Kara’s story as told by Jonel Thaller
For most teenagers, prom is considered a night to remember. We try to choose the perfect dress, the perfect shoes, and the perfect date. Even today, when I look at my prom photo, I see two attractive young people. The young lady in the photo looks smart and confident and has a special style of her own. The young man, a champion football player, looks strong and self-assured, with flawless skin and an irresistibly handsome smile. Luckily, my prom night passed without an argument. But I can easily recall being on edge for that entire night, a feeling that had become familiar to me. I had learned, by then, to avoid spending too much time chatting with my friends or making eye contact with any male who wasn’t my boyfriend, the young man I had been dating on and off for over a year.
When I first learned that he was interested in dating me, I couldn’t believe my good luck. He was older, popular, talented, and ridiculously handsome. Even more, he came from an affluent family with solid values. His family even attended the same church I did, and our parents knew each other. For the first several months, everything about our courtship felt like a dream come true. He wooed me relentlessly-–compliments, thoughtful dates, and small gifts. Eventually, he began to suggest that I spend more time with him than with my friends, which felt flattering at first, but he soon began to track my whereabouts and would show up unexpectedly at the mall or movie theatre when I was enjoying time with friends. I found myself in the unhappy position of always trying to make peace between him and them.
He first laid hands on me after we had been dating for about 6 months. We were sitting in his car, and he was upset that he had seen me talking with another guy that day. He grabbed my face with one hand and held it tightly, forcing me to look him in the eyes and apologize. “I don’t want you to talk to other guys,” he said. Shocked and fearful, I promised him I wouldn’t. Later that afternoon, he said he regretted the incident, explaining, “I care about you.”
Looking back, I feel that, in a sense, I gave him permission to do what he did by getting back together with him. I believed his apologies—that he wouldn’t do it again—but no less than 3 months later, after seeing a movie, we got into an argument about my tone of voice, and he slapped me hard across the face. I cried and asked him to take me home. Again, he apologized profusely, hoping I would take him back, and eventually I did.
The next several years of our relationship were defined by a cycle of violence: we would fight, break up, and get back together. He controlled where I went, with whom I spoke, and how I dressed. One time, he took the spark plugs out of my car while I was working at the mall so I would be forced to call him for a ride. Another time, while I was at my grandmother’s house trying to avoid him, he climbed on the roof and snuck into a window in order to find me.
I often asked myself, “How did I get here?” And I always wondered what he might do next. I feared his anger, but I also feared sabotage and public humiliation. I was still just a teenager, figuring out who I was and who I wanted to become. I was learning how to put on makeup and navigate friendships. I just wanted to go to school, make good grades, and be “normal.” I didn’t want to always wonder what would happen next. I didn’t want to be on the phone for 5 hours a day arguing with a boyfriend. But he wore me down so much that it felt easier, and more predictable, to be with him than to be broken up with him.
Yet, even while I stayed in this relationship, I slowly grew stronger. The final straw happened one evening when I was at my parents’ house trying to hide from him. They were out of town, and I thought all the doors and windows were locked, but he found a way in. He ripped the phone from the wall so that I couldn’t call for help. He grabbed me hard by the shoulder and insisted, “I just want to talk. I love you. I just want you to understand.” I was frightened, but I was able to occupy him long enough to make a trip to the restroom, crawl out the window, and run to a neighborhood store for help. That evening, it just clicked. I was done.
Everyone’s story is different, but no one ever goes into a relationship expecting to be abused. I had no idea how to handle the situation. I know that my parents tried to help – they advised me against dating him, set me up with a counselor, and even helped me file a protective order –but they were just as uninformed as I was and felt just as helpless as I did. No one was talking about “teen dating violence” back then. Of course, my peers didn’t know what to do either. Looking back, I wish my parents would’ve forbidden me to see him. I wish they would’ve forbidden me to go to the prom with him. When I reflect upon it now, I think I stayed in the relationship for so long because I simply didn’t know how to end it.
Two decades later, I have a loving and supportive husband and two beautiful children. I also have the freedom to pursue my interests and the relationships that are meaningful to me. The people I include in my life respect my boundaries and my path. They lift me up. This is what love is about. My life now is truly “perfect” – and not just in a photograph.