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The Answer Blog

Archive for May, 2010

Yeardley Love and George Huguely: A lesson in What Love Is Not

May 27, 2010

I can’t get the picture of her out of my mind. Perhaps it’s because her eyes really sparkle like stars in the pictures of her in the media. I can’t forget the lovely words friends and family have spoken about her: She was an angel; she was the kindest, sweetest person; I don’t know how we are going to live our lives without her; her death is beyond belief.

I am not the only person to feel this way: 2,000 people attended her funeral last week.

In case you didn’t hear the story, this beautiful young woman is Yeardley Love, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Virginia who played on the women’s varsity lacrosse team and was murdered last week on the eve of her graduation. Her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely — a fellow senior from Chevy Chase, Md., who played on the men’s lacrosse team — has been accused of her murder. The two were in a relationship, but had just broken up, according to what Huguely told the police when he was arrested. Now Love is dead and buried, and Huguely is in jail awaiting trial for her murder.

Love and Huguely: Even their names indicate irony. She was truly beloved by her friends, family, and fellow team members. “She exuded goodness,” Love’s prep school lacrosse team coach said. “She was a good-natured and good-hearted individual.” Huguely, whose name just looks like “huge,” weighed over 200 pounds. According to press reports, he allegedly “kicked his foot through her locked bedroom door” and “shook Love while her head repeatedly hit the wall.”

yeardleylove051110_optHuguely had previous run-ins with the law. Eighteen-months ago, he was arrested for “public swearing, intoxication, and resisting arrest” outside a fraternity house at Washington & Lee University. The arresting officer said: “He was by far the most rude, most hateful, and most combative college kid I ever dealt with.”

He threatened to “kill everyone” at the local police department.

With this story haunting me, I walked by a newly opened store in the heart of Princeton the other day that had a banner across its front door proclaiming, Lacrosse Unlimited. A large poster of a player wearing a protective face-mask that made him look like a knight in armor asked passers-by, “Are You Warrior Material?” The tragic story of a lovely young woman from Virginia has its ironies, I thought, even in New Jersey.

I’m not going to place the blame for this horrible murder completely on the sport of lacrosse, although I think competitive sports can give the young adults who play them a sense of invincibility and outsized power. I remember the trouble that members of the Duke lacrosse team got themselves into a few years ago, principally because of excess drinking. One of the press reports about Huguely said that he had been drinking the entire day leading up to the moment he allegedly smashed his way into Love’s apartment and killed her.

In the aftermath of the story, I’ve heard reports that the University of Virginia president is considering ways to prevent such tragedies from occurring on campus again by developing better communication between law enforcement officers and campus police. Had the campus police known of Huguely’s previous altercations with the law, would they have better kept an eye on him, especially if they saw him drink to excess? Knowing of his recent breakup with Love, would they have moved in to protect her? Obviously better communication between law enforcement groups is always helpful.

huguelyGEORGEmug051110_optBut does this strategy get to the heart of the matter? I’m not sure. For me, the heart of the matter is having young people on college campuses — and in high schools — learn more about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Students need to know what constitutes a good relationship and a bad one and how they — and women, in particular — can get themselves out of bad, potentially violent ones. Many of Love’s friends said that she didn’t know to whom or how to report Huguely’s abusive behavior, and they didn’t know if they should have reported it to authorities.

The University of Virginia and other universities should institute workshops for all students called “Healthy Relationships” that cover what constitutes abusive relationships and where to seek help. Speakers should be invited to campuses to discuss the relationship aspect of students’ lives, which are in every way as important as their academic subjects.

As a foundation for this series, I recommend a curriculum called Unequal Partners, developed by Peggy Brick and Bill Taverner at the Center for Family Life Education at Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. Says Brick: “Our Unequal Partners is full of ideas for evaluating relationships. It really gets students thinking about what they really want in a relationship, [and] when a partner’s behavior is NOT acceptable.”

Taverner said that he has used lessons from this curriculum with undergraduates at Fairleigh Dickinson University. One lesson that he used, “Warning Signals,” really caught my attention. If Love had been part of a required workshop about warning signs of violent relationships, would her life have been saved? If she had participated in a role-play on how to get out of a difficult relationship, would it have made a difference? Had she learned to whom she should have reported Huguely’s excessive drinking and flares of anger, would she still be alive?

Many New Jersey high schools wait to offer sex education classes, including those with an emphasis on relationships, in the last semester of senior year. This timing has often troubled me, because I think it reveals administrators’ and school boards’ inherent fear of offering this subject so critical to the lives of young people. It comes too late to be of good use. By waiting until the bitter end of high school, supervisors think they can fend off negative reactions from a few parents and tell them that they are simply preparing students for college.

Perhaps waiting can pay off this year, especially if Yeardley Love’s tragic story can become a teachable moment. If used properly by educators, her story can lead to rich discussions about relationships: the good ones based on love and respect; the bad ones based on verbal abuse and disrespect; and the ugly ones, where alcohol and extreme violence can lead to catastrophe. Students can talk about this abusive relationship turned tragic and learn about what love is and is not.

If educators and parents pick up on the sad, sad story of Yeardley Love and talk openly and honestly with young people about the ramifications of abusive relationships, then this lovely young woman with eyes that sparkle like stars will not have died in vain.

As for the poster in the window about “Warrior Material,” whenever I see it, it will give me chills.

The Eternal Allure of Judy Blume, a Jersey Girl

May 12, 2010

Author and literary celebrity Judy Blume will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters at the Rutgers University commencement on May 16. Blume, a New Jersey native, spent her childhood in Elizabeth making up stories inside her head, she once said.

I’m too old to have read Blume’s books growing up, but I spent last week reading through the ones that form the basis for this prestigious honor. Like a lot of people who can’t stop eating popcorn, I found it very hard to stop reaching for the next book.

I only read five of the 25 books for young people that Blume has written over the past 40 years. Reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; Deenie; Double Fudge; Blubber; and Forever doesn’t exactly made me an authority on her enormous appeal — but it gave me some good ideas about why Blume has millions of fans around the globe.

Blume published her first book in 1969; one year later her first novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was selected as one of the Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. From that moment on, Blume published books at a prodigious rate and raked in the honors, including the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement.Numbers underscore the power of her reach: More than 75 million copies of her books have sold worldwide; her work has been translated into more than 31 different languages; and thousands of readers’ letters arrive in her in-box each month. Blume has also written novels for adults, all three of which — Wifey, Summer Sisters and Smart Women — rose to the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list.

Despite all her achievements, Blume’s work has not been without controversy. She is willing to tackle tough subjects that young people find deeply interesting, including bullying, divorce, friendship, racism, religion, and sexuality. And she has drawn the ire of conservative groups, who feel she is a “moral relativist,” because she does not condemn young people’s sexual feelings and behaviors.

Naturally, I read three of her books that feature sexuality to determine if topics once considered controversial in the ’70s continue to be so today. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is the Bible for adolescent girls awaiting the arrival of their first period. Menstruation is the topic of the day for Margaret and her small group of friends. Each wonders if she will be the last to experience this significant milestone on the path to womanhood. Margaret is so concerned that her friends will precede her that she calls on God to help her in the race. There is nothing in this delightful story that could possibly be considered controversial, and its health information is still accurate.

Blume picks up the pace in Deenie, where she brings up masturbation. Deenie, the protagonist, is an eighth grader who has to adjust to a recent diagnosis of scoliosis. One day, she drops an anonymous question in the box of her gym teacher who reads it out loud to a circle of girls during class. “Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep, and is it all right to do that?” Of course, Deenie is asking about herself.

Fortunately, Blume gives Deenie and her classmates a sensible and knowledgeable teacher who not only gives her female students the correct name for this activity, but responds, “First of all, it’s normal and harmless to masturbate. The myths some of you have heard aren’t true…. It’s very common for girls as well as boys, beginning with adolescence.”

Although talking openly about this topic may have been controversial in 1973, when the book was published, it certainly shouldn’t be now, when masturbation is more readily accepted for kids and adolescents. But the topic does often draw the lightening.

It is with Forever that Blume’s critics struck pay dirt. I suppose the words on the back jacket of the book can immediately raise hackles: “Awkward, sweet, passionate, innocent, secretive…Do you remember your first time?” That is just the beginning. The book tells the story of a high school senior’s first love and first sexual experience. Katherine’s relationship with Michael is told thoughtfully and sensitively, and their relationship grows over time until they decide they want to have sex with each other.

Forever may have been controversial in 1975, but it seems surprising that it was banned as recently as 2005 and made it onto the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list. It seems strange to ban this little book, given the fact that kids as young as 13 and 14 are “hooking up” today without knowing each other for very long. (The average age of first intercourse in the U.S. is 16.2 years of age, and the media in our hyper-sexualized society constantly reports on the sexual misdeeds of prominent politicians and sports figures.)

Besides writing honestly about issues vital to kids, Blume’s great appeal is her intuitive understanding of young people. It’s clear that she really likes and respects them, and I’m certain that some of her readers feel that she knows them better than their own parents and teachers. Because she respects them and helps them figure out the world, they have honored her with their trust and loyalty.

Blume’s young characters are memorable, her parents are smart, capable, and loving, and her grandmothers take the cake. In years past, when I read the books to my youngest daughter, I never paid any attention to the grandmothers — but this time I read about them with great interest. Most not only adore and are adored by their grandchildren, but they are hip, funny, sharp, and often sexy. At least two of them, widows at the beginnings of the book, find new love by the books’ end. In Forever, Katherine’s grandmother — who after meeting Michael assumes her granddaughter is going to have sex-cautions her to be careful about pregnancy and disease. These grandmothers are my new role models.

Cheers, then, and lots of them, to Judy Blume for her enduring talents. She made up stories in her head and then wrote them down forever touching the lives of millions of children and young people. I know that someday my great, great, grandchildren will be enjoying her stories and that gives me a wonderful feeling of touching the future.