CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 14. . . .December 6, 2013
So reads the latest entry in Kat Thompson’s journal. It’s the beginning of September, and her family is loading up the their SUV with her older brother Jared’s belongings as he heads off for his “university adventure.” Kat is envious because her good-looking and charming brother is getting ready to escape and enjoy “the time of his life.” Kat is not happy, and indeed, the Thompsons are one tense family. On the surface, everything looks like the picture of middle-class perfection: Dad is a successful lawyer, Mom teaches at the local elementary school, and things look just fine.
But, they’re not. This is one very tense family unit; Dad is a “control freak”, and even Jared admits that “he can be a jerk” (p.12). Mom does her best to be conciliatory: keeping the peace and avoiding conflict are all-important. And then, there’s Greg and Amy, Kat’s parents’ closest friends. Greg and her dad were high school football buddies, attended university together and now are partners in a law practice. With no children of their own, Greg and Amy are like an uncle and aunt to Jared, Kat, and their younger sister, Sarah. But, over time, Greg’s interest in Kat has changed, and now he is anything but avuncular: “The sudden touch of his hand on my shoulder makes me drop my sweatshirt. I feel his fingers massaging my shoulder, creeping under my sleeve to stroke bare skin. ‘Turn around. I’d like to see my special girl.’” (p.15) And Kat is worried about leaving her younger sister alone with him, even if Amy is present.
Kat’s journal reveals a plethora of emotions: confusion, self-loathing, fear, and an overwhelming belief that, even if she discloses the truth about Greg’s abuse, no one will believe her. However, her work at the local hospital offers her the one solace in her life. Her Aunt Sheila, a pediatrician, has arranged a volunteer position for Kat, and it is work that she absolutely loves – reading stories to the kids, playing games, or just hanging out and watching television with them. Dr. Williams’ latest case is a young girl named Taylor Bradford who has presented with some unusual injuries: bruising, cuts, and a broken arm. It’s clear that some sort of physical abuse is happening in the Bradford home, and Dr. Williams is on a mission to find out the truth. Kat and Taylor connect, perhaps because Kat empathizes with the little’s girl’s situation: she, too, is desperately unhappy and is carrying a sad family secret.
As the story progresses, it is clear that the burden of Kat’s secret is crushing her. Even more oppressive is Greg’s manipulative behaviour, convincing her that she is weak, and unworthy of anyone’s attentions but his. Many teenagers have testy relationships with their parents, but Kat’s is particularly difficult, and when her best female friend, Steph, goes crazy over someone named Mike, Kat feels even more alone. She writes in her journal that “Steph and I have always been able to talk about anything until lately. All she talks about now is boys, fancy clothes, and makeup. It bugs me that I’m feeling this way. She’s been my best friend forever.” (p. 42) Typical teenage girl stuff, one would think, but for Kat, interest in men is a major betrayal; Greg has made her see herself as nothing but an object of someone’s perverse needs. And make no mistake about it, Greg is perverse and downright creepy. Even the kind and courtly attention of Scott, Steph’s twin brother, fails to impress Kat: men have treated her badly, and she’s not interested in him, although Scott does become a significant source of emotional support for her.
But finally, a crisis forces everyone to confront some very ugly truths. Little Sarah goes missing, and, in the course of search to find her, Greg ‘s wife Amy finds her husband with Kat and can no longer pretend that there’s nothing more than family affection between the two. And when Kat finds that her journal is missing, and that Amy has taken it from the childhood playhouse that was Kat’s refuge, the truth, in all its ugliness, must be confronted by everyone.
Secrecy is the hallmark of many serious dysfunctions, and Until Today shows the corrosive power of hiding a terrible truth. Kat’s reluctance to disclose her abuse is understandable, even though it is clear that pretense is destroying her. Certainly, Until Today is a story which would make other abuse victims realize that they are not alone and that they must find a trusted individual in whom to confide. At times, it seemed as if Kat’s thoughts were those of someone much older than a 15 or 16-year-old, and some of the dialogue just didn’t ring true. When Kat begins to relate her story to the detective who handles the case, Detective Donaldson tells her, “I’m thrilled to meet such a brave survivor.” Kat’s response is to “remain silent, eager to hear more. An inner glow starts to grow when I hear the word survivor. What a beautiful word. I’m no longer a victim, I’m a survivor. I will fight this and I will survive.” (p.178) True, but I don’t think that’s quite how a 16-year-old might state it.
Until Today is a work of fiction, although the author states that it has its origin in real-life experiences of sexual and mental abuse (“Acknowledgements”). It is the story of one young woman’s horrible experience at the hands of a trusted family friend, and a work that can be recommended by guidance and counselling staff to students in this terrible situation.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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