It was a clear, cool evening on Saturday, September 30, 1972, when Twinkle Rudberg, BA’56, and her husband Daniel left their Westmount home together for the last time. They were driving to have dinner with friends in downtown Montreal when they saw a barefoot boy leap from the back seat of a parked car and assault an elderly woman.
Daniel Rudberg stopped their car, jumped out and helped the dazed victim to her feet. Then he chased the 14-year-old purse snatcher into some nearby bushes. The two struggled, the teen pulled out a knife and within minutes, Daniel Rudberg – husband, father, good samaritan – was dead. He was 38.
Twinkle Rudberg thought her own life had ended. She was very angry about what had happened, but, surprisingly, not at the lonely boy who had killed her husband. During the teen’s preliminary hearing and trial, she learned that he was from a broken home, had turned to drugs, joined a gang and run away from his home in the United States before coming to Montreal. His violent act was apparently in imitation of something he had seen on television. “The boy who murdered my husband was also a victim,” she says. Despite her shock and pain, she quickly realized that she had a choice to make: she could either live the rest of her life as a victim or use her newfound awareness of the devastating impact of youth violence to try to spare others from the anguish. For her, prevention was the only answer. “Otherwise what happened to me was without meaning,” she says.
“Taking a hard line doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t benefit humanity.” So she set up the Daniel Rudberg Fund for research into adolescent and child psychiatry soon after her husband’s death. She credits her “very strong (99-year-old) mother” for raising her to deal with difficult situations and then keep going.
“I think that was part of my upbringing, to move on,” Rudberg says. And she did move on, but it was 20 years before she was finally able to speak publicly about her husband’s murder for the first time. She was touched by the actions of 13-year-old Quebecer Virginie Larivière, who in 1992 launched a campaign against violence on television after her sister was raped and strangled. And that encouraged Rudberg to break her own silence. Her story appeared on the front page of the Montreal Gazette on September 30, 1992. She discovered, however, that talking about the impact of violence wasn’t enough.
“Dan’s murder was influenced by a television program,” Rudberg says. “But I realized I was fighting a giant and I didn’t want to become an activist because it wasn’t helping the kids.” So she founded Leave Out ViolencE (L.O.V.E.) in 1993. Each year about 20 teenagers aged 13-21 who are either victims or perpetrators of violence are recruited from Montreal schools or referred by social workers, counsellors or teachers to participate in the group’s twice-weekly, after-school photojournalism program. Held at Dawson College, it brings together teenage victims of violence, perpetrators and witnesses to examine the causes of violence, its impact and how to prevent it.
Recent incidents like the murder in November 1997 of Victoria teenager Reena Virk and the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Taber, Alberta, have focused public attention on the growing problem of youth violence, and many are pointing a finger at violent television as a major culprit. That’s too simplistic, says Dr. Klaus Minde, DipPsych’65, psychiatrist-in-chief of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “We should not imagine that having less violence on television will do away with all kinds of social ills,” he warns. What teens really need, he adds, is a place where they are listened to, their opinions are valued and they can be taught appropriate ways to handle conflict and anger.
If they aren’t getting that at home, there are few other places where they can. According to the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of the Child, 70% of the funds that the Canadian government gives to the provinces for youth justice is spent on custody. With rising public demand for tougher penalties for young offenders it’s likely that even less money will be available to spend on prevention programs or alternative approaches.
Minde says being attracted to violent television is a manifestation of a problem, not the cause of it. “The tendency of children who are unhappy and angry is to select television programs that fit their own inner life and they see it as a guide for their own behaviour.”
Factors that can contribute to children’s unhappiness and anger include child abuse, neglect, exposure to violence at home, poor parental care or lack of social skills, Minde says. He described studies where young subjects are shown a videotape depicting two children helping each other, a second one with a neutral situation and a third one where two kids are angry. Most children can correctly identify what is happening in each of the three videos, says Minde. However, subjects with violent tendencies perceive neutral situations as a prelude to a fight and believe that they therefore have to act first. “They have a distorted view of what the world is about and don’t see things as they really are,” Minde explains. When a problem arises, they are reluctant to make any compromises because they believe that “if I give a little bit he will take everything and I will have nothing.”
Participants in the L.O.V.E. program are given the opportunity to speak out about violence in their lives, says Dawson College photography instructor Stan Chase. “We give them a place to deal with their experiences through writing and taking pictures.” While one group of teens spends time learning photography with Chase, the other works on their writing with program director and Concordia University journalism professor Brenda Zosky Proulx. It’s here that teens write powerful stories about the violence that surrounds them. “Sitting on the floor, surrounded by light, or next to the photo lab is where some of the best writing happens,” Proulx says.
By the end of the year participants are able to take pictures, develop film and print contact sheets, Chase says. “They’re usually doing the same work as a first-year college student,” he observes. “These are kids that are labelled underachievers, but when you see what they produce for us, they’re definitely not underachievers.” The result is L.O.V.E. Works! a poignant collection of photographs, essays and poems by 58 teens from the program’s photojournalism project. Edited by Proulx and released by Stoddart Publishing Co. in 1998, it’s dedicated to the memory of Daniel Rudberg and to youth who are affected by violence on a daily basis.
Julia, 19, who joined L.O.V.E. about three years ago, was one of those young people. She had been placed in a group home after rebelling, frequently running away from her family, stealing a car and doing drugs. She was raped at the age of 14 by an acquaintance at whose home she had sought refuge. It was within the accepting and respectful environment of L.O.V.E. that Julia was able to turn her life around. “I would drag my feet going home,” she recalls. Today, the affable blonde lives with her family and credits the program and having found God for setting her straight. Now she spreads the gospel about L.O.V.E. and the effects of violence on society to students at Montreal schools as part of the organization’s outreach team. Accompanied by staff member Maureen Labreche, teams of four students visit the same classroom three times over a one- to two-week period. During the first session they talk about L.O.V.E., show students 20-25 photographs taken by participants in the photography program and discuss their significance. Then team members share their own experiences. “It’s so powerful that there’s not a dry eye in the house afterwards,” Labreche says. “That’s why this program works.”
The key to its success goes beyond the power of the message. It’s the messenger who really matters. Julia thinks that having teens talking to teens makes a big difference. “It’s the first time students see people their own age rather than adults condescendingly talking about violence,” she says. Daniel Guinta, 16, agrees. He joined Leave Out ViolencE a year ago after participants came to speak at his school. “I could relate to them because they were my age,” he says. Six months later, the articulate high school student joined the outreach team.
The second visit focuses on writings about violence. Labreche writes some unfinished sentences on the blackboard to encourage students to write about their own experiences with violence. They include “I am worried about violence because I remember when…” and “We are having trouble with youth violence because we don’t….” Elementary school students can also opt to write a letter to their parents. “Sometimes I die inside from the things I read,” Labreche says. “They have experienced a lot of violence in their families.” Students can be put in touch with support services, if they are interested in getting help.
For the final session, students listen to some popular music, mostly rap, to discuss the violent lyrics the songs contain. They are also shown a video about the level of violence displayed in the media. Then students are invited to join L.O.V.E.
The seeds of Twinkle Rudberg’s philosophy about handling tragedy are perhaps evident in the quote she chose for her entry in the Old McGill yearbook. “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.” When asked if she recalled why she had chosen that particular passage, she responds with a puzzled “I have no idea,” but she recognizes an eerie connection between the words from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the work she is now doing. “I chose to take something that happened to me that was hell and turn it into something positive – and we’re doing the same thing with kids,” she says. Starting in January, she will be able to extend the photojournalism project to youth in Halifax and Vancouver, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Millennium Bureau of Canada. “Our millennium project is to have 2,000 L.O.V.E. youth across Canada be spokespeople for the elimination of youth violence,” Rudberg says. A franco-phone program was launched in Montreal this summer and one has been operating in Toronto since 1997. But Rudberg doesn’t plan to stop there. She says the shootings in Colorado and Alberta have made her more determined than ever to make Leave Out ViolencE available to as many teens as possible. It is important to empower young people, she says, for it is they who will provide the answers to stemming the tide of youth violence. “I don’t think adults alone can make a difference here. We have to listen to our youth and let them tell us what has to be done.”