“I wanted to talk, wanted to tell Tom everything, things I’d never told him or anyone. Not only about my father, but about me and Cat, that sometimes I felt so out of control with her. But about my father too, how afraid I was of becoming like him.”
Nick is a wealthy teenager, with the cars and clothes to match, and a life that seems pretty perfect on the outside. But now, he’s in court, slapped with a restraining order and mandatory anger management classes. He’s there because he beat his girlfriend. He blackened her eye and bloodied her nose. Before that, he hurled insults, manipulated her emotions and demanded her compliance. He made her afraid. Now, he’s telling the story in a series of journal entries required by his anger management counselor.
It’s an all-too-common refrain: Nick learned violence at the feet of his father, who, in turn, learned it from his. To his own grief, Nick cannot seem to control his anger, and takes it out on his lovely girlfriend, Caitlin. The book explores his complicated emotions: he is terrified of losing her, wracked with inadequacies, hates himself for hurting her, and feels compelled to keep her close by attempting to control who she sees, what she wears, and where she goes. On top of all that, he is trying to hide his own father’s abuse from his friends and teachers.
Oh, friends! This was a tremendously wrenching read for me! Nick’s honesty is raw, and his recounting of the abuse is brutal. I was up at midnight last night, crying over some of the horrible things he said to poor Caitlin, and then crying even more because you can’t just write him off as a horrible person and hate him. That’s the genius of this book: Alex Flinn reveals Nick’s inner thoughts and motivations for his behavior. He’s multi-dimensional, rather than just abusing his girlfriend because he gets pleasure from her pain. He’s not a straight-up monster. That’s not how it works. He is an abused teenager who does not know how to stop the cycle. It’s heart-breaking. It’s realistic. And it is so, so painful.
This is not a long book, but the intensity of the voice was so hard for me to take that I spent a few days reading it. This book falls into one of those categories like Laurie Halse Anderson’s books Wintergirls or Speak: they are hard to read because of the trauma and the grief they call up in the reader. That’s powerful writing! And because of that, Breathing Underwater won the ALA Best Books and Quick Pick awards, and about a huge list of other honors, too. It’s not easy (emotionally) to read, but it’s worth it, and we should all be grateful there are authors willing to tackle difficult subjects from every perspective.
Alex Flinn has written a sequel, Diva, from Caitlin’s perspective. It (and every other book she has written!) is on my to-read list. I’ll let you know! And if you have copies of any of them, please send them my way!
Author’s website: http://www.alexflinn.com
Flinn, Alex. Breathing Underwater. New York: HarperTeens, 2001. 279 pp. Ages 14 and up.