My hands were shaking. I was sobbing uncontrollably. My chest was hurting. And I was only on the second chapter of this heartbreaking and very confronting story about a young girl and the living hell that she calls life.
Emma is a sixteen year old girl who is counting down the days to when she moves out of home and goes to college. She is an overachiever at school, equally brilliant in her academic as well as her athletic pursuits, but instead of being a shining star, she strives to fade into the background and stay unnoticed.
“I managed to stay under the radar, skating through school without anyone truly remembering I was here. My teachers acknowledged my academic successes and my coaches depended upon my athletic abilities, but I wasn’t important enough to make a recognizable social contribution. I was easily forgettable. That’s what I counted on.”
She only has one friend in her life, Sara, the most popular girl at school and her polar opposite. Emma’s only parent is incapable of looking after her so she has been living with her uncle George and aunt Carol for the past four years. And that is how long she has been living a nightmare. No one except Sara knows that Emma is abused at home by a woman who is so severely deranged that I am still struggling to define her madness. She hides her bruises and welts but she hides her emotional scars even better. Until she meets Evan. Evan notices her, she intrigues him and makes him want to know her better. However, Evan’s attentions threaten her pursuit of anonymity and she fights their growing feelings for each other, knowing that staying invisible is the only way of surviving in Emma’s household. But Evan is just as relentless. He pursues her until she can no longer “hide in the shadows”, his affection towards her allows her to lower her defences and he slowly learns of her pain.
I cannot tell you how terribly difficult it was for me to read about Emma’s abuse in such gory detail. By only allowing the reader to see the whole picture, the author made us sole witnesses to such horror that my mind started juggling with the idea of going catatonic in order to preserve itself. I wanted to shake her and scream at her to tell someone, anyone, and stop the abuse but I also understood why she chose to stay silent and endure it all. I didn’t agree with it but it made me admire her even more. She saw the end of high school as the end to her torture as well, never realising that some things follow you no matter where you go. That only confirmed her young age to me.
“I was unable to give in to the grieving. I refused to feel sorry for myself or receive pity for my circumstances. Besides, I had to focus on the present – which included surviving the wrath of Carol – so I couldn’t afford to live in the past. My future was the only thing that mattered now.”
One of my immediate difficulties with this story was Sara. They were best friends and Sara was the only person that Emma ever confided in, but she stayed silent. She struggled with what she saw and knew was happening, she protested, tried to convince Emma to tell someone, but she kept her mouth shut in the end. Now, I am truly torn about this issue – I’d like to think that I could never remain a silent witness to such suffering regardless of my friend’s pleas, but I also realise that it is very easy to judge someone’s inactions from an adult’s viewpoint. We need to remember Sara’s age in this book, the stark contrast between Emma’s reality and Sara’s loving family life and rather sheltered upbringing, not to mention her lack of emotional tools to deal with such a traumatic situation. It would be very challenging for an adult to deal with this amount of ugliness, let alone a sixteen-year-old who encounters it for the first time. Sara suspected things, saw marks on Emma’s body but Emma never openly spoke about her abuse, never shared all the details and never allowed Sara to see the full horror of her life at home. Doing the right thing is never black or white, especially in circumstances such as these, and I believe that Sara did the best she could have done given Emma’s reasons for wanting her to stay silent.
I had similar issues with Evan and his silence once he suspected that Emma was being abused at home, but I justify it the same way I justified Sara’s inactions. I think Emma did not need a ‘whistle-blower’, she needed friends who were there for her no matter what to give her the strength and support to go forward. Emma could have reported the abuse herself at any given moment but she made a conscious decision to sacrifice six years of her life for the happiness of her young cousins. She believed she could endure it and I felt that, as a reader, I needed to respect that and not judge her for it. I am not completely sure that a girl that young is actually capable of making such an important decision about her own well-being but we, as silent witnesses, had no role in it. Emma’s young mind was already quite fragile even before the abuse started and Carol’s ‘brand of poison’ only exacerbated that. She never fought her physically and even though she tried her best to block out Carol’s ugly words, we saw that some of it managed to bleed through into Emma’s psyche when she had a fight with Sara. It made me wonder then how many of Emma’s insecurities were also caused by Carol. Again, this is not a story about an adult woman in a difficult situation – this is the story about the impressionable mind of a very young girl who makes decisions fitting a sixteen-year-old in a difficult situation. It is not that Emma does not want to escape Carol’s household but until Evan presents her with a plan, she has never even seen it as a choice.
My biggest issues in the end were with George, Carol’s husband, who was Emma’s actual blood relative. His silence and cover-your-eyes-and-pretend-it’s-not-happening attitude were unforgivable. As an adult, he had no excuses for his behaviour and in my eyes he was possibly even worse than Carol. While she was insane and seriously disturbed, I saw George as the real monster in this story. Regardless of the lies that Carol was telling him, there must have been at least an ounce of his brain that made him suspect the truth. He definitely had the full wrath of my judging.
However, nothing about these characters is black or white. Nothing. We can argue one way or another about their silence or inactions until the cows come home but I am not certain that that was the whole point of this book. It has a very dramatic cliff-hanger and a sequel is necessary to make sense of it all, but in my opinion this first instalment of the Breathing series was a setting for Emma’s future and the decisions she will make as an adult. I see her as nothing less than a survivor and I look forward to seeing how her traumas will have shaped her as a person and as a young woman.
If you do decide to take this journey with Emma, be aware that this book will un-do you, it will frustrate you, hurt you, anger you and it will leave you raw with conflicting emotions. I will forever call this book my emotional kryptonite but I will never regret reading it.