book reviews

My review of Unbreakable by Jelena Dokic, with Jessica Halloran…

January seems to be my month for reading true stories. Early this morning, because I couldn’t sleep, I finished reading 2017’s Unbreakable, the story of tennis phenom Jelena Dokic, ghostwritten by Jessica Halloran. I bought this book a week ago and finished it in less than 48 hours. Part of the reason I finished so quickly is because I’m alone this week, but I also found it a very compelling and interesting book. I don’t follow tennis at all, and had never even heard of Jelena Dokic before I read Unbreakable. But her story interested and frustrated me on many levels. I think anyone who has ever had to deal with a controlling, narcissistic, alcoholic person will relate to it.

Who is Jelena Dokic?

Born April 12, 1983 in Croatia, which was then part of the former Yugoslavia, Jelena Dokic once played tennis with the likes of Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, and both Venus and Serena Williams. But her earliest days in Osijek, Croatia, didn’t lend a hint to the fame and fortune she would eventually attain.

Jelena Dokic’s mother is from Croatia; her father was born in Croatia, but was of Serbian descent. She was an only child until 1991, when her mother gave birth to her beloved brother, Savo. From the very beginning, Jelena adored her brother and saw herself as his protector. His birth was at the time when the Iron Curtain was falling apart, and that included Jelena’s homeland, Yugoslavia, which was really just a conglomeration of different states with different languages and cultures cobbled together.

One day, when Jelena was still very young, she and her father, Damir Dokic, were in a rowboat fishing, when they saw a body floating past. As Yugoslavia was breaking up, people from the different countries were fighting among themselves. Murders were increasingly common as the area became a war zone. The obstetrician who delivered both Jelena and her brother was murdered, prompting the family to temporarily move to Serbia. There, Jelena had to learn the Serbian language as the civil unrest and ethnic and religion based violence continued.

During those early years, Jelena’s father got the idea to see if his daughter could play tennis. Boy, could she… Jelena was a natural talent. From the age of six, she showed everyone that she was born for the game. Reluctant coaches in Serbia didn’t think she could hang with the bigger girls, but she soon proved herself a formidable player. Before she’d hit puberty, Jelena had launched what would turn into a lucrative career.

Enter “Daddy Dearest”…

Besides dealing with the violence of war and the upheaval of moving from Croatia to Serbia, Jelena’s family was poor. For some time, Jelena, her mother, and brother lived in a garden shack owned by relatives. It was rat infested and freezing cold. Meanwhile, her father and other relatives were in Croatia. Jelena’s dad, Damir, came back when it became clear that his daughter had the potential to go far in the tennis world.

The family eventually immigrated to Australia, where Jelena rose in the ranks to become a great tennis player. But she would inspire jealousy among other Aussie tennis players, who weren’t a match for her. Her entire life revolved around winning tennis matches and making money for her abusive father. Jelena’s mother, beaten down by years of abuse, aided and abetted Damir’s tyrannical behavior.

Damir Dokic had a tragically effective way of “motivating” Jelena to succeed. He drove her to train constantly, berated her, called her vile, filthy names, and when she didn’t win on the tennis court, beat her with his leather belt. Damir was also a severe alcoholic with a weakness for white wine and whiskey. He would show up to Jelena’s games rip roaring drunk, screaming at her from the sidelines. Jelena was treated like a commodity. She wasn’t allowed to have friends, and her abusive father would threaten and humiliate her constantly, even when she did well.

Still, in spite of being called names like “whore” and “cow”, and even though her father would regularly terrorize Jelena, and tell her she was a disgrace, the young tennis phenom consistently rose to the occasion. At the pinnacle of her tennis career, Jelena Dokic was ranked number four in the world. For awhile, she was unstoppable, although her father never praised Jelena for her achievements.

But sadly, before Jelena was even twenty-one years old, it all began to unravel. She went through many coaches, endured a narcissistic boyfriend, and through it all, had to face her terrifying father, who leveraged Jelena’s access to her mother and brother to get what he wanted… which was basically ALL of her money and complete control over her career.

A familiar story, yet still shocking…

As I read Jelena Dokic’s story, I was reminded of several other stories of extremely talented and successful people. A couple of years ago, I wrote a review of a book written by Verona van de Leur, a former elite gymnast from The Netherlands who eventually went to prison and then became a porn star. Like Jelena Dokic, Verona was expected to perform and achieve in her sport, mainly because her parents were leeching money from her.

I don’t believe Verona van de Leur ever made as much money as Jelena Dokic did, as Jelena’s father eventually built a mansion with Jelena’s earnings, complete with a wine cellar and stables. He made her agree to keep sending him payments of $200,000, as well as most of her other earnings. Jelena’s father also forced her to sign over her rights to a house paid for with money she won. Naturally, she was also expected to pay the taxes on her winnings, which she soon couldn’t do as she stopped winning. Not winning meant making much less money playing tennis.

I was also reminded of Dominique Moceanu, an American former elite gymnast of Romanian descent, whose father abused her in order to motivate her to achieve. I remember how adorable Dominique was in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. I didn’t know, at that time, the price she was paying to be at the top of her game in gymnastics. I read and reviewed Dominique’s book, too.

Finally, Jelena’s crazy abuse story reminded a bit of Tina Turner, and her story of being mentored by her ex husband, the late Ike Turner. Although Tina is known for being a great singer, she shared the same tragic fate as Jelena, Verona, and Dominique did. All of these incredibly gifted and talented women basically served as “golden geese” for abusive men who exploited and terrorized them to get money and power from them.


As compelling as Unbreakable is, I have to admit, I found it a frustrating read. Jelena Dokic was caught in a terrible abuse cycle. Over and over again, her father would abuse her in almost every way. He would make her run for miles after exhausting tennis matches or in extreme heat. He would verbally abuse her and terrorize her. Or he would beat her up, kick her with his pointy toed dress shoes, or whip her with his belt. When she became an adult, she would say “enough” and try to leave. But he’d always manage to talk her into coming back for more abuse.

Ditto to other abusers in Jelena’s life. She had a tennis coach who took advantage of her. He wasn’t very experienced in the game, but he was manipulative. More than once, Jelena tried to get rid of him, only to take him back later. She had an abusive, controlling boyfriend of the same ilk who was hard to shake.

On a conscious level, I understand that Jelena was trapped in a cycle of abuse. She was coping the only way she knew how. She didn’t have much help from other people, even though some had seen evidence of her father’s telltale abuse. Jelena was a valuable commodity to a lot of men, and I guess it was easier to allow the blatant terrorism to continue, rather than do something about it. I have had experience with an abusive alcoholic father myself, so I do have an inkling of what Jelena was facing. My dad wasn’t as bad as Jelena’s dad is, either. But still, it was frustrating to read about this very talented and successful woman being horrifically abused, and nothing being done about it. It’s pretty shameful, actually. Fortunately, the story ends well.

Jelena Dokic makes a comeback.


I think Jessica Halloran did a fine job writing this book. It’s in the historical present tense, which is kind of different. I never got the sense that I wasn’t reading this book from the source, though, which is a good thing. There are some photos included, too.

Like I mentioned up post, I don’t really follow tennis at all. I’m not into sports. But I could relate to and empathize with Jelena Dokic’s story in Unbreakable. It sounds like she’s gotten her life back on track, as she now works as a tennis coach and motivational speaker in Australia. Jelena’s story is horrific at times, but ultimately, she’s triumphed.

Yes, it took a long time for Jelena Dokic to get to where she is… and that may frustrate some readers, who will see her making the same mistakes repeatedly. I notice some comments on Amazon are about how Jelena didn’t ask for help and/or denied the abuse, and the stories of abuse became “tedious” and “repetitive”.

I think it’s helpful to remember that people who are caught up in abuse don’t have the benefit of clarity. They have been conditioned to accept bad treatment from their abusers, who isolate them and swear them to secrecy by using shame, violence, and fear for other loved ones. In Jelena’s case, it was her beloved brother who served as a bargaining chip. If she didn’t cooperate with her father, she would lose contact with Savo. When abuse victims are in that kind of a bind, it can be especially difficult to break free from tyranny. Yes, it’s frustrating to watch obvious abuse when it happens, but getting away from abuse and “stepping out of the F.O.G.” is legitimately hard.

In any case, I think Unbreakable is worth reading. I’d give it four stars out of five.

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book reviews

Once an elite gymnast, prisoner, and porn star, now she’s Simply Verona…

I don’t remember how I first heard about former Dutch elite gymnast Verona van de Leur. I like watching women’s gymnastics, but I quit being a regular viewer a long time ago. I certainly never followed Dutch gymnasts. I don’t think they were regularly featured in the United States, anyway. But somehow, I was clued in to Verona van de Leur’s rather sordid story of leaving gymnastics only to wind up living in her car for two years, doing a stint in a Dutch prison, and becoming porn purveyor, and I decided that I needed to read her book, Simply Verona: Breaking All the Rules. This book was published in March of this year. I found it a fascinating, but very long and involved read.

In 2002, Verona van de Leur was at the top of the Dutch gymnastics scene. She was named Dutch sportswoman of the year in 2003.

Verona van de Leur, born in Gouda, South Holland, and named after the Italian city, was a gymnastics natural. She and her younger sister, Denise, both studied the discipline, but it was very obvious that Verona was born to tumble. According to her book, Verona van de Leur’s parents were very much invested in her career, and they shamed her whenever she didn’t win medals. As Verona got better and better at the sport, they and her original coach, Frank Luther, demanded more of her. One would think that a woman so gifted at a sport would want to do it, but Verona got to the point at which she hated gymnastics, despite her talent. She was forced to work out constantly, deny herself food that she loved, and submit to abuse from her parents and coaches.

Verona on the balance beam…

Naturally, the goal was for Verona to reach the Olympic Games. She met many wonderful gymnasts on the way up, including the great Romanian gymnast, Andreea Raducan, whose book I reviewed. Unfortunately, she suffered a very serious injury in Greece when a vault went horribly wrong. That vault was the beginning of her downward spiral. She very badly injured her foot and it was not properly cared for at the time. She continued to train even when she was seriously hurt because her parents and her coach wanted her to compete in the 2004 Olympics. Sadly, she missed those Games due to the injury not being properly tended to when it first happened. Verona changed coaches, exchanging The Netherlands’ top coach, Frank Luther, for a Russian coach named Boris Orlov. Boris was a better coach for her, but Verona still never made it to the Olympics.

Verona helps put the Dutch team on the map, although this particular routine had an unfortunate break.

As she struggled to recover from the serious injury, she grew to like gymnastics less and less. She was also getting older and more interested in life outside of the gym. She wanted to date. Her parents weren’t on board with letting her have that freedom, even as she became an adult. When she made noises about wanting to quit gymnastics, her parents would react with rage. Verona had a sponsor who paid her, and her parents were handling –or should I say mishandling— her money. In 2008, she finally did walk away from gymnastics. Her parents reacted by throwing her out of the house and disowning her.

A beautifully done vault.

Verona met a guy named Robbie on the Internet. He had a criminal past. Verona’s parents disapproved of him, which helped them decide to toss away their daughter. They were very resolute about their decision to throw her away, to the point of not even letting her see her grandmother or giving her a winter coat. Verona had to sneak around to see her grandma, who would sometimes slip her some money. Verona and Robbie were forced to live in a car for two years. They had to scrounge for every euro cent, and there were times when they didn’t even have enough to pay for a piss at the train station.

Verona ended up having to sue her parents because they had illegally taken her money and squandered it. Originally, she was awarded 1300 euros and the right to take her personal belongings, to include a laptop computer, which her father scrubbed clean before it was given to her. Verona bought a camera and one day, desperate from her situation, she caught a woman cheating on her husband. In a moment of impetuousness, Verona tried to blackmail the woman for 1,000 euros.

Meanwhile, Robbie, who is half Indonesian, was racially profiled while they were playing softball at a park. He had a criminal record and was carrying a bat, so someone at the park called the police, who arrested the couple. Verona was so flexible that she was able to get out of the police car while handcuffed. Not long after that arrest, the two were arrested again for Verona’s unsuccessful attempt to blackmail the adulterous couple she happened to catch on film. She spent 72 days in prison, as officials tried to also prosecute her for child porn, which was never actually found on her computer. It was scrubbed clean of data by her father, who had it in his possession when the porn was supposedly put there. Her description of the Dutch judicial system was very intriguing to me. I felt sad for her having gotten into this predicament, especially after she was used by her family. Verona eventually got a 90,000 euro settlement from her parents, which was paid in monthly installments. It wasn’t enough to live on, but it did help her move out of the car.

Verona tried to turn her life around by teaching gymnastics clinics and working with children. But when the news came out about her legal problems, none of the gyms wanted to work with her. She couldn’t find work, and therefore couldn’t get back to a life of “respectability”. So then she turned to the adult Web site industry, which turned out to be her permanent ticket out of poverty.

Verona van de Leur’s story is amazing, although it took me a long time to get through her book. It’s basically well written, though there are times when I can tell that English isn’t her native language. I also noticed that she has a tendency to use Internetisms like “LOL”. A good editor would have counseled her against that, although maybe it makes her more relatable to younger people.

I was actually kind of moved by her words about the people she met while working in porn. I have some experience with that world myself. Years ago, I used to be in an online community for people who enjoyed BDSM. It was not something I experimented with a lot, but I did get to know people who were into it. Most of them were perfectly normal people who were just a bit kinky. Some were very good people, with good hearts. I had some fantastic conversations with a lot of them and entertained some of them by writing erotica. In any case, Verona ended up making friends with people who were enchanted by her pay Web site. One user was a guy who had a rare disease that had killed his mother. Because of his illness, he’d never had much of a sex life, but he was a very kind person. Verona got to know him because he was a regular on her site. Sadly, he did pass away, and she was very much affected by it, even though he’d been a “customer”.

Dutch pop inspired by Verona van de Leur… wonder what Verona’s parents think now. She is still estranged from them over ten years later.

The porn industry helped Verona earn enough money to get out of the dire financial situation she was in. She is now on her feet, having spent a year and a half writing Simply Verona. She has learned from others in the adult sex industry, but she’s also gotten to know musicians and artists, having inspired Ellen ten Damme to write a song about her. She quit the adult film industry in November 2019. However, she still uses her pole dancing skills, as you can see in the above video.

I enjoyed reading Verona van de Leur’s story. She has really led a fascinating life with many twists and turns. If I weren’t in Germany, I’m not sure I would have heard of her… but I will definitely recommend her book. It’s very much an eye opener, that proves that gymnastics is a pretty tough sport wherever you are.

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