September 9, 2011

The Babysitter Murders: A Psychtember Review

Patient: The Babysitter Murders by Janet Ruth Young


Everyone has weird thoughts sometimes. But for seventeen-year-old Dani Solomon, strange thoughts have taken over her life. She loves Alex, the little boy she babysits, more than anything. But one day, she has a vision of murdering him that's so gruesome, she can't get it out of her mind. In fact, Dani's convinced that she really will kill Alex. She confesses the thoughts to keep him safe, setting off a media frenzy that makes "Dani Death" the target of an extremist vigilante group.
Through the help of an unconventional psychiatrist, Dani begins to heal her broken mind. But will it be too late? The people of her community want justice . . . and Dani's learning that some thoughts are better left unsaid. (from Goodreads)


Axis 1. Characters

Dani's a character you definitely have to sympathize with. She has a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that not many people understand, and it alienates her from others when she shares the kinds of thoughts she's having. But she herself is scared of and confused about these thoughts, and so it only makes matters worse that almost everyone else reacts with horror and disgust.

I didn't connect with most of the other characters in the same way. Shelley was, for a large part of the book, the kind of "best friend" who leaves you high and dry when you most need her. She has her own personal sub-plot going on, but it wasn't as compelling to me as Dani's. There are two guys, Gordy and Nathan, who are friendly to Dani, but they're pretty flat characters, never really becoming more than just "nice guys."

I did like Dani's mom, since it was obvious that she wanted to help her daughter but didn't know how. Malcolm and his dad were well-sketched, creepy but believable, and Alex's mom — while infuriating — was also, for the most part, realistic in her behaviour.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

I have to give Janet Ruth Young major points for writing about a type of OCD that is quite common, and yet not well-known or understood by the general public. There need to be more books like The Babysitter Murders out there, to support individuals struggling with these issues, and to better educate their friends/family/acquaintances.

Plot-wise, you will need to take The Babysitter Murders with a grain or two of salt as the reaction to Dani's OCD escalates and becomes a media story. However, the emotion behind the public response rings true. I can certainly see how a confession like Dani's — "I keep having these thoughts about killing Alex" — could stir up a frenzy among ignorant parents in the neighbourhood, who are frightened that Dani is actually dangerous. I also got the impression that Hawthorne is a small town, which gave the "sensational" aspect of the story a bit more believability. And the excerpts from various media — newspapers, a blog, etc. — really added something to the story, making it feel more real.

There was one event I found kind of pointless in terms of building tension and momentum for the storyline. In fact, it just served to delay the rest of the plot. Spoiler, highlight to read: Dani runs away to the woods for a while, but then returns without anything momentous having happened. Plus, her mom doesn't seem quite so frantic as I would have expected given her daughter has just vanished.

The ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic to me, although it's probably a good deal more plausible than the more extreme one I was anticipating. However, I really appreciated the symbolism in the climactic scene; not to give anything away, but there's an interesting kind of mirroring/role reversal going on that really works. I was a bit concerned, though, with how Dani's relationship with Alex wraps up, since it could have ramifications for her progress in getting better.

Axis 3. Writing Style

I had a difficult time getting into the writing style of this book. It's third-person present omniscient POV from what I can tell, which is rather unusual. I'm not a fan of present-tense generally, so this is more just a personal preference, but I did find the perspective was a stumbling block to becoming completely absorbed in the story. It may just be the nature of this POV, but I felt like I was being told a fair bit rather than shown it. That said, the third-person omniscient aspect shed some light on other characters in the novel, while still allowing the reader to understand the protagonist Dani. In particular, it was interesting to see how some of the adults were portrayed — there is no illusion of perfection for many of them, including Dani's mother.

I also thought that some of the OCD elements could have been woven in more smoothly; it sometimes felt like they were mentioned to get the facts across rather than because they were crucial to the storyline or Dani's character.

The dialogue gave me some trouble in terms of authenticity. The teens — Dani and Gordy in particular — often said lines that seemed too mature for their age, resulting in dialogue that came off as stilted and unnatural.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

"Fast Facts" about OCD: Did You Know?
  • The obsessive thoughts are unwanted and produce anxiety
  • The individual with OCD recognizes their thoughts/actions are irrational
  • OCD is often comorbid (appears together) with other mental health problems (e.g. depression, panic disorder, social phobia)
  • Compulsions, used to "neutralize" the distressing thoughts, can be obvious behaviours (eg. handwashing) or subtle mental actions (eg. counting or praying).
- from my Abnormal Psychology textbook
The Babysitter Murders does an excellent job of sticking to the facts about this kind of OCD. The unnerving thoughts that Dani has fall into some of the common categories — for instance, harming others or engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour. The compulsions Dani performs to lessen her anxiety make sense with her obsessive thoughts. For instance, Dani will clutch her hands together to reassure herself that she is not going to harm someone else, and touch her lips to check that she has not blurted out anything inappropriate.

I appreciated that The Babysitter Murders demonstrates how people who are well-intentioned may attempt to help an individual with OCD, but end up only enabling them to continue with their obsessions and compulsions. Her mom does this when she locks her door at Dani's request, since in Dani's mind it gives strength to the fear that she will actually hurt her mother.

But what I really loved was seeing the cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) that Dani undergoes. I've noticed that of the YA books dealing with mental health issues, not that many of them actually go into detail about treatment. It was such a pleasant surprise to see Dr. Mandel acting very much like a therapist trained in CBT would. She was professional and down-to-earth, not falling prey to stereotypes. Moreover, although the technique Dr. Mandel uses with Dani is unnamed in the book, it's quite obvious that she's getting Dani to practice "exposure and response prevention" — which is exactly what should be done for OCD. (Medication is another possibility, or a combination of the two, but it is not brought up as a potential treatment for Dani. I wondered a bit at this — perhaps it's because she's still quite young, or perhaps her clinical psychologist wanted to try CBT first before referring her to a psychiatrist for medication...but I thought it a little strange the option was never discussed.)

This book also makes very clear the level of ignorance in the general public about this kind of OCD. When the town finds out about Dani's problem, they don't realize it's OCD — some even believe she's a psychopath. Its portrayal of how people react to something they don't understand and don't trust is spot-on.

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was The Babysitter Murders?
Axis 5. Miscellaneous

The one thing I really wish The Babysitter Murders had done was note the improbability of Dani actually acting on her thoughts. These are unwanted thoughts that are reprehensible to the individual with OCD — hence the need for their compulsions. I understand why this is not mentioned in the therapy, since a key part of the CBT is getting the individual with OCD to accept uncertainty. However, I thought it would have been helpful to have had someone point out to the people of Hawthorne that Dani's OCD does not mean that she poses any more of a threat than the average person (the police do affirm that there is no case there, but that's not quite the same thing.)

Since this kind of OCD in particular is not something the general public is very aware of, it also would have been helpful to have included some basic facts about it at the back of the book, along with resources for seeking help or learning more.

Patient's statement:

How long will this go on? Dani wonders. Dani had walked around the house with her hands squeezed together. She had checked on Alex ten or twelve times, locked up the knives, put them back before Mrs. Alex came home, and changed the TV channel every time something nasty came on. In the last ten minutes she felt a huge sense of relief, because Mrs. Alex would be home and Dani would be glad to see her, to tell her everything's all right, to sign off on Alex, and to quit and never spend a night like this again.

Diagnosis: 3.5 shooting stars. As a portrayal of this type of OCD and the necessary treatment, I'd probably give it much closer to 5 stars, but this is my rating for the story overall.

For more information about OCD generally, see here.

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the author, for Psychtember.


  1. I have been wanting to read this and want to even more now. It sounds so good and the form of OCD is definitely different and something I am highly interested in reading about.

  2. I had no idea that this book dealt with OCD! You're also right that most YA books dealing with mental disorders don't really talk about how patients are getting treated in detail. I'll be adding this one to my wishlist now. Thanks, Danya.

  3. Wow, I haven't heard of this before but it sounds intense. I think I might have to read this one!


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