MARCH 28, 2016
THE FIRST TIME SHE DROWNED is every bit as “lyrical,” “complex,” and “hypnotic” as the galley blurbs proclaim. And while Kerry Kletter’s debut YA/adult crossover novel is all of those things, it also serves as an introduction to the world of mental illness and a broken mental health system. Kletter’s book is especially important in a political climate that sidesteps discussions of gun violence by demonizing mental illness. The stigma of mental illness is real, and Kletter’s novel shines a bright and unflinching light into the mind of one young girl as she passes through a minefield of self-doubt following her release from a two-year commitment to a mental hospital.
Cassie O’Malley, the novel’s protagonist, turns 18 at the beginning of the story, which is told in present tense. Cassie is bright, a headstrong and mischievous (but ultimately unreliable) narrator. Turned loose from the institution where she has been held against her will since her mother had her committed for an undisclosed reason (the details of which unfold in flashbacks), Cassie is understandably fixated on her narcissistic parent and her withheld maternal love. The mystery of the circumstances surrounding Cassie’s commitment are revealed layer by layer as the “whodunit” of her mental state unfolds. I devoured the book, surprised at the sharp character insights and observations of the world. The dual-timeline narrative kept the pages turning right up until the climactic reveal and optimistic resolution.
My own mother suffers from bipolar depression. She remained undiagnosed until I was well into my 30s. After that diagnosis, I had to reevaluate my childhood and adolescence since mental illness had shaped so much of it. I’m editing my second novel now, which centers on that experience.
In many ways, I’ve lived through the same kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that Kletter’s protagonist has endured at the hands of a sick mother who refused to acknowledge her own illness. Our parents shape us. They are the binary stars at the center of our individual galaxies, their gravity defining the orbit of our life experiences, as we are pushed and pulled by their frequently chaotic influence on one another. But a mother suffering from mental illness can become a black hole at the galactic center, destroying the parental binary and warping space-time so that reality itself becomes bent to her will and worldview. A child in those circumstances has no protection from the ravages of the void.
The First Time She Drowned is about a mother gone supernova — and that moment of blinding clarity when the illness is exposed. Astronomers observing phenomena light-years away are actually seeing light that is itself old, having traveled the expanse of the galaxy before arriving at the telescope’s lens. Kletter’s novel pulls off the same time-travel trick — Cassie’s and her mother’s problems began long ago, but the effects are felt years later.
My experience in the mental health system began when my mother hit rock bottom, to steal a phrase from the 12-step world. I had to help her finally exit a horrible depressive episode by guiding her into the state hospital system, her only viable option at that point. My mother got the help she needed, and ultimately became a testament to the efficacy of the psychiatric system. Her life had fallen apart, but, with the right meds, she could once again function in society and in her own family. She is now relatively independent and has perspective on her illness.
As do I. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offered a free 12-week class that enabled me to recognize what was happening to my mother, to my family, and to me. Through this “Family to Family” class, I gained an understanding of the brain’s biochemical ecosystem and the ways it can become imbalanced, the value of psychiatric medications, and the important communication skills necessary to navigate a relationship with a mentally ill loved one. Before NAMI, I had no idea how even to describe the myriad bizarre behaviors of my mother.
I am thus awestruck by Kletter’s ability to do so.
Kletter doesn’t try to educate the reader about mental illness. But if The First Time She Drowned is one’s first exposure to the inside of an institution or a psychotherapy session, it will doubtless prove enlightening.
Kletter’s first-person narrative reveals only what Cassie wants to reveal, or what she is able to. This holds true for her own story as she tells it, and as she recalls the events that led to her commitment. Cassie didn’t learn much about herself during her time inside. She refuses to look honestly at either herself or at the system that purports to be helping her. In the first section of the novel, the role of the antagonist is played by the villainous nature of the mental health system and the questionable motives of the doctors who run it. The complicated central question for much of the book is whether Cassie is crazy or her mother is … or whether they both are.
Structurally, Drowned reads like a noir thriller masquerading as a college coming-of-age story. Doubt lingers as to whom to trust, and only the final conclusion provides much-needed clarity. This abiding doubt is the book’s greatest strength. Kletter’s unreliable narrator spins a tale of twisting loyalties and motivations, ending with a surprise that reveals Cassie’s psychological origin.
Kletter frequently left me dazzled by a clever turn of phrase or an observation of Cassie’s. The writing is beautiful, insightful, and often shockingly witty — so much so that, for me, it creates a disparity in its portrayal of the protagonist. For Cassie O’Malley’s main problem is her lack of insight. Repressed memories have blocked her development and pushed her to become a willful, sarcastic, and, yes, charming, rebel. As Cassie relates her story in the first-person present tense, I sometimes found it incongruous that such a character could, in the moments of greatest upheaval in her life, elucidate her struggle as succinctly as:
Am I acting crazy or am I just protecting myself? Which threats are real and which are imagined? Whose perception is accurate, my mother’s or mine? And at the core of all these questions is the biggest one, the only one really: Am I lovable or unlovable?
Cassie’s narration rarely sounds like the voice of an 18-year-old who didn’t finish high school. “It was luminous to be in that huddle of friendship, turned toward one another in the darkness of adolescence, surrounding one another like glass around a candle. I was happy. I belonged.” Beautifully put, to be sure, but the voice of a partially educated pre-collegiate? Perhaps not.
Yet Cassie’s frank, no-bullshit nature is captured wonderfully by her internal monologue. “At the very least, I’d like to get the hell out of this history class I keep getting stuck in: Fuckup 101, which, like all history, repeats itself.” Cassie stops other characters in their tracks — charming, disarming, and pushing them away. A friend, oblivious to Cassie’s history, suggests she get a doctor to lie for her. Cassie says, “The doctors I know are more likely to believe lies than to tell them.” Typical Cassie — obfuscating the truth while revealing a glimpse of her charmingly twisted worldview. She blows off a disciplinary call from the dean’s office; of her friend’s reaction: “She looks pale and alarmed, having never learned that in order for authority to work, you have to actually care.” Every 10 pages, Kletter drops a line that makes the reader pause and wonder at her skill and wit.
Perhaps this dichotomy — between the startling clarity of Cassie’s observations and her painful opaqueness to herself — isn’t a weakness in the writing but rather a strength. Maybe the real beauty of the character is that such contradictions remain true: she occupies both sides of the eloquence spectrum as circumstances dictate. We are, after all, each of us this complicated, aren’t we?
Cassie’s preoccupation with her mother clearly drives her, and for good reason. The novel begins:
My mother wore the sun like a hat. It followed her as we did, stopping when she stopped, moving when she moved. She carried her beauty with the naiveté of someone who was born to it and thus never understood its value or the poverty of ugliness.
Later, Cassie’s mother committed her own daughter to an institution, using “vicious lies” to do so. When Cassie was 14, her mother dropped a bomb: “I want you to know that I have decided to kill myself.” When Cassie is stunned into silence, her mother adds, “You don’t have anything to say to that? You’re probably happy about it.” She sees herself as a victim of even her own daughter’s silence. Another reaction to Cassie’s inability to speak in the face of her mother’s intensity is occasional violence: “She reached out and smacked me across the cheek. ‘I’m sick of having to see that miserable face of yours.’” It’s that bad at home for Cassie. Small wonder she developed a disrespect for authority.
It takes years of therapy, self-evaluation, and, most importantly, brutal honesty to arrive where Cassie O’Malley does over the course of a few short chapters. That’s the beauty of fiction — writers condense the truth into a structure that tells the story of a lifetime in a few hundred pages.
Interviewers will doubtless ask Kletter how much of the story is true and how much pure fiction. Does Cassie’s path to mental health parallel that of Kletter herself? I don’t know how the author will answer these questions. Do Kletter’s novel and characters feel so true because they are based in some degree on real experiences? If they aren’t, then that is simply further evidence of her skills as a writer. If they are, then to have constructed such a beautiful story from such pain and confusion is equally compelling.
My own novel about my relationship with my mother, is, like Kletter’s, fiction. I used events from my life to construct a narrative that works much better than actual life ever could. While the specifics are changed, the core story is as true as I could manage to make it. I focused on the discovery of mental illness and the journey toward healthfulness. I wrote about the system, hoping to educate young readers who may be going through mental health challenges of their own.
In approaching this subject matter, we may be telling stories about our own families, revealing truths about our loved ones or about ourselves that are seldom discussed openly. But it is our job to speak the unspeakable. Revealing our vulnerabilities will hopefully help others deal with their own. But where does our responsibility for our loved ones’ privacy begin and end? We are writing about our own lives, to be sure, but the failure and fault of our parents created the stories that we tell.
I don’t presume to answer these questions for Kletter. I know how I approached the issue for my own novel: every word is completely true — and a complete and total lie. But isn’t every story?
The First Time She Drowned is a powerful and poignant look at the internal life of a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood, in the wake of a series of terrible injustices at the hands of her own mother. Kerry Kletter’s debut is shockingly perceptive and an often hilariously irreverent critique of a mental health system that too often fails those it is trying to help. Cassie O’Malley serves as a foil to the jaded indifference and condescension of the professionals who sit in judgment on her. Her strength in the face of such overwhelming dismissal is an inspiration. Her breakthrough after meeting a therapist who has the compassion to listen without judgment is heartbreaking.
Kletter is working on her second novel now. I can’t wait to read it.
Scott Bly attended film school at the University of Southern California and is currently a technology consultant in Los Angeles. His debut YA SF/fantasy novel Smasher was released by Scholastic in March 2014.