It’s the late nineties in southern California, and the narrator of Juliet Escoria’s heavily autobiographical novel, Juliet the Maniac, is not long into her freshman year of high school when things get weird. Juliet can’t sleep. She acts erratic and impulsive. Panic attacks and a constant sense of dread keep her from going to school. She hallucinates chains binding her arms, luminescent wires extending from her friends’ stomachs, a tape recorder whirring in her closet. In short, it’s scary to be Juliet.
After a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a suicide attempt, and a brief period of hospitalization, Juliet is transferred to an alternative high school, where she falls in with the other misfits and spends her time getting high on every drug she can get her hands on. There are some good times, and Juliet makes friends easily, but the pressure of her mental illness is relentless, and she attempts suicide a second time.
Astutely, Escoria depicts not only the pain and confusion of mental illness, but also its daily humiliations and inconveniences: Juliet searches for a place to ditch class after a panic attack, and finds no option but the girls’ bathroom; her mother stashes all the household’s medicines in a locked box, requiring Juliet to ask permission for even an Advil. It’s absurd and sad and often darkly funny when our protagonist must balance the toll of mood swings and graphic hallucinations with the requirements that she write her English papers, maintain her social life, and talk respectfully to her parents.
Scattered throughout the text are snippets of documents from the author’s teenage life. There’s a picture of Escoria’s hospital bracelet, and a scan of the handwritten letter she addressed to her parents and nervously slid under their door in an attempt to explain the recent changes in her behavior. We also read notes from her therapists and a two-page spread of research about the effects of certain antidepressants on adolescents, with a damning link between the studies and Escoria’s own experience on the medications. Escoria is piecing together a conversation between her lived experience and the pharmaceutical, institutional apparatus that exists to help, but can often fail, those like her who need it most.
The second half of the book takes place after Juliet’s latter suicide attempt, and it presents a more compelling narrative arc and immersive setting than the first half. Juliet’s parents send her to Redwood Trails, a so-called therapeutic boarding school in the woods that houses fewer than two dozen students and employs a revolving door of counselors and psychiatrists, some of whom don’t seem totally qualified for their jobs.
Redwood Trails is a strange place: curfews, drug testing, and room inspections for contraband are all facets of the students’ lives alongside activities like snowboarding and long camping trips. Juliet hates some of the staff, but trusts the ones who are kind and understanding, like Hank, the boys’ counselor. He drives all the students with addiction problems to AA meetings in town and opens up to the students about his own struggles with sobriety. Juliet loves Hank because he makes her genuinely want to stay sober, and it’s heartbreaking when the reader begins to recognize that his behavior is becoming inappropriate, something Juliet is unable to see.
And he’s not the only problematic staff member: the school briefly employs a counselor who brings the kids to the front of the dining hall, one by one, to publicly excoriate them and call out their insecurities — a particularly horrifying “confrontation counseling” tactic. Juliet is the only person — student or staff — who stands up to the man, calling him a bully and making herself the target of his humiliation; it’s one of the moments when we see Juliet most clearly, a girl with a good heart, both brave and defiant.
The latter half of the novel shines with these moments, as Juliet finds her footing. Winning a game of tag in the woods makes her feel proud and athletic, and when the students are given lambs to look after, she takes her responsibility seriously, finding joy in caring for another living thing. Gardening provides the same sense of wholesome contentment. It’s not just that she’s “recovering,” but that the parts of her once obscured by her mental illness are starting to emerge. We see a girl who’s curious, empathetic, and ambitious — someone who is nurtured by her friendships with other girls and is a good friend in return. She’s determined to sort out the “dark” and “dirty” thing inside her, this foreign presence in her mind that has caused her so much fear and bewilderment, and to one day overcome it.
Therapeutic boarding schools across the country have made headlines in recent years for allegations of abuse and poor psychiatric practices. In the news articles, former students outline the mistreatment they were subjected to and, with an adult’s retrospect, the effect it has had on their lives. Juliet the Maniac, too, provides just a few clips of present-day Juliet, in her thirties, looking back on her time in treatment. I found myself wishing Escoria had included more of these moments, but it’s telling that she didn’t: this is not an easy recovery story, a before-and-after about mental illness or addiction. It’s not a juicy exposé on schools like Redwood Trails, either. Instead, it’s a portrait of a teenage girl as a whole person — paranoid delusions and all — a coming-of-age that takes the anxiety of high school and adds an entirely new dimension. Juliet the Maniac is a wild ride of a book, and I was rooting for Juliet every page along the way.
Juliet the Maniac
By Juliet Escoria
Published May 7, 2019
Juliet Escoria is the author of the poetry collection Witch Hunt and the story collection Black Cloud. Her writing has appeared in Lenny, Catapult, VICE, Prelude, Dazed, Hobart, and other publications. She lives in West Virginia.