Synopses & Reviews
In April 2002, Janine Latus's youngest sister, Amy, wrote a note and taped it to the inside of her desk drawer: "Today Ron Ball and I are romantically involved, but I fear I have placed myself at risk in a variety of ways." That same spring Janine was struggling to leave her marriage, to a handsome and successful man--a marriage in which she felt afraid, controlled, inadequate, and trapped. Ten weeks later, Janine had left her marriage when she learned Amy was missing. It took more than two weeks to find Amy's body, and two years to convict her former boyfriend for her murder. Haunted, Janine turned her journalistic eye inward. How did two seemingly well-adjusted, successful women end up in physically or emotionally abusive relationships with men? The resulting book traces the roots of her own--and her sister's--victimization with unflinching candor, a heart-wrenching journey of discovery.--From publisher description.
"At age 37, Janine Latus's younger sister, Amy, was strangled to death by her live-in boyfriend, bundled in a plastic tarp and buried beside a remote country road. It was a wretched end to a too-short life, one frequently marked by disappointment, sadness and struggle. In the hands of a less gifted writer, Amy's story might stand only as an encomium or a cautionary tale: a glimpse into the life of one abused woman, representative of thousands like it. But Latus weaves a double strand. Part memoir, part biography, the book (which grew out of an article in O Magazine) explores Latus's own relationships with abusive men and her eventual emancipation from a marriage riven by emotional and physical violence. Latus has a spare, economical style, softened by an undercurrent of humor and marked by a total absence of self-pity. When on a ski vacation, a boyfriend brutally beats her, breaking several of her ribs and her nose and then makes love to her, in a twisted form of penance Latus doesn't wince in the retelling. She lets ambiguities and contradictions abide: she loved her husband, even as he humiliated and hurt her. Had things been slightly different, she seems to say, she and not Amy might have perished at the hands of her partner. Unforgettable, unsentimental and profoundly affecting, Latus's book resonates long after the final page is turned." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Janine Latus' memoir of domestic abuse depicts two life journeys: Janine's own escape from a violent boyfriend and her sister's tragic death at the hands of one. Both stories are powerful cautionary tales that shine a bright light into the darkness of domestic abuse. There are no heroes here -- just real people whose bravely told stories could save lives."
-- Betsy Lerner, Author of Food and Loathing
About the Author
Janine Latus is a freelance writer, radio commentator, and regular speaker on domestic abuse issues. She has also taught writing and journalism at several universities and is on the board of directors of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She lives in Virginia. If I Am Missing or Dead is her first book.
Reading Group Guide
Reader's Group Guide for If I Am Missing or Dead by Janine Latus
In a memoir that is by turns harrowing and humorous, Janine Latus recounts both her own and her sister Amy's dealings with men, beginning with their father. From the traumatic childbirth experiences of their mother to the daily reminders from their father that their looks are what matter most, both Janine and Amy take away from their childhood's a sense that, as young women, they are unworthy, even sinful, by nature. In spite of their strength, intelligence, and strong bond with each other, both Janine and Amy find themselves trapped in relationships with abusive and controlling men. Fortunately, Janine is able to escape this cycle. Amy, however, does not.
If I Am Missing or Dead explores issues faced by all women in our society and particularly by those who have experienced physical or emotional abuse. Janine's story vividly illustrates the wide spectrum of abusive behavior and depicts the cycle of self-doubt that can lead smart, attractive women to remain in abusive relationships. If I Am Missing or Dead is also the story of a woman finding her voice and making sense of her own story: for herself, for her sister, for women everywhere.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Why do you think Janine chose to tell her own story alongside Amy's story?
2. Both Amy and Janine have troubled relationships with their bodies. While Amy struggles with her weight, Janine seems to be addicted to exercise and weight loss. How do the sisters' respective difficulties with body image affect their relationships? Where did these problems originate?
3. When she is twelve years old, Janine is attacked and nearly raped by a neighbor, Mr. Johnston. Examine her parents' responses to this event. What messages do these responses send?
4. Janine and Amy's mother undergoes several traumatic experiences associated with childbirth, including losing a child and nearly dying herself. How were these events treated within the Latus household? What lessons does Janine draw from them?
5. "In church I learned: Girls are seductresses, starting with Eve, who got us all kicked out of the Garden of Eden by being weak, by taking a bite from the tree of knowledge, and -- most important -- by enticing poor, innocent Adam to do the same" (29). What role does Janine's religious education play in the development of her self-image? How are her early sexual experiences affected by what she learns in church?
6. Compare Amy's relationships with men to Janine's. What differences do you see? What similarities?
7. If I Am Missing or Dead depicts many different kinds of abuse. Compare Janine's father's abuse of his wife and children, Michael and Kurt's abuse of Janine, and Ron Ball's abuse of Amy. What is the author's view of these different kinds of abuse? Do you agree?
8. Make a list of the men with whom Janine has sexual encounters and/or relationships, beginning in her early adolescence. What does she learn from each of these encounters? How do they shape the person she becomes?
9. In spite of her difficulties with men, Janine manages to become a successful journalist and ultimately she finds the strength to leave her marriage. What are the sources of strength in Janine's life? Were there positive aspects of her childhood that allowed her to cultivate self-confidence in certain areas? What is different about her personality in comparison to Amy's that shelters this strength?
10. Why is Amy unable to extricate herself from a relationship that she suspects may end with her death?
11. How does Janine and Amy's father affect the way they see themselves as girls, as teenagers, and later as women? Try to recall specific instances of their father's behavior that you think had an impact.
Enhance Your Readers' Group
1. Use the Internet to locate and contact a local battered women's shelter or other organization devoted to helping women. Find out whether they accept donations and what they need most. Then, have members of your group collect clothing, food, and/or gently used appliances to donate.
2. Visit www.janinelatus.com and print out some of the author's articles, available on the website, to read as a group.
3. Hold a fundraiser for Amy's Courage Fund (www.amyscourage.org) or another charity devoted to stopping domestic violence. Instead of the usual bake sale, why not host a reading, inviting members of your group and other local writers to share their writing, and ask guests for a small donation?