Breathing Underwater: Book Summary & Themes

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

'Breathing Underwater' is a contemporary young adult novel telling the story of Nick and Caitlin and their volatile relationship. In this lesson, learn how Nick discovers that one negative action springing from his own abuse and fear can change everything and cause pain for all involved.


Sixteen-year-old Nick Andreas seems at first to have everything: money, friends, good grades, and a beautiful, devoted girlfriend. Sounds perfect right? But soon into the plot of this young adult novel, the reader learns that Nick has more problems than he can handle. His father is cold and abusive, and his girlfriend Caitlin is kept at his side only by Nick's own controlling behavior.

Format of the Novel

Breathing Underwater is partially an epistolary novel, told in the form of letters or diary entries. In this instance, Nick keeps a private journal at the order of the judge who convicted him of domestic violence and sentenced him to attend male non-violence classes.

Nick Goes to Court

What Nick tells in his journal is the story of how he and Caitlin met and the downhill history of their relationship.

Other sections, clearly labeled and printed in a different font, let the reader experience the classes Nick attends with other offenders and his painful rejection at school because of his violent behavior. In the end, the story lines are tied together, as Nick learns to know himself, stand up to his father, and move on to a more mentally healthy way of approaching relationships.

The Structure of Domestic Violence

Readers who have no experience with domestic violence may find it difficult to understand why Nick treats Caitlin the way he does. If you love someone, why would you insult them, keep them from doing things they love, and even physically hurt them? This novel does an excellent job of getting into the psychological world of abusers and their victims. As in Nick's case, abused children often become abusers themselves. The cycle of pain and fear continues if not stopped by tragedy, or the law, or both.

Cycle of Fear in Domestic Violence
cycle of fear

Counseling in the Novel

At the beginning of his sentence, Nick resists the idea of a class to help him make sense of his feelings and violent impulses. He becomes friendly with one teen who drops out, and who later commits both murder and suicide because of his ongoing problems. Eventually, Nick opens up to the group facilitator and begins to understand why he has the impulse to control.

Counseling for Domestic Violence

Since the early 1980s, the Duluth Model has been the cutting edge in working with communities, victims, and offenders to change our thinking about domestic violence. Some of the concepts included in the model are consistent themes in Breathing Underwater. Strategies that offenders use to control their victims extend far beyond physical violence. Other elements are isolation, intimidation, threats, and using male privilege (the idea that men should always control women). In the course of the novel, Nick finally comes to see how these strategies have intruded into his own personality and his relationship with both his father and Caitlin.


One of the key themes in Breathing Underwater is the difficulty of recognizing one's own motivations. Nick and his entire crowd seem to float along on a cloud of privilege and prosperity until the reality of domestic violence is brought into the open by Nick's restraining order and sentence. Still not understanding the underlying issues, Nick's friends, including his best friend Tom, have trouble accepting and forgiving until the very end of the plot.

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