I've been planning my 30th high school reunion, searching high and low for class of 1983 graduates. This has brought up a lot of things for me: How quickly time is flying. How the social barriers that existed in high school seem to have fallen away. I've talked to the jocks, the cheerleaders, the brains, the band geeks, the science nerds and the over-achieving student council members and realize we're more alike now than we are different. We're all just people trying to hold down jobs, nurture relationships, raise children and keep the clock at bay.
Life has humbled those of us who peaked in high school and opened up for those who didn't.
But the overriding similarity is that all of us were born in 1964 or 1965. Which means we're just happy to still be here. Because some of us have already succumbed to cancer, heart disease, depression or freak accidents.
But there's one classmate whose passing haunts me the most. Anna Marie (I'm omitting her last name to preserve her family's privacy) should have graduated with the rest of us in 1983. She should have gone to college or taken a gap year and worked at The Limited. She should've gotten her dream job or realized it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. She should've fallen in love once or twice or, if she were like me, six times before settling down. She should've had the opportunity to learn from her mistakes and try again. She should've been able to hold a newborn baby in her arms if that's what she wanted.
Instead, during the fall of 1982, her ex-boyfriend, Jim, lured Anna to a friend's garage and strangled her to death.
Some of the details of Anna's story have slipped away from me over the years. But I remember Anna and Jim joined at the hip since junior high school. I remember thinking they were an odd match. Anna was pretty, outgoing and popular, Jim seemed to hang in the background, silent and sullen. By the time we all got to high school Anna seemed to fade away. She was still there physically, leaning up against lockers with Jim, driving away from school in his car, but she was somehow diminished, invisible. I'll never know if this devolution is actually true, or if it just seems true now that I know how Anna's story ends.
During our senior year Anna finally broke up with Jim. By all accounts he was outraged, furious. Several weeks after Anna went missing her corpse was found in a shallow grave in one of the ubiquitous orange groves that typified our home town. Her body was so badly beaten she could only be identified by dental records.
During our graduation ceremony that spring we honored our fallen classmate by observing a moment of silence for her. Afterward we lined up to receive our high school diplomas, the tickets to our future, and left Anna back there on the football field in that silent moment. I didn't want to dwell on something so dark and unmoored from the world as I wanted to see it. Bright with possibility.
Several years later I worked on a movie-of-the-week for Lifetime TV based on a book by Dr. Jill Murray called, But I Love Him: Protecting Your Teen Daughter From Controlling, Abusive Dating Relationships.
I interviewed Dr. Murray and was astonished at the high statistics of teenage girls who were involved in violently abusive relationships and even more so by the chilling number of women who'd been murdered by their abusers. The murders would usually occur after the girl left her abuser, just as Anna's had.
At the time of this project my own daughters were just 15-months and 3-years old, so I felt a safe distance from being the parent of a child in jeopardy. That happened to other people's children, not mine.
Now my girls are eight and 10. They're still too young to date, but their coming-of-age is just around the next corner. This, coupled with planning my reunion, has brought me back full circle to Anna. I'm humbled and horrified by the excruciating pain her family endured and perhaps still endures. I feel impotent and fearful to learn her murderer is out of prison now, back among us.
I find it's time to honor Anna again by disseminating what I've learned in my research on teen dating abuse in the hopes that awareness can lead to prevention.
One thing I should make clear -- most of the girls who are in these relationships come from good homes with loving families. An abuser is stealthy, patient and manipulative, staking his territory inch-by-inch on an unsuspecting victim.
Four risk-factors that can turn a young man into an abuser:
1. Drug and alcohol abuse in the home by mother and/or father.
4. An authority figure who regularly humiliates and shames him; even in public.
The following is an excerpt from But I Love Him that can help you determine whether your daughter is in an abusive relationship:
IS MY DAUGHTER IN DANGER?
• Before my daughter met her boyfriend, she had more friends than she does now.
• Her grades have declined in the past weeks or months.
• Before she started dating him, she was more outgoing and involved with her family, school activities, and/or place of worship.
• She frequently cries or is very sad.
• If he texts her, she must call him back immediately.
• He told her that he loved her early in their relationship.
• He is jealous if she looks at or speaks casually with another boy.
• He accuses her of behavior she doesn't actually engage in.
• He is aggressive in other areas of his life: he puts his fist through walls or closets, bangs his fist to make a point, or throws things when angry.
• He frequently roughhouses or play-wrestles with her.
• She makes excuses for his poor behavior or says it's her fault.
• They talk on the phone several times a day or for long periods.
• He has a "tragic" home life: he is or was physically abused or verbally demeaned, and/or one or both parents are alcoholics or use drugs.
• He drinks or uses drugs.
• He frequently gives her "advice" about her choice of friends, hairstyle, clothes, or makeup.
• He calls her demeaning names, then laughs and tells her he was only kidding or that she's too sensitive.
• She has become secretive since she started dating him. She is miserable whenever she is apart from him.
• She has recently become very critical of her appearance, talents, or abilities.
• She frequently has to explain herself to her boyfriend or often says she's sorry.
• She has bruises she cannot explain or appears nervous about explaining them to you.
In re-reading Dr. Murray's list I can see that one of my earliest relationships was emotionally (though not physically) abusive. I can also see the red flags I missed when I was a victim of attempted rape. I was fortunate to emerge from those situations and realize I needed therapy so I could make better choices. Anna Marie never got that chance.
If you are a teen in an abusive relationship or you suspect your child is in an abusive relationship there are several resources. You can call or email:
I highly recommend Dr. Jill Murray's book because I think it's an excellent resource for parents and teens and should be read BEFORE a girl starts dating, so she'll be able to recognize the warning signs and red flags of an abuser before becoming too enmeshed.
Finally, to both parents and teens, remember that you're not alone and there is help.