September 9, 2011

Psychtember Interview with Janet Ruth Young (and Canada Giveaway!)

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Janet Ruth Young to the blog for a Psychtember interview! She's the author of The Babysitter Murders.

Here's a synopsis of her novel from Goodreads:

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)

And a bit about her (from her website):

Janet Ruth Young, who lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, graduated from Salem State College and from the creative writing program at Boston University. She was a co-editor of the literary magazine stet and a founder of Writers' Circle, the writing workshop at the Cambridge Women's Center. Her travel articles and book and theater reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe and other local publications.  She left her job as an editor at a publishing company to pursue a career as a novelist.

The Opposite of Music, published in 2007 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, a division of Simon & Schuster, garnered enthusiastic reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, The Denver Post, The Boston Globe, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, and the website TeensReadToo.  It won the PEN New England Discovery Award and was a Book Sense Pick, a Borders Original Voices selection, and an American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults nominee.

Janet's second novel, The Babysitter Murders, about a babysitter who has thoughts of harming the child she cares for (Atheneum, 2011), received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

You can read my review of The Babysitter Murders here.

And now for the questions!
1.) There are several YA novels available with characters who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but many of them focus on either fears surrounding contamination or obsession with numbers. In contrast, The Babysitter Murders stands out by portraying a character who must deal with thoughts of harming others. Why do you think most other YA books about OCD do not focus on this type of OCD?
The main reasons authors haven’t covered this topic is probably that they don’t know about it. Dani Solomon’s form of OCD is not uncommon (at least one-third of OCD sufferers are plagued by violent thoughts), but it’s invisible in the culture for several reasons.  First, people who have the symptoms don’t recognize them as OCD and either don’t tell their doctors (out of shame) or tell their doctors and leave the office without the right diagnosis.  Second, mental illnesses can be categorized as internalized or externalized.  These bad thoughts often occur with very few observable external symptoms.  So if you have a friend who is constantly washing her hands, you know there’s a problem.  If you have a friend who is tormented by thoughts of calling you “whore!” in social studies class, and you see her rubbing her mouth twenty times a day, you might just think she has chapped lips.

2.) On her way to getting help, Dani encounters a psychiatrist, Dr. Kumar, whose therapy session is not very effective. She doesn’t appear to realize that Dani has OCD, instead dwelling on Dani’s emotional state. From what I understand, at one point you experienced similar OCD symptoms to Dani’s. Did you also encounter this kind of ignorance from mental health professionals? Would this be a common reaction these days from many psychiatrists, or do you believe most would recognize Dani’s problem?
Yes, I went to five therapists, some for multiple visits, who had no inkling that the thoughts tormenting me were a form of OCD. (Another therapist was too afraid to meet me in person, and one asked whether I heard voices coming from my television set telling me to kill people.) Twenty years later, the situation hasn’t changed much.  I’m eager to hear the results of a new study that showed doctors and therapists a list of “bad thoughts” symptoms and asked them to identify the illness.  I’ll bet you a free copy of my book that fewer than 50 percent of those surveyed got the answers right---more likely, 20 to 30 percent.
(Sidenote from Danya: I would be very interested to see the results of that study too!)

3.) Many of the people in Dani’s town don’t understand her mental health issues, and this has dangerous consequences. What
resources would you recommend that could help explain Dani’s OCD in a way that the general public could understand?
The International OCD Foundation ( is very up to date with what real people are experiencing.  The books The Imp of the Mind and Getting Control, both by Lee Baer, cover unwanted thoughts extensively. Getting Control also describes treatments, including self-treatment you can do at home.

4.) When Dani tries to explain her unsettling thoughts to her friends and family, they are either confused or horrified, resulting in Dani feeling isolated and alone. Did you face a similar reaction when you let people know about your OCD? If so, how did you cope with this?
I told about eight people close to that I had this mystifying illness and that I had found a therapist who was going to figure it out with me.  No one I told recognized my problems as OCD.  One person made some nasty jokes, and I learned that that person wasn’t really reliable.  Others were sympathetic but befuddled.  My mother immediately felt guilty and confessed to having once shaken me in my infancy, which was not actually relevant.  (I have forgiven her for this.) Another relative told me that others in a previous generation had revealed similar thoughts, and I began to realize that my difficulties were partly genetic.  By the way, some of my relatives have also had habits like hoarding and skin-picking, which are now identified as part of the OCD spectrum.  I actually like feeling that my illness links me to two other generations. But we’re not breaking out the “OCD Pride” T-shirts yet!
All in all, ignorant-but-supportive was the most common reaction.  I hope this changes for the next generation of people who “come out” with the disorder.

5.) Often when an individual has OCD, friends or family wish to help but only end up enabling him/her. This occurs in The Babysitter Murders, when Dani’s mother repeatedly locks her door, which only strengthens Dani’s concern that she will physically harm her mother. How would you recommend family and friends help a person with OCD without making the problem worse?
Chapter 10 of the book Getting Control is called “For Family, Friends, and Helpers.” The main message is to “help by not helping.”  In other words, don’t participate in the person’s rituals, because that would only reinforce the disorder, and don’t give constant reassurance.  I haven’t shown the book to anyone in my world, since my OCD is in remission, but the chapter looks very useful.
6.) Stigma and ignorance surrounding mental health issues play a large role in your novel. In your experience, does this reaction from the general public extend to reading books involving mental health issues as well? If so, how would you suggest members of the book community (writers, librarians, booksellers, etc.) try to combat this?
The major frustration for me has been reviewers dismissing The Babysitter Murders by saying it deals with a “rare” or “atypical” form of OCD and that the treatments in the book aren’t authentic.  One reviewer advised librarians to send readers instead to the books about hand-washing and counting.  Obviously, this response perpetuates ignorance around the topic.  I would wish that before rejecting any book about mental illness as unrealistic a reviewer at least do a little Googling to find out whether he or she is up to date on the subject.
By the way, I’ve known of at least four librarians (two in my own life and two who’ve contacted me since the book) who have the “bad thoughts” form of OCD. One librarian predicted that I would hear from others who have thoughts of stabbing patrons with a scissors when they approach the reference desk.  I wonder if the ordering aspects of the job attract more people with obsessive and compulsive tendencies? 
Honestly, my dream would be that this strain of the disease be named Dani Solomon Disorder, in honor of a strong heroine, and that teachers, librarians, and other people who work with kids keep their ears open for readers who express similar symptoms and could use a hand getting help.

7.) One of the characters in the novel creates a blog devoted to keeping tabs on Dani’s situation and whereabouts (in a vicious, disturbing way.) Dani reads the articles on this blog as well as the comments, many of which are cruel and derogatory. If you could write one comment on this blog that you knew Dani (and everyone else in town) would read, what would you say?
I would combine the messages of Sergeant Mason and Dr. Mandel with what I said above:  “Dani Solomon has a mental illness.  She has committed no crime.  Dani, if you read this, please read the book Getting Control or contact the International OCD Foundation.  There are people who want to help you.”
Thanks for the interview and for running the Psychtember blog event!
Thanks, Janet, for taking the time to answer these questions! If I someday hear talk of "Dani Solomon Disorder" I'll know exactly where the name comes from :)

Now, I have a SIGNED hardcover copy of The Babysitter Murders for giveaway.

The rules:

- Entrants must be 13 years or older.
- Open ONLY to Canadian mailing addresses
- One entry per person
- Following and tweeting are not necessary but always appreciated!
- Ends Sept. 30, at 11:59 pm EDT.
- Winner will be selected randomly and contacted by e-mail

This contest is now closed.


  1. Thanks for this very interesting interview. I've always thought the book sounded intriguing, and now I think that even more so.

    Thanks for the giveaway, as well. =)

  2. This was a very interesting and informative interview. I learned a lot more about OCD and am adding this book to my TBR list.

  3. Woo hoo!!!! I qualify for this draw. This sounds like a great book.

  4. I'm not surprised that there are people with OCD whose obsessions revolve around bad thoughts because even "normal" people get occasional thoughts where they want to harm themselves or others. Thanks for the giveaway!

  5. Wow! I didn't know those types of thoughts could be a form of OCD. I am now more informed. And am curious enough to look into it further. What a great and informative interview. I'm so sorry Ms. Young had such a hard time getting help for her disorder. I thought those of us with Bipolar Disorder had it rough, but when doctors don't even know how to identify what you have or even know it exists, that's much worse. I'm glad it's being brought to attention and I will ask our library to carry it!



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