
Do you think you would have published your book if Derrick were still alive?
It is so hard to know for sure how I may have felt about publishing it if Derrick were alive, because he is not. The best I can say is that when I wrote my first draft, over two decades ago, he was alive and he was not the reason for me to abandon my dream of publication at that time. It is so important to have real stories. Part of the liberation I feel from healing is the freedom I have to share my journey and embrace my womanhood in its entirety, embracing it in a way that pays homage to all of my life experiences.
You were only 17 when you entered this abusive relationship. That’s such a vulnerable time in a girl’s life. What attracted you to Derrick and kept you in the relationship?
We had spent some time flirting and I was very attracted initially to what I perceived to be his grown-up qualities. He also had an air of mystery to him in that“not everyone understands me” sort of way. I think his protectiveness is what won me over; as you know, when we first met he rescued me from an uncomfortable altercation with another guy. I saw him as brave, righteous, and capable of seeing a girl as worthy of having the right to state her opinion. Apart from that, he was nice, funny, cute and, most importantly, he was a “grown-up.” He was out on his own, he owned his own business, he seemed mature and together, and all those things were very attractive to me because I was obsessed with my own emancipation. It is so important for individuals to understand how insidious abuse is; early on, his control over my decision-making leeched into me in a way where at some point it seemed normal. I think I looked to him as the one who knew better because he was older. He never laid a finger on me until I was living with him; once we were under the same roof, the emotional and physical abuse took hold.
Do you think there were certain characteristics Derrick saw in you that convinced him you would take his abuse? You seemed strong and confident, but he called you “little and helpless,” and told you that’s what attracted him to you. Did you become his perception of you, which is what so many teenage girls do with boys they like?
I think I was flattered that he felt I “understood” him. In a word, it helped me to feel special. He for sure played up the “nobody but you gets me” syndrome. I absolutely believe he found my best attributes — the ability to nurture and have empathy — and used them to attach himself to me in a way that served to make me feel responsible for his well-being.
On some level, I am sure I became his perception of me; that is, until the reality of living with him began to catch up with me. I was working two jobs — I was supporting him — and life, if it remained on that path, was going to be painfully long.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see warning signs. Looking back, when should you have left him?
Oh, this is tough. I don’t really subscribe to “should,” per se, and each woman’s journey is very individual. As frightening as it sounds, I believe I left when I discovered my strength. As you saw in my story, I went back so many times and, sadly, that is the pattern in abusive relationships. Having said that, had I understood the warning signs I may have thought twice when he announced to the room that I was his “girlfriend.” He never asked for my consent — without the tools, I saw it as a compliment; with education ,I may have seen it as a means for “quick involvement” and a need for control which lacked regard for my own say-so. The other important piece to remember is that he was threatening to kill himself, me, our dog, my family members. It was very scary for me to imagine leaving alive, and in some ways I think I was protecting myself, my family and him all at once.
How long were you involved with Derrick? What finally enabled you to leave him?
We were together just shy of three years. It was a combination of things which led me away. I was slowly asserting myself and reclaiming who I was but my decision to go to college really brought my strength to a new height, thus allowing me to end it. Once I had the space to feel who I was without him, I couldn’t imagine being who I had become when I was with him. It was really hard though because leaving him meant giving up on him and the relationship prong which a couple becomes: “us.” The guy he claimed he wanted to be was incongruent with the guy he really was; the “us” I fantasized about did not match the “us” we had grown into. Once I could clearly see and feel all of that, it was easier to take the steps toward breaking free.
It was very frightening to me that you were able to hide your abuse from your parents so easily. How should your parents have known what you were going through? It didn’t seem like you had a bad relationship with them, and when they did ask you if he was mistreating you, you said everything was fine. What should they have done? What should parents do if they suspect abuse?
My parents truly were ill-equipped — domestic violence was not even whispered in their circles and, in the early 1980’s, the term teen dating violence was yet to be coined. I believe my parents saw me the way I wanted them to: strong, together and independent. You are right — we had a good relationship yet I believe it is one that reflects many parent/teen relationships of that era. My parents are of the WWII generation and, for the most part, their generation didn’t examine their lives the way we do today. I recall my Dad once saying, “It would never have occurred to me to have a mid-life crisis; I was too busy!” as if a person “decides” to have a crisis regardless of stage in life.
The night which you refer to — when my father asked if Derrick had hit me — I think he knew then that something was terribly wrong after all. Arriving at their home in the middle of the night in tears was completely out of character for me. As soon as my dad pushed to immediately go gather my belongings, I pulled it together and put my “everything’s alright with Elin” mask on. I was afraid Derrick would hurt my father. He had threatened to kill me and my family members, and the last thing I wanted was a showdown with my dad.
We have to see our children as they are, not what we need or desire them to be. In some respects, I was raised to believe I was and always would be amazing. That perception was something I never wanted to fail at and I went to great lengths to make sure the cracks in my veneer went unnoticed. I feel I need to state that I do not hold my parents responsible for what happened in my life — they did the best they could with the information that was available to them during that period. Once it was out in the open and I voiced that I needed help, they were herculean in nature, providing years of much-needed therapy, love and support. It was then that I realized I was no less “amazing” in their eyes.
I always tell parents today the most empowering tool is information. No one wants to imagine their child befalling a horrific relationship and yet it happens. Take it upon yourself to understand the warning signs, read my book with your teenager — there are countless conversations and opportunities to ask questions woven throughout my story. Also, make sure your child knows there is nothing at all that they could experience which would make you stop loving them. I think sometimes, with all the expectations that are on youth today with respect to getting into a great college, we forget that they are young. Although they crave their independence, they still need to know you are there when they need you.
Last, if you believe your child may be in an abusive relationship, ask questions. Seek to understand your child’s point of view. Asking questions is a far better way to get a teenager to talk than standing in judgment and making snarky remarks about what you perceive to be going on. Let’s face it, we all shut down when we are judged. The other important piece for parents is they do not have to go through their worry and concern alone. Reach out, contact organizations that will lead to the best solutions for their family. Groups such as Love is Respect, Break the Cycle, Love is Not Abuse, and The Domestic Violence Hotline, National Network to End Domestic Violence, all have resources to help answer questions and direct you to additional resources at the local level.
One of my favorite lines in the book is your wish for your children: “Let them be strong from all that they do, not what they endure.” As the mother of a teenage daughter, I totally agree. What can we do to help make that happen?
In this day and age, we can not just sit back and wish our children safe. They need and must have education which provides tools to identify the components of a healthy relationship as well as behavior which could lead to abuse in a relationship. As a State Action Leader for The Love is Not Abuse Coalition, we work toward passing laws which would require teen dating violence curriculum to be taught in schools. Any adult has the ability to take action and work on this issue. The organization is comprised of concerned citizens from all walks of life.
Since writing Tornado Warning, I have met countless families who have suffered the greatest tragedy — the murder of their own child due to dating violence. Each of these families devotes hours beyond counting, selflessly giving of their time to create awareness about teen dating violence. It shouldn’t take a death to convince people that our kids need these tools. I carry the stories of their daughters in my heart and do all I can to ensure their stories are told. Each girl had dreams, desires, and ambitions, and yet they were robbed of their future by someone who claimed to love them. I will never forget how close I came to being that girl, and I do my best to honor them.
The subtitle of your book, “A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and Its Effect on a Woman’s Life,” addresses a huge issue which is rarely touched upon when dealing with the subject. What was the biggest effect of the abuse on you?
This experience shaped and informed who I would be and who I am. It is difficult to pinpoint the “biggest” because there are so many little things that add up to a big thing. For me, my survival was not enough. I think the biggest effect is the unflinching desire to make a difference — and what I have learned is that using my voice to share my story is doing just that.
What was the most important or surprising thing you learned about yourself through this whole process?
I simply can not begin to describe the call to take action that occurred inside me. Had you asked me if reading a series of books would change my life four years ago, I would have said, “No way!” And yet here I am. The surprise is that the most hideous thing to have ever occurred in my life turns out to have been the genesis for my calling.
What have been the reactions of your family members — especially your daughter — to the book?
I’d like to begin with my husband, Jimmy. I always knew he was supportive and loving but I have been beyond blown away by his belief in me, and his undying support for my mission to make a difference. He has supported me spiritually, emotionally, and financially. Truly, I think he is beyond brave and I am grateful for his place by my side in this journey.
All three of my kids have had their own perspective. It’s a lot to have the world know the intimate details of your mother’s past but they see the difference it is making for the people who are touched by it, and express how incredible they think that is. Max shared my book with the Rape Prevention Education Program at the University he attends. He has expressed that he feels my story is one which college students would benefit from. Kodiak shared recently that when a fellow student told him she had heard me speak and that her experience had been really great, he felt so proud in that moment.
As for my daughter, initially she did have a difficult time learning about my past. It was complicated for her to see the beaten-down girl in the book as the woman I am today — her mother. Reading my book together has been very powerful. We have had meaningful conversations and discussed the warning signs and what I may have done differently if I had experienced the benefit of teen dating violence prevention classes. I believe it has given her a great foundation for her future.
Last, there is my childhood family. My mother and siblings are among my greatest fans and have showed nothing but support for my work. When the book came out, I really found myself missing my dad. He would have celebrated it.
I’m sure your book has touched a nerve with so many girls, women, parents. What kind of letters and emails have you received?
The messages I have received have been so moving and I am really honored when someone does reach out to share how my story has touched them. They are all special but the one that has stayed with me is a note I received from a mother whose daughter was murdered due to dating violence. She literally reduced me to tears when she shared the impact my story had on her. We have since forged a relationship via email, and our connection is just one example of the countless gifts that have come from sharing my story with the world.
There’s a book, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. What would you tell your younger self now?
I would tell my younger self that love begins inside her. Take the time to know who you are at your core, know your values, and don’t compromise them. I would tell her she has a strength and resilience which will carry her forward, and that using her voice to help herself and others is a gift not to squander.
And what would you tell girls who find themselves in similar situations?
I think the most important thing for a girl who finds herself in a similar situation to know is that there is help. She is not alone. There are very few things we are entitled to, but our emotional and physical safety is something we are entitled to have. She has resources in her parents, friends, school counselors, law enforcement, and local domestic violence resource centers. Her safety is critical, so when planning to leave an abusive relationship it is imperative that a safety plan be developed and adhered to. Last, break-ups hurt; it is natural to feel loss even when someone has not treated you in a way that is healthy.
As a side note, boys can also endure abuse in relationships. Everything said about girls also applies to a boy who is suffering.