Part of The Book Club
Dreamland by Sarah Dessen is a teen/young adult novel that goes beyond simple teenage angst or issues with friendship groups – although some novels do touch on problems such as bullying and do so sensitively and realistically. The novel focuses on Caitlin, a teenager who struggles to deal with her sister running away and how this consumes her family. Amongst this chaos Caitlin meets Rogerson and manages to forget her problems, until her relationship with Rogerson becomes a problem within itself.
I read this book several years ago after becoming a fan of Dessen’s other works. I found her to be one of the best young adult writers, probably helped by the fact that she, of her own admission, ‘was a bad kid’. This novel is more adult than the others – more emotional, more harrowing, more thought provoking.
(There are going to be loads of spoilers because this book talks about important relationship issues that deserve to be discussed).
Caitlin starts to be abused by Rogerson and describes only feeling safe when they are having sex. Besides sex Caitlin attempts to calm Rogerson down, tries to explain herself and changes herself almost beyond her own recognition in order to stop these attacks. Dessen highlights how victims of abuse often blame themselves and attempt to change in order to stop the abuse. Furthermore, Dessen shows Caitlin hiding her abuse through the clothes she wears and isolating herself from her friends and family. With no one else but Rogerson and his friends for company Caitlin loses even more of herself to her abusive relationship.
Of course, being a young adult novel, Caitlin is eventually saved from Rogerson when he starts to violently attack her outside her own home. Her mother, who became distant after her sister ran away, rushes to protect her daughter. Dessen writes that; ‘I wasn’t able to tell my parents anything in that first twenty-four hours. I couldn’t say I was sorry, or explain how I’d let this happen’. Again Dessen shows spectacular awareness of how some victims think and the belief that they ‘let this happen’ and the need to apologise.
Dessen shows that, through hiding the abuse, Caitlin was unable to escape, it was only when her family found Rogerson towering over her that help could be offered – it can be so difficult and terrifying, but once aware others will do whatever they can to save you.
Dessen doesn’t sensationalise the abuse for cheap shock value, nor does she shy away from how Caitlin suffers mentally as a result.
Books, films and TV shows that depict abuse will probably always fail to represent the many different ways abuse manifests itself and the results. However, this book is an important instrument in teaching young girls about abuse, it teaches without lecturing and opens up conversation among groups of friends who read it.
The Office for National Statistics states that ‘over three-quarters of female victims of domestic homicide were killed by a male partner or ex-partner (76%, 242 females)’, one of many uncomfortable statistics (read more here). Dessen presents survival, although not every story ends this way. An example of this is the hour long ‘Murdered By My Boyfriend’ (still available on BBC iplayer), a difficult and incredibly moving watch.