The adolescents who attend the Academy at Swift River in rural Massachusetts—one of roughly two dozen “emotional growth” schools nationwide—are pretty much everything you wouldn’t want your own children to be: troubled, sexually precocious, and fiercely rebellious. Of the four whom David Marcus portrays in detail in this book, two are so self-centered that they’re almost impossible to like.
Still, Swift River, which costs $5,000 a month, strives to get these kids on the straight and narrow by combining a full-fledged academic curriculum with innumerable therapeutic activities. There’s a wilderness adventure, community service in Costa Rica, and a sweat lodge ceremony. During an anger-management workshop, incantations include “I’m angry at you, Dad, for loving my sister so much” and “I’m angry at myself for getting fat.” In another group session, the teenagers forgive those people they’ve blamed for their drug use and other ills. Eighty percent of Swift River’s students also take psychiatric medicines—just in case, one supposes, the other therapies prove less than efficacious.
Marcus writes in the epilogue that most of the kids he followed appear to be doing reasonably well one year after leaving the program. He notes, however, that there’s an absence of solid data about how graduates fare over the long term. And one can’t help wondering about the effectiveness of a therapeutic approach that, like “reality” TV, far too often turns venting and self-revelation into high drama.