As I was leaving work at U.S. News & World Report one evening in the summer of 2000, bracing for the seventy-five minute commute home to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, an editor called me over. She asked me to write an article about therapeutic schools—last-chance places for teenagers struggling with alcohol, drugs, and impulsiveness. I barely hid my disappointment. I could picture the students—a bunch of rich, spoiled ingrates. I had no doubt their parents would be worse—narcissistic, detached baby boomers. The people running therapeutic schools? Snake charmers. For several weeks, I passive-aggressively distracted my editor by churning out other stories. Finally, reluctantly, I started the research. To my surprise, I spoke to normal, caring parents who had lost control of their children and turned in desperation to schools that offered a strict regime of therapy, exercise, and small classes. I visited one of the schools, the Academy at Swift River, which had been recommended by guidance counselors and psychologists. Tucked in the hills of western Massachusetts, on the site of a former dairy, Swift River’s long white buildings with green trim are surrounded by daisies and plum trees. Wandering the campus, I came across one student after another who defied stereotyping. Yes, some of them were wealthy—America was enjoying an economic boom—but others were sons and daughters of teachers, accountants, and store managers. These kids had done some bad things—they’d pawned family heirlooms, smashed windows, and screamed obscenities at their parents. They’d sold ecstasy in middle school, surfed pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia Web sites for tips on purging, and had sex with one stranger after another. And yet they weren’t bad kids. They were sweet, introspective boys and girls who were trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
As I wrote my nine-paragraph article for U.S. News, I knew I was missing the real story. It was an increasingly familiar feeling. The newspaper and magazine journalism I did seemed superficial, a caricature, a sketch that reflected some editor’s idea of an issue. This time the feeling obsessed me. I decided to write a book about teenagers who get themselves into jams and try to straighten out during Swift River’s fourteen-month program. While I wanted to portray the school and the counselors, I was more intrigued by the pathology: What had gone wrong in these kids’ families, their schools, their neighborhoods?
I’d spent nearly half of my twenty-two-year career covering wars, coups, and the cocaine trade. Now I wanted to train my foreign correspondent’s eyes on America. This project, I figured, would be a respite, a sabbatical from daily and weekly deadlines. My wife and I planned to rent out our spacious house in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., and move our son and daughter, then five and two, to a leafy New England town for a year and a half. I’d write a heartening little book of kids’ stories. Then we’d come home, recharged.
It’s a gray, bone-rattling winter morning, a Wednesday. Time for group therapy. I’m watching sixteen teenagers discuss how they used to while away their afternoons. They do this three times a week, for two-and-a-half-hour stretches; I try to take in everything. Other days I join them on field trips or watch them in workshops on dating and relationships or just hang out and play Ping-Pong with them.
The sixteen kids in Group 23, my group, came into Swift River’s fourteen-month program together, in the late summer of 2001. None of them came voluntarily. A slight boy named D.J., from a New Jersey suburb surrounded by horse country, says he had nothing to do in the afternoons. The other kids in the neighborhood went to different schools, so he didn’t have friends nearby. He killed time playing video games. Sometimes he lit fires. When classmates did come over, they made little bombs and put them in neighbors’ mailboxes.
A girl named Britt says she, too, got bored easily. One day she and another girl sneaked home and took Britt’s family Volvo for a spin. While navigating a parkway exit, they crashed into a convertible. Neither girl had a driver’s license.
Then there’s Mary Alice, from a Sunbelt enclave of manicured lawns, three-car garages, and gleaming SUVs. After she quit gymnastics and soccer, she had plenty of unscheduled hours. She smoked pot and experimented with a friend’s painkillers. She tried a smorgasbord of other drugs: acid, cocaine, even crack.
As I listen to these kids, I find more differences than similarities. Some of their parents are divorced; other families are intact. Some kids have learning disabilities, some don’t. Some bear psychiatrists’ diagnoses—depression, bipolar disorder; oppositional defiance disorder—others don’t. Some were adopted; others grew up with their biological parents. Some are first-born; others second or third or fourth. Bianca—a girl from Florida who got pregnant and miscarried soon after her sixteenth birthday—is a twin. I consider almost everything: five of the sixteen kids are left-handed. Is that significant? (And why didn’t I take a statistics course sophomore year?)
Several factors keep surfacing, though. First, the kids felt lonely, like pariahs in their families. Most, but not all, had parents who were busy working, traveling, or dealing with their own emotional problems. Second, the kids lost their passion in middle school. They quit the swim team in a huff, or dropped piano lessons, or abandoned hobbies like photography. They spurned old friends.
A third characteristic stands out: nearly every kid in my group grew up in the suburbs or the outer ring of exurbs. Places that were farms and fields just a few years earlier. Places where parents relocate to be near good schools and far from problems. Places that force parents to commute long distances. Places where there’s no there there, like the developments that spread beyond the Washington, D.C., Beltway—the area where my wife and I settled for the sake of our son and daughter.
Okay, it’s taken me a long time to face the facts: I didn’t take a leave from my comfortable life merely for a journalistic challenge. Restless in every way, I was hurtling into a midlife crisis. My marriage was stagnant, and I felt straitjacketed in my suburban routine. Nothing—not even fatherhood—offered the nonstop buzz of being a foreign correspondent. Every workday, and quite a few Saturdays, I drove to the local Metro station, then took two trains to Foggy Bottom, then boarded a van to the U.S. News office in Georgetown. I worked the phones, pounded out an article, then started over. I was forty, living in the past, nattering on about the civil war I’d covered in Angola and the uprising I’d witnessed in Uzbekistan.
When I arranged to do the book, I told Swift River’s headmaster, Rudy Bentz, that I wanted to see kids transformed. His response was so striking that I wrote it in my journal: “Don’t underestimate how this experience is going to change you.” I dismissed him. During years of covering famines in Ethiopia and car bombings in Colombia, I’d put on my reporter’s armor and kept my emotions in check. Surely, a year or so with troubled teens wouldn’t be a big deal.
From the beginning, this project engaged me like nothing before. I assigned myself mountains of homework. I read census data to understand Americans’ house-hopping, medical journals to learn about antidepressant medicines, and education law and history to grasp experts’ ever-shifting notions about parenting. I delved into William Howard Kunstler’s critique of suburbia, The Geography of Nowhere, and slogged through the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. I learned that the average American driver now spends the equivalent of nearly a full workweek each year stuck in traffic.
It was like the college education I never had. That sounds demeaning to Brown, so I should explain. When I arrived on College Hill in 1978, I was a hyperactive, insecure kid from a mediocre public high school, an eighteen-year-old who had barely been on a plane and who had never seen a foreign country, not counting a couple of days in Canada. I didn’t know it, but I was a poster child for attention deficit disorder. I frittered away hours, staring out the windows of the Rock, waiting for “real life” to begin. One of the few academic activities to engage me was my senior thesis, about Americans’ attempts to build planned communities. Under the patient guidance of history professor Howard Chudacoff, I ventured to Roosevelt Island, a project in New York City’s East River. Interviewing residents, shopkeepers, and architects, I felt invigorated.
In the years that followed college, I managed to see more of real life than I bargained for. I worked as a reporter for several newspapers, switching jobs repeatedly and covering crime victims, plane crashes, and environmental devastation. Then I became a correspondent overseas. I parachuted into far-off events such as the breakup of the Soviet Union and the 1990 Gulf War. My intellectual curiosity as a student had been unremarkable, but now I caught the bug. I wanted to learn about history, literature, sociology. Covering schools made me especially curious about education and psychology. Do girls and boys learn differently? Why are some kids resilient while others quickly succumb to peer pressure and the temptation to take extraordinary risks?
During my time abroad, from the late 1980s to the mid-’90s, the United States had been franchised and strip-malled and Wal-Marted. I had written articles about what that meant for downtown businesses. I started to wonder what it meant for those who lived in these look-alike suburbs in Orange County, California, and Broward County, Florida, and Pima County, Arizona.
I’m no fan of the suburbs. I spent the first ten years of my life in a co-op apartment building at the edge of East Harlem. It was a sanctuary for teachers, social workers, and others in the middle class who refused to join the white flight from New York City. We didn’t have “play dates”; we scurried from home to home, eating dinner with one family and sleeping over with another. I often describe it as a vertical kibbutz. Sadly, though, a sort of intifada was raging outside. With the civil rights movement and the killing of Martin Luther King, Harlem was in turmoil. In the 1970s, my family moved to Westchester County. I hated it—the blandness, soulnessness, the proliferation of mini-malls and fast-food eyesores and shoe stores (who buys all those shoes, anyway?). For years and years after fleeing Westchester, I lived in cities: Providence, Miami, Dallas, El Paso, Boston, Bogotá, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro ... And then I became a father. The D.C. suburbs, with their predictability and tranquillity and top-ranked schools, beckoned.
The hands-on part of researching the book was enthralling. I hiked and biked with the Swift River students and joined them on excursions to museums and trips home. When the kids in my group flew to the Costa Rican rain forest to spend five weeks kayaking and doing community service, I went, too. Hearing about my project, though, one of my heroes in journalism wrinkled her nose and wondered, “Why would you spend so much time writing about people who’ve lived only sixteen or seventeen years? They’re so two-dimensional.” Most of us misunderstand and underestimate teenagers. I began by looking at the sixteen kids as labels, just as many classmates and adults had: Mary Alice the anorexic; Trevor the stoner; D.J. the goof-off. But as I listened to them play guitar and give each other advice, as I watched them explore mangrove estuaries in Costa Rica, I came to see that I was surrounded by vulnerable boys and girls who had concealed horrible truths from their parents, doctors, and teachers, the very people who could have helped them. (It took months for Bianca, the twin, to admit she’d been raped.)
When the mothers and fathers visited campus for workshops, I found the vast majority of them weren’t self-involved or aloof, but confused and overwhelmed by the demands of parenting in the twenty-first century. Quite a few admitted they had been stymied by their own financial setbacks, depression, or substance abuse. Some had been too permissive. Others had gone too far in restricting their children; they hadn’t let the kids make, and learn from, mistakes.
Spending thousands of hours with so-called troubled teens forced me to reconsider my own priorities, especially my devotion to my career. Rudy, the headmaster, was right: I changed. After my group of kids graduated I couldn’t bear going back to fifty-five-hour workweeks, enervating commutes, and endless drives to kids’ swimming lessons and ballet classes. Life in a small New England city had made an impression. I loved the look of Northampton, the Victorian houses clustered around the two-story red brick buildings of downtown, but there was more. Because Northampton is surrounded by five colleges, it’s a place where people are judged by their personalities and their ideas, not the size of their SUVs. I liked living shoulder-to-shoulder with professors, carpenters, grad students. I liked knowing my neighbors. I rediscovered a sense of community, of living on an American kibbutz. I hadn’t experienced that since the days in my New York apartment building and in the old West Quad at Brown. When I amble along Main Street in Northampton with Benjie and Tatiana, they know the shopkeepers and the high school students. They bump into their teachers and their friends.
Our D.C. suburb was served by two giant malls, a dozen strip malls, three libraries, four pools … and so we led splintered lives and didn’t interact with our neighbors. In Northampton we have a bedraggled but reliable YMCA pool, and a downtown where we can buy milk or a pair of socks and get a haircut. We can leave our car in the driveway and bike or walk to most of what we need.
Although some residents presumptuously call this Paradise City, it’s far from perfect. Knowing your neighbors does not mean liking them, and even this place has its share of snobs and superficial jerks. Judging by the number of Jungian therapists, massage therapists, and aroma therapists, there are an awful lot of morose and uptight folks among the 50,000 inhabitants. Then, too, I’m still figuring out how to earn money in a place that has lost almost all its industries to the South and low-wage countries. So far I’ve cobbled together a living by teaching and writing, but my income has plunged by 50 percent. And, paradise or not, Northampton couldn’t save my marriage.
I’ve discovered more about myself than I wanted to. I found that I have ADD, which is probably ironic for someone who wrote articles about ADD while secretly believing that it was a made-up condition. Every day I try to hew to the lessons the Swift River students taught me. I do my best to spend more time with Benjie and Tatiana, and I volunteer in their school. I’ve finally managed to give them some undivided attention, shutting off my cell phone and ignoring my e-mails. That’s not always possible for a freelance writer. As I’ve traveled to give speeches about my book, I’ve bundled up my kids and taken them on the road.
Raised in a laissez-faire 1960s household, I was a first-born child who was, if anything, too compliant. Because I didn’t have a lot of rules, I’m terrible at applying them. But I’m trying. Mary Alice’s mother, a wealthy white doctor, told me to be a parent to Benjie and Tatiana first, and their friend second. Another Swift River mom, a black woman from a tough neighborhood in Queens, New York, has taken me on as a project. She insists that I be firm with my children, that I lay down boundaries and refuse to deal with the kids when they whine and fret.
Have I succeeded? I won’t know until Benjie and Tatiana reach adolescence. Or maybe years after that—when they rebel against me and move away, to the suburbs.
David L. Marcus, a visiting scholar at Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications, is the author of What It Takes To Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble—and How Four of Them Got Out, published in January by Houghton Mifflin. He can be reached at www.DaveMarcus.com.