14 Feb DANGEROUS DATING: Is Your Daughter Being Abused?
By Jodie Gould
Otralla Mosely, the popular 15-year-old cheerleader known to family and friends as “Tralla,” was by all accounts a standout student at Reagan High in Austin, Texas. A straight-A student and squad leader on the dance team, Tralla would tell unruly students to settle down because “Ms. Conner is trying to teach me something here.” She was described by one classmate as, “a star that twinkled brighter than the rest.” But on March 28, 2003, that light was violently snuffed out when her estranged boyfriend stabbed her repeatedly with an 8-inch knife shortly after the final bell, signaling the end of the school day and the end of Tralla’s all too brief life.
At a hearing several months later, 16-year-old Marcus McTear told how he literally stabbed Tralla in the back while she was standing against a wall in the school corridor. She had managed to escape through a nearby door, where he chased her until she slipped and fell. With blood pouring down her head, he stabbed her again several times until she ran down a stairwell and collapsed. With another large knife that he was carrying that day, McTear then cut himself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. “All my anger started building up, and instead of killing myself I started stabbing her,” was McTear’s explanation.
While domestic violence afflicts women and children of all ages, the problem of teen dating abuse, which includes controlling behavior, verbal insults, emotional manipulation, sexual coercion, and physical assaults, has reached frightening proportions. One out of five female students in the 9th to 12th grade reported being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner, according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, the latest research conducted to date. The same survey also found that teenaged girls who have been in abusive relationships have an increased risk of substance abuse, eating disorders, and even suicide.
Warning signals usually start flashing when a girl is in a toxic relationship, but parents and teachers frequently miss the signs that their daughter could be dating someone dangerous. Although everything appeared normal during most of their six-month relationship, McTear came from a troubled home and his unacceptable behavior toward girls dated back to junior high. What Tralla’s mother didn’t know until after her daughter’s death, is that McTear had been the source of six disturbances while in school, including one in which he pushed a former girlfriend down the stairs at Reagan. “I didn’t see it coming,” says Tralla’s mother, Carolyn Mosley, 41, who is suing the school district for $23.2 million in damages on the ground that her daughter informed school officials that McTear was harassing her. “When I first met Marcus, he was a perfect gentleman,” says Mosely. “As far as I knew, he was nice to my baby. I became aware of what was going on the week after they broke up.”
In retrospect, there were signs of trouble even earlier, such as McTear’s jealousy and controlling behavior. “Tralla told me, “Mom, he doesn’t want me to wear these skimpy little cheerleading outfits,’” Mosely recalled. “I told her don’t let anybody tell you what you can or can’t wear.” But it was after the breakup that Mosely said McTear really started “acting crazy.” The day before the murder, he shattered Tralla’s cell phone against a wall and tried to throw himself out of a moving car. The Mosleys didn’t know that McTear was about to spin completely out of control, but they knew he needed to get help.
“My husband and I went to see Marcus’ parents about what was going on, and to tell them I didn’t want his son hanging around with my daughter. His father told us, `You take care of yours and I’ll take care of mine.’” Mosely later received a settlement for a wrongful death suit against McTear’s parents for failing to control, supervise and discipline their son.
“You worry about your kids, but I worried about car accidents, things like that,” says Vicki Crompton, who has been speaking out about teen dating violence since her 15-year-old daughter was murdered by her boyfriend nearly 20 years ago. “Violence and abusive relationships weren’t in my vocabulary. “Jenny’s boyfriend was charming, attractive, and extremely attentive, which bowled my daughter over,” says Cromptom, 56, who lives in an affluent suburb of Davenport, Iowa. “He gave her roses when she was 14. Her friends thought he was so cool. But he was jealous and would call her all the time and try to change the way she’d dress. He wrote her a threatening note that said, `You’re going to die.’ She showed it to her friends, but no one took it seriously.”
It’s All My Fault
Rachael Yourtz met her boyfriend over the Internet when she was just 13. He was 18 and lived across the country, so they e-mailed and talked on the phone for months before meeting in person. When she was a sophomore in high school, he moved from Tampa, Florida to her hometown of Redwood City, California.
“I had always been super-involved at school—honor roll, student council, sports,” says Rachael, now 19 and a sophomore at a local college. “When he moved here, he felt my activities were taking me away from him. He would pick fights with my family and say that I had to choose between the two. And if I didn’t choose him, I didn’t really love him. Before I got counseling, I truly believed all the fights were my fault. He convinced me that he was perfect and it was me who needed to change. I’d say, `Okay, I want to change. I love you. I can be better. Give me another chance.’”
Although the emotional abuse continued, things went from bad to unbearable after Rachael decided to move with him to Tampa after graduation. “I had gotten into a good college, and my parents were furious,” Rachael remembers. “They said they would support me as much as they could, but I was on my own. I got a job at a day care center and he managed a pizza place. Things were good for about a month, but then he’d tell me, `You promised to change, but you haven’t and you’re ruining my life.’ Then he’d hit me. The first time he backhanded me he gave me a fat lip. He was so worried someone would notice the bruises and report him, he’d make me call in sick until I healed. He also said it was my job to satisfy him every day, and if I didn’t he’d find another girl.”
After nearly six months of abuse, Rachael had had enough. “He called me at work to ask where I put the laundry cart. When I couldn’t remember, he told me I was irresponsible and threatened to come to work. I take care of babies, so I said I had a family emergency and went home. When I told him I was leaving him, he used my body as a punching bag.”
There are three dangerous misconceptions about teen dating abuse according to Jill Murray, Ph.D., a psychotherapist from Laguna Niguel, CA, who speaks about this issue to high school students and parents around the country. “Many parents believe this couldn’t happen in their community or to someone they know because they’re middle or upper middle class, and their daughter is well educated,” says Dr. Murray, author of But I Love Him: Protecting Your Teen Daughter from Controlling, Abusive, Dating Relationships (ReganBooks, 2000). “The other is the belief that abuse is only physical. So if their daughter doesn’t have a black eye, some parents think it’s just hormones and typical teenage moods. The third misconception is that abuse is accidental, when in fact it is a planned, intentional behavior of control.”
Why then would a smart, self-assured girl from a good family allow herself to be abused by a boyfriend? One reason teenaged girls stay in abusive relationships is the intense pressure among their peers to have a boyfriend. “Your social status in high school and even middle school is frequently based on whether you’re dating and who your boyfriend is,” Dr. Murray explains. “Also, this is often a girl’s first boyfriend and she doesn’t have any life experience about what relationships are supposed to be like. They see movies, TV shows, and music videos where girls are treated like sex ornaments, or they read teen magazines that write about how to snare a guy.”
Vicki Crompton and her co-author Ellen Kessner interviewed numerous teenaged survivors for their book Saving Beauty From The Beast (Little Brown, 2003). Like her late daughter Jenny, she said most girls were afraid to tell anyone their shameful secret, least of all their parents. “The young women we spoke to didn’t want to admit that they were in a relationship like this,” Crompton explained. “They stay because they believe he’ll change and go back to being the great guy he was in the beginning, or they think it is their responsibility to fix it. In Jenny’s case, she was afraid that my husband and I would intervene and take away her freedom, which we would have. Teenagers are just starting to get independence and they don’t want to lose it.”
Jessica Hollander, a 19-year-old sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C., became a peer counselor after she was verbally abused by her first high school boyfriend and date raped by another. “High school can be very stressful for teenaged girls,” says Jessica, who starting dating as a freshman at Newton North High School in Massachusetts. “You are still trying to figure out your identity and to establish yourself. Most 14-year-old girls are coming into high school feeling insecure and trying to find a boyfriend. And when you’re insecure, jealousy can seem really flattering. Now that I look back on it, I can see all the warning signs clearly. But at the time I had nothing to compare it to. I thought relationships are supposed to be passionate, and that fighting was part of passion.”
Why Boys Abuse
If girls are taught that they must sometimes endure emotional and physical pain in order to be in a relationship, boys are raised in culture where aggression and even violence is used to get what they want. Mix in drugs, alcohol, and abuse at home, and you have the lethal cocktail that produces boys who batter.
While growing up, Emilianó Diez Leon witnessed a number of men physically and verbally abusing his mother and siblings. This was not unusual in the poor Mexican community where lived, and, given the vicious cycle of abuse, it is not surprising that Leon became an abuser himself. “It started with a general lack of respect for women,” says Leon, founder of the Men’s Resource Center of South Texas, a support group for batterers. “I felt like I didn’t have any power at home, but I had power over girls by being aggressive or intrusive.”
Leon, now 28, was jealous, controlling and manipulative, often yelling at and sometimes hitting his girlfriends in junior high. “My friends encouraged and supported this behavior,” says Leon, “and if I didn’t act aggressively toward girls, I’d be made fun of.” The turning point came when he suddenly realized he was no better than the men who abused his mother.
“I was yelling at my girlfriend because she wouldn’t turn around,” Leon recalled of one incident at the local mall. “I grabbed her arm and pulled her around so she wouldn’t walk away. She started crying and seemed really afraid of me. It was that look of fear in her eyes that reminded me of what I saw at home. I knew that if I didn’t get help I would really hurt someone someday.”
A counselor at Leon’s high school referred him to Safe Place in Austin, a center for abused women that also had a support group for young men. He credits the organization with saving his life. “It took me three years to leave my old friends because I was scared to speak up and challenge them,” he says. “I feared for my own safety. I’m now married and it’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in. The men’s group helps me to be a better husband and prepare to be a good father in the future.”
Susan Cayouette, who runs Emerge, a batterer intervention program for men in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says Leon is typical of the men she counsels. “It often starts with the boys being abusive to the mother, particularly if their father is abusive,” she says. “In adolescence, typically two things occur. The boys either go against the father and try to protect their mom, or they take over the job of abuser.”
Cayouette says the abuse often gets worse when the woman threatens to leave. “Women today are taught to stand up for themselves, so when they do, men try more abuse in order to get them to do what they want. Abusers can be persistent. Many aren’t afraid of the police, so orders of protection don’t always work.”
What Parents Can Do
If you suspect that your daughter might be in an abusive relationship, Dr. Murray says you should try to get her to use logic instead of emotions. “My mantra is: love is a behavior. Tell her that love is the way someone treats you. Anyone can say `I love you,’ but isolating you from your friends is not loving behavior. Insulting you is not loving behavior. And certainly hitting you or forcing you to have sex is not loving behavior.”
She says parents should also encourage their daughter to refocus her goals on something other than her boyfriend. “You can completely control your child out of a relationship by sending her away to another school or to a relative–and sometimes that’s necessary. But then the parents become another controlling force in her life and the next boyfriend might be even worse. Encourage your daughter to make the right decisions rather than telling her what to do.”
But if you think that your daughter’s life might be in jeopardy, it is critical that you act immediately. “Call the school. Call the police,” advises Crompton. “They can separate them from classes, change lockers, and make sure they’re not in the parking lot at the same time. If she won’t confide in you, get her to talk to a therapist or to anyone who will get her to rethink this relationship.”
Whatever the situation, parents must never give up on their daughter, no matter how much she might resist. “Talk to your children and show them some unconditional love.” says Carolyn Mosely, whose civil case against Tralla’s high school will come to trial this summer. Her daughter’s killer was given a 40-year sentence, but he will be held at the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center in Texas until he turns 18. “Tell them if they feel the least uncomfortable in a relationship, that’s a form of abuse, and they must get out.”
Warning Signs of Dating Abuse
In her book, But I Love Him, Dr. Jill Murray cites the following signs that your daughter’s relationship might be in serious danger:
• She used to have more friends than she does now.
• She used to be outgoing and involved with her family and school activities
• She frequently cries or is very sad.
• If her boyfriend pages her, she must call him back immediately.
• He told her 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 frequently gives her advice about her choice of friends, hairstyle, clothes, or makeup
• He is aggressive, i.e., he puts his fist through walls, throws things in anger.
• He drinks or using drugs.
• She makes excuses for his poor behavior or says it’s her fault.
• He calls her demeaning names, then laughs and tells her he was only kidding
• She frequently has to explain herself to her boyfriend or often says she is sorry.
• She has bruises she cannot explain.
• He has a tragic home life: he is or was physically abused or verbally demeaned, and/or one or both of his parents are alcoholics or use drugs.