August, 18 2018

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$70,000 sends troubled teens to school for help

This book needs a warning label: "May cause some parents sleepless nights."

Don't let that stop you; "What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out" is worth the angst it may cause. Because for most parents of TEENAGERS, there's a certain self-righteous indignation whenever we hear of a kid in serious trouble. Where were the parents, we wonder? Just how out to lunch were they? We say that even though we know that some kids who get into trouble have parents who are not out to lunch at all. Isn't that what's so scary about parenting TEENAGERS?

That fear is at the heart of this book. "As I plunged into the research, I felt a sense of urgency," journalist David L. Marcus (who once worked for the Boston Globe) writes in a section called "Memo to Parents" at the end of the book. (I wish it were at the beginning.) "Well before my son and daughter reached middle school (They're 2 and 5 when he starts the project), I needed to learn about adolescence from the true experts -- the kids who were struggling."

The four TEENS he profiles are really struggling. There's little rich girl Mary Alice from Dallas, a promiscuous druggie with an eating disorder; D.J., an isolated, lonely, adopted ninth-grader from New Jersey who has ADD and a history of playing with fire and running away from home; Bianca, a truant Latina from south Florida who lost her mother to cancer and her childhood to rape; and Tyrone, a depressed eighth-grade African American from Queens, N.Y. Tyrone has been addicted to computer games and drugs (acid, mushrooms, Ecstasy, Special K, heroin) ever since his mother threw his father out years ago.

The four have two things in common: Their downward spirals, and parents who are so desperate they turn to a therapeutic boarding school in western Massachusetts called the Academy at Swift River.

A private, for-profit school, it costs $70,000 for 14 months (some school districts help with the tab) and comes with some very no-nonsense rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no sex, and a whole lot of painful, probing group therapy. Mary Alice, D.J., Bianca and Tyrone are members of Group 23, the 23d "class" to go through the academy.

Mostly, this is the story of their 403 days there. To a lesser extent, it is also the story of the staff and counselors; the parents; and Swift River itself, which, controversially, builds new dorm space to increase revenues. Marcus spent lots of time with Group 23. Wisely, he lets their voices be heard:

"One morning in group, D.J. explained what it was like to be known as the 'ADD boy,' taking Ritalin and other pills since kindergarten. 'My mom was always bringing me to doctors and they kept increasing my dosage or putting me on new meds. I thought she was trying to fix me, and since I had to go to the doctor all the time, that must mean there was something so wrong with me that I was unfixable. If I was broken, how could my mom and dad love me? And if my parents didn't love me, there was no way that anyone else could ever care about me.' "

Marcus is very clear that there's no magic at Swift River, only hard work and patience. Swift River tries to restore teens' self-esteem, to help them understand what led to their dangerous behaviors and how to avoid them from now on. In one session, TEENS are told to write sentences beginning with, "I blame myself for ..." The lists take your breath away: "... for having a miscarriage;" "... for my dad leaving;" ".. for being everything that my parents didn't want in their daughter."

Not everyone in Group 23 makes it to graduation; one student dies.

According to director Rudy Bentz, "10 percent of graduates soar, 80 percent do quite well, and 10 percent relapse."

Are there take-home messages for parents who see their own TEENS on these pages? Absolutely, even for parents whose kids don't need a therapeutic school. But this is where the book frustrates. For 300 or so pages, Marcus constructs a taut, compelling narrative without much, if any, of his voice. Then, in 10 pages in the "Memo to Parents," he crams in what he thinks about all he's seen. Here, he lets his anger and sadness come through, along with his insight:

"If we truly want to help adolescents, we need to change our priorities as a country. We can start by pushing insurance companies and social service agencies to make mental health services available to all TEENAGERS and parents. We also need to rethink the way we plan communities, the way we build public spaces -- even the way we design houses."

I hope there's another book coming.

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