By Lynne Griffin
SixOneSeven Books (November 4, 2015)
Reviewed by Karen Struble, Ph.D.
Lord Acton’s famous saying, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” rings deafeningly true in Lynne Griffin’s new novel, Girl Sent Away. For parents of rebellious adolescents, Griffin’s story is a Nightmare with a capital N. Basing her work on actual reports from teenagers sent to remote wilderness therapy camps, the author spins a harrowing tale of mental health care gone awry.
The novel’s main character, Ava Sedgwick, is a sixteen-year-old Massachusetts girl haunted by the unresolved trauma of losing her mother and sister during the 2004 tsunami that wreaked havoc on Thailand’s beachfront resorts. Likewise, Ava’s workaholic father Toby has never been able to come to terms with their tragic loss. Eight years after the devastating incident, he finds his teenage daughter withdrawn to the point of being unreachable and dangerously out of control. In a move born of desperation, Toby takes
the school counselor’s advice and sends Ava to Mount Hope, a wilderness therapy camp that feigns compassionate care while horribly abusing their residents. Cut off from the outside world and deprived of the most basic necessities—food, water, blankets, even bathroom privileges—Ava and the other campers must submit to the outrageous, cult-like demands of the program staff in order to survive. In fact, the environment at Mount Hope is so brutal that even some of the most compliant teens find themselves teetering on the edge of insanity or suicide.
Throughout the novel Griffin artfully, masterfully describes the experience of post-traumatic stress and dissociation, as time and again Ava finds herself triggered into flashbacks of the memories she has tried so hard to suppress. Ava’s fragmented memories of what actually happened during the tsunami come together ever so gradually over the course of the novel, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, creating a sense of suspense that propels the reader forward from start to finish. Thankfully, Griffin gives the story a happy ending, at least for some of the characters; otherwise, the book might be unbearable reading for parents.
Girl Sent Away ends with an author’s note decrying the lack of government oversight for wilderness therapy camps, which are a relatively new, largely unregulated phenomenon. Unfortunately, most licensed mental health professionals know all too well the crushing weight of the government regulations already in place currently over most areas of clinical practice. These regulations create mountains of paperwork, limiting consumer access to affordable care, stifling therapeutic creativity in the field, and contributing immensely to therapist burnout, while all too often failing to serve their intended purpose of protecting patients from power-hungry predators. Surely there must be a better solution to the problems exposed in Girl Sent Away, something more efficient and effective than increasing governmental regulation.
The book comes with an additional small volume of questions for group discussion. Let’s Talk About It: Adolescent Mental Health: A Companion Guide to “Girl Sent Away” for Parents and Teachers is available separately from the publisher SixOneSeven Books. Hopefully many teens, families, and therapists alike will benefit from reading and talking about this novel together.
Lynne Griffin is a nationally recognized expert on family life and the author of the novels Girl Sent Away (to be published in November 2015), Sea Escape, and Life Without Summer. She’s also the author of the parenting guides Let’s Talk About It: Adolescent Mental Health and Negotiation Generation.
DR. KAREN STRUBLE practices psychology in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where she specializes in working with children, adolescents, and families. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. Over the years Dr. Struble has worked in a variety of mental health settings including outpatient clinics, psychiatric hospitals and group homes for children and adolescents. She also has spent several years teaching undergraduate psychology at Montreat College in western North Carolina. She has been married for over thirty years and has two young adult children.