“I hit her. She deserved it. She said she was going to leave me.”
“The jealousy at first was flattering; it made me feel important.”
“He yells at her all the time.”
“I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t think they’d believe me.”
These are words generally not spoken aloud by young people, but they were on Sunday as Jewish teenagers and young adults performed dating violence scenarios for an audience of their peers.
The Jewish Domestic Abuse Violence Task Force of Pittsburgh sponsored a symposium entitled “Tools for Building Healthy Dating Relationships” at the Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center. The symposium was timed to coincide with October’s designation as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Sponsoring organizations included Jewish Women International, Jewish Family & Children’s Service, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the Agency for Jewish Learning. Many area congregations partnered with the Task Force.
Studies examining dating violence in teens and young adults vary because they use different criteria and get different results. The statistics are staggering: One in three young people, during their teenage years, both male and female, will be involved in all types of abusive dating relationships, according to the Technology and Teen Dating Abuse Survey (2007) conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited for Liz Claiborne, Inc. This figure is up from the most commonly reported statistic of one in five females and one in 10 males in their teens, dealing with physical and sexual abuse.
But verbal and emotional abuse were not accounted for in that survey. The accepted definition of dating abuse is: a pattern of controlling behaviors that someone uses against a girlfriend or boyfriend.
Sunday’s program was divided into two parts, one aimed at teenagers and the other for parents, rabbis and educators.
The teen program, entitled “Words Not Spoken,” is the brainchild and original creation of licensed social worker/consultant Hedda Matza-Haughton, the founder of “For the Health of It” Consultation Services. In the program, five local teenage/young adult actors and one social worker performed a monologue, each acting out the part of either a victim of teen/young adult relationship violence, the abuser or a third party witness to abuse.
The program was geared toward young people between the ages of 15 and 20. Following the monologues, the actors stayed in character while the audience of approximately 80 teenagers and young adults posed questions such as, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” and “Where do you see this relationship going?”
The intention of “Words Not Spoken” was to open up a dialogue, in a safe environment, on subjects that are often not shared out loud.
Matza-Haughton trained and was in communication with all of the participants in the drama for about a three-month period.
“This allowed each actor to create his or her own character with my help and guidance and allowed them to speak the voice of the issue,” she said. “It became believable and realistic because it wasn’t scripted by myself, but rather by the teen/young adult actors.”
Matza-Haughton has been using this type of improvisational, interactive forum to engage people in discussion about many other difficult or sensitive issues, including domestic violence, child and elder abuse, communication and choices in dealing with death and dying, and sexuality and intimacy in aging for more than 15 years. She created the program because interactive programs are often more effective than lectures.
“Learning occurs when a program is interactive and touches you on an emotional level,” Matza-Haughton said.
Her intention was to help teens/young adults recognize the signs of an abusive relationship, and to identify the elements of a healthy relationship, which she said includes respect, equality, healthy communication, and the ability to solve conflicts in a nonviolent manner.
Having the actors stay in character and be questioned “gives the audience a voice, too, and allows us to see what the audience really feels,” she said.
The program for teenagers was limited to an audience of their peers. “I wanted to create a safe environment where they could talk openly,” Matza-Haughton said. She noted that 33 percent of teenagers victims will report abuse, and of that group, an overwhelming 88 percent will tell their friends rather than an adult.
One of the actors in the “Words Not Spoken” improvisational drama was Hanna Jo Weisberg, a Monroeville teenager who went to the same school as Demi Cuccia, the Gateway High School teenager who was killed by her boyfriend in 2007. Weisberg, who acts in local community theater, felt an obligation to get the word out about teen dating abuse.
“It is a big deal and that it could happen to anyone,” Weisberg said. “I want kids to know that they don’t have to handle it alone; it’s too big for just one person.”
Down the hall, a concurrent teen violence awareness program was conducted, though this one was geared toward parents, educators and rabbis. A panel discussion was led by Dr. Bari Benjamin. Other panelists included Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, Dr. Joshua Bernstein, and certified domestic violence counselor and domestic abuse survivor, Joanne Witkowski.
Witkowski had the room’s full attention as she described her journey from a sexually abused four-year-old to an abusive relationship in her teens that almost ended her life. She related her personal experience with abuse in order to help raise teen violence awareness in the adult community.
“Although there is no way to predict when someone would commit violence or a lethal act,” Witkowski said, “there are warning signs that a person may be at higher risk of death when certain factors are evident.”
The key sign is if the abuser tries to isolate the victim from her family, friends and resources, and even tries to degrade her.
An abuser “takes the time to gain trust while building a relationship with you,” Witkowski said. She urged parents to always know where their children are, who their friends are and with whom they are talking. This is particularly pertinent in today’s technologically advanced society in which text messaging and cell phone usage opens a new forum for abuse.
If there was ever a question as to whether or not the “Words Not Spoken” program has been successful, Matza-Haughton pointed to an evaluation form completed by a teenager following a similar program presented in Philadelphia which said, “I didn’t realize I was in an abusive relationship until I attended this program.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)