BOOK REVIEW: Tornado Warning by Elin Stebbins Waldal

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Tornado Warning, a memoir by San Diego County author Elin Stebbins Waldal, will likely prove an effective catalyst for introducing an issue that rarely makes it into polite conversation: domestic violence, in particular teen dating violence.

For that reason alone, the book is a valuable tool for parents of adolescents on the verge of dating. In Tornado Warning, they will learn of Waldal’s gradual and secretive descent into a violent relationship at age 17, her survival, and her eventual campaign to share her experience so that it might help others.

Waldal tells her story in two voices that alternate throughout the book: the resurrected journal entries of a naïve teenage girl and the contemplations of a woman, wife and mother more than two decades later. The journal entries reflect the self-absorption of the teen years and the excruciating loss of a girl’s identity to the ravages of persistent intimate violence. Waldal captures both (maybe a little too much of the former), along with the shame and denial of the victim and the denial of her family members, who managed to be only peripherally aware of a problem, common in extended families that live with domestic violence.

Waldal’s contemporary reflections are written in sometimes lovely prose that reveals the long-lasting effects of abuse and her eventual struggles to use her experience to enlighten her children and others. She writes of the triggers that can return a former victim of violence to the desperate and fearful moments of her past. She writes of recovery, the creation of healthier relationships and, eventually, her need to acknowledge her past and transform it into something positive.

Tornado Warning was launched this month, coinciding with National Teen Dating Violence Prevention and Awareness Month, a national recognition in only its second year in the United States. The relatively new attention to the issue makes the book all the more valuable a resource, because “teen dating violence” has not yet entered the common lexicon. Waldal makes it clear in her memoir and on her website that she believes it should.

Tornado Warning exposes the individual realty of the national statistics of teen dating violence. According to the National Resource Center for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, one in three female adolescents is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse by a dating partner; females between ages 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence, almost triple the national average; and violent behavior often begins between the ages of 12 and 18. (For more information, visit http://www.teendvmonth.org/.)

While Waldal’s book is likely to serve the important purpose she has set for it — to educate parents and, ultimately, help other girls and women — the memoir lacks some insight and, hence, the resulting explanation of the more complex dynamics that sustain a violent relationship and that bring it to an end.

There is little discussion of the forces affecting family and friends that stymies intervention by those who care for the victim and suspect — or even know — that there is a problem, but do not act to protect her. And, most noticeably, Waldal’s description of her departure from the relationship seems vague, without clear understanding of what it took to reclaim her freedom and her life. Yet this is the crux of abusive relationships: why people remain in them and why they leave, when they are able to leave alive.

Tornado Warning is an important memoir, but an unresolved one. What it lacks suggests the author might still be seeking some understanding of her theme. Yet Waldal’s prose is tender and lyrical. Perhaps she will lend it to another effort to further enlighten those she hopes to help.

Note: Help is available at National Dating Abuse Helpline: 866-331-9474.

Crossposted at the North County Times.