Teen dating violence: What is and isn’t love



Domestic violence is a prevalent issue in Brookline. According to Brookline’s 2017 mid-year crime rate report, there were 28 reported domestic violence incidents that year.

Domestic violence is the repeated abuse of any kind — physical, sexual, psychological or financial — by an intimate partner. It is a widespread, and often overlooked issue, that affects approximately 20 people per minute according to Women’s Advocate, a program which offers services for people affected by domestic violence.

This intimate violence extends across all social and economic boundaries and affects adolescents on a large scale. In teen dating scenarios, 20.9 percent of female students and 13.4 percent of male students are physically or sexually abused by a dating partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Brookline High Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Advocate and Violence Prevention Coordinator Doreen Gallagher, who counsels students at the high school who experience domestic violence in teen dating situations and in families, said that this type of intimate violence is not specific to one demographic group.

“The thing about domestic abuse — it has no boundaries,” Gallagher said. “It can happen to everybody. I deal with cases all the time in Brookline. It crosses all race, cultures — abuse is everywhere.”

A 2017 Brookline Student Health Services Survey released by the high school shows that 7 percent of students at the high school have reported sexual contact against their will in 2013, 8 percent in 2015 and 6 percent in 2017.

In Massachusetts, 11 percent of high school students and 6 percent of middle school students report that they have been physically abused by a sexual partner, according to the domestic violence advocacy organization Jane Doe Inc.

This map shows domestic violence help centers in Brookline and Boston. Click on the icons on the map for more information. MAP BY SARAH HUGHES/SAGAMORE STAFF

Domestic violence in Brookline

Longtime Brookline resident Pat Norling, ‘63 alumna of the high school, is the founder of the Jennifer A. Lynch Committee Against Domestic Violence based in Brookline. The committee was created in memory of Norling’s daughter, Jennifer Lynch, who was murdered in a case of domestic violence. Lynch met her husband at a laundromat as a teenager. Ten years into their marriage, he shot his then-wife and then turned the gun to himself. This year on Valentine’s Day was the twelfth year anniversary of Lynch’s murder.

“Jennifer was my daughter,” Norling said, “she was just a thriving everything. She was a poet, she was a photographer; she did just about everything. She was one of these kind-hearted kids, not just because she was mine, but she was so brilliant.”

Unfortunately, this tragic incident does not stand alone.

A retired educator of the Brookline Public Schools Malcolm Astley is the father of a teenager who was murdered by her boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita, soon after they both graduated high school. They had an on-and-off relationship that ended after Astley’s daughter broke things off permanently. After being asked by the concerned mother of Fujita, Astley’s daughter left her workplace at The Natick Collection Mall to visit him. According to police reports, she went to his house without telling anyone, and Fujita, someone with a history of mental illness, brutally murdered her.


The signs

Steps to Success Adviser and Chairwoman of the Domestic Abuse Roundtable, Melissa Sirin, met her first abuser when she was in college. Two years into Sirin’s seven-year relationship, she experienced the first instances of abuse. After the relationship ended, Sirin went through a second abusive relationship. By the time she was 28, she had been in two violent relationships.

These relationship dynamics, Sirin said, are not normal or acceptable.

“Being in love shouldn’t be hurtful,” Sirin said. “You’re not supposed to be afraid of the person you are in love with. You are not supposed to be intimidated, and you are not supposed to be broken down. Someone is supposed to support you in a relationship and make you feel happy.”

From her experience with counseling abused teenagers at the high school, Gallagher knows the difficulties of leaving one’s abuser.

“For some teenagers, it’s their first relationship, and it feels like love,” Gallagher said. “They’ve just met this person, maybe they’ve dated for a year, it could be months. There’s really no time frame.”

Gallagher said that domestic violence often appears as a series of recurring cycles.

“It’s not always bad and sometimes it’s loving and fun – just like it was when it started,” Gallagher said. “Then there are times that the abuse, the verbal comments, the pushing or shoving starts– the jealousy may come into play or the put-downs. Then it’s the forgiveness stage, and the person says, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again.’”

Youth Education Specialist Molly Pistrang at Refuge Education Advocacy Change (REACH) Beyond Domestic Violence said that implicating victims of domestic violence for their inability to leave their abuser can pose issues in the recovery process.

“The question ‘why did they stay?’ can be problematic and victim-blaming as it implies that the survivor definitely had a choice of whether or not to leave,” Pistrang said. “During an abusive relationship, power and control have been taken away from the victim or survivor. This means that such a choice may be impossible or challenging to make — for whatever visible or invisible reasons exist.”

At the beginning many of domestic violence cases, Gallagher says, “soft signs” — smaller signs of abuse such as aggressive texting or over-protectiveness such as a partner waiting outside their relationship member’s class — can appear. She says that often, these seemingly unconcerning actions lead to violence.

Astley said that there were apparent “soft signs” in his daughter’s past relationship.

“Looking back, there were signs — there were ‘soft signs.’ Often it is only ‘soft signs’ and it’s difficult to interpret,” Astley said. “The on-again-off-again, the several breakups, there were indications that at times he would check her cell phone. It’s public information that he wanted to see her at his home a lot, and I think there was some pressure for her to cooperate. Lauren’s peers felt some distance from him and his own peers did at the end.”

Norling described an incident when she and her daughter were watching a softball game at Larz Anderson Park. Lynch told her mother that her husband broke her ankle, however, Norling did not take action because Lynch played it off as an accident.

“She was making stories up to try to hide it. {Abused people} have this embarrassment that they’re so afraid to tell somebody because they believe it’s their fault,” Norling said.

After Lynch’s murder, a friend told Norling about another instance in which Lynch’s husband had been abusive. Lynch, her husband, and the friend took a trip to the ocean, and in the car, Lynch’s husband had held a gun to Lynch’s head for two hours while she was driving. Afterward, Lynch made her friend promise not to say anything.

Data from The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Asking for help

Contrary to Lynch’s story, in most cases of domestic violence, Gallagher said, a friend pushes another student to seek counseling.

“A friend will bring a student to my office and say, ‘I’m concerned about my friend. They’re in a relationship that doesn’t seem to be healthy,’” Gallagher said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the person in the relationship to decide if they want to leave or not.”

If a student chooses to reach out for help, Gallagher would walk the student through a “safety plan” based on his or her situation and then also work with the friend on how they could support that student.

Pistrang believes there is no “one size fits all” response for people affected by relationship abuse. She describes the steps she takes to help someone being domestically abused.

“Every person has lived their own unique experiences, so I try to meet each individual where they are and provide the support they need,” Pistrang said. “I start by creating a safe space where someone can share their story. When having these conversations, I listen to them, ask non-judgmental questions and believe them. I provide options and resources, helping them choose the course of action that is best for them. The idea is to help the person reclaim the power and control that had been taken away from them.”

A student being abused, Gallagher said, should ask for help from the social workers in room 149c. In Brookline, there is a no-tolerance policy for domestic violence, meaning anyone accused of perpetrating violence will be questioned by police and held for a certain period of time.

Data from The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Looking back at the abuse

Sirin stressed the importance of education when it comes to domestic violence. Sirin said that when she met her first abuser, she did not know she was in an abusive relationship.

“Part of the work I wanted to do was educate youth and the town, [to be] aware of signs and to be more aware of situations. Whether it’s yourself or a loved one, we have to know that hands are not for hurting,” Sirin said. “We have to know what’s out there, and we have to offer support and help.”

Norling said that victims of domestic violence including Lynch’s husband, too, have the power to refrain from continuing the cycle themselves.

“He said I was the best mom he ever had. His mother was very abusive. That’s why when I talk to people, I tell them, ‘Even if you come from an abusive background, you have a choice,’” Norling said. “I was abused as a child, but I could never abuse my kids, ever. Or anybody. I’d give the shirt off my back to anybody, and Jennifer was the same way.”

Gallagher said that eventually, and with counseling, an abuser can grasp how to be a partner in a healthy relationship.

“Sometimes people don’t even understand why they’re being abusive — so to really talk about where is this coming from? What tools do you need? How do you treat a person with love and respect?” Gallagher said. “I do think people can change. Earlier is better.”

Astley said that often, men feel that they cannot express themselves through words. The culprit of these behaviors, Astley said, are stereotypes of masculinity.

“When boys or men see themselves failing at becoming the masculine figures that they’re supposed to be — that the society and all its cultural messages tell them they’re supposed to be — and they don’t have any way to share their pain and confusion about that matter, that can lead to terrible drives to control,” Astley said. “Shame makes many perpetrators feel completely out of control, so they exert control because they don’t know any other way to address the shame that they’re feeling.”

Norling said that her daughter’s abusive husband conveyed his affection for her to other people, however, it was not shown directly to Lynch.

“He called me Mom,” Norling said. “He was kind of loving. He talked about Jennifer all the time when she wasn’t around: ‘She’s so good, she’s so smart, she wrote me this beautiful poem.’ All this stuff, but he would never tell her.”

Data from The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Looking forward

At the end of Fujita’s trial, Astley went up to the parents of Fujita and hugged them. Astley said he did it because the families had both lost children that day. After his daughter’s death, Astley created the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund to support healthy high school relationships.

In creating her daughter’s organization, Norling was able to find a voice, putting effort into her daughter’s cause.

“The first few years I couldn’t even open my mouth. I didn’t even know what I was doing, what I was saying, but then I found a purpose, and I’m speaking for my Jennifer,” Norling said. “My famous line is ‘tell somebody.’ I’d rather the person not like you for a day, a week, a month or a year then to be dead and not be able to say anything.”

Sirin finds solace through Spartan racing — a series of obstacle races ranging from three miles to marathon distances. She gets up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to train, and Sirin said it is both a physical and mental exercise.

“Spartan racing has helped me so much because it’s made me realize that no matter what happened in my past, no matter what I had gone through, I can mentally and physically get over anything now,” Sirin said. “Every time I’m on a mountain, I leave a little piece of everything that has happened to me. Sometimes you just have to leave it there and never think about it again. When you are doing these races, it’s just one foot in front of the other and I think in life it’s the same thing: day by day.”


For more information about domestic violence go to joinonelove.org or janedoe.org. If you or someone you know is being domestically abused call 911, or to talk call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).


Contributing reporting by Elene Chamberlin and Chloe McKim Jepsen