Sean Wilsey writes in Oh the Glory of It All, published 2005, his memoir of growing up in the eighties and nineties, that the book is essentially about identity; "Identity is the theme". (p. 476)
Reading it from the perspective of an educator who has worked with troubled teens and young adults during the same time frame and beyond, I find it more about healing - in a semi mythological journey to re-collect oneself. I also find it compelling, astonishing, embarrassing, infuriating, endearing, repulsive, provocative, fascinating and wonderfully insightful.
It is as if Huck Finn, Cinderella, Gloria Vanderbilt and Holden Caufield all got together to make one persona, who narrates for us their young life. Anyone interested in working with young people in this field has a lot to gain by reading this work. I am unaware of any one else who has been through the special schools "industry" taking the time to describe their life and experience in such detail, as they descend into hellish isolation, and then back again to some self-created sense of normalcy. The clear, living descriptions of divorce, conflict, sexual yearnings, insane antics, defiance, misdirected creative/ destructive energy, ultimately leading towards redemption and a sense of inner safety and belonging, warts and all, are laid bare to witness. There are books and articles published about programs, individuals and families, written by parents, teachers or clinicians. OTGOIA is the first I have seen by a subject (victim?) of the genre.
Sean's story is, in a way, in line with the stories of so many of the students those of us working in therapeutic education have seen, perhaps minus the trappings of fame and serious wealth. He describes in detail place after place where he is sent to find help - only to add another layer of pain and defensiveness. He writes, "…I felt as if I was reinventing myself with every new place and every abandoned and replaced friendship. Reinventing myself, almost invariably, as a worse and worse person." (p. 283). Whether you agree with his descriptions of specific schools and programs or not, his account rings as authentic and sincere. His reviews of insights along the way are poignant reminders to us all to be mindful of the interior landscape behind the acting out of the individual. And, that the absolute heart of the matter is the heart - a boy needing the acceptance and love of his father, and the no strings attached nurturing of a mother. His real healing begins in a now defunct school, Amity, where Sean states in a one sentence paragraph, "I felt safe." (p. 366)
There are, to be sure, a lot of contradictions and loose ends - it is human drama. Why is one program faulted for a self-absorbed counselor telling him to shape up or in the next place he will get bent over and someone would "…shove a d*** up my a**", (p.301) yet in another, beloved, program it is okay for a counselor to tell a female student that "You've got a cast iron c***"? (p. 373) Both statements are obviously subjective and could be construed as hurtful or illuminating. I say never mind the contradictions - they are just part of the puzzle of a guy desperate to find his truth, find his courage, and have validated the fact that he was ripped off for much of his childhood.
Another great aspect of this book for those of us working with students, and for parents and students no longer involved in programs, is the continuing of Sean's saga - the book is not just about how he finds his voice, but later, how he uses that voice - to navigate the complexities of his family life, to stand up to his interior and exterior demons, to find a vocation, to create his own family.
Sean's memoir runs the emotional spectrum from self-loathing to joy - from despair and suicidal recklessness to a maturing compassionate love. Equally, the style seemingly free forms brash, self-absorbed denial with jarring harsh humor with lyric, neuron inspiring poetic phrasing. He is in a literary sense a descendant of Twain and Kerouac. He also wanders - into San Francisco history, family stories, little cul-de-sacs of possibly interesting areas.
But…If you work in this field, are a student in this field, have a child or two in this field, have been in some way associated with this work, and want insight into how you got there, how it feels to go through it, what you do with the experience; you should read this book. And talk to people about how it affects you.
About the Reviewer: Doug Kim-Brown is the Founder and Director of Echo Springs in Bonners Ferry and Coeur d'Alene, ID. He has worked with students for over 25 years. A graduate of Allegheny College, his master's work was in Psychology. He was co-director of two schools, has practiced as an independent consultant, and was Headmaster of CEDU Schools from 1986-1993. For more information, visit www.echo-springs.com, or call 208-267-1111.