Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Keeping the Faith

By Cornelia

An illustration from reporter Nellie Bly's
undercover investigationof the notorious
Blackwell's Island Asylum in New York City

I've got a few signings under my belt now for
The Crazy School, a few talks, and more than a few reviews. The thing that's been most interesting to me are the reviews which seem to take issue with the "reality," or perhaps "likelihood" is a better word, of conditions at the fictional school I've created.

Anyone who's ever turned in a novel manuscript to an editor has run into the problem that it's the "true" bits that get questioned most often.

"Why would her father-in-law say that in the middle of lunch? seems out of character..." it might say on the Post-It note in the margin, right next to the one bit of dialogue in a chapter you drew from real life.

Answering, "because he's just that kind of guy and he DID really say it, honest!" isn't considered an appropriate response.

This is most often a good thing. It's our job, after all, to make things that occur within our stories seem likely, even inevitable. And what strikes your agent or editor as being out of sync with characters as otherwise established--or just plain straining credultity to the point that only dogs can hear it--will often strike future readers the same way.

But it's hard when the out-of-syncness of a situation is the very thing you most want to capture, as is the case with the conditions at the school in my current novel.

Other than the murders in the book, nearly everything I've depicted is absolutely true-to-life, in deeply distressing ways. I've replicated the jargon, the punishments, the bizarre "therapeutic" regimens practiced by the psychiatric staff (as I've mentioned before in this blog) of the DeSisto School on the students, their families, and the teachers who worked on campus.

I've tried to portray the chilling effect this had on all concerned, and my own dismay at the number of adults on staff who went along with the "program." It reminded me, at the time, of what I'd read about the Cultural Revolution in China, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the same type of coercion that led to Jonestown and Waco and Pol Pot and Rwanda and the 9/11 attacks and suicide bombings in general.

None of those tragedies could have taken place without the cooperation of "normal" people--those who seemed perfectly sane until they committed genocide or entered pitched standoffs with the FBI and ATF or blew themselves up in front of elementary schools.

The human capacity for violent hysteria holds a morbid fascination for me. It doesn't matter how "modern" or "thoughtful" or "civilized" we are--each of us has the capacity to commit atrocity, or--perhaps worse--to turn a blind eye to it.

There is a famous poem which speaks to the latter:

First They Came for the Jews

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

--Pastor Martin Niemöller

This sort of thing makes me especially crazy when the victims are children, or otherwise defenseless, as in the case of the two mentally retarded girls who were used as suicide bombers recently in Iraq.

Another kind of defenselessness is that experienced by those who've been labeled mentally unstable. When they're abused, especially by authority figures, their word is often doubted. And trust me when I say it doesn't take a lot to be labeled mentally unstable, in any country.

Yes, there are those among us with psychiatric disorders, those who need help, but there are also countless people who, throughout history, have been conveniently silenced and marginalized with such labels merely because they had the courage to speak out. The young women in Ireland and England who were used as slave labor in the Magdalen laundries,

those tortured and killed as "witches,"

those numbed with psycho-active drugs or lobotomies

Surgical Tools for Performing Lobotomies

or shock treatment until they became tractable, during the course of the Twentieth Century.

I wanted to show, in this novel, the proverbial slippery slope that all too easily leads to such atrocities, because I saw its glassy countenance up close and personal in real life in the Fall of 1989.

A 1980 issue ofLife Magazine extolled the work of A. Michael DeSisto,
pictured above. Broadway producer Gower Champion and author Roger Kahn
were among the parents commanded to appear on campus for a week that
winter--neither informed they would be subjects ofthis same article until
their arrival. Roger Kahn Jr. commited suicide shortly thereafter.
Blake Champion died in a DUI car crash in 1986.

This page shows a student being wrestled to the ground, then
held down by staff and students. Known as a
"limit structure," the practice was widely employed on campus

Some reviewers get this, and to them I'm very grateful.

Oline Cogdill wrote, in the
South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
Not all violence is physical. Subtle violence -- a mean look, a cutting remark, vile gossip -- can be powerful, eroding the soul.... In her second novel, Read succinctly mixes wit and sarcasm with a social commentary about power and psychological control.

Sign still posted in a dormitory at the now-defunct DeSisto School

"mia3mom"'s review on the BostonNOW website said of the book that:

[It's] a novel and a mystery centering on the world inside a residential school for troubled teens, one that comes with very troubled staff as well. It isn't often that my previous careers get pulled into my book reviews. However, my previous job working as a teacher in a residential school for children with emotional and behavioral disorders gave me a touchstone for the world in The Crazy School.

But other critics seem dismayed by the subject matter. One wrote:
When the author keeps things light and breezy, her book is entertaining and refreshing. However, the dour and improbable conclusion is jarring and detracts from the story's considerable entertainment value.

And another:

Madeline bluffs her way through an often unbelievable scenario where a bunch of adults allow themselves to be dominated by an authoritarian bully in velvet gloves and a cape.

Although Madeline’s husband is a welcome antidote to the psychodrama of the Academy, nothing relieves the absurdities offered in this plot.

She rescinded this portion of the review after a former student wrote to insist that my portrayal was accurate. Including the cape.

Meanwhile, here are some responses from other students:
I really enjoyed the book but was disappointed that she did not fully convey how miserable it was for the students who were there.

I stopped into the local book store where only two copies of "Crazy School" were left.. I bought one and upon arrival at my Dad's place in Wilton said "Dad- This should explain some things. There is more truth in here than fiction" ..... Now we'll see if he reads it. His wife will, she's cool like that.

I got a copy of the book for my Mom. After reading the first few chapters she called me and asked if any of the side events were true. She was floored. After all these years she never believed the wild things I told her that occured while I was there.


my therapist just called me and said she just finished your book and cant wait to talk to me about it! i dont even remember telling her about the book. *shrug* she said she never would have believed it if she had not had so many corroborating anecdotes from me. funny...


I went to one of Cornelia's signings in the Bay area having heard that it was based on TDS and nearly 30 years later, found myself remembering so many aspects of my experience that I had not thought about in years,... Hard for people there at booksigning to believe so much could be true, yet it was. I know firsthand despite that we were in two different places [the school's Florida and Massachusetts campuses], almost a decade apart.


its hard, if not impossible to find someone to talk to about it who wasnt there themselves....lord, i wish my parents would read it. they wont even talk to me about the school. if i mention desisto, they get this glazed look in their eye and mutter, "we thought we were doing what was best for you at the time, " and they wander out of the room... they wont believe me that it was as bad as it was. they still think im a crazy 16 year old troublemaker.


I just went to the coffee shop next door and ran into some people I saw out at the bar last weekend... two of them had copies of your book open and reading... and two of them were reading the same book over each others shoulder.... they all looked up at me when I walked in and held up the books. It was pretty funny. Their comments were like "dude, you went *here*? WTF?" I just laughed.

I've also exchanged emails with a former student of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, an institution run by the infamous Bruno Bettelheim for several decades under the auspices of the University of Chicago.

When she read a description of my book online, she thought at first I was writing about Bettelheim and her school. When I said I knew of it, but that I'd chronicled another place in another decade, she replied:
I can't believe there was another school like that out there. He must've been Bruno Bettelheim's Mini-Me. How do these men get so powerful? And why do so many people trust them and hang on their every word?
If you've got any answers, raise your hand.


  1. As Ken would say, "And Jesus wept."

    Excellent post; more excellent book. Thanks again.

    Tom, T.O.

  2. Great post, Miss C. I don't have an answer for you - but you did get me thinking about courage. Seems to me that it takes a special kind of courage, combined with thoughtful self-awareness, to be able to raise your hand and say "No. This is wrong and I won't do it." And then be willing to deal with the consequences. It's so much easier to follow the path of least resistance, especially when it gives you an easy out, a la "Well, I only did/thought/said the same as everyone else".

  3. This might be a little off-topic but, in response to people who would like your (and other books) to stay on the light-'n-breezy side of the divide...

    I think many people read dark fiction for the fellowship of knowing that other people have experienced what they have. It could be something very specific, as in CS, or something broader, like a fictional account of spousal abuse or something...or something very general, like a a narrative POV from someone who battles depression or anxiety.

  4. Thanks, you guys. It's a wonderful thing to know that people "get" all this.

  5. Bravo, Cornelia! It must be gratifying to know that in addition to writing an entertaining work of fiction, you're casting light on a manifestation of evil (corny as that might sound). I'm proud!

  6. ornelia,
    oudid an excellent job both in the book and in this post of expressing how some of these facilities, whether a schol or hospital, mistreat or terrify people.


  7. Vincit Omnia Veritas.

    Cornelia, the power of the truth fuels your fiction. If some critics don't get that, well, there's lots of escapist fiction, and that's fine, too.

  8. Thank you, Jim, and Paul--I'm big on the Veritas Vincit program. It that doesn't work, a nice cold martini can often Vincit what's leftover from the Omnia.

    Though for you that might be "In Expenssimus Tequilam Veritas." (Sorry about the wacky declension. My lack of Latin-skills retention is second only to my lack of Algebra retention. In other words, both hovering right around bupkes.)

  9. Somewhere between your 3rd and 4th books, you'll stop reading reviews and find true happiness. We all love you!!!!

  10. We didn't talk about it while you were up here - and thank you for the signing; you and Louise are always a joy! - but I worked briefly at a residential treatment center for troubled teens. By the time I left, 30+ high school students in a border high school known for disruptions and riots was a piece of cake.

    Yeah, you nailed it all right.

  11. Sadly, it's always easier to take advantage of those who are less fortunate. It especially disturbing when those taking advantage are the ones charged with their care.

    I haven't seen your book yet, but it's on my to buy list. Do you have forward or afterward that explains that much of what you describe happening in the school with regards to the staff is based on your own experiences? If not, since the book is fiction, I can see where some readers might find the descriptions unrealistic. After all most people probably don't want to believe that these kind of atroticies can still take place in our "modern" times.

  12. They'll happily read about serial murder and whine about killing pets. They'll accept Jessica Fletcher syndrome but question a charismatic leader who tells befuddled parents that he has the answer? RIGHT.
    We all fucking wish we trusted ourselves and we all have wondered at times. I imagine those with kids wonder 100 times more than I do. Did I make the right move? Should I have married him, taken that job, LEFT that job, gone there with her, spent that money, MADE THAT DECISION. And we all want someone else to tell us how to decide, especially on the big ones.

    Courage - GREAT comment Rae. I have a passion to read about that as a topic, most especially reading about "righteous Gentiles" who saved Jews during the Holocaust. HOW the HELL can one person be so brave when everyone else was doing otherwise? Going the other way, not drinking the Flavor-aid (course harder when crossbows and guns are aimed at you) hiding someone in the basement, standing up and saying no, or yes. Going back into the building. Do any of us have a clue what we would do?

  13. I hope to hell I'd stand up for the little guy, whoever he or she might be.

    The bad guys can only kill you once. (says she who feels shy about calling for pizza).

  14. C--keep telling the truth-- those of us who went to "crazy schools" and had parents whose eyes glazed over because they didn't and don't want to know ("oh, get over it")-- we are grateful for you. Sad that the same syndrome still pertains, whether with 1950's McCarthyism or the current "war on terror" where so many people passively accept dreadful behaviour perpetrated by the powers that be.

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  17. I went to DeSisto-at-Howey from 1980-84; I have a book manuscript 27,000 words written several years ago, "Detailing Michael DeSisto". Cornelia, I sent a copy to you two or three years ago - I am wondering what happened to it; is there an audience for it, and who might publish it..