Janine Latus Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Janine Latus

Janine Latus

An interview with Janine Latus

Janine Latus talks about her book, If I Am Missing or Dead, in which she recounts both her own and her sister Amy's dealings with abusive men, that led to the death of her sister. She hopes to trigger a national discussion about domestic violence, to bring it out of the shadows in the way that Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On triggered a national discussion about AIDS.

In the book, Amy's story is interwoven with your own. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?

I thought of it as a double helix, our lives winding around each other's, connecting at family gatherings and shared crises and through the tiny threads of phone calls, letters, and cards. Our lives were so different, yet we each sought men who would give us that fiction, that shudder of excitement. By telling both of our stories I wanted to convey the spectrum of emotional and physical abuse. It's always emotional, understand. The physical is a form of control through fear, and fear is an emotion. As I point out in the book, physical abuse is not necessarily worse that emotional abuse. It's just a different shape.

Toward the end of the book, someone asks you if Amy's death has made you reconsider your divorce. You respond that it has made you "even more sure. Life's too short to be afraid." How has Amy's death changed your understanding of your own experiences?

I don't understand this question well enough to give you a good answer. If you mean has Amy's death made me even more determined to speak out for abused women, yes. If you means has Amy's death made me more aware of the preciousness of each day, yes. If you mean that because the abuse in Amy's life took the ultimate turn, am I more cautious, yes. But this isn't a question that makes me seek an answer. Sorry.

To what extent do you see If I Am Missing or Dead as a book for women who have experienced abuse? To what extent do you see it as a book for all women?

It's a book for all women, so that we can look at our own relationships and those of the women we love and speak out about whether they're loving and healthy or manipulative and controlling. Abused women will nod their heads in recognition. Other women will recognize enough bits of themselves and their relationships to feel empathy. And all women will talk, which is exactly what we need.

By the end of the book, you have become a successful writer. What role has your writing played in allowing you to recognize and move beyond the destructive relationship's described in the book?

Writing is what I do, both for a living and as a way to make sense of life. Perhaps it empowers me because I can support myself. Perhaps it makes me stronger because through writing I can define and hold on to my experiences. I don't know. I think through my fingers, so it may be that the thinking and contemplating and evaluating inherent in writing is what allowed me to see my life truthfully.

Many different kinds of abuse are depicted in the book. Do you see a common element linking the behavior of your father, Michael, Jim, Kurt, and Ron Ball?

The common links are fear and control. The man fears something and must control the woman in his life.

For you and Amy, family seems to have been the source both of great challenges and of great strength. How do you see the role your family has played in your life?

My family played a role in who I am, obviously. No two people are raised the same in an family. My siblings had more older or younger siblings than I. They were young at different points in my family's life. They brought their own temperaments and attention and expectations to each event, and therefore felt greater or lesser satisfaction. I have always tried to prove something to my family, and yet my family has always been my biggest fans. When I want support or advice, I turn to my family, even though I have feared their disapproval. As we've all become adults, we spend less time judging each other or more time just being present.

How do you see the relationship between body image and abuse, both in your own experience and in Amy's?

I don't see a relationship. Most women have body-image issues, and many women who recognize themselves as beautiful are abused. Perhaps Amy was more vulnerable because she was overweight, and perhaps I was because I never thought I was physically good enough, but if that were the standard, most women who look at magazines or models would set themselves up for abuse, and I don't think that's the case.

Describe the experience of writing this book. Were some parts particularly difficult or easy? What do you attribute this to?

It was easiest to write about the most intimate moments in my own life and more difficult to try to capture my sister's life truthfully. She and I both maintained facades that belied the pain in our relationships. Often I cried, even though I tried to do it discreetly, since I was in a coffee shop. When I could not contain it, I knew I had written well.

From your website, its clear that you have done a great deal of writing about many different subjects. How did writing this book compare to the writing you've done in the past?

In the past I've written mostly from the outside, from materials you could see and touch. For this book I had to dredge up my own fears and joys and experiences, which is difficult even in private. To put it on the page for thousands of people to read was hard.

What do you hope this book will accomplish?

I want to start a national conversation about abusive relationships. I want each of us to turn to our sisters and cousins and daughters and friends and talk about how healthy couples interact. In the 1980s people were dying of AIDS, and their parents were lying, saying they died of cancer or natural causes, because they were ashamed. Then Randy Shilts wrote And the Band Played On, about society's inadequate response to AIDS. He made the cover of major magazines, he was on all the talk shows, and pretty soon parents were marching in the streets, demanding that society do something about this thing that was killing their children. I want to do the same thing for domestic violence. I think only by talking about this, only by demanding change, will we make it unacceptable to belittle and hit and beat a woman. That's why I wrote this book.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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