The girl on the phone, a reporter for a high school newspaper, had just read
an article about teenagers I'd written for a national newsmagazine. One of her
best friends was crushing Adderall pills and snorting them. Another friend had
such severe bulimia that she purged every day. "You don't know what it's like
to be a teenager now," she said. If I didn't know, I was getting an idea. A
doctor from Florida called to say that his sixteen-year-old daughter had just
been expelled from school for selling Ecstasy. A mother in California wrote
that her fourteen-year-old boy had run away after using the family's credit
card to download pornography.
Adolescence has always been turbulent, but it is more
complicated today than it was just a couple of generations ago. An extensive
study published in the journal Pediatrics found that nearly one in five children
and adolescents suffers from some sort of behavioral or emotional illness—
nearly triple the level of twenty years before. Another study found that the
onset of bipolar disorder, once called manic depression, has fallen from the
early thirties to the late teens. At the same time, the number of young people
in America who committed suicide tripled over thirty years before leveling off
in the 1990s.
While researching the magazine story, I dropped into meetings of
parents in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where I lived. Befuddled mothers
and fathers agonized about their kids' Internet addictions, eating disorders,
and attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder. They worried about studies
showing that hyperactive, impulsive kids have higher-than-normal rates of
school failure, drug use, and delinquency. Some of the parents turned to
books such as Now I Know Why Tigers Eat Their Young: Surviving a New
Generation of Teenagers. Other parents sought solace in online chat rooms
that seemed to start every month: DifficultChild.com, DefiantTeen.com,
HelpYourTeens.com. One of the most popular, Struggling Teens.com,
attracted mothers and fathers from across the country. The message lines
hinted at heartbreaking stories: "Help needed for 12-year-old," "16-year-old
son needs rehab," "13-year-old with anorexia," "What's next for my 14-year-
old truant?" "Out of control 15-year-old daughter," "Ripping my hair out," "Teen
giving up on school—help!" "How can I help this child? How can I help
me?" "What do I do?"
In many ways, of course, middle- and upper-class concerns
differed from those of the poor. Less than twenty miles from my
neighborhood, in Washington's blighted Southeast side, parents worried
about basics such as decrepit classrooms and abysmal graduation rates. In
both affluent and poor areas, though, parents agreed that teenagers have less
support than they used to. Families are overstressed, many schools
resemble factories, and few communities have adults around in the afternoon.
Traveling the country as a reporter covering education, I kept meeting
teenagers from all income and ethnic backgrounds who were falling through
To deal with these kids, more than two dozen special schools
have opened across the country since the 1970s. Called emotional-growth or
therapeutic schools, they are spartan versions of traditional boarding schools.
They remove students from a toxic environment—a home where they clash
with their parents, a high school where they are bullied, a neighborhood
where they hang out with drug dealers—and offer adult role models and a
new set of peers. The schools cram their schedules with academic classes,
exercise, and six or more hours a week for group therapy. Counselors lead
seminars on time management, responsible sexual behavior, and addictions.
The special schools form one sector of a burgeoning industry. Not
long ago, parents could send disruptive boys to a military academy or to
Aunt Mabel's farm to work off energy. Now educational consultants charge
thousands of dollars to help overwhelmed families decide what's best for their
kids. Nonprofit agencies and for-profit corporations have opened wilderness
academies in the mountains of Utah, boot camps on the Texas plains,
equine therapy ranches in Wisconsin, cocaine detox programs in the Arizona
desert, and fundamentalist Christian reform schools in Missouri. Jamaica and
the Czech Republic have behavioral modification programs for American kids.
Transporters, also called "escorts," employ muscular men and women to
take hostile kids away from home.
All this captivated me as a parent as well as a journalist. After
bouncing around the world for nearly a decade as a foreign correspondent, I
returned in the 1990s to an America I barely recognized—a country that had
been strip-malled and Wal-Marted. Soulless, look-alike exurbs were
sprouting everywhere as downtowns died; companies were downsizing faithful
employees right out the door. While on a fellowship at Harvard in 1995, I
invited a history professor named Robert Putnam to dinner. He had just
written a provocative essay, "Bowling Alone," which analyzed declining
participation in PTAs, bridge clubs, and other groups. Putnam put into words
something I'd noticed: In the era of the five-hundred-channel TV and the
ubiquitous franchise, Americans were disengaged and disenfranchised.
Putnam's theory continued to haunt me as I struggled to balance
a family and a demanding job. I settled in the suburbs for the quality of the
schools but found myself disillusioned with the quality of life. When I
managed to get home from work early, I spent afternoons crawling through
traffic with my kids—the Monday-swim-lessons, Tuesday-library, Thursday-
gymnastics circuit—cell phone in hand for calls from the office. My relatives
and in-laws were scattered far away; my son and daughter didn't have the
frequent contact with extended family that I'd taken for granted growing up. I
kept wondering what I could do to instill resilience in my children—to
inoculate them from the harried, consumption-crazed society around them.
I decided to write in depth about teenagers who'd gotten in a crunch and who,
along with their parents, were getting help. I wanted to look mostly at the
sons and daughters of the middle class, but I hoped for a broad sample, from
urban working-class kids to teens from bustling suburbs where families
appear to have it all. Following a group of students through a therapeutic
boarding school seemed the best way to get inside a world that most adults
never see. Again and again psychologists and educational consultants
recommended the Academy at Swift River, a school I had visited for my
magazine article. Tucked in the hills of western Massachusetts, Swift River
started with a wilderness program and concluded fourteen months later with a
service-learning project in Costa Rica.
Swift River charged $5,000 a month for tuition, room, and board (at
the time, Harvard cost $3,800 a month). Nonetheless, the school was so
deluged with applications that it rejected two-thirds of prospective students.
Like many other therapeutic programs, Swift River was a for-profit business.
Its corporate parent was a privately held California company that had started
in the hospital and healthcare business but had turned into the nation's
fastest-growing provider of adolescent treatment programs.
When Swift River admitted a student, in many ways it was also
admitting the mother and father. Parents had to write frequent letters and talk
regularly on the phone with their child and with counselors. Something had
gone wrong in the family, and the parents had to own up to their
responsibility. Every three months they had to come to campus for seminars
and group therapy; then they joined their sons and daughters for the final
days in Costa Rica. By the end of the fourteen months, the parents in a
group knew the details of each other's lives—from alcoholism to affairs, from
dad's fiery temper to mom's anxiety disorder.
Several parents declared that Swift River had rescued their
children. Mike Nakkula, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of
Education and an expert on intervention programs, called the therapeutic
schools "parenting by proxy." He explained: "Some people who feel they have
failed as parents face the fact that they can't adequately help their children.
They turn to those who can provide a tougher form of love." Other experts I
contacted took a more cynical view, saying that parents were simply
outsourcing nettlesome children the way they turned to a lawn service to get
rid of crabgrass. Anyway, the critics said, a year or so in a residential
program could do only so much to treat depression, alcoholism, or other
illnesses with complex biological and environmental origins. These conflicting
messages of hope and caution made me more curious.
In June 2001, I began observing as the Swift River admissions
department selected a peer group—a dozen students who would go through
the program together. Swift River allowed me complete access to group
therapy, classes, and supervisors' meetings. The parents let me sit in on
their seminars and informal discussions. The most important access came
from the kids, who allowed me to immerse myself in their lives while they
played guitars, threw snowballs, and hashed things out during family therapy.
On breaks, I accompanied them to their neighborhoods, their old high
schools, and hangouts. During the last phase of the program, the five-week
trip to Costa Rica, I joined them in kayaks, on mountain bikes, and on
By the end of the fourteen months, I'd heard about the traumas
they'd endured, the friends they'd made and lost, the dreams they clung to. I
learned the secrets that they had kept for years from their parents, teachers,
and guidance counselors—the very people who might have helped them.
When I began my research, America was finishing a decade-long
boom. By quite a few measures, teenagers were doing extraordinarily well.
Teen pregnancy rates were declining, as were deaths from drunk-driving
accidents; college enrollment was soaring. Teenagers I knew were far more
sophisticated than my friends and I had been in the 1970s. They knew sushi
from sashimi. They debugged Windows, memorized the lines from entire
episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and volunteered at the soup kitchen
after soccer practice.
For some reason, though, the students at Swift River had taken
more risks than their brothers and sisters or their childhood friends. They did
hard drugs; they got drunk and sneaked out in mom's car for a ninety-mile-
per-hour spin; they went through a dozen sexual partners in a few weeks. Or
they simply gave up on everything and withdrew to a world of electronic
games. But they weren't freaks. I found kids like them at massive public
schools and at elite private academies. Every teenager in America sits in
classrooms with them and ends up at parties with them. Seeing snapshots of
them dressed as camels in kindergarten skits, or watching videos of them
pitching in Dad's Club baseball tournaments, I'm struck by how much they
remind me of boys and girls I grew up with in another generation, one that
was defined by the Kennedys, Watergate, and Vietnam rather than
Columbine, 9/11, and war in Iraq. We can all learn from them.
From the start of this project, three questions seemed the most
· Why had the kids gotten into so much trouble at home and at
school even as their friends and siblings thrived?
· How could their families have helped earlier?
· What lessons can the rest of us—parents, teachers, religious
leaders, lawmakers—draw from a fourteen-month program that most people
I hope the stories that follow—the true stories of what happened to
these complicated, misunderstood, extraordinarily talented boys and girls —
offer some answers.
Copyright © 2005 by David L.Marcus. Reprinted by permission of Houghton