by Kathy Warnes
“Some people reinforce human spirit while others simply rob it. - Elin Stebbins Waldal
In the introduction to Tornado Warning, a memoir about her long journey from an abusive teenage relationship to understanding, rediscovering herself, Elin Stebbins Waldal considers her hysterectomy scar and its symbolic significance in her journey.
In a metaphorical sense, a hysterectomy is a surgical assault on a woman’s body to heal it and the ending and beginning of another phase in a woman’s life. Elin Waldal endured her teenage boyfriend Derrick violent assault on her body, mind and spirit, dissected it with an emotional scalpel and survived to rebuild her life and go on to healthier relationships.
Violence Dominates Some Teenage Relationships
Violence and the emotional and social factors that combine to create it stalk some relationships like a punch in the mouth in response to an affectionate smile. Statistics reveal that approximately one in three girls will be involved in a controlling abusive dating relationship before she graduates from high school – ranging from verbal or emotional abuse to sexual abuse or physical battering. Females ages 16-24 are the more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group at a rate almost triple the national average.
Elin Stebbins fit into the female 16-24 age range when she met Derrick. Contrary to the stereotype, Elin came from a loving, supportive family, who believed in her and wanted the best for her. Elin herself writes, “Yet despite the abundance of love, despite the outpouring of belief in my abilities, despite the confidence I had accrued, I was vulnerable – vulnerable in a way that allowed my abuser to slowly get a hold of me.”
Abuse Doesn’t Discriminate
Like many young women and their parents, Elin didn’t know the signs of a potentially abusive relationship- in fact, the warning signs are some of the things that girls find most flattering. If a boy pages and calls a girl often, wanting to know her every movement and encounter, it is a form of control, not affection.
Elin writes that abuse doesn’t discriminate and anyone can fall victim to it. It is easy to enter a relationship without recognizing warning signs of potential violence. In the beginning of their relationship, she saw Derrick as a core of potential buried by a rough childhood and bad experiences. She thought that she could help him realize his potential, but as she later said, “living with potential is exactly and only that.” Elin points out that batterers don’t usually begin their abuse on the first date or in the beginning of a relationship. Like Derrick, they take time to fall in love and have their partner fall in love with them, and like Derrick, they snare their partner with their extreme need of them.
After each violent encounter when she tried to break away, Elin felt Derrick pulling her back. Elin compared the violence and pulling back and constant repeating of the pattern to a Midwestern tornado. The warning signs appear in the sky and she tries to evade or run away from them. The tornado strikes and she survives it and she is so busy picking up the pieces of her shattered house that she doesn’t notice the darkening of the sky and the wind picking up. The pattern endlessly repeats itself until Elin recognizes for it for what it is. She explains it as having the feeling that only she could save him from himself. It took her a long, painful three years to realize that Derrick was the only person who could save himself.
The Erosion of Self
One of the observations that Elin makes in Tornado Warning is that “abusive behavior erodes a person slowly.” Elin found herself being absorbed and eroded by Derrick's anger, hurt, and dependence until she eroded away into a person that she didn’t recognize. Derrick’s brittleness and need eroded Elin’s self confidence until she disintegrated into equal brittleness and confusion.
Elin discovered that in an abusive relationship, the standard for normal behavior is elastic and continuous abuse keeps stretching its boundaries. As she put it, “normalization of self depreciation left me vulnerable.”
The Rebuilding of Self- The Courage to Rethink Your Normal
It took years of therapy, a broken marriage, and the courage of self knowledge for Elin to be emotionally healthy enough to rebuild her life. Her memoir illustrates an important truth for all survivors of abuse and their loved ones to face: the abuse doesn’t end when the abuser is gone. It remains in the mind, heart, and soul of the abuser and the abused until each chooses to remove it with painful, surgical self awareness. Elin Stebbins has done that. She illustrates the progress in her emotional and spiritual journey when she writes:
“My life has been shaped by my survival and allowing what I endured to settle in my marrow has infused me with a strength that will not waver. Abuse had an effect on me, but it has not made my life any less worthy, any less important, or any less valuable. I refuse to walk around leaning on that experience like a pair of crutches. I am not damaged goods. I am me.”
Voice is the most important factor in a memoir, and in Tornado Warning, Elin Stebbins compellingly illustrates how she developed hers from a silent scream into a triumphant shout. It is possible for the reader to sink into the depth and elegance of the writing in some parts of Tornado Warning and in the destructive patterns of the teenage mind in others, but the book will shatter the attitudes of abuse survivors like a Midwestern tornado shatters a house.
Dugan, Meg Kennedy and Hock, Roger R. It’s My Life Now: Starting over After An Abusive Relationship or Domestic Violence, 2nd Edition. Routledge, 2nd Editor, 2006
Hicks, John. Dating Violence: True Stories of Hurt and Hope. Millbrook Press, 1996.
Levy, Barrie Dating Violence: Young Women In Danger. Seal Press, 1991
McMurray, Ann and Jantz, Gregory. Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse. Revell, 2009
Murray, Jill. But I Love Him: Protecting Your Teen Daughter from Controlling, Abusive Dating Relationships. Harper Paper Backs, 2001.
Links to Studies about Violence Against Girls and Women and Informational Websites
University of Michigan Study
Family Court Review
National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women
Child Abuse & Neglect
Jane Doe Inc. – The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence
Pigtailpals- Let’s Change the Way We Think About Our Girls