Wilmington resident Kerriann Macdonald always dreamed of penning a novel loosely based on her real-world relationship with her high school sweetheart.
But rather than the fairy-tale she first envisioned, Macdonald this May will release a vastly different chronicle that falls more into the horror than happily-ever-after romance genre. It’s a change in narrative that might just have saved the Woburn native’s life, as the author now realizes the true fiction was her since shattered perspective about the nature of her first love.
Now a social worker at Burlington’s Lahey Hospital, the 25-year-old Macdonald is a domestic violence survivor who hopes her self-published fiction, “Good Enough: A Novel”, will empower other victims of emotional abuse. The work closely mirrors Macdonald’s harrowing and chaotic long-term relationship with her own high school sweetheart, whom she met as a junior at Woburn Memorial High School and dated throughout college.
What the aspiring novelist hopes to communicate to others, besides the understanding of just how insidiously emotional abuse can alter a victim’s perception of reality, is that those struggling in such relationships are not alone nor without hope.
“I wanted to write this book as a way to get the word out there as to how emotional abuse can effect somebody,” said Macdonald. “It’s one thing to give people a list of signs you should look out for, but it’s another thing altogether to tell your story.”
According to Macdonald, like “Good Enough’s” protagonist, she first started dating her ex-boyfriend as a high school junior, but it wasn’t until she later joined her partner at college a year later that his demeanor took a dramatic turn.
What followed was an on-and-off again dating life in which the WMHS Class of 2011 alumnus routinely found herself belittled, shamefully having her “faults” compared to the attributes of other women, and being instructed to make drastic life changes if she ever wanted any chance of being with him. Macdonald also recalls feeling increasingly isolated from others, particularly from any shared peer groups.
“He was playing a lot of mind games. He cheated on me multiple times. There was so much manipulation. I constantly wondered, ‘What is it going to take for me to be good enough for me?” recalled the Wilmington resident, who has been an avid writer since she was in middle school. “I never felt like I was worthy of a relationship.”
A daunting problem
Though perhaps not as widely discussed and publicized as other forms of dating violence, such as physical abuse and sexual assaults, law enforcement and public health authorities recognize emotional abuse as one of the most common types of domestic violence. It is also widely considered to be a precursor to more violent relationship abuses.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 4 women in the country will experience domestic abuse over the course of their lifetime, and the repercussions for victims extend far beyond the immediate harm inflicted by their partners.
Studies commissioned and reviewed by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate survivors of domestic violence have an elevated risk for developing chronic health conditions, including heart disease, asthma, and gastrointestinal and somatic disorders.
Medical researchers have also identified links between what it terms intimate partner violence — a definition which includes emotional abuse - to the development of substance abuse disorders, reproductive health issues, and immune system deficiencies.
Regional non-profits like Waltham-based Reach Beyond Domestic Violence say abusive relationships are alarmingly prevalent amongst adolescent populations, as national researchers have discovered 1 out of 3 teens either know someone or have directly experienced dating abuse.
In Massachusetts, according to victim advocacy groups like Reach Beyond Domestic Violence, results from statewide risk behavior surveys further indicate nearly 1 in 10 of this teens report being harmed by a dating partner. Yet despite those findings, one-third of all dating violence victims never report their experiences to friends or peers, and victims are even far less likely to confide in their parents or other authority figures.
Breaking the stigma
In her own life, Macdonald, though compulsively seeking advice on how to meet her ex-boyfriend’s exceptional standards and demands, never approached her peers or authority figures for help.
But in a pivotal point she hopes to drive home through her work of fiction, the present-day health care worker, a trained social worker whose college studies included literature on domestic violence, never truly considered herself trapped in an abusive relationship until she managed to break free from it.
At several points, those familiar with her relationship tried to intervene, including her parents and a college counselor, who after listening to her description of her relationship troubles, handed her a pamphlet on domestic violence. But as is commonly the case, the Wilmington resident’s very sense of reality had been warped.
“[Writing this book] was cathartic, but it was also so chilling. I would kind of think to myself, ‘How could I not see how abusive it all was?’ I would put a lot of blame on myself that I should have seen it sooner,” recalls Macdonald. “It’s one of those things where you feel so different when you’re in the relationship.”
“I was at one point seeing a counselor in college, and he gave me a pamphlet on domestic violence. I said, ‘He hasn’t hit me.’ My counselor told me I should read it anyway. But I would always think he was acting those ways because of me. I would say, ‘He’s doing that because I’m the one who’s not normal.’”
According to the aspiring novelist, though many programs hope to teach teens about domestic violence and warning signs – a concept she believes is helpful and in no way opposes - the very idea that a properly educated person will be absolutely able to steer clear of abusers can lead to victim-blaming.
Woburn resident Arlene Meara couldn’t agree more.
Meara, whose daughter Shannon Meara was shot, killed, and left in a dumpster by an abusive ex-boyfriend in 2008, has become a champion of domestic violence survivors in Woburn by founding the Shannon Lee Meara Foundation, a non-profit organization that has funded a variety of dating violence prevention initiatives at Woburn Memorial High School.
According to domestic violence awareness advocate, she believes survivors like Macdonald, who began dating their abusers in high school, are particularly vulnerable to violence, because teenagers so commonly struggle with issues of self-esteem and identity.
Meara, who like Macdonald works in the medical industry, remembers being a young nurse at a prominent Boston hospital who often judgingly wondered why battered women wouldn’t leave their abusers. But after the murder of her daughter, a talented and highly intelligent Suffolk University student studying to be a lawyer, the Woburn mother quickly discovered how misguided and stigmatizing those beliefs had been.
“Absolutely not,” responded Meara, when asked if she thought victims lack the intuition to recognize an abusive relationship. “That’s the whole problem with the stigma [around domestic violence]. We put so much shame on women. They don’t want anybody to know they’ve been abused, because then people will think something is wrong with them.”
“I used to have the same concept. People would come into the emergency room all beat up and then leave with their abuser. And I would say to myself, ‘How?’ But that goes back to the mental control,” added the Woburn parent. “It can happen to anybody. It has no economic or social boundaries at all. It’s everywhere.”
A brighter future
According to Macdonald, her warped perception of her relationship with her ex-boyfriend changed dramatically after she met her current fiancé, whose kindness and genuine interest in her life was so foreign to her.
Slowly but surely, the social worker realized she was not only worthy of that attention, but that she deserved it.
“I thought it was just so easy . I realized this guy is really interested in me and what I have to say. He would do things like open the car door for me. He was showing this form of respect that I had never known,” she said.
“Had my fiancé not come along, I believe I could still be in that relationship. I know it was hard for my fiancé at first, because I had a lot of insecurities, but he stuck by me and was so patient. He’s been very supportive of me getting my story out there, so I’m very grateful in that respect.”
Though her experience in a healthy relationship proved the turning point in her story, the Wilmington resident acknowledges she had to learn how first to love herself, before she could fully recover.
That feat proved no easy task, especially since she had spent so much energy trying to accommodate her ex-boyfriend’s needs and wants, but in the end, her partner patiently gave her the space to rediscover who she is.
“I found a lot of activities I enjoy doing,” said Macdonald, who after always dreaming about seeing the world, ventured out across the United States and to Italy, Greece, and Ireland.
She also took up running, yoga, and joined a bowling league.
“I was a challenge to focus on myself, and it took a long time to get to that point. But it was a huge help, to do the things I’ve always wanted to do,” she recalled.
And this coming spring, the Woburn High graduate will see one of her longest dreams fulfilled with the publishing of her novel, which should be available on Amazon by May 16.