Thursday, February 15, 2007

A new entry in the troubled young girl genre

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, defined this genre. Ever since, there has been a new one for each generation. I never Promised You a Rose Garden was popular in the 1970s.Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation were popular during the 90s. Abigail Vona's book, Bad Girl, intrigued me during a cruise of the Barnes and Noble discount section. I just finished it.

Vona's book differs significantly from the others because she was not mentally ill by anyone's standards. Rather than facing institutionalization, she was sent to a behavior modification camp, often called "boot camps" in the media. Vona was an out-of-control teen, but a typical one: she snuck out, she occasionally smoked pot and drank, and she fooled around (but never had sex with) boys. She got sent to this boot camp by her father and found herself among girls with serious issues. One girl was an anorexic and bulimic and a self-injurer, and talked about putting broken glass in her water at dinner when she lived at home. Another girl beat up her parents. A third molested her sister.

The first few chapters of the book are hard to take. Vona had believed she was going to summer camp and was immediately put in a situation where she had to follow thousands of rules that she was totally ignorant of. Not surprisingly, she had a very difficult time. As time wore on, she began to work on herself and her family issues, and she ultimately leaves a more functional person.

The opening chapters of the book are written the way you'd expect a teenager like Vona to speak: lots of slang, lots of swear words. As she learns to live by and respect the rules at The Village (her boot camp), the amount of cursing diminishes and she's more honest with readers about what she feels. Since she works the Twelve Steps, the first chapter is -12 and continues to count down to zero, then back up to 12. As Susanna Kaysen does in Girl, Interrupted, Vona contrasts her experiences with the clinical notes. Sometimes it will make your blood boil ("Patient appears selfish and needy" when Vona reports having done nothing in particular that day), sometimes it will reflect the day's events with a dark humor (after witnessing a takedown gone so wrong that she had to run for help and wound up staying awake until 2AM, the night staff notes "Patient slept soundly.") Other times you're unsure how her report of the day is supposed to work with the clinical notes. But given the fact that Vona has some serious learning disabilities, the book itself is a remarkable achievement.

After finishing the book, I was left with some larger questions. Why do books like this continue to be popular? How come they are rarely, if ever, written by men? The Bell Jar was released in 1963; although treatment for mental illness has advanced since then, has it come as far as we like to believe? And what do we do with those who just don't fit in, who, like Vona, defy labeling? These questions have been with us for along time. Perhaps stories like Vona's have staying power because they encourage us to work towards better answers.