MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, my commentary, but first, it's time for us to go Behind Closed Doors. That's our weekly segment where we talk about issues that are often kept silent due to stigma or shame. Today we want to talk about Chris Brown and Rihanna. It's a matter that's taken up many hours of cable time in the last few weeks, since the young pop stars got into a heated argument after a party the night before the Grammy awards, which allegedly escalated into physical violence.
The matter made headlines, in part, because Rihanna's injuries were so severe, she was unable to perform the following day. Chris Brown subsequently was charged with two felonies. A lot of the public discussion about the case has centered on the question of how, too, such attractive and successful young people could get themselves into such a mess. But we want to focus on the young part.
Rihanna is 21, and Brown 19. And as it turns out, many young women report that violence or threats are part of their relationships. In fact, according to a 2008 study, nearly one-in-five teenage girls, who've been in a relationship, said a boyfriend had threatened violence or self-harm if presented with a breakup.
We felt we needed to talk more about this, so joining us now are Sarah Van Zanten. She's a survivor of an abusive relationship. She's a member of the Liz Claiborne, Inc. teen task force. Drew Crecente, his daughter was involved in an abusive relationship, and we're going to ask him to tell us what happened. Crecente is now the CEO of an organization to help prevent teen dating violence. That's the Jennifer Ann Group.
We're also joined by Sheryl Cates. She's the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline. I welcome you all, and I thank you all so much for talking with us today.
Ms. SARAH VAN ZANTEN: Thank you for having us.
Mr. DREW CRECENTE (CEO, Jennifer Ann Group): Thank you for having me.
Ms. SHERYL CATES (CEO, National Domestic Violence Hotline): Hello. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Sarah, you're 19 now and in high school. You got involved in a relationship that you now realize was abusive. Do you mind telling us a little bit of how it started and how you realized that it was abusive?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Well, we met at the back-to-school dance at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school - and met him, cute boy, on the football team, and we started spending a lot of time together. It was the typical, perfect, romantic relationship, and then the emotional abuse started and the control.
MARTIN: What do you mean by that?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: He always had to know where I was, who I was with. I wasn't allowed to hang out with a lot of my guy friends anymore because they were threatening to our relationship. He kind of drove a wedge in between my parents and I because I didn't need to tell them everything. That's what I had him for.
MARTIN: You mean he said this?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: And you believed him?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Well, I mean, it was one of my first relationships, and I didn't really know what to expect and I had someone that wanted to spend all of his time with me and didn't really see a problem with it at first.
MARTIN: So it was kind of flattering at first.
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: A little bit, yeah. You have someone that just - is head-over-heels for me and tells me he loves me and wants to spend all of his time with me and, you know, that feels good.
MARTIN: So when did it start to feel not so good?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Well, the emotional abuse started with the control and then there were two physical incidents. The first was at school. He came to school drunk one day, and a group of us had math class together, and my best friend went over to him and tapped the bill of his hat jokingly. He followed her to her seat and smacked her across the face. We hid from him during break, which was next, because obviously my boyfriend was drunk and out of control.
He kept calling, and we kept ignoring and then he found us. He threw me up against the locker, told me I would never be able to hide from him, so I shouldn't even try. I tried to run to my Spanish class, and he slammed me into the classroom door.
MARTIN: Did anybody see this? Any adults? Any teachers?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Both of my teachers saw it, but kind of kept going with class and didn't say anything, but a couple hours later he got called into the office and suspended for three days for being drunk on campus, not for what he did to me or my best friend.
MARTIN: Can I just ask how did it finally end?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Well, that's where the cycle of violence came in. He - there was the incident, and he apologized and bought me flowers and told me it was because he was drunk and it would never happen again. So I took him back. And then about a month - couple weeks later, we were at a party. He lifted his leg up and swung it at me and hit me right in the ribs. I flew across the room and hit my head on the wall and was knocked unconscious.
When I came up I had two bruised ribs and a concussion. Clearly none of these people were my friends because they kept partying and didn't call the police because there were drugs and alcohol there. I called someone that I considered a better friend, and he came and picked me up and took me home, and I told my parents. And since it wasn't the first time he had gotten violent towards me physically, we decided to call the police.
MARTIN: And when you finally did come forward and report this behavior, the public reaction, if you will, in your high school, was with the abuser. Is that right?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Yeah. That Monday after he went to juvenile hall, the gossip was running wild. Everyone had heard their own version of the story and blamed me. And I just got a complete opposite response that I thought I would get. This boy had abused me. I didn't know that people would choose his side.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. Drew, will you tell us the story of what happened in your family?
Mr. CRECENTE: My daughter, Jennifer Ann Crecente, was a senior in high school. And on Valentine's Day, February 14th, 2006, we spoke on the phone, and she told me about this person that she had dated in the past, and that she was making efforts to try and help him get his life back in order. This is somebody that when she dated him, she realized that it was not a healthy relationship and thought that it was best for her to stop being romantically involved with him.
So when we spoke on that Valentine's Day, she told me that she was going to be joining him in going to look at a used car that he wanted to purchase in the neighborhood where her mother's house was. On the way back to her mother's house, they took a shortcut through the woods, and he had hidden a shotgun, and he took the shotgun, and he shot her in the back of the head and left her there in the woods, where obviously she was dead.
MARTIN: Oh Drew, I am so sorry.
Mr. CRECENTE: Well, I appreciate that. I was surprised, obviously, but part of what I was surprised about was what I found out afterwards. And what I found out is that teen dating violence is not an isolated issue. It is not an uncommon issue, and as a parent and as a father of a teenage girl, this was something that I knew nothing about. I knew to teach my daughter about not talking to strangers, about looking both ways before she crossed the street, but I never knew to help her identify the warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship.
MARTIN: Thank you for talking about that. Sheryl, how common is what we're hearing here?
Ms. CATES: It's very common, what you're hearing here, that students often do not tell or teens often do not tell their parents what's happening in their relationships and often don't know, they themselves, as a teen, what the warning signs are, what to look for in a healthy relationship.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Drew Crecente, Sheryl Cates and Sarah Van Zanten. Their families have all been touched by abusive teen relationships. Sheryl, I wanted to mention at this point, in addition to working in this area professionally, your family was also touched by this, isn't that correct?
Ms. CATES: Yes, that's correct. My sister is a survivor. She was married at 18 and had been dating this boy who was a track star and very attractive, and he seemed like the perfect guy. He worked hard. His family worked hard. And we weren't aware of the oscillating kind of behavior that he had been putting my sister through, in terms of he didn't want her around our family, he didn't want her around her friends. You know, for all the games, she was constantly with him. I mean, we just didn't know. We didn't know that that was one of the things that this relationship had going.
He did physically hurt her, but, you know, it was interesting, it was after they were married. And she was married for seven years and it wasn't until my mother saw this huge hole behind the door, shaped more in the form of a person, versus like where a door knob or something like that would hit the wall, that my mother was very concerned about something - something had really happened. So it was then that she told us that she was thinking about committing suicide. And I'm sorry…
MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry, Sheryl.
Ms. CATES: I'm just so grateful that she's alive today. But she has done really well. And we were able to find out what happened and move her out of that situation. And she has a beautiful 25-year-old that's doing great, and she's doing great.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. I'm so glad you were there. I'm so glad you and your family were able to rally to help her. That's a blessing. Sarah, can you shed some light on this? Why you put up with this behavior. And would it be fair to say that this kind of behavior was not part of the relationship you saw with your parents?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Well, at first, you know, it's embarrassing. You're not really sure what to expect. There hadn't been any education in my school about this issue. I didn't know any of my friends that had ever been in an abusive relationship. Like I said, this is one of my first relationships. All I've seen is my parents and their loving relationship and my grandparents. And this just wasn't something I had ever thought to expect.
And at first it is that flattering thing, and you don't know what's going to come of it. But there has to be more education in the schools for people to realize, you know, what's too much and where to draw the line.
MARTIN: Sarah, if you were to ask your former boyfriend why he behaved the way he did, what would he say?
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: To be honest, I have no idea. I haven't spoken to him since that last night. But for the past four years I've been speaking out to different groups, Girl Scout troops, high schools, including the San Jose Correctional Facility. I spoke with a bunch of boys there who had previously abused their girlfriends. And after I spoke with the boys in the correctional facility, they each wrote me a thank you note. And one of the boys wrote, Dear Sarah, thank you for coming and speaking with us. I didn't know girls had feelings, too.
MARTIN: And more on…
Ms. CATES: And Michel, this is Sheryl.
MARTIN: Oh, good ahead.
Ms. CATES: Oftentimes they do learn this behavior in their home, though. I mean, what I've seen with young boys, as well as young men growing into adulthood, is this is often something they've seen, which Chris Brown has often talked about - how it had such a traumatic impact on his life, but it also taught him the relationship of men and women, and the role that men play in that relationship.
MARTIN: What's curious about that is he's talked about how terrified he was when he saw his mother's partner - I assume it's his stepfather, I guess -hurting her. He was terrified and this went on for years. He's talked publically about it, which is why a lot of people are puzzled to see him then act out this behavior. What does that suggest? That it's a very deep (unintelligible)? I guess you'd need a lot of intervention before you can change the behavior? I'm not sure.
Ms. CATES: Right. And what we know is that it is inter-generational. It is a learned behavior, and you can unlearn it. I used to work with men who were perpetrators for three years, and what I learned is that they have the capacity to unlearn this behavior, but they have to recognize it. They have to accountable for it. They have to have a tool kit that they can actually begin to change the way they want to use power and control in their relationships.
MARTIN: Sheryl Cates is the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline. She was kind enough to join us from KUT in Austin, Texas. We were also very pleased to be joined by Sarah Van Zanten. She's a student at Chapman University in California, and she's a member of the Liz Claiborne, Inc. teen task force.
She speaks to young people about her experiences in an abusive relationship -how to spot it, how to get out of it. She was kind enough to join us from KQED in San Francisco. And Drew Crecente is the CEO and founder of the Jennifer Ann Group. That's an organization to help parents recognize and prevent teen dating violence, and he joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Ms. CATES: Thank you, Michel.
Ms. VAN ZANTEN: Thank you for having us.
Mr. CRECENTE: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: For more information about teen domestic violence and links to the resources each of our guests wanted to tell you about, please go to our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org, and we'd like to hear from you. If you've ever been abused in a relationship, how did you find your way out or are you still looking for a way out? And if you've been on the other side of the equation and realized your behavior was abusive, we'd like to know, why do you think you behave this way? And have you been able to change?
What helped you change? What help is still needed? To tell us more, log on to npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE and share your story on our blog, or you can call our comment line, 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522.