Amber Smith on How the Cycle of Abuse Shaped The Last to Let Go

Amber Smith on How the Cycle of Abuse Shaped The Last to Let Go

Earlier this winter, we named Amber Smith’s sophomore novel, The Last to Let Go, as one of the must-read books of the season. This young adult book introduces readers to Brooke Winters, a high school junior coming to terms with the fact that her mother murdered her abusive father. Here, Smith shares how she wove her own experiences of grief into the story and discusses the importance of understanding and stopping the cycle of abuse.

I always try to write books that share a message I needed as a young person. I ask myself which lessons were hard for me to learn when I was growing up. Domestic violence is an issue I hold close to my heart, and it’s one that has impacted people who are very close to me. One of the things I wanted to explore in The Last to Let Go is how the cycle of abuse happens. The Last to Let Go tells the story of a girl named Brooke, who, along with her siblings, is left trying to rebuild her life after her mother is arrested for killing her abusive father.

I had been working on this story for about six or seven months—getting to know the characters and doing a lot of research, talking with friends and loved ones about their experiences. I had finally steeled my nerves and was ready to power through this emotional subject when a personal loss brought my writing to a complete halt: My father died.

I did not touch this book again for another year and a half. During that time a lot happened: I sold my debut novel The Way I Used to Be, I moved, I got a new job, and I worked on several other projects. All the while, this book was in the back of my mind, but I was convinced I would never return to it. Something was holding me back—I wasn’t sure I could write about a father dying so soon after my own had passed away.

It was while I was preparing to submit a proposal for my next book that I found myself torn between a couple different ideas. As I wavered between them, I received an important message—a friend directed me to the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, “Till Death Do Us Part” from South Carolina’s Post and Courier. The article was about domestic violence, particularly the failure of the justice system for victims and families affected by this kind of abuse. Not only was it powerful and heartbreaking, it made clear that domestic violence is truly an epidemic in our society. The article felt like a sign from the universe—telling me that I was ready, at last, to return to this story.

However, I quickly discovered that I was not the same person anymore, and the story was not going to be the same either. My grief over the death of my father ended up shaping this book in ways I could not have foreseen when I first started working on it two years earlier. I felt like I had gained the emotional depth and clarity I needed to portray this family with honesty and vulnerability.

The entire focus of the book shifted away from the drama surrounding the crime and trying to unravel the uncertainty of what happened between the parents, to the internal psychological and emotional journeys of the kids. I wanted to explore the challenges of facing the loss of a parent—their father at the hands of their mother, their mother at the hands of the justice system—but what I learned from my own experience is that there is another layer to the grieving process when the relationship with the parent was troubled. There is a dynamic to that kind of grief that requires introspection and delving into a sometimes painful personal history. Even more complicated is the fact that the grieving child can’t go back and ask the parent for the answers that are suddenly so needed; they must find them on their own.

I also wanted this book to underline the lingering effects of abuse on young people’s growth and identity, because the sad truth is that children jeopardized by domestic violence face the possibility of continuing the cycle of abuse in their own lives. I hoped to explore not only how this happens, but how it is stopped—the strength it takes to tap into the heart and mind’s potential for change. We follow the characters as they come to understand the meaning of love—what does it look and feel like, what are its limits and parameters? This struggle affects each of them in different ways, with significant consequences.

The Last to Let Go was inspired not by one real-life story but many. Every minute, 24 people become the victim of domestic or intimate partner violence—affecting 12 million people in the United States every year. Domestic violence is often referred to as one of the most “predictable and preventable” crimes, yet there is still so much silence, stigma, shame, and misunderstanding surrounding this kind of abuse. Although this book is fictional, what I hope it illuminates is that behind every statistic are real people with real lives and real struggles. The cycle of abuse can be extremely difficult to break free from; leaving is never simple or easy.

After the death of my own father, I was brought into an arena of introspection and questioning that led me to understand some of my own dysfunctional patterns and habits. I wanted to infuse this novel with that emotional journey, to show the transformative power of learning how to love oneself and others in healthy ways, how to find strength in pain, hope in times of darkness, and how to—if necessary—let go.

Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know needs help identifying or escaping from an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) or chat with them online.

Amber Smith grew up in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her two dogs. After graduating from art school with a BFA in painting, she earned her MA in art history. When she’s not writing, she is working as a curator and art consultant. She has also written on the topics of art history and modern and contemporary art. She is the author of The Way I Used to Be and The Last to Let Go.

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