Sisters in Sanity(2) by Gayle Forman

“Level Six is the highest level. Earning Level Six status would enable you to lead therapy groups, even supervise new students, and go off campus. Once you complete Level Six, you’ll return home, but that’s a long way off. It can take months to reach Level Six, or years. That part’s up to you. Any time you misbehave, break rules, or refuse to fully participate in your therapy, you will be demoted a level or two. If the situation warrants it, you could even get yourself demoted to Level One.”

She smiled when she said the last bit, and you could tell she got off on the thought of it.

Chapter 3

After four days in isolation, I started sprouting under-arm hair. Red Rock Academy policy did not allow anyone under Level Five to use a razor. The logic behind this is unclear. I have never heard of a girl doing harm to herself or others with a Ladyshaver. But when I went into the empty bathroom to take my first shower—supervised by a staff member who watched me the whole time—I was given a bottle of baby shampoo and that was it. No combs. No razors. Level Three permitted electric razors—I guess they weren’t worried about us electrocuting ourselves to death—but until then, I had to go native.

Among the other indignities of Level One was the constant supervision, even when I used the toilet. At night the guards watched me, but during the day it was a steady stream of Level Sixers. Some of them were bitchy and condescending, lording their mighty status over me. I hated them. Others were nice and condescending, full of pep talks about keeping with the program. I hated them even more.

So I spent my early days at Red Rock empathizing with how zoo animals must feel. The only thing I had to do was read the lame-ass school primers they gave me, filled with stuff like geometry. I did geometry in ninth grade! I was literally bored to tears, but there was no way I was going to let anyone see me cry.

Instead of Dr. Clayton, I’d been having sessions with the director of the place, a kind of tough-love guru named Bud Austin. “But you can call me Sheriff. Everyone does,” he told me. “I used to be a cop, but now I take care of the real hardened cases: you girls.” He laughed. It was my first day of solitary and he’d come for a visit, dragging in a metal folding chair. He was tall with black hair and a bushy mustache. He wore too-tight jeans with a ton of keys hanging from one belt loop, and lizard cowboy boots poked out beneath the cuffed bottoms.

“Now let me tell you a secret,” he continued with his pat, one-size-fits-all speech. “You’re probably gonna hate me at first. All the girls do. But let me tell you, one day you’re gonna grow up some and realize that Red Rock is the best thing that ever happened to you, and I’m one of the most important people you’ll meet here. Hell, you might even invite me to your wedding.” All I could think was, Wedding? I’m only sixteen! But he just went on. “Your parents have gone soft, is my guess. That’s why so many girls get out of control—that, and for attention. You’re gonna get plenty of that here. Because, girlie,” (that’s what he called you, either that or your last name, never by your first name) “we’re gonna refocus your misdirected life. We’re gonna challenge your attitude, and we’re gonna replace your inappropriate behaviors with productive ones. In other words, we’re gonna straighten you out. It might not seem like it, but we love you.”

The next day Sheriff came into my little room again, dragging his little chair. “Girlie, you ready to face yourself?” This struck me as the dumbest question in the world. Face what exactly? It was as if he’d already decided I was a delusional moron. So I just said, “I’d need a mirror for that. But I guess breakable reflective glass would be too dangerous for a psycho like me.” Sheriff stood up, folded his chair and left the room, clicking the bolt on the door behind him. The next afternoon, it was the same spiel: “Hemphill, ready to face yourself?” “Oh, go to hell,” I said. The third day, when he showed up with his chair and his question, I wanted to tell him to face my middle finger, but something kept me from saying anything at all. So he gave me a little lecture about doing things the hard way or the easy way. I seriously wanted to laugh because he was so full of it, except that I also wanted to cry because this idiot was in charge of me.

I kept up as brave a face as I could, refusing to give any of them—Sheriff, Helga, Stepmonster, the bitchy Sixers—the satisfaction of seeing me down. But at night, when the last light went out and my door was locked from the outside, I cried until my pillow was soaked through.

Finally, after the Sheriff’s fifth visit, when my armpit hairs were nearly braidable, one of the Level Sixers opened my door. She was tall, with a striking angular face framed by dirty blond hair. It was cut in a funky choppy style that seemed too high maintenance for our prison. Maybe Sixers got salon privileges.

“Look, Brit. That is your name, right?” she asked me with the kind of exasperated impatience teachers reserve for their slowest pupils. “Well, Brit, maybe you enjoy wearing your pj’s in solitary confinement, but if you don’t, cut the Rebel-Without-a-Cause crap. No one here is impressed by it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Spare me. Just tell Sheriff you’re ready to face yourself. That’s all it takes to get to Level Two.”

“Seriously?”

She arched an eyebrow at me, letting me know what a dunce she thought I was. “I’ve got better things to do than sit here guarding your door. Just say you’re ready to face yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Do us all a favor and check your pride at your cell door.”

This turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons I would learn at Red Rock.

Chapter 4

“You’re a drunk.”

“You’re a slut.”

“Whore. Whore. Whore.”

It was my third week at Red Rock, and along with about twenty other girls, I was in one of two therapy centers: giant empty rooms with dirty windows, blue gymnastics pads on the floor, and more fading inspirational posters. (My personal fave: a cat hanging on to a tree. “He can because he thinks he can.” Um, no, he can because he’s got claws.) There was no furniture. Guess they didn’t want us to go all Jerry Springer and start hurling it around.

Like the rest of the inmates, I was wearing the required uniform: khaki shorts and a Red Rock polo shirt—an outfit that I’m convinced was designed as a form of fashion punishment. We were all standing in a circle, looking like a suburban high-school phys-ed class. At the center of the circle a girl named Sharon was giving us a deer-in-the-headlights look as she turned to catch insult after insult. A counselor named Deirdre and a Level Sixer named Lisa egged us on. “Tell her what you think. Ask her why she sleeps around. Ask her why she doesn’t respect herself.”

Welcome to “confrontational therapy.” It’s supposed to make you face your issues, but it mostly makes you cry—which seems to be the point because it was only after you’d cried that you were allowed to leave the circle and “process” what just happened. CT, as it’s called, was a big crowd-pleaser at Red Rock, very gladiator-like, and those who’d been inside the circle were even more vicious once they found themselves safely outside it. For example, the girl chanting “whore” was Shana, who only a week ago had been berated for her eating disorder—until she broke down sobbing and was promptly rewarded with a group hug.

I’d pretty quickly figured out that CT was typical of the Red Rock philosophy: Treat ODD teenagers like crap until they break. Now that I was in Level Two, my days were spent in CT, in strange lecturey one-on-ones with Sheriff or another one of the counselors, and—once a week—with Dr. Clayton, who’d already suggested putting me on antidepressants. I was depressed now, but only because I was at Red Rock. The rest of my days were spent back in my cell, doing “self-directed” study, which was the academic equivalent of Mad Libs, even though back at school I would’ve been in AP English. I still wasn’t able to write to my dad or get any letters from him. That wouldn’t happen until Level Three, when I’d be sprung from my room and allowed to attend school.

“Brit, right?”

Beside me in the confrontation circle stood the Sixer who’d taught me the key to escaping Level One. She was scarily tall, towering over me, and giving me that same you’re-an-idiot face she had before. I was really starting to hate the Level Sixers, who generally seemed like a bunch of do-goodery, kiss-ass snobs.

“I believe we’ve established that’s my name,” I told her.

She arched her eyebrows again. “Well, Brit. Mouth it.”

“Huh?”

“Mouth it. Pretend you’re saying something.”

“What?”

“Do you not understand English or are you just slow? You’re not ‘participating in the process.’” She was whispering, but she made it sound like a barked order.

“I don’t know anything about this girl. I can’t yell at her.”

“Are you moronic or deaf? Mouth it. Fake it. Or you’ll get in trouble. Have I made myself clear?”

Before I had a chance to think of a clever reply, she had moved to the other side of the circle, where she was chanting insults so ferociously that you had to watch closely to see that she wasn’t actually making a sound.

I didn’t know what to make of her. She was a total bitch to me, insulting me as much as the counselors did, telling me how delusional I was. She might have been trying to railroad me: You could move up levels at Red Rock by narcing out your roommates (so Fascist). But her advice was kind of subversive, which had me thinking she was maybe trying to help. I did what she told me to, and it turned out to be her second piece of good advice. After I started fake name-calling in group, one of the counselors patted me on the back and said I’d begun to “work my program.” When I met with Dr. Clayton later that week, she gave me a creepy smile and said she thought I was finally ready to “deal with my demons” and “break down my walls.” Which meant promotion to Level Three, and real school—a windowless room with a dozen desks where I’d do more self-directed study while watched by guards who didn’t look like they could spell their own names. I was also moved into a shared room with three other inmates: a fat girl named Martha, a rich, snooty waif named Bebe, and blonde, bulimic Tiffany, who alternated between hysterical smiliness and hysterical tears.

When I wasn’t in school, therapy, or meals, I was doing physical therapy. This consisted of spending four hours in the hot desert heat dragging five-pound cinder blocks from a giant pile across fifty feet of dusty yard and stacking them into a wall. Sounds like pure torture, I know, but it actually wasn’t so bad. I mean, for sure my muscles killed me at first, and we worked without gloves, so my hands turned bloody and then all callused. Plus, the work made me thirsty and I had to drink a ton of water but could only pee once an hour. Still, the counselors-cum-guards were lazy and preferred to stay in the shade, so the cinder-block yard was the one place that us inmates could talk freely amongst ourselves.

“This is ruining my hands,” Bebe bitched. “My nails used to be so pretty.”

“Can it, Rodeo Drive,” scolded the Level Four girl next to her.

“How many times do I have to spell this out for you, yokel. Rodeo Drive is in Beverly Hills, and it’s where podunk tourists shop. I don’t even live in Beverly Hills. I live in the Palisades. So shut it already.” Everyone called Bebe “Rodeo Drive.” People were jealous of her, I gathered, because she was so pretty with her long, shiny black hair and blue catlike eyes. Her mom was Marguerite Howarth, a famous soap-opera actress. Bebe had been my roommate for two days but hadn’t deigned to speak to me, so I wasn’t about to put myself in her line of fire. But it was obviously my lucky day.

“Where are you from?” she asked me.

“Oregon. Portland.”

“I’ve been there. Rain and people wearing the most unattractive flannel.”

I happened to love Portland and didn’t appreciate LA people dissing it, but I had to admit she was right about the flannel.

“And what are you in for?”

“No idea.”

“Oh, come now. You must have some idea, my dear girl. Bulimia? Promiscuous behavior? Self-mutilation?” Bebe said, ticking off potential abuses.

“None of the above.”

“Well, let’s see. You have the hair and the tattoos. If I were to take a wild stab in the dark, I’d say you’re a musician or an artist.”

“Musician,” was all I said, but inwardly I was kind of surprised. My mom had been the artist.

“Ahh, heroin? Meth?” Bebe ventured.

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