The Talking Cure at Work in Contemporary YA Fiction

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As an English professor and unabashed therapy-junkie, I recently made it my business to read every YA novel I could find in which an adolescent protagonist visits a psychotherapist. It surprises me that teens in contemporary Young Adult fictions are still submitting to the rigors of talk therapy. This seems to be passé. According to a myriad of recent articles and books, more Americans — adolescents included — are tossing back pills for depression than trudging to therapists’ offices. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Marcia Angell explores the “shift from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness. Nevertheless, fictional teenagers are still talking to therapists for pages on end. Having now read a growing pile of novels, I can vouch for the fact that teen protagonists are actually having insights and getting better. In fact, the majority of these novels depict psychotherapy as transformative.

The fictional teens who frequent therapists’ offices range from full-blown “tragics” to Holden Caulfield-esque depressives — tragics being “people who get help because they’ve had something really bad happen to them, like getting cancer, or being abused,” according to Ruby Oliver, the therapized protagonist of E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List (2005). Anna, of E.R. Frank’s Wrecked (2007), is definitely a tragic:  she killed her brother’s girlfriend in a car crash. The accident wasn’t Anna’s fault, but still. Chloe Doe, the eponymous heroine of Suzanne Phillips’ 2007 novel, also has woes. After her stepfather sexually abuses and murders her sister, Chloe runs away from home and takes up prostitution. And then there is Valerie, of Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (2009), whose boyfriend Nick Levil (get it? he’s evil!) grabs a rifle and shoots a few classmates before offing himself. Why didn’t Val see it coming? Luckily for her, Dr. Hieler (a healer!) well, heals her.

I like the un-tragic protagonists; they melt down less flamboyantly than the tragics, but they’re funnier and more soulful. Alice, of Susan Juby’s Alice, I Think (2003), suffers from the “emotional and intellectual handicaps” of home schooling. She sees a counselor she dubs “Death Lord Bob,” so named for his “small goatee” and penchant for black clothes. Alice suspects Death Lord is “riddled with issues,” and, in an effort to boost his self-esteem, becomes a model patient, overcoming her fear of public school. James Sveck of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) is my favorite character (in the one truly exceptional novel I read). A New Yorker, a stickler about language, and a gay high school student with a crush on John (his hip black gay Ivy-League-educated boss), James creates a fake profile on, ensnaring John and ensuring a disastrous end to their friendship.

The therapists in these novels are a motley crew. They come in all colors, ethnicities, and nationalities. Crunchy, Birkenstock-sporting Dr. Z is Black (The Boyfriend List), Dr. Rowena Adler is German (Someday This Pain); Dr. Minerva is Greek (Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2006); and Dr. Greenburg is Jewish (Robin Palmer’s Cindy Ella, 2008). Some are motherly: the therapist in Patricia McCormick’s Cut (2000) smells like lavender sachets, while Frances, the freckled therapist in Wrecked, is warm (symbolized by the fact that she wears yellow in the heart of winter). Smart therapists like Dr. Adler and Chloe Doe’s Dr. Dearborn give as good as they get, meeting their teenaged patients’ verbal sallies with equally adept parries.  Loser therapist Marla Dawson in Chris Crutcher’s Deadline (2007) gives up on her dying patient, protagonist Ben, lamenting that she’s “out of [her] depth” — and diabolical Dr. Malcolm Roland steals protagonist Hilly’s diary in the hope of passing it off as his own work in Kathe Koja’s Going Under (2006). Mia, in Meg Cabot’s princess series, sees a cowboy therapist named Dr. Knutz. He “certainly lived up to his name,” she tells us, surprised that he is not like the Jewish Jungian psychologists, the Drs. Moscovitz, parents of her best friend Lilly.

Despite all the silliness and melodrama inherent in the YA genre, many of the therapists in these books are depicted as helpful guides to their young patients. In The Boyfriend List, Dr. Z’s suggestion that Ruby make a list of all the boys in her life structures Ruby’s first-person narrative, fracturing chronology, engendering copious footnotes, and spawning new lists such as Ruby’s list of lies. My personal favorite is Ruby’s apology list to Noel, a boy she has treated badly. Composed of six delightful similes — Ruby is sorry “[l]ike a cat who rolled in jam” — the list allows her to make reparation while saving face through humor. As the novel closes, Ruby is able to use the list form Dr. Z has given her to live more creatively. The list, Ruby finally acknowledges, makes her feel “rather well adjusted.” Dr. Z teaches Ruby the value of playfulness, demonstrating that if you rearrange familiar elements, you will gain a new perspective.

While many of these protagonists are initially resistant to therapy, they usually get over it quickly. When we first meet Chloe Doe at the Madeline Parker Institute for Girls, she is giving her therapist, Dr. Dearborn, some serious attitude in the form of her bare breasts. Soon enough, though, she pulls down her shirt and commits to the hard work of self-discovery. Like Dr. Z, Dr. Dearborn reinterprets the world for Chloe. He sees life as a battle: “‘There’s the walk into battle. The battle itself. And the walk away… Sometimes it’s over small stuff. Sometimes it’s life and death,’” he tells her. Accordingly, Chloe envisions therapy as a high stakes struggle and begins to take it seriously, even though she feels like she’s “sitting in a tub of broken glass.” Ultimately, Chloe triumphs over her resistance: “I’m standing at the top of Everest, and I’m light-headed,” she thinks after an especially grueling session. No surprise, then, when Chloe, who overuses figurative language, comes up with the appropriately metaphorical last name of Aimes for herself at the end of the novel.  This assures us — however obviously — that she is going to have a future.

James Sveck is also argumentative and hostile to Dr. Adler at the start: “I felt like we were in some contest to see who could unnerve the other first,” he admits. When their verbal pyrotechnics inevitably transform into repartee, however, James is able to use therapy to encounter his despair. In the centerpiece scene, James describes to Dr. Adler Thomas Cole’s series of four allegorical paintings, The Voyage of Life. The paintings, representing the four stages of a man’s life — “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood,” and “Old Age” — were once meaningful to James: when he was thirteen he bought reproductions of them, which he taped to his wall until a schoolmate told him they were “stupid and faggy.” Upon encountering the paintings again on a recent trip to The National Gallery, James realizes that he wants to be the central figure floating toward death in the last painting, Old Age. “I wanted to skip the Manhood boat,” he tells Dr. Adler. “I wanted to die.” James’ use of Cole’s allegory to distance himself from his suicidal thoughts assures us that he will survive his depression and return to the business of living, as indeed he does.

Overall, YA novels involving teen protagonists and their therapists suggest that adolescents are vulnerable and in need of adult intervention. These new teen protagonists are mostly unlike their immediate predecessors from the mid-Twentieth Century, the Holden Caulfields and Harriet the Spys, who saw through the hypocritical fabric of adult society and landed in therapy only as an afterthought to a gripping emotional quest. In Cut, for instance, Callie waits outside her therapist’s locked door like a sad dog, yearning to tell her “everything.” Similarly, Anna, of Wrecked, phones Frances from school for emergency therapy after having a panic attack. These dependent teens are more in the tradition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women than Holden and Harriet. Like the March sisters, who sob out their sins to Marmee, the adolescents in these contemporary fictions are represented as being quasi reprobates in need of spiritual, moral, and emotional guidance from the adults in their lives. As such, they follow in a literary historical tradition that didactically represents children and adolescents as dependent on adult wisdom — as opposed to the parallel tradition that portrays adolescents as purveyors of enlightenment to the adult world (think of Anne of Green Gables, who softens and transforms all the adults with whom she comes in contact).

The form of these YA fictions also nods to Louisa May. Just as Alcott offered her readers a novel about young adults structured around the guiding principles of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography The Pilgrim’s Progress, these YA novels present their adolescent readers with a new kind of conversion narrative in which the adoption of a psychotherapeutic frame of interpretation is saving. If you only yield to therapy, the tacit argument goes, you will be saved — or, if not saved, at least able to live with your problems. Emerging from the hospital after five days of in-patient therapy, Craig Gilner of It’s Kind of a Funny Story experiences the cathartic shift in his brain for which he has been longing, along with a sense that he “can handle it.”

If it is indeed true that we are experiencing a movement away “from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness, then are these YA fictions charming anachronisms? It could be that these novels fascinate me because they are written by authors who are all around my age, born in the 60s and 70s, when psychotherapy was reckoned as an exciting possibility for transformation. My generation is still stubbornly committed to the idea that knowing oneself is a worthwhile pursuit — and these novels, however rife with soap operatic bad luck and sentimentality, champion the idea that self knowledge emerges in dialogue with a trusted other. Although most of them grind out cookie cutter conversion stories, I cannot be hard on these works. Ultimately, they suggest that engaging with someone else, face to face, is transforming — or, at the very least, provides more scope for plot and character development than popping a pill.