September 11, 2011

Bitter End: A Psychtember Review

Patient: Bitter End by Jennifer Brown

When Alex falls for the charming new boy at school, Cole, a handsome, funny, sports star who adores her, she can't believe she's finally found her soul mate-someone who truly understands her and loves her for who she really is.

At first, Alex is blissfully happy. Sure, Cole seems a little jealous of her relationship with her best friends, Zack and Bethany, but what guy would want his girlfriend spending all of her time with another boy? But as the months pass, Alex can no longer ignore Cole's small put-downs, pinches, or increasingly violent threats. As Alex struggles to come to terms with the sweet boyfriend she fell in love with and the boyfriend whose "love" she no longer recognizes, she is forced to choose - between her "true love" and herself. (from Goodreads)

Axis 1. Characters

Generally, the characterization in Bitter End was quite well done. Alex is a protagonist anyone can root for, managing to be smart, self-aware, and at the same time, vulnerable. Her self-esteem has taken quite a hit, and she feels keenly the lack of a parent's presence — her mother is dead, and her father might as well be for all the attention she receives from him. Her support network is mainly her best friends Bethany and Zack, and I enjoyed seeing the closeness and shared history of these three. It was rough to watch how their friendship disintegrated once Alex welcomed Cole so wholeheartedly into her life. Sometimes I blamed Bethany and Zack for not trying harder to protect and save Alex, rather than getting angry at her, and sometimes I blamed Alex for placing Cole above the friends she'd known for so many years. I also found it frustrating that it took so long for adults to step in (especially when one of them, Georgia, definitely knew that something was wrong). Of course, if we're pointing fingers here, we can't possibly forget the most guilty of all — Cole. You'll wish he could feel every punch and shove and pinch he inflicts on Alex, several times over.

The one thing about Alex that Brown never had me fully understanding was why she fell in love with Cole and felt they were "soulmates." I think I was predisposed to dislike Cole right from the start, because I knew this was a book about an abusive relationship. I was just waiting for when he was going to show his true colours and start hurting her, so I didn't fall for him along with Alex. Then, when she keeps coming back to him, I obviously wasn't on the same page as she was. We're told that she loves him and they understand each other and that's why, but at some point I ran out of excuses for Alex and mentally I was going, "Really? You're going to forgive him again?"

However, I think this illustrates really well how impossible it is for anyone to comprehend being in an abusive relationship if they haven't experienced it themselves. As Brown points out in the Author's Note, "I've heard myself say the words 'I would never...' plenty of times. 'I would never let someone abuse me. Hit me once and I'd be outta there, baby!' In fact, I've heard lots of women say something along those lines. 'If a man ever hit me...' we like to say, and then we have all kinds of strong and powerful things to follow up that phrase. I wonder how many women stuck in an abusive relationship with no idea where to go or what to do had once said, 'I would never...' or 'If a man ever hit me...'" Furthermore, her relationship with Cole really changes Alex. We can see her personality undergo major developments the longer she's with Cole, turning from a friendly, gentle girl into someone completely different. A girl who's constantly looking over her shoulder, weighing every word she utters when she's with Cole, and lashing out at her true friends even when she isn't. Alex becomes extremely perceptive of Cole's moods, constantly trying to gauge if he's in a good mood or a foul one, so she can act accordingly. It's awful to see her reduced to this, so intimidated and feeling helpless to make it stop.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

Bitter End isn't radically different from other books involving abusive relationships, but it does do a very sound, solid job of portraying how such a relationship can develop and escalate. Jennifer Brown's done her research here (we learn from the Author's Note she majored in psychology and did an independent study on domestic violence) and it shows.

It didn't take me long at all to get sucked into this book. Just a few chapters in and I was quite engrossed, at first wondering when Cole would start abusing her, and then when we he did, wondering when Alex would finally put her foot down and break up with him. And then I kept on reading, unbelieving as both the violence and Alex's forgiveness continued.

Axis 3. Writing Style

Very easy to read, with authentic dialogue, and it kept me turning the pages.

Axis 4. Accuracy

I think Bitter End really nails what a typical abusive relationship looks like. The abuse alternating with apologies, promises and "good behaviour" conforms to the classic pattern. So, too, does the fact that Cole's dad likely abuses his mom. Individuals who come from backgrounds of abuse frequently go on to abuse others. And Brown provides more information about abusive relationships in the back of the book — traits of an abuser, how to tell if you're in an abusive relationship, and how to get out of one — with the source being none other than a forensic and police psychologist.

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Bitter End?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I was curious about a lot of the psychological explanations behind the characters' behaviours. We don't get told specific diagnoses, but I'd say Alex has a definite tendency towards dependent personality disorder. Once she meets Cole, she relies heavily on his opinion and begins spending all her time with him, essentially shutting out her friends when it becomes clear that they don't approve of Cole. (In Alex's defense, she does try a few times to get all four of them to hang out together, but eventually sacrifices her friendship with Bethany and Zack for her romantic relationship with Cole.) People with dependent personality disorder feel like they need someone to take care of them. They make their lives around other individuals and are scared of losing their support and being abandoned, which can lead to them staying in abusive relationships.

As for Cole, he flummoxed me more. At first I was inclined to say he shows signs of both borderline and narcissistic personality disorder, but neither of those fits very well. He has extremely rapid mood swings, a desire to exert control, a need to be needed, and (obviously) engages in emotional and physical abuse. He does drink to excess at times, but I don't think substance abuse is the only thing going on here. Tentatively I'd go with antisocial personality disorder...these individuals are impulsive, manipulative, and often aggressive without feeling remorse (this is debatable in Cole's case but I didn't really buy that he felt very sorry about his behaviour). Basically, this is the closest the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) comes to a psychopath. I'm not saying Cole is one, but I'd definitely like to see how he performs on some psychological tests.

Many of the parents in the novel also exhibit some symptoms of mental illness. We're told Alex's mom was mentally ill, but not told what specifically she struggled with (or even given much description of her problems), and I certainly would have liked to know more. Alex's dad seems to be depressive, closed-off in grief since his wife died, and Cole's mom sounds a bit like she displays a tendency to some kind of mood disorder. 

Patient shares symptoms with: But I Love Him by Mandy Hubbard, Stay by Deb Caletti, Don't Breathe a Word by Holly Cupala

Patient's statement:

"I watched myself get into my car and turn it on and back out of Cole's driveway and drive home. And I watched myself come home and go up to my bedroom and shut the door. I watched myself pull off my clothes and step into pajamas, all in the dark, and curl up in bed and stare at the ceiling, the tears leaking into my ears, the scene replaying on the blades of my ceiling fan.
But it was like watching myself from the end of a long, black tunnel. The poor girl on the other end — she was bruised and confused and beaten and I felt sorry for her. Whoever she was."

Diagnosis: 4 shooting stars.

For more information on abusive relationships and domestic violence, go here.

Note: obviously, given the subject matter, there is some mature content in here, including scenes of violence.


  1. A friend of mine was (and sadly still) is in an on and off relationship with a less than nice guy. Despite all our warnings and fears she still sees something in him that we definitely don't see.
    I've read Stay and really liked it, though Bitter End sounds like it focuses more on physical abuse. I hope it's a story with a good or at least hopeful ending. Thanks for the review Danya :)

  2. I can't wait to read this one. i've been wanting uplifting stories about difficult topics such as this

  3. Superb review here - its almost as long as the book, I bet ;D Sounds like an interesting read. :D
    Shah. X


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