Some books are so powerful that they become the touchstone for a particular ‘problem topic’, for lack of a better word. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is such a novel. Patricia McCormick’s Cut is another one. With Don’t Breathe a Word, Holly Cupala has tried to give a voice to another one of the unspoken taboos: psychological abuse in a teenage relationship. Cupala’s book may not yet be as strong and topic-defining as the two aforementioned books, but it’s a convincing statement about power, control and what it means to be suffocating and the consequent need to escape.
Joy Delamere is suffocating. Suffering from asthma, she has had a few very acute brushes with death. As a result her parents have been overprotective, and now that her brother has gone off to college, the role of ‘protector’ has been given to Joy’s boyfriend, Asher, the rich son of her father’s employer. Asher, handsome, rich, and every parent’s ideal son-in-law, however, is also an overpowering brutal abusive jerk. Asher, though, doesn’t physically abuse Joy: “If he’d hit me, that would have been something. Something I could point to. Words, words were nothing. But every word he spoke taught me to fear him and his threats, his touch, his constant reminder that he’d rescued me and my family.” We meet Joy at her most vulnerable, when Asher’s words have gone that one step too far and Joy decides to run away from home… exchanging a world of verbal and emotional abuse for the completely uncertain world of the Seattle streets, where everyone has secrets of their own. Joy knows that she has to sever all ties with her former life if she is to be safe from Asher’s controlling power. Once Joy hits the streets of Seattle and becomes Triste, we meet a bunch of streetwise kids such as Creed, Santos and May, who each have their own crosses to bear.
Cupala’s prose is deceptive and manipulative, much in the same way as Asher’s whole appearance is just a front and hides a manipulative abuser. The language is poetic and haunting at the same time, but they cannot disguise the harsh realities of street life: poverty, prostitution, drugs and worse. Luckily Cupala manages to show more with her language than she tells us, but in doing so she convincingly manages to capture the essence of manipulation.
In the afterword of the book, Holly Cupala mentions that Joy/Triste’s life on the streets is unfortunately one that happens way too often: 1.6 million teens run away in the US every year as a result of abuse. And rainy Seattle has one of the highest teen homeless populations in the country. She also urges you, the reader, to be aware, and if possible to offer hope, something you can do by visiting her website www.hollycupala.com, where you can also read that the author donates part of her proceeds to Hope for Sexually Exploited Girls.