Mar 27, 2009

What it Takes to Pull me Through by David L. Marcus

For the Try Something New Mini-Challenge, Chris sent me What It Takes to Pull me Through, a book about teenagers in trouble. David L. Marcus is a journalist who spent over a year following a group of teens at the Swift River Academy, a therapeutic boarding school where teens were sent so they could be helped through problems like drug abuse, eating disorders or depression, among others. He focused on a small group of teens in particular, all from very different backgrounds and experiencing different problems, and he wrote about their lives and their reactions to the therapeutic program.

Before you read the rest of this post, you should read Chris’ review of this book. Chris is a lot more knowledgeable about these topics than I am – he’s an actual counselour who especially likes working with teens, while me, well, I’m someone who gave up psychology just as her internship was about to begin and never looked back.

That's actually one of the reasons why this book was outside my comfort zone. I hadn’t read anything to do with psychology in over four years. But Chris told me that this book was more of a personal story than a theoretical book, and he was right. He was also right about the fact that it almost reads like fiction at times – I was completely involved in these kids' stories and I had a hard time putting the book down. Without further ado, here are my answers to the questions Chris asked me:

1. Since this is all about trying something new, what did you think of this type of book?
You know, I’m not even sure what type this book belongs to, but I know I certainly liked it enough to want to read something else of its kind. I remember you describing it as a sort of therapeutic school memoir, and other than being third person, that’s exactly right. Since I mostly already answered this question in my intro, I’ll leave it at that.

2. Did you have a favorite "character"?
My favourites were Tyrone and D.J. They were the ones I felt closer to. While most of the other kids ended up at Swift River for going out and doing drugs, having lots of unprotected sex, being aggressive etc., those two were more the quiet, nerdy type.

Tyrone had been depressed for a very long time. He’d get up in the morning and pretend to get ready for school. Then he'd walk around the block until his mother left for work, and go back home and stay in bed all day. He’d delete the school’s call saying he’d been absent from the answering machine before his mother got home, and so this situation went on for over a year before she found out.

As for D.J, he was sent to Swift River after he ran away from home. He was one of the youngest kids in the school, if not the youngest ( he was fourteen), and when he arrived he didn’t seem to be able to pinpoint what was wrong. It turns out that his parents’ refusal to acknowledge that the fact that he was adopted might bother him was a problem, as was the fact that he was tired of being known as ADD kid.

3. What did you think of the counselor's method of helping the kids? Did you think it was effective?
Some things I liked; others not so much. I liked the fact that a lot of what was done at the school was meant to teach the kids to be honest with themselves. Some of them were in grave need of that. And with that honesty eventually came acceptance.

I didn’t like the fact that the school sometimes seemed to be unnecessarily authoritative. They came up with arbitrary rules that were implemented just for the sake of making them follow rules. Or with rules that had a reason for existing, but about whose benefits I have some doubts.

I’ll give you an example: when two people, like Tyrone and D.J., were getting close and socializing mostly with each other, they’d put them on a ban. This means that they could no longer spend any time together, and so they were force to go out and socialize with other people. I understand what they were trying to do with that, but I also think that some people are naturally more comfortable with having a small number of close friends rather than a larger group of people they’re friendly with. Trying to force them to act otherwise will only make them uncomfortable, and will probably not even achieve much. And I don’t see why option b) has to be “healthier” or more desirable than option a).

Another thing that bothered me was that Rudy Bentz, the director of the program, didn’t always seem to give teens the credit they deserved. I was seriously annoyed when he gave Gennarose, the kid’s English teacher, trouble for using Heart of Darkness in class. According to him,“a teacher simply couldn’t have bunch of Swift River Kids, many of whom had endured their own heart of darkness for years, reach such a gruesome, upsetting book without the guidance of a trained counsellor.

Seriously? Someone who says something like this simply cannot have any clue about what literature is or what it does. I was very happy that Gennarose stood her ground.

4. Did anything surprise you about the book?
I was surprised that David L. Marcus was completely invisible in the book. We know that he was there all along for fourteen months, but in the book there are no references to his presence, other than the obvious fact that if he hadn’t been there there would have been no book. On the one hand, I understand why he did this. His invisibility makes the reader feel closer to the kids, since there is no intermediary. But on the other hand, you have to wonder what his influence was. He is bond to have had some. How did the kids react to the fact that a book was being written about them? We are never told.

5. What did you love?
I loved that I grew to really care about the whole group. I loved that rather than labelling these kids, the author shows what happened in their lives to make them act and feel the way they do. We feel that what we are seeing are real teenagers, really people, rather than “clinical cases”, and I really appreciate that.

6. Anything that you hated?
Well, hate is probably too strong a word, and this is a problem with Swift River rather than with the book, but I sometimes felt that their approach was too normative; that they had this model of what a “well-adjusted teen” was like that the kids would ideally become more and more like. And there are mentions of things like “internet addiction” or “oppositional defiant disorder”, both of which bother me a lot.

I of course see why a teen skipping school and doing nothing but be online all day is a problem, but I would argue that the internet is not the cause of the problem. If the same teen was doing nothing but watch TV all day, would they label it “TV addiction”? Probably not, because TV is more socially acceptable. I know that this mistrust of the internet is beginning to disappear, but the book was written five years ago, and that was more the case then than it is now. There are other things of the sort, like Tyrone constantly being told that playing Final Fantasy for hours = baaaaaaad. Skipping school to do it is bad, obviously, but why are the games themselves “destructive” if they’re not being played at the exclusion of everything else? Would he be told the same if he was spending all those hours reading instead? Reading is also a solitary activity, but it's socially perceived as being more constructive. I’d spend large amounts of time in my teens both on the internet and playing Final Fantasy, and though some might argue otherwise, I don’t think I turned out as badly as that.

I suppose I should explain about “oppositional defiant disorder” too: I can easily see that label being used as a tool of control, just like the label “hysteria” was used to control women. And in many ways, our society is still doing the same. I honestly believe that the word “disorder” is thrown around entirely too much.

7. How likely are you to read more about this subject now?
More likely than I was before, that’s for sure. I’m very interested in teenagers, and though I usually read about them in fiction, I’m open to trying non-fiction too. And this book is a good example of how rewarding that can be. Even though there’s a lot in traditional psychology that I have problems with, books like this make me think. They inform me and help me articulate my own positions, and I like that a lot.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the very first page of the book:
Adolescence has always been turbulent, but it is more complicated today than it was just a couple of generations ago. An extensive study published in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly one in five children and adolescents suffer from some sort of behavioural or emotional illness—nearly triple the level of twenty years before. Another study found that the onset of bipolar disorder, one called maniac depression, has fallen from the early thirties to the late teens. At the same time, the number of young people in America who committed suicide tripled over thirty years before levelling off in the 1990s.
More than about “kids these days”, I think this says something about society, its expectations about young people, and its definition of “illness”.


  1. This book sounds fascinating. I love the way you did the review.

  2. Fantastic review Nymeth :D You make me want to go read it all over again. I forgot about a lot of these kids...especially DJ...I wonder how he's doing now.

    We have a lot of the same problems at our hosptial on the adolescent unit. There are so many stupid rules engrained in the hospital that I don't like. There's a "boys side" and "girls side" of the unit...We put people on bans from each other (especially if they tried to hook up in the hospital, which I can understand :p) and many other dumb rules.

    I also hate labeling kids if there's not a true disorder. Most of the kids at our hospital are just truly depressed or they come from a horrible home life, so of course they have problems. What I hate though is that I have to diagnose every kid that comes into our hospital just so that their insurance would pay for them. Sure, there are "real" diagnoses like Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder and I don't think it's as bad to label kids with that because then they can get help that's geared towards people with those disorders....but I do hate labeling kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ADHD, or Conduct about they're just having a rough time and acting out to get any attention they can because no one gives it to them at home? That's more like it. Ok...I'm going on a rant now, lol. Needless to say, I'm very passionate about this topic.

    I hope your review gets others to read this book. It's really good. Another one that's like this but focuses on a journalists time spent with adult drug addicts is Hooked by Lonny Shavelson. Try that one next! I think you'd like it too ;)

  3. Fabulous review, Nymeth! i like how you approach it from all angles - a reader, a psych student, as someone who was once a teenager. Geez, you know, if they label everyone who isn't nice, I bet 90% of the population would come out as having some disorder or another - that's something I've begun considering as I watch our youngest son begin to show signs of Oppositional defiant disorder, etc - I think maybe we want everyone to fit into a box, when recognizing that grief and anger and depression is what our society really needs to do, and help our children learn how to do. Both your and Chris's comments really show the difficulties of retaining humanness in an organization even one geared towards helping others. Really thoughtful and considered and an all-round excellent review, Nymeth.

  4. ... those two were more the quiet, nerdy type.

    My kind of folks.

  5. This is a fabulous review! I've always enjoyed reading books that deal with teens who have psychological problems. But I too have a major issue with certain disorders like you mentioned - oppositional defiant disorder as well as ADD, ADHD and adolescent BP. I know that all these disorders are based on behavior along with supposed chemical level fluctuations, but I don't think that any child can be labeled at such a young age - I'm no expert but in my opinion there are far too many children being drugged and/or sent to homes for problems that are clearly created or made worse by the environment they are raised in. It seems too many parents allow doctors to label their children with certain disorders solely because the drugs they are prescribed make them easier to handle. This only hides the real problems that are only going to increase as the child gets older. Granted there may be some kids who need pharmaceutical care, but the process of deciding which child does needs to be much improved.
    This is why I decided to go for a BA English rather than Psych - I get way too emotional and go off on rants - lol!

  6. This book sounds great, Nymeth! I love books that reflect a bit on life and something for me to think about. And I loved the way you did this review post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. :)

  7. I'm all concerned about why they would ban those kids from being together, when I wonder: who else in their lives did they have, and if they found friendship in each other, why would they break bonds? This sounds like a worthwhile but difficult read.

    I am also disturbed by the trend in this country to label kids as ill or disordered. It seems like the system cops out in too many instances. It's easier to give kids a pill than give them the attention they deserve. Maybe if we weren't so worried about standardization, we could go back to caring and teaching?

  8. Really great review and I like that Chris asked you questions about this book. It sounds like a very interesting book to read and I'm always interested in reading about kids with issues and for some of them coming through their ordeals a little closer to a whole person than when they went in.

  9. Bermudaonion, glad you liked it. Chris deserves the credit, since it was all his idea :P

    Chris: lol, I understand the rules about hooking up too, but some of the others really seem arbitrary. It's teaching obedience for obedience's sake, which I don't think could ever work with people who actually think and question things. I fully agree with you. There are of course problems that have neurological causes, but how is a kid in a difficult situation who is reacting to that situation an "ill" kid? And even if those labels are only used for insurance purposes, they give the kids the impression that there's something wrong with them. It's really reassuring to know there are people like you working in this field, Chris. Even though you have to follow the rules of the system, your attitude is sure to make a big difference. And thank you for the recommendation! I shall look for Hooked.

    Susan, thank you! And yep, at this rate one day they'll come after us all with straight jackets :P Diagnosis: "fantasy addicts". I agree you you; there's a increasing tendency in our society to consider any negative emotion pathological. And that's a dangerous path.

    Loren: And mine!

    Joanne: We think exactly alike. I also really worry about medication being used much too often just because it's easier than to medicate a person than to actually go to the root of the problem. I understand why it's needed in some situations, but if we look at the numbers, it's scary. They seem to suggest there's an epidemic of psychological "disorders" out there, which require more and more meds every year. And of course, there are people getting very very rich because of this. It makes you wonder.

    Melody, the credit is all Chris', since he had the idea :P But I'm very glad people enjoyed the format!

    Priscilla: Supposedly it was to make them reach out and connect to other members of the group. But they disregarded the fact that for some of us, there are only so many people we can truly feel close to. I'm that way myself. I can be friendly with many people, but there's only a handful I can truly be close friends with. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. And I agree with you...this obsession with standardization, with being "normal", is very worrisome.

    Staci: I loved Chris' questions! And that was the best thing about the book for me: watching the kids getting closer and closer to who they were as people.

  10. You know, I actually got this book out of the library after Chris reviewed but never got it read. :( Now I'm thinking I ought to go check it out again...sometime when I know I'll really have a chance to read it.

    I loved so much of what you said!!!! I know I've told you before about how much we worry about Gray. And it's really more about worrying how everyone seems to want him to fit into their idea of "normal" than it is about him as a person. He is who he is...get used to it people!!! Trying to turn him into someone he's not was hurting him, not helping him! (And I know I've told you, too, how incredible his teacher is this year. What an amazing difference it's been to this sweet boy to have someone accept him and embrace him for who he is!) That whole business about the banning broke my heart!!! That would have been the kind of thing that would have crushed Gray. It's hard for him to open up with anyone...for him to make a connection like that and then tell him that he's not allowed to continue in that friendship...well, I can only see that causing damage and making him pull even further into himself.

    Anyway, I loved, loved, loved this review! Thank you both!

  11. Wonderful review. It sounds like a very interesting and emotional book. I'll definitely be checking in out.


  12. Joanne, I have a major problem with people diagnosing Bipolar D/O to children as well. According to the DSM-IV it's not even supposed to be diagnosed until 18! It pisses me off when doctors give it to 5 year the hell can you know that a 5 year old is bipolar?

    Debi, You must go check this out again! And read it this time :p

    Nymeth, Sorry for taking over your comments :/

  13. Great review Nymeth. Sounds like a great book about helping kids and making a difference. I like the way you wrote the review with the mini-interview technique. Neat! :-)

  14. This sounds really interesting. It sounds like something I would be interested in reading though as I work with kids a lot ( I'm a substitute teacher). Great review!

  15. I don't think I've ever read anything classiefied as 'psychology' before. Like the points you raise in the Hated section!

  16. Wonderful review, and yay for reading something new. :)
    Not exactly the same, but the book I read last year about the hikikomori, young people in Japan who don't fit into the category of 'normal' and who withdraw from society, very interesting. Especially since in Japan, they apparently don't like to diagnose any kind of mental illness, because that's shameful. Instead they'll call it some medical problem, which may not help their emotional state at all. What you say about it relating to society and its expectations is very true.

  17. Tanabata, That sounds really good! What's the name of that book?

  18. Chris, it was a non-fiction book called 'Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation'. You can read my review of it here.
    I found it quite interesting.

  19. This definiltely does seem like something different for you on face value. I enjoyed your review and the way you split it out with the questions and answers format.

  20. Debi: Like Chris said, you should get it again and read it! Gray will be fine for sure...he'll be a nerdfighter and do awesome things, that's my prediction :P But yeah, I can imagine how frustrating it must be for you to see people trying to "fix" him.

    Alexa: It was definitely emotional. There was this scene that broke my heart: one of the kids opens up at last and talks about something she'd never talked about before, but which explains a lot of her behaviour over the years.

    Chris, absolutely nothing to be sorry about! I wish people did that more often! Hey everyone, you are MORE than welcome to talk to one another in my blog's comments! There :P

    Marie, I'm happy to hear people enjoyed the format :)

    Samantha: This is definitely a very interesting read for anyone who works with kids!

    Ladytink: I hadn't read any psychology in such a long time...but I think I'm ready to go back to it now.

    tanabata: I remember your review of Shutting Out the really made me want to read it!

    Rhinoa: Glad you enjoyed it! It was definitely different, but I'm glad to have read it.

  21. wonderful review nymeth!
    this sounds like an interesting read. I like how you and Chris did the review.

  22. Thanks for sharing information about this book Nymeth! My Mom works with troubled teens on occasion, and might find this book helpful.

    Thanks for stopping by and participating in Thingers last week! I've got the post up for this week, what do you do for your least-favorite books? ~ Wendi


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