It's difficult to fathom the full atrocity of what happened to Yeardley Love. In May 2010, Love, a star lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, was killed by her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely V, just weeks before graduation. She was found facedown in a bloody pillow after Huguely allegedly broke into her bedroom, shook her, and wrestled with her after a long day of drinking. Love was only 22 years old. In an instant, her potential, her promise, her future—all gone.
"Yeardley was extremely kind to everyone. She was caring, she was so much fun, and she lit up the room when she came in," says her mother, Sharon Love, who lives in Baltimore. "If she had lived, she would have blossomed and done so much good in the world. But she never got the opportunity."
It's perhaps the most high-profile example of young love gone wrong since 2009, when pop star Chris Brown attacked his then-girlfriend Rihanna while en route to the Grammys. Photos emerged showing Rihanna's battered face: heavy welts above her eyes, scratch marks around her mouth and on her cheeks, a bruised lip. The incident changed both of their lives, personally and professionally.
Love's and Rihanna's are just two of countless stories; millions of others go untold. One in every three women will experience relationship violence at some point in her life, and one in every five college females will be abused while pursuing a degree. About 4.8 million women are victimized by their partners every year, with 18-to-24-year-olds reporting the highest rates of abuse. "It's very striking," says Jacquelyn Campbell, a professor with the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing who has studied domestic violence for more than 20 years. "Young people are just starting to figure out how to have an intimate relationship, and there's lots of turmoil in the adolescent years. We're trying to feel connected and have relationships, but at the same time, we're not exactly sure how to do that." Though college drinking may fuel the fire, it doesn't cause people to be violent; treatment for a substance abuse problem, for example, won't resolve violence issues.
Campbell is on the advisory committee of the One Love Foundation, established by Sharon Love and Yeardley's sister, Lexie, 28. The women began speaking out on the tragedy in August, after Huguely, 25, was sentenced to 23 years in prison. (Last week, his attorneys announced they would be appealing his second-degree murder conviction.) "We knew we had to do something in Yeardley's memory, to prevent this from happening to another family," Sharon says. "Lexie and I felt like the attitude toward domestic violence was somewhat nonchalant, and we wanted to address that. When we first found out about Yeardley, so much focus was put on signs the parents and friends should look for, and absolutely no attention was on the perpetrator. It was like he didn't even exist. We'd like to turn the focus back on him—if you can stop him, it'll stop domestic violence." She likens it to a drunk driver who swerves all over the road; yet, everyone focuses on telling nearby drivers how to avoid him, rather than addressing the drunk person himself. "That's how things are right now with relationship violence," says Sharon. "The burden is on the person who is abused to handle it, not on stopping the abuser himself."
While Sharon is throwing herself into her advocacy work, she acknowledges that it's challenging at times. Thinking and talking about abusive relationships on a daily basis is a constant reminder of the tragic way she lost her youngest daughter. "At times it's hard to be immersed in it," she says. "But on the other hand, I'm doing it for Yeardley. It's something I cannot not do."
Awareness, she says, is the first step toward helping others avoid her daughter's fate—and she drives home that "one in every three" very well could mean you. "Stats don't always have much of an impact, because you think you're not going to be one of them," says Sharon. "But at the trial, one out of every three people in jury selection had been touched by relationship violence in some way. And there could have been others who didn't admit it. It was shocking. It's still an underground process, and we want to bring it into the light."