Breathing Underwater

by Alex Flinn
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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 misses Caitlin and attempts to contact her, violating the terms of his restraining order. In a confrontation at school, he begs her to take him back and is enraged when she doesn’t immediately agree to do so. Around this time, Nick begins to hang out with Leo, whom he met in his group therapy class. Leo stopped having to attend the group sessions after persuading his girlfriend, Neysa, to drop the assault charges against him. To fulfill his school’s community service requirement, Nick works a shift selling sodas at a carnival with Leo and Neysa; however witnessing Leo’s bullying and aggressive behavior toward Neysa makes Nick uncomfortable, and he decides not to see Leo anymore. Later that night, he thinks back to his relationship with Caitlin, wondering if he treated her as badly Leo treats Neysa. 

At Nick’s next group therapy session, Mario is obviously agitated and upset, though no one knows why. Nick wonders if it might have to do with Leo, as Leo left him several frantic messages over the weekend after Neysa apparently left him. Nick ignored the messages, no longer wanting anything to do with Leo. Mario is called into another room by his receptionist. The other group members leave when it appears that Mario isn’t coming back, but Nick stays, thinking back to the day he and Caitlin broke up. Mario eventually reenters the room and tells Nick that Leo killed Neysa and then committed suicide. Nick is horrified and sprints out the door, disgusted by the terrible realization that the same thing could have easily happened with him and Caitlin. 

Nick thinks back to his last terrible fight with Caitlin. She had defied his order to not participate in the school talent show, and when she performed a romantic song for him up on stage, Nick became enraged, imagining that she was trying to humiliate him. After the performance, he beat Caitlin severely, only stopping when Tom discovered them in the parking lot and knocked Nick unconscious.

Still reeling from the news of Neysa's death, Nick calls Caitlin and tries to apologize sincerely, admitting that before he didn’t fully understand how his abuse impacted her. For the first time, he doesn’t try to win her back again, admitting that he now understands that she can’t like him anymore. Caitlin hangs up on him.

On the last day of group therapy, Nick is less excited that he thought he’d be. Mario announces that the “final” exam is to answer the question “What was this class about?” Unexpectedly, Nick tells the group that he thinks the class is about “being a loser” and opens up about his father’s abuse. He explains that he internalized his father’s taunts until an inner voice was constantly telling Nick that he was a failure. Every time Caitlin defied him, this voice would appear, and Nick would take his rage out on Caitlin to drown it out. However, he now realizes that harming her is what made him a loser. Nick asks Mario how to stop the voice, and Mario explains that none of them will ever be able to accept or trust the love of another person until they learn to believe in and respect themselves. Mario then reveals that he, too, was once an abuser and was ordered to take a class like the one they’re in now. He retook the class again and again until he became an instructor, which is when the voice in his own head finally stopped.

Nick announces that he now understands what the class has really been about—being "a man." Being a man is not about physical strength, says Nick, but about doing the right thing and taking responsibility for your actions, even when you desperately don’t want to. Mario tells Nick that he has “passed the test”; however, Nick approaches him after class and asks if he can retake the class again. Before leaving, Nick asks Mario to read his journal and they hug. That night, Nick finally finds the courage to stand up to his father and refuses to let him hit again.

Nick and Caitlin never reconcile, and she moves away to attend a school for performing arts and pursue her dream of being a singer. Before leaving, she confides in Tom about the abuse that Nick suffered at his father's hands and says she thinks Nick is changing for the better. Shocked that his friend never told him what he was going through, Tom approaches Nick, and the two begin the slow process of repairing their friendship.

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