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Young Adult Fiction: Teens and the Therapeutic Relationship

Updated on September 11, 2010

Young Adult Novels and Therapy

Adolescence is a stressful time in the lives of most people. Opposite sex relationships, grades, popularity, and questions about the future all impact teens in different ways. As in the books related here, some teens react to this stress with dangerously self-destructive behaviors. Occasionally, curricula will focus on themes that are specific to a school’s student population. The purpose of this article is to give educators a partial resource of young adult fiction that addresses the theme of adolescents in trouble. I focused on four books, each of which includes the element of therapy. Because of the serious nature of the subject matter and the age of the readers, it is necessary to demonstrate that there is help available and what that help might look like. This list is obviously short; I welcome suggestions for further research.

Levenkron, Steven. The Luckiest Girl in the World : A Young Skater Battles Her Self-Destructive Impulses. New York: Penguin, 1998.

The Luckiest Girl in the World, written by Steven Levenkron, deals with the issue of cutting among teen girls. Levenkron is a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in teenagers exhibiting self destructive behaviors. Katie Roskova, a fifteen-year-old figure skater who cuts to relieve stress, is the focal point of the novel. Levenkron delivers the story and the therapeutic scenes with therapist Sandy Sherman, in the realistic style of someone who knows. Katie is initially reluctant to participate in the therapeutic process, but Sherman eventually succeeds in showing her that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is no neat ending or sudden clarity for Katie, as there is in The Hunger Scream, but Levenkron shows that with therapy, both individual and group, cutters can begin to heal and to control their impulses. Because there is no happy ending, it is possible that the novel may not be well received among YA audiences; however, I believe it is a good choice for high school students interested in seeing a realistic depiction of therapy. Cutting is also a timely issue that many young people are dealing with, and the therapy Katie gets may offer hope.

McCormick, Patricia. Cut. Asheville, NC: Front Street Books, 2000.

Patricia McCormick, author of Cut, received an M.F.A from the New School University in New York City, and is the author of 3 books. Although not an authority on cutting, as Steven Levenkron is, McCormick creates an authentic teen character, Callie, and the realistic treatment center, in which much of the novel takes place, Sea Pines. Much of the early interactions between therapists and Callie aren’t interactions at all. Callie refuses to talk during these early encounters, and most of what we learn about her disorder comes from a running internal monologue. Eventually she begins to open up to some of the other patients in the facility, especially after she meets Amanda, another cutter. After this, she begins to open up, and with the help of individual and group therapy she comes to discover the role her dysfunctional family played in her disorder, much like Lily in The Hunger Scream. The progress Callie makes is somewhat quicker than seems realistic, and the healing process is a bit oversimplified. There is, however, enough in this novel to recommend it from the adolescent in therapeutic situation standpoint. Of particular interest is the depiction of the other girls in group therapy, whose problems include cutting, eating disorders, and substance-abuse, which paints a realistic picture of the treatment center environment.

Ruckman, Ivy. The Hunger Scream. New York: Walker and Company, 1983.

In The Hunger Scream, Ivy Ruckman, a creative writing teacher and eleven time author of YA books, makes her debut with a novel about anorexia nervosa and its effects on the life of a teenage girl and her family. Ruckman, according to the book jacket, researched the subject after identifying a female student as having the disease. Perhaps as a result, the author takes a serious and authentic approach to the story of Lily Jamison, a 17 year old girl, who exercises control over her eating habits in reaction to a dysfunctional family dynamic over which she has no control. Most importantly for this discussion, Ruckman includes the character of Dr. Jessica Coburn, a therapist who specializes in anorexia nervosa, and who meets Lily when she is placed in the hospital. The interactions between therapist and patient seem to be a good representation of the therapist client relationship. The root causes of anorexia are discussed and explored, and the message, that there exist adults to whom a teen can confide in and trust, comes through. Lily’s realization, of the causes of her disease, seems a little oversimplified, perhaps due to Ruckman’s underestimating her audience. In the penultimate scene, for example, Lily realizes “suddenly” that “she wasn’t the only deficient member of this family” (169). I would use this novel as a tool to enlighten students on and remove the stigma of therapy.

Runyan, Brent. The Burn Journals. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

The Burn Journals is the autobiographical account of author Brent Runyon’s suicide attempt (by setting himself on fire) and recovery when he was 14 years old. It spans a year of hospitalization and rehabilitation, both physically and psychically, and ends with Brent going back to school. Runyan tells his story in first person, present tense, which adds to its authentic feel; these are his experiences. There are a few therapists in the book. There is Dr. Rubinstein, whom Brent calls “Dr. Bitchenstein” (83), and Doug Foust, who tunes Brent’s guitar for him and conducts family therapy sessions. The problem with the therapists, in this book, is that they are all portrayed as having a negligible affect on Brent’s recovery. According to Runyon, they consistently ask stupid questions and the session go by very quickly. They seem mostly interested in why Brent set himself on fire and ask him regularly. It is a question that Brent doesn’t really have an answer for. Runyon’s interactions with the therapists provide some comic moments, but are generally unproductive when compared to other books in this selection. The book is a well written, engaging story of attempted suicide and recovery, but is less than useful as a model of a quality therapist/patient relationship.

© 2010


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