In many ways, Kristen Elliott is a normal, seventeen-year-old girl. Kristen loves her family. She works hard academically, and tries to please her mother. She takes on the additional responsibility of caring for her twin siblings, Nick and Alison. She idealizes her best friend, Lexus, who not only seems to lead the perfect life, but also catches the attention of John, the boy Kristen secretly loves. However, as is the case with many teenagers, Kristen feels frustrated, isolated, and confused.
In other ways, Kristen is not like other kids her age. She knows something is wrong with her. Kristen feels like an utter failure. She is unable to please her abrasive mother, and scared to confront Jack, her abusive stepfather. She is also unable to protect Nick from Jack, making her fell all the more helpless. Adding to her problems, she knows she will never be as beautiful as her best friend Lexus. Kristen finds solace in self-injury, and the company of Mr. Sharp, her imaginary friend who encourages her feelings of self-loathing.
After a failed suicide attempt, Kristen is placed in the Bent Creek mental hospital, where she is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. While in the hospital, she meets a group of peers suffering with their own mental illnesses, and a compassionate staff of doctors and counselors. From there, Kristen begins her journey to survival. She discovers the circumstances that brought her to this breaking point, struggles to understand her mental illness, and fights to be a survivor against her own worst enemy: her self-blame.
Kristen’s tale of endurance illustrates the complex illness of Borderline Personality Disorder. Readers – including those suffering from BPD and their friends and family – can glean insight into the illness from Kristen’s humanity. Her story is an example of how, if we try to push the past away, we are either doomed to repeat it or let it haunt us to our graves.
When I did the interview with Felicia Johnson, I received a digital copy of her book. The topic really intrigued me. I’m a proponent for the end of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, disorders, and all, so I was definitely interested. I was also however a little afraid to go into it, as sometimes reading about cutting makes a part of me long to start cutting again. I ended up reading this book within one day… and spent a very good portion of that day in tears.
With that in mind, it should be no surprise that this was a very difficult read. It was emotionally draining because of what the characters were going through. It deals with some hard subject matter – important, but hard. And I’m sure there are a lot of parents who wouldn’t want their children to read a book that starts with a failed suicide attempt… but there are going to be a lot of people who will relate in some way to this book. And for that reason alone, for the fact that there may be even just one person out there who has a mental illness who would read this and realize that what they are not alone and that other people have mental illnesses, well that makes this a wonderful book.
What I really like about Her is that even though the protagonist is working through BPD, that’s not all we get to see. We are introduced to people who were sexually abused as children, who are heroin addicts, who have eating disorders, who are schizophrenic. We see a lot, and I think that is really great for introducing readers to a large number of things that we may not necessarily come into contact with every day. It showcases mental issues that a lot of people have, and it does a really good job at making them more understandable, empathizable and accessible.
There was one thing that didn’t quite sit well with me about Her. There were characters that were obviously Christian, and they were the employees at the mental hospital. They spoke about their faith with Kristen, and Kristen automatically accepted what they told her without questioning or investigating on her own. On one hand, I know what it’s like to need something to hope for when suffering from depression and clinging to faith for that hope… but on the other hand, it would have felt a lot less like we were being witnessed to if there was even a character who was representative of another faith… or even who was an atheist.
The characters in this seemed thoroughly developed – especially Kristen, who shows the different aspects of BPD well. One thing I did find was that, because of the fact that Kristen has BPD and the story was being told from her perspective, I couldn’t always trust what seemed to be happening to actually be happening. Characters often seemed to go from calm to screaming in a matter of seconds with little to provoke them. Or seemed to be pushing Kristen to do or feel a certain way and not understanding that she couldn’t just hit a switch to make everything better. (This actually is how a lot of people react to mental illnesses, and so I’m really glad it was illustrated here how frustrating and agonizing it can be when someone tells a person with a mental illness to “just not be depressed” or whatever.)
The Bottom Line
I will definitely be looking forward to reading more by Johnson, and recommend this book to people who are living with a mental illness – whether in themselves, their family or a friend.