Book Review: "Sisters in Sanity" by Gayle Forman



My daughter, remember the one with talent in this family, wrote this for the Tracy Press awhile back.


Any parents would feel as if their prayers were answered if they saw an advertisement in a magazine for a school that promised to cure their teenage daughter of whatever behavioral problem she has.

In “Sisters in Sanity,” by Gayle Forman, Brit Hemphill’s father is one of those parents — even though the real reason he sends her away is because he’s afraid she’ll follow in the footsteps of her schizophrenic mother, and not because she’s in a band called Clod and sometimes doesn’t get home until morning because of late-night gigs.

Thinking her dad is driving them to the Grand Canyon to meet up with her “step-monster” and little brother for a late-summer vacation, Brit doesn’t realize that something is wrong with this picture until he drives up to a dusty, unkempt building surrounded by barbed-wire fencing.

She demands to know what’s going on, but her father tells her a lie: He says they’re just going to look at a school, because she hasn’t been getting wonderful grades at her school and he thinks she needs help getting back to who she used to be.

No sooner does he say this than Brit realizes her dad intends to leave her at the school right then and there. Sure enough, as soon as Brit opens her car door, two security guards pull her away from the car and shove her into a claustrophobic room.

Brit is at a residential treatment center called Red Rock Academy, better called “boot camp.”

Brit is assigned to a psychiatrist, Dr. Clayton, who tells her she’s suffering from ODD — Oppositional Defiance Disorder. The diagnosis is completely false, of course, because any normal teenager would have the symptoms.

Dr. Clayton also informs Brit about the system at Red Rock. Every newcomer starts off in Level One, which is basically when the staff evaluates the student and the student has few privileges. The student is rewarded for good behavior and compliance by being moved up to Level Two, where she has more privileges. In all, there are six levels, and just as a student can move up a level for behaving well, a student can also be moved down one level or more for unsatisfactory behavior.

Here’s an overview of how the Red Rock system works: Level One students must remain in their pajamas in an isolated room with constant supervision; they eat and complete their schoolwork in this room and can’t leave except for individual therapy and to use the bathroom. Level Twos are allowed to attend group therapy, eat meals outside their rooms and receive mail from family members. Level Threes live in a shared room, attend class, send and receive mail and have more activities available to them. Level Fours can wear makeup and receive preapproved phone calls. Level Fives can have family visits and go on organized town outings. Level Sixes are allowed to lead therapy groups, supervise new students, go off campus and, finally, return home after completing their level.

The whole level system made me think of Red Rock as cruel, unjust and not unlike a demented, video-game-like reality.

Among the superb, conducive-to-healing activities at Red Rock is “confrontational therapy,” during which girls are forced to supposedly face their issues by forming a circle. Inside the circle is a girl, chosen by a counselor to be in the hot seat, whose fellow inmates berate her for her issues and scream insults at her; the only result of this sadistic therapy is tears.

Another feel-good activity, as pointless as it is unproductive, is building cinder block walls in the quarry and then knocking them down, while baking in the Utah heat. The only upside to this so-called physical therapy is that it’s the only time the girls can talk to each other unabashedly without fearing eavesdroppers.

During her time stacking cinder blocks, Brit learns from several friendly girls more information about Red Rock. The weathered veteran Level-Sixer, Virginia, called “V,” tells her that girls at Red Rock fall into several broad categories. However, none of the girls sent to Red Rock have made serious offenses, just minor ones; otherwise, the staff would have more trouble than it’d be worth to keep them there. Also, girls can be stuck at the boot camp until they’re 18 if they’re rich, but, if they’re not, they’ll be shuffled out of Red Rock after three months, which is when insurance stops paying for the cost.

On top of this, Brit learns that most girls are escorted to Red Rock so their parents won’t see it in all its rundown glory and that Red Rock monitors its inmates’ mail so they won’t be able to complain about the horrid conditions or send mail to anyone besides family members.

Brit and her cinder block buddies — V, Bebe, Cassie, and Martha — agree to meet weekly in an unused office, when the security guard sleeps like clockwork from 1 to 3 p.m. They deem themselves the Divinely Fabulous Ultra-Exclusive Club of the Cuckoos — or Sisters in Sanity, for short.

They use these meetings as an outlet for their frustration, to discuss whatever is on their minds, and to reveal loopholes they find in the slipshod security system. Ultimately, they use each other to help themselves remain sane in the hostile, harmful environment of Red Rock.


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