September 19, 2012

My Beautiful Failure: A Psychtember Review

Patient: My Beautiful Failure by Janet Ruth Young

Presentation (from Goodreads): A haunting account of a teen boy who volunteers at a suicide hotline and falls for a troubled caller.Billy is a sophomore in high school, and twice a week, he volunteers at Listeners, a suicide hotline.

     Jenney is an “incoming,” a caller, a girl on the brink.

     As her life spirals out of control, Jenney’s calls become more desperate, more frequent. Billy, struggling with the deteriorating relationship with his depressed father, is the only one who understands. Through her pain, he sees hope. Through her tears, he feels her heart. And through her despair, he finds love. But is that enough?

     Acclaimed author Janet Ruth Young has written a stunning and powerful story with no easy answers; it is about pain and heartbreak, reality and illusion, and finding redemption and the strength to forgive in the darkest of times.


Axis 1. Characters

Unfortunately, an emotional connection didn't happen for me with the characters in My Beautiful Failure. I just never cared about Billy or Jenney that much; Jenney we don't get to know that well because we only see her in phone conversations, and Billy kind of annoyed me with his know-it-all attitude. He's unusually intellectual (to the point of overthinking things at times) and in touch with his emotions for a teen guy, and frankly if I hadn't known his name and that he was a male narrator, I don't know that I'd have been able to tell right away from the voice. His friend Gordy is also pretty sensitive, and their heart-to-heart talks just didn't seem that believable for a couple of male teens.

We don't really get to know Billy's other friends very well, and his sister, while undeniably quirky, didn't seem to serve much purpose except irritating Billy. I quite liked the conversations with the unusual callers Billy gets (and would have loved more of these!), which show that you can get some pretty strange kinds of calls when working at a suicide hotline.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

My Beautiful Failure
focuses on a type of relationship that's unusual, but quite conceivable in a hotline situation — one in which the two people have never met in person, but only communicated over the phone. Both the temptation to break the rules at a hotline, and the perils of doing so, are touched on. I wish the consequences of Billy's actions had been dealt with more; I felt like the ending didn't go into enough depth about this.

Outside of the Billy/Jenney storyline, there's also a subplot surrounding Billy's dad, and the possibility that he may have bipolar disorder. The interesting question of where the line might be drawn between creativity and mental illness (specifically mania) is raised, but unfortunately, this storyline is not resolved to my satisfaction. Instead, it just seems to be dropped when the plot involving Jenney escalates, and I never got the answers I wanted.

The second loose end I found frustrating is related to Jenney's time spent in therapy. The truth of certain details Jenney tells Billy is ambiguous, and remains so even at the end of the novel. I was looking forward to seeing a particular potential danger of therapy (specifically psychoanalysis) being explored, so it was disappointing that the book didn't end up going there. This is spoilery, so highlight to read: I was expecting that the explanation for Jenney's supposed memories of abuse in childhood and the murder of her brother (which seemed rather ludicrous to me, given the situation) would be that the therapist was encouraging Jenney to "remember" trauma that never actually occurred. I was hoping for an exposé of how therapy (especially psychoanalysis) can sometimes be harmful in this way, since this is a topic that hasn't been tackled much as far as I know in YA, but has happened before in real life (we've certainly heard about such cases in the media). However, this possibility is only ever hinted at here, and nothing is resolved with the therapist, Melinda; the storyline is left hanging and I wish there'd been a clearer explanation, particularly since I think it could have been helpful for the reader to better understand Jenney's motivations.

We see how alluring Billy finds the temptation to share information about his life with Jenney, making it a two-way conversation. However, he doesn't know how this could affect her life. Just generally, this story shows really well how you don't actually know that much about someone who calls into a hotline. They could be putting on a front, and while Billy may have thought everything was going so peachy-keen for Jenney that he could unload his troubles on her, if he'd followed the rules he probably would have taken this possibility into consideration.

I didn't feel that satisfied by the ending (spoiler: I wasn't strongly impacted by Jenney's death, perhaps because I didn't get to know Jenney very well). Billy does undergo some thoughtful reflection in the last few chapters, and I think he realizes that part of the interpretation of their relationship on his part was overblown.

Axis 3. Writing Style

The chapters are short, which makes it more readable, since the plot is very slow-moving. Personally, I thought there was too much description and inner musings of Billy's mind; he reflects and philosophizes a lot. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the rising tension and sensationalized quality of Things I Shouldn't Think (formerly The Babysitter Murders) that keeps you reading; it's a slower and more gradual build. I found the writing kind of distancing and clinical, and I just didn't feel very close to any of the characters.

On the positive side, I think Billy's flashbacks/memories were an effective way to show what his dad was like before, and explain why Billy's acting the way he is now with his father — there's an interesting sort of role reversal going on.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

The accuracy of portraying work at a suicide hotline is bang-on. The way the Listeners are supposed to respond is very reminiscent of humanistic therapy, Carl Rogers–style. Personally, I would probably find it annoying (I was far more impressed by CBT than Rogerian therapy in my counselling psychology class) but I can see why it would be used for a hotline. In that situation, there are no trained therapists, so really the volunteers are just there to listen and can't deviate too much from that. They're trying to standardize the experience, and while I can understand why that would frustrate Billy, it makes sense to me. (The importance of controlling variables was drilled into us during my psychology undergrad classes!) Introducing a personal relationship is not the purpose of the hotline, and Billy throws that all away when he starts falling for Jenney. The rules are there for a reason, and breaking them does have repercussions.

I liked that we see Billy actually referring to the Listeners' manual at one point, going through a series of questions there. The fact that the Listeners often tried to praise the callers didn't sit quite right with me, though; I feel like they should have been more neutral. Certainly, in Rogerian (aka. "person-centered") therapy, "unconditional positive regard" towards the client is supposed to be shown, but in some cases the praise Billy gives seems dishonest. For instance, he tells a caller who admits to watching his neighbor dress that "you obviously have a lot of concern for your neighbor's privacy" (and he's not being sarcastic.)

There are a few spots at which disorders are defined, which is helpful. While this might seem a bit dry, I think it's important that accurate definitions be given, and furthermore, it gives the reader a foundation for understanding what's being discussed and what behaviours to look for.

It's suggested at one point that antidepressants can turn major depressive disorder into bipolar disorder, and I'm afraid I have to take issue with this for a couple of reasons. To begin with, the wording used — "anyone taking antidepressants had to be careful of becoming irrationally happy ("hypomania") because it could lead to bipolar disorder and a lifetime of cycling up and down" — isn't the best, since it doesn't make clear that theoretically, an individual would have to have a predisposition for bipolar disorder in order to react that way to an antidepressant. Secondly, and surprisingly, the jury's still out on whether antidepressants actually do trigger manic episodes. Indeed, some of the research doesn't seem to back up this (admittedly logical) supposition.

As mentioned above, a couple of the storylines were not resolved to my satisfaction, making it difficult to assess the characters in terms of clinical psychology. Jenney's mental health is certainly in question — she was obviously undergoing some emotional trauma — but I can't say for sure if she was clinically depressed. We do get a glimpse at what seems to be a pretty textbook case of paranoid schizophrenia, complete with concerns about the CIA listening in... 

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was My Beautiful Failure?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I wasn't as impressed with this book as Things I Shouldn't Think, since that one was quite different from most YA "issue books" in drawing attention to a poorly-understood type of OCD. I just feel like there's a lot more that could have been done with the psychology here that wasn't, and instead it took a different route by focusing on Billy's reflections and reactions.

Patient's statement:

On a scrap of paper I wrote a song title: "Check In Before You Check Out." Then, holy cripes, my phone lit. Line 3 was ringing. Someone needed me. Someone was in trouble, and I was going to save them. Margaret and Richie dropped their listening faces and glanced at me with big, encouraging eyes. For a second I felt overwhelmed. I hesitated. Richie covered his mouthpiece with one hand and motioned at me to pick up.

I grabbed the receiver.

Diagnosis: 3 shooting stars. There are a lot of topics covered here on an abstract, intellectual level, and many questions raised (but not answered!). However, for me the emotional heart of it just wasn't there.

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

This book counts towards my goal for the 2012 Just Contemporary reading challenge. Also, I interviewed Janet Ruth Young here!

1 comment:

  1. Wow. GREAT review. I'm putting a star on this review in my Google Reader so I can come back to it. Sorry it didn't quite hit the mark for you. The premise still has me hooked.


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