Breathing Underwater Summary

Alex Flinn's 2001 novel Breathing Underwater examines the issue of domestic abuse through Nick Andreas, an abused teenage boy who in turn abuses his girlfriend.

  • Breathing Underwater opens with Nick being court ordered to attend therapy and complete mandatory journaling after beating his ex-girlfriend Caitlin.
  • Nick initially refuses to admit that he was abusive toward Caitlin, finding ways to justify his behavior to himself and others.
  • Through group therapy and the process of journaling, Nick realizes that he abused Caitlin just as his own father abused him. Armed with this knowledge, Nick resolves to change his behavior and end the cycle of abuse.


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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1306

Breathing Underwater is a story about mistakes, abuse, and redemption. The novel opens as Nick Andreas, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, is in court for beating up his girlfriend, Caitlin McCourt. During the hearing, Nick is dismissive of Caitlin's claims, saying she invented them to get back at him for breaking up with her. The judge sees through his lies and orders him to go to therapy and begin journaling. The judge also grants Caitlin a restraining order to keep Nick away from her.

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After the violent incident between Nick and Caitlin, Nick becomes an outcast at school, as former friends and classmates side with Caitlin. Tom Carter, Nick’s childhood best friend, stops speaking to him altogether. Nick misses Tom and decides to try to set his life back in order by attempting to reconcile with Tom, believing this will be a good first step toward putting things right.

As he begins to journal, Nick looks back at his life, reflecting on his interactions with his father, Caitlin, and his peers at school. He remembers the first time he noticed Caitlin at school and how he immediately knew he wanted to date her. Though he was drawn to Caitlin, Nick also felt extremely insecure around her, which made him paranoid about their relationship and constantly suspicious that she was cheating on him behind his back. Over and over, Nick accused Caitlin—both in his own mind and to her directly—of behavior he had no reason to suspect.

When Nick begins attending his court-ordered family violence course, he meets several men who are also struggling with rage and abuse issues. Their course instructor, Mario, insists that everyone in the course must learn to accept responsibility for their abusive behavior. Nick fears having to examine the deeper roots of his anger and pain, and he is determined to conceal his issues with his father from the rest of the group by pretending they have a normal and healthy relationship.

Thinking further on his relationship with Caitlin, Nick tracks how their relationship became more abusive and toxic over time. On their first date at a party, Nick beat up party crashers who insulted Caitlin, and she expressed gratitude for his protection. As time passed, however, Nick became more controlling, forcing Caitlin to stop seeing certain friends and becoming incensed when she refused to do as he said. As he continues to attend group therapy, Nick realizes that his behavior toward Caitlin followed the classic pattern of domestic abuse: he isolated her from loved ones and manipulated her emotions by mixing threats, insults, and violence with genuine acts of kindness. 

Nick begins to see the parallels between his behavior toward Caitlin and that of his father toward him. Nick's mother left when he was five, and his father is a drunk who beats and verbally abuses him. Nick goes to great pains to keep this abuse a secret from everyone in his life, but Caitlin eventually discovered the abuse when Nick stayed home one day in an attempt to hide his bruised face. Caitlin urged Nick to seek help, and even though Nick refused, this event brought them emotionally closer together.

In present day, Nick...

(The entire section contains 1306 words.)

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