“Bitter End” by Jennifer Brown

Cole is a nice guy.  And Alex is lucky to have him for a boyfriend.  He’s a sports star and charming and likable; he encourages Alex’s poetry and thinks she’s special and he’s not afraid to pursue her or embarrassed to let her know how much he likes being with her.  Loves being with her, actually, wants to be with her all the time.  It’s flattering, really, how much Cole likes Alex.  That’s the way love is supposed to be, after all, and that shows how much Cole likes her, how really into her Cole is.

Isn’t this what every girl wants?

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains an excerpt from Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, a book about a teenage girl in a physically abusive relationship.  The excerpt, like the book, depicts graphic domestic abuse.  Due to the potentially triggery nature,  the rest of this post is under a cut.

That would never be me.

*

*

*

That would never be me.  I would never be that girl.  He’d hit me one time and I’d be gone.  He’d even threaten me once and I’d be out the door, I’d never look back.  I would never let that happen to me.  That happens to girls who are weaker than me, stupider than me.  That would never be me.

Though I am sure they’re out there, I don’t know many adults who’d actually say things like this out loud. I am sure there are adults who think this, though.  More than those who’ll admit it, anyway.  But I think there are many teenagers who might think something like this.  Not because teenagers are stupid, not because adults have it all figured out, but because it takes a particular brand of self-assured hubris to think this, the kind you have a lot of when you’re a teenager.  It’s so much easier to say that would never be me when you’re 15 and you’re still in the process of figuring out who me is and who me is going to be.

Of the many things I like about Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End is how it does away with that would never be me, how it does away with it forever.  No one of any age can read Bitter End and ever think again “That would never be me!” because while you are reading it you understand Alex’s struggle and you understand her life and you are as scared as she is: you feel her raw fear in your stomach.  Bitter End gets rid of “that would never be me” because, quite simply, Jennifer Brown creates a world where, inescapably, this is you.

“Just like that, my anger was shaken right out of me.  Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a huge deal to be called a slut.  Suddenly all that mattered was the ringing in my ears and the fact that my eye felt like jelly and my knees wanted to buckled right out from underneath me.

“Okay,” I cried, my voice rasping past his tight grip on my throat.  I brought my hand to my face, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say or do other than cover and agree to whatever he said.  Whatever it would take to make him stop.  “Okay, okay, okay, okay, I’m sorry,” I cried, tears pouring out of my eye in rivers, even though I had it squeezed shut.  My stomach lurched, and I had to clench my teeth to keep the vomit back.

He let go of my neck and I crumpled to the floor, holding my face and sobbing.  Too afraid to run.  Too surprised to stand.  Too hurt to be brave or indignant or anything other than broken.  “I’m sorry,” I whimpered, curling up over my knees and pressing my forehead into the carpet, willing my eye to stop watering.  Willing my face and neck to stop hurting.  “Oh my God, I’m so sorry…” (p. 238)

It hurts.  It hurts and you would do anything to stop the pain.

In all my years of women’s studies, through the many years of my feminist agitating and awareness raising (one of my favorite t-shirts in high school was a domestic violence awareness shirt that said “You Can’t Beat A New Mexico Woman” ) I don’t know if I ever sat down and thought about domestic violence in terms that stark and that clear: when someone is beating you it hurts.  It hurts and you would do anything to stop the pain.

Bitter End is unlike anything I have ever read in YA fiction because Jennifer Brown makes this so inescapable, so indelible:  it hurts when someone punches you, pushes you down, yanks you by your hair, kicks you.  And what makes Bitter End not just unlike anything else but special is how Brown shows how much worse this hurts when the person doing this says they love you.  The passage I quoted is only one example of Cole’s brutality towards Alex, which, while it is also emotional, is very physical.  The violence is never predictable; it comes in sudden bursts and bowls Alex and the reader over with the intense physicality.  This isn’t a book where a girl gets pushed or slapped  (not to dismiss these experiences as inconsequential) or unnamed “bad things” happen off-stage.  It’s all right there and we are as trapped as Alex.  We’re not sure what happened to that nice guy we knew and we don’t know what to do next.

Make no mistake: this is a hard book to read.  It was hard for me as an adult and I imagine that it will be even harder for most teenagers.   But isn’t that exactly what we should demand from the best of young adult fiction?  Hard questions with challenging answers that don’t instantly present themselves?

I thought I was prepared for the level of violence in this book, but I absolutely was not.  Brown does a great job building up to the first physical incident – in showing the ways that Cole’s behavior is too possessive and unhealthy, in showing how he emotionally manipulates Alex.  The signs are all there and they are seamlessly woven into the text.  And yet the power in the narrative is how in that first burst of violence, we are as thunderstruck and surprised as Alex herself.  Where did that come from?

This is an important book.  Not because it’s an “issues” book, not because it’s a “problem” novel.  It’s an important book because it does something that I really feel hasn’t been done before in YA fiction: it looks at dating violence, an intense, painful situation, in a completely honest and clear way.  It avoids being didactic but also doesn’t waste momentum or get distracted by being overly stylized.  It’s upfront and forthright about a terrible, brutal, painful situation.  It does not lie and say there are easy, immediate answers.  It does not say that you can just walk away because you are strong, smart, and good, because you are not “someone like that.”  AND, with all of that, Bitter End also says that there is a way out – that you can find yourself again, that you can break away, that people who really love you never give up and there are people in this world you can trust, that you are not alone, that you can survive terrible things and terrible hurt and come out the other side healing, stronger, and able to go on.

And that’s an important thing for the canon of literature for teenagers and, moreover, that’s an important thing for teenagers to have in their lives.

Bitter End is one of my favorite books of 2011.  It was just released this Tuesday and you should buy a copy or check out a copy from your local library.  If your library doesn’t have a copy, request they purchase one.

Bitter End is readable, immediate, and highly recommended as a first purchase for all public and high school libraries.  It has intense scenes of violence but could definitely lead to some great discussions.  It will be the kind of book that gets passed around because it’s the kind of book that gives voice to a powerful experience in teenagers’ lives.

(reviewed from an advance copy generously supplied by the publisher)

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