Sisters in Sanity, Page 2Gayle Forman
So I spent my early days at Red Rock empathizing with how zoo animals must feel. The only thing I had to do was read the lame-ass school primers they gave me, filled with stuff like geometry. I did geometry in ninth grade! I was literally bored to tears, but there was no way I was going to let anyone see me cry.
Instead of Dr. Clayton, I’d been having sessions with the director of the place, a kind of tough-love guru named Bud Austin. “But you can call me Sheriff. Everyone does,” he told me. “I used to be a cop, but now I take care of the real hardened cases: you girls.” He laughed. It was my first day of solitary and he’d come for a visit, dragging in a metal folding chair. He was tall with black hair and a bushy mustache. He wore too-tight jeans with a ton of keys hanging from one belt loop, and lizard cowboy boots poked out beneath the cuffed bottoms.
“Now let me tell you a secret,” he continued with his pat, one-size-fits-all speech. “You’re probably gonna hate me at first. All the girls do. But let me tell you, one day you’re gonna grow up some and realize that Red Rock is the best thing that ever happened to you, and I’m one of the most important people you’ll meet here. Hell, you might even invite me to your wedding.” All I could think was, Wedding? I’m only sixteen! But he just went on. “Your parents have gone soft, is my guess. That’s why so many girls get out of control—that, and for attention. You’re gonna get plenty of that here. Because, girlie,” (that’s what he called you, either that or your last name, never by your first name) “we’re gonna refocus your misdirected life. We’re gonna challenge your attitude, and we’re gonna replace your inappropriate behaviors with productive ones. In other words, we’re gonna straighten you out. It might not seem like it, but we love you.”
The next day Sheriff came into my little room again, dragging his little chair. “Girlie, you ready to face yourself?” This struck me as the dumbest question in the world. Face what exactly? It was as if he’d already decided I was a delusional moron. So I just said, “I’d need a mirror for that. But I guess breakable reflective glass would be too dangerous for a psycho like me.” Sheriff stood up, folded his chair and left the room, clicking the bolt on the door behind him. The next afternoon, it was the same spiel: “Hemphill, ready to face yourself?” “Oh, go to hell,” I said. The third day, when he showed up with his chair and his question, I wanted to tell him to face my middle finger, but something kept me from saying anything at all. So he gave me a little lecture about doing things the hard way or the easy way. I seriously wanted to laugh because he was so full of it, except that I also wanted to cry because this idiot was in charge of me.
I kept up as brave a face as I could, refusing to give any of them—Sheriff, Helga, Stepmonster, the bitchy Sixers—the satisfaction of seeing me down. But at night, when the last light went out and my door was locked from the outside, I cried until my pillow was soaked through.
Finally, after the Sheriff’s fifth visit, when my armpit hairs were nearly braidable, one of the Level Sixers opened my door. She was tall, with a striking angular face framed by dirty blond hair. It was cut in a funky choppy style that seemed too high maintenance for our prison. Maybe Sixers got salon privileges.
“Look, Brit. That is your name, right?” she asked me with the kind of exasperated impatience teachers reserve for their slowest pupils. “Well, Brit, maybe you enjoy wearing your pj’s in solitary confinement, but if you don’t, cut the Rebel-Without-a-Cause crap. No one here is impressed by it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Spare me. Just tell Sheriff you’re ready to face yourself. That’s all it takes to get to Level Two.”
She arched an eyebrow at me, letting me know what a dunce she thought I was. “I’ve got better things to do than sit here guarding your door. Just say you’re ready to face yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Do us all a favor and check your pride at your cell door.”
This turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons I would learn at Red Rock.
“You’re a drunk.”
“You’re a slut.”
“Whore. Whore. Whore.”
It was my third week at Red Rock, and along with about twenty other girls, I was in one of two therapy centers: giant empty rooms with dirty windows, blue gymnastics pads on the floor, and more fading inspirational posters. (My personal fave: a cat hanging on to a tree. “He can because he thinks he can.” Um, no, he can because he’s got claws.) There was no furniture. Guess they didn’t want us to go all Jerry Springer and start hurling it around.
Like the rest of the inmates, I was wearing the required uniform: khaki shorts and a Red Rock polo shirt—an outfit that I’m convinced was designed as a form of fashion punishment. We were all standing in a circle, looking like a suburban high-school phys-ed class. At the center of the circle a girl named Sharon was giving us a deer-in-the-headlights look as she turned to catch insult after insult. A counselor named Deirdre and a Level Sixer named Lisa egged us on. “Tell her what you think. Ask her why she sleeps around. Ask her why she doesn’t respect herself.”
Welcome to “confrontational therapy.” It’s supposed to make you face your issues, but it mostly makes you cry—which seems to be the point because it was only after you’d cried that you were allowed to leave the circle and “process” what just happened. CT, as it’s called, was a big crowd-pleaser at Red Rock, very gladiator-like, and those who’d been inside the circle were even more vicious once they found themselves safely outside it. For example, the girl chanting “whore” was Shana, who only a week ago had been berated for her eating disorder—until she broke down sobbing and was promptly rewarded with a group hug.
I’d pretty quickly figured out that CT was typical of the Red Rock philosophy: Treat ODD teenagers like crap until they break. Now that I was in Level Two, my days were spent in CT, in strange lecturey one-on-ones with Sheriff or another one of the counselors, and—once a week—with Dr. Clayton, who’d already suggested putting me on antidepressants. I was depressed now, but only because I was at Red Rock. The rest of my days were spent back in my cell, doing “self-directed” study, which was the academic equivalent of Mad Libs, even though back at school I would’ve been in AP English. I still wasn’t able to write to my dad or get any letters from him. That wouldn’t happen until Level Three, when I’d be sprung from my room and allowed to attend school.
Beside me in the confrontation circle stood the Sixer who’d taught me the key to escaping Level One. She was scarily tall, towering over me, and giving me that same you’re-an-idiot face she had before. I was really starting to hate the Level Sixers, who generally seemed like a bunch of do-goodery, kiss-ass snobs.
“I believe we’ve established that’s my name,” I told her.
She arched her eyebrows again. “Well, Brit. Mouth it.”
“Mouth it. Pretend you’re saying something.”
“Do you not understand English or are you just slow? You’re not ‘participating in the process.’” She was whispering, but she made it sound like a barked order.
“I don’t know anything about this girl. I can’t yell at her.”
“Are you moronic or deaf? Mouth it. Fake it. Or you’ll get in trouble. Have I made myself clear?”
Before I had a chance to think of a clever reply, she had moved to the other side of the circle, where she was chanting insults so ferociously that you had to watch closely to see that she wasn’t actually making a sound.
I didn’t know what to make of her. She was a total bitch to me, insulting me as much as the counselors did, telling me how delusional I was. She might have been trying to railroad me: You could move up levels at Red Rock by narcing out your roommates (so Fascist). But her advice was kind of subversive, which had me thinking she was maybe trying to help. I did what she told me to, and it turned out to be her second piece of good advice. Af
ter I started fake name-calling in group, one of the counselors patted me on the back and said I’d begun to “work my program.” When I met with Dr. Clayton later that week, she gave me a creepy smile and said she thought I was finally ready to “deal with my demons” and “break down my walls.” Which meant promotion to Level Three, and real school—a windowless room with a dozen desks where I’d do more self-directed study while watched by guards who didn’t look like they could spell their own names. I was also moved into a shared room with three other inmates: a fat girl named Martha, a rich, snooty waif named Bebe, and blonde, bulimic Tiffany, who alternated between hysterical smiliness and hysterical tears.
When I wasn’t in school, therapy, or meals, I was doing physical therapy. This consisted of spending four hours in the hot desert heat dragging five-pound cinder blocks from a giant pile across fifty feet of dusty yard and stacking them into a wall. Sounds like pure torture, I know, but it actually wasn’t so bad. I mean, for sure my muscles killed me at first, and we worked without gloves, so my hands turned bloody and then all callused. Plus, the work made me thirsty and I had to drink a ton of water but could only pee once an hour. Still, the counselors-cum-guards were lazy and preferred to stay in the shade, so the cinder-block yard was the one place that us inmates could talk freely amongst ourselves.
“This is ruining my hands,” Bebe bitched. “My nails used to be so pretty.”
“Can it, Rodeo Drive,” scolded the Level Four girl next to her.
“How many times do I have to spell this out for you, yokel. Rodeo Drive is in Beverly Hills, and it’s where podunk tourists shop. I don’t even live in Beverly Hills. I live in the Palisades. So shut it already.” Everyone called Bebe “Rodeo Drive.” People were jealous of her, I gathered, because she was so pretty with her long, shiny black hair and blue catlike eyes. Her mom was Marguerite Howarth, a famous soap-opera actress. Bebe had been my roommate for two days but hadn’t deigned to speak to me, so I wasn’t about to put myself in her line of fire. But it was obviously my lucky day.
“Where are you from?” she asked me.
“I’ve been there. Rain and people wearing the most unattractive flannel.”
I happened to love Portland and didn’t appreciate LA people dissing it, but I had to admit she was right about the flannel.
“And what are you in for?”
“Oh, come now. You must have some idea, my dear girl. Bulimia? Promiscuous behavior? Self-mutilation?” Bebe said, ticking off potential abuses.
“None of the above.”
“Well, let’s see. You have the hair and the tattoos. If I were to take a wild stab in the dark, I’d say you’re a musician or an artist.”
“Musician,” was all I said, but inwardly I was kind of surprised. My mom had been the artist.
“Ahh, heroin? Meth?” Bebe ventured.
“No, none of those. I just play in a band, have pink hair, and have a freak of a stepmother.”
“Ahh, we have a Cinderella in the house!” Bebe called to the crowd before turning her attention back to me. “How very Disney. What did Clayton diagnose you as during your intake?”
“Opposition something something.”
“Oppositional defiance disorder. You’re ODD,” said a sure voice from behind. It was the girl again, the tall bitchy Sixer with the good advice. “We all get tagged with that label. It’s a no-brainer. What’re your other offenses?”
“I don’t know.”
She sighed. “Okay, newbie. Let me give you the remedial catch-up. Red Rock inmates fall into five broad categories: You’ve got your substance abusers, but never anything worse than pot or ecstasy because a weekly AA meeting is all the drug treatment this place offers. Then there are your sexual deviants, comprising slutty girls and dykes. Cassie over there”—she pointed to a girl with short red hair and freckles—“is in on lesbo watch, and Bebe here is in on slut watch—she got caught making it with the pool boy.”
“That’s not entirely accurate, my darling Virginia,” Bebe said, shaking her long mane of hair. “I got caught making it with the Mexican pool boy. That was my real offense. An unthinkable crossing of class lines.”
“Thanks for the clarification, Karl Marx. And don’t call me Virginia. I go by V.”
“V is not a name, darling; it’s a letter.”
“And BB is two letters. What’s your point? Now where was I? Yes. The food issues. Mostly minor-league bulimics. Red Rock would never take on any serious anorexics because they need serious help, not the fraudulent counseling that passes for therapy here. Do you know, Clayton’s the only one around here with any credentials? And she’s not even a shrink. She’s an internist. She’s only here to prescribe pills. So we just get a smattering of occasional throw-up dieters and a lot of obese girls whose parents think that Red Rock is more “therapeutic” than fat camp.
“Our precious roomie, Martha, for instance,” Bebe said. “She’s a fat-camper.”
“Correct,” said V. “Then we have a handful of cutters—you know, the self-mutilating types. And a grab bag of your garden-variety runaways and petty thieves—we’ve got lots of kleptos here. And last but not least, the suicidal-ideation girls.”
“Like our Virginia,” Bebe said.
“You? You tried to kill yourself?” I asked.
“No. Too Sylvia Plath. If I had, Red Rock would’ve been afraid to let me in. I just wrote some poems and stories about a girl who kills herself. Spooked my mom enough to send me away. And I’ve been here ever since. Almost a year and a half.”
“V is for veteran.” Bebe smirked.
“No, V is for Virginia, and for victory and for vixen.”
“You’re incorrigible, you bad, bad girl. I’m so impressed,” Bebe faked a yawn.
“Sarcasm creates a chasm between yourself and others,” V said with mock piousness. She turned to me. “Another Red Rock nugget of wisdom. Anyway, I’m in Level Six now and I intend to be back home before Christmas.”
“Back to work, ladies. Cut the chitchat,” one of the counselors yelled from the patio, where she was reading a copy of Us Weekly.
“Ugh,” Bebe groaned. “They really need to provide us with sunblock. When I have to Botox, I’m going to bill Red Rock for each and every wrinkle.”
“Hey, look, we finished the wall,” I said. We’d been so busy talking, I hadn’t noticed that every last cinder block was stacked up neatly. Bebe and V looked at each other, laughing at me.
“Yes, the wall is finished. And now we break it down,” V said.
“The wall is meant to teach us that our existence is futile, dears,” Bebe said. “Welcome to Red Rock logic.”
Later that night in our dorm, I asked Bebe which soap her mom had been on. She narrowed her eyes at me and turned away, like I’d asked some ridiculously inappropriate personal question. I didn’t get her. Or V, either. They were like Jekyll and Hyde, giving advice one minute and icing me the next. I was starting to think it might be better to keep to myself, because after Bebe snubbed me, I’d felt worse than I had when I took my first fully supervised shower. I even cried into my pillow that night, something I hadn’t done in weeks. The next morning, though, I found a note tucked into the pocket of my Red Rock shirt.
Cinderella, the walls have eyes (notice the cameras?) and ears (beware of Tiffany). Ratting is a way of life around here. No chat in the building. Cinder-block yard only.
I crumpled up the note and smiled. Someone had my back.
When I was growing up, I never had the sense that someone had my back, because I never knew what it was like when someone didn’t. It would never have occurred to me that I could end up alone and vulnerable, since in those days, my family was the best, the coolest, the tightest.
My parents met at a U2 concert. Dad was working as a roadie, and Bono pulled my mom onstage
to dance. He used to do that at every concert. Every girl in the audience probably thought she was worthy, but Mom really was. She had this thing about her, this light—an energy that made you want to be around her because when you were, life was giddy. Free spirit is such a clichéd term, but it totally fit my mom. When she went floating backstage that night, she looked up at Dad in her post-Bono ecstasy and kissed him. He was probably a goner right there and then.
After that, it was like some bohemian fairy tale. They tromped around Europe and Africa together, with Mom selling her paintings to earn money. They got married on a cliff top in Morocco, and she got pregnant with me in a Portobello Road hotel in London—hence my name, Brit (middle name is Paula for Bono, whose real name is Paul). Then they moved to Portland and bought a ramshackle house on Salmon Street and started CoffeeNation, a coffeehouse/art gallery/club.
I don’t know how many kids can say that they once crayoned in a Muppets coloring book with Kurt Cobain, but I can. Tons of musicians and artists hung around CoffeeNation, which was funny because neither Mom nor Dad knew an A from an A minor. But they had a weekly open-mic night, and a lot of bands got their start there, and I think the place just got a reputation as a music haven.
We pretty much lived at CoffeeNation. After school, I’d sit down at my own reserved table, and Dad would fix me a hot chocolate before I started my homework. It never took me long because I had like forty pseudo big brothers and sisters there to help me—musicians are weirdly good at math, which is probably one reason that back in my own school, I would’ve been taking calculus in my junior year. My favorite customer was Reggie, a tattoo artist whose arms, legs, and torso were like a mosaic. A lot of people probably thought he looked like a thug, but he was the nicest guy ever. He loved to read almost as much as he liked to talk, and he used to check out a copy of whatever book I was reading for school, so we could have literary discussions together. I was only eight when we met, and Reggie and I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. together.