Elizabeth Gilpin’s Stolen is a firsthand account of one woman’s experience in the troubled teen industry (TTI). Lest you believe her experience is unique, I invite you to do some internet sleuthing yourself — you can spend hours reading about survivors and the perils of this unregulated industry. The New York Times reporter Kenneth Rosen’s Troubled (Little A, 2021) as well as Paris Hilton’s documentary “This is Paris” (YouTube, 2020) may be high profile examples of this kind of exposé, but those narratives are only the beginning of the multitude of experiences in print, on film, and in the depths of Reddit.
Full disclosure: I am the parent of teenagers. Ushering your children into adulthood can be harrowing, in the best of circumstances. My heart goes out to Gilpin’s parents and others who are misled by “educational consultants,” who persuade desperate parents to deal with their teenagers’ (sometimes) out of control behavior by having them kidnapped by strangers in the night, sent to wilderness “camp,” and installed in “therapeutic” boarding schools where they may or may not make it out alive. These parents are not uncaring — they perceive that they are out of options for helping their teenagers. Parents are kept in the dark about the realities of these programs. They are sold (quite literally — as these programs are costly) a false bill of sale. Promised that their teenagers will turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens, they trust these programs to do the work for them. Seldom are their hopes realized.
Gilpin’s narrative voice is honest and authentic. You trust that she is divulging her secrets to you, the reader, and she’s made some dangerous choices. However, she hasn’t done half of what everyone assumes she has, and when she’s sent to wilderness camp and, once she has completed months of arduous hiking, Carlbrook, a boarding high school with a treatment plan based on the Synanon cult, she’s forced to confess to transgressions she can only imagine. Gilpin details the steps the teens must ascend in order to make it out of these programs, and you share her incredulity that the “work” these teens do is productive in any way. The wilderness program is brutal. The teens are often forced to “eat cold,” meaning force down uncooked beans and instant-rice, resulting in a “gut bomb”; they spend many nights in brutal solitude; they learn quickly to mask their true emotions, bury their anger and rage, and just survive.
Gilpin’s memoir unfolds as a straightforward narrative. However, chapter 11, in which she chronicles her seemingly endless time in the woods by encapsulating her experience in descending numbers, shows her ability to condense time and still illustrate life vividly. In chapter 15, she diverges from personal narrative to write more broadly about Carlbrook and the Synanon cult — it’s frightening, bizarre, and fascinating. Her sentence-level choices are reflective of the young teen she was when she experienced the abduction and imprisonment (both my words and hers); although turns of phrase like, “I felt tired and heavy. It was like a fog had crept in, some airborne misery that got in through my lungs and was spreading throughout my body” are indicative of her skill as a writer.
Gilpin’s work is an engaging and cautionary story. We should be aghast of any program that advocates having your children abducted from their beds in the middle of the night. Farming out our teens to strangers may be a quick way to get them out of our homes, but many of them will live with the trauma for decades. Even worse are those who take their own lives in the wake of these therapeutic programs. Elizabeth Gilpin’s timely memoir reminds us that there is no magic bullet for our problems or those of our children.
By Elizabeth Gilpin
Grand Central Publishing
Published July 20, 2021