ARC Review: The Dead Inside by Cyndy Etler, a memoir

review         book

Book Covertitle: The Dead Inside
author: Cyndy Etler
pages: 288
format: Kindle ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5 (from hated to loved) or 6/10 (all books I've ever read)
recommended for: Fans of Ellen Hopkins and other raw, unflinching stories of "troubled" teens. Major TW for physical abuse, sexual abuse, rape, neglect.
For readers of Girl Interrupted and Tweak, Cyndy Etler's gripping memoir gives readers a glimpse into the harrowing reality of her sixteen months in the notorious "tough love" program the ACLU called "a concentration camp for throwaway kids."

I never was a badass. Or a slut, a junkie, a stoner, like they told me I was. I was just a kid looking for something good, something that felt like love. I was a wannabe in a Levi's jean jacket. Anybody could see that. Except my mother. And the professionals at Straight.

From the outside, Straight Inc. was a drug rehab. But on the inside it was...well, it was something else.

All Cyndy wanted was to be loved and accepted. By age fourteen, she had escaped from her violent home, only to be reported as a runaway and sent to a "drug rehabilitation" facility that changed her world.

To the public, Straight Inc. was a place of recovery. But behind closed doors, the program used bizarre and intimidating methods to "treat" its patients. In her raw and fearless memoir, Cyndy Etler recounts her sixteen months in the living nightmare that Straight Inc. considered "healing."

in depth

  • In my field, you hear about these places. Addiction facilities. Wilderness camps. They're a cautionary tale, a "never again." This is the first time I've read an in depth account from one of the survivors. Etler's memoir is a harrowing, heart-rending story of abuse in all its forms, by adults who see these wayward teenagers as less than human, as convicts who can be saved only through utter debasement. By teens empowered to torture or be tortured. It's chilling especially to read Etler's authors note about the history of Straight, INC, to know that these programs still abound. To reflect that we still treat people with addictions this way, even if we don't spit in their faces in the literal sense.  

  • The "plot", or rather, the pacing. I've seen many people say they can't really critique this book because it's a memoir. I think that's a misapplication of "critique." You can't say "oh, this event was unrealistic" because it happened. You're not critiquing the person's experiences. But a memoir is still a purposeful knitting-together of events. An application of structure to the formless chaos of life. Etler does a good job of highlighting key events from just before her captivity and through the early months, giving enough detail without perseverating. She reveals information with care, like the secret of what her stepfather did to her. On the other hand, some of her experiences are told in detail that is less graphic than painfully evocative. It cuts you to the quick. 

  • My only gripe was with the last third. In an effort to compress sixteen months of imprisonment to allow for a glimpse at her release, Etler summarizes a great deal of what happened very briefly, almost a police report. Then we time-jump ahead to when she's finally taken out, and we stop there just briefly before the author's note. The skip was jarring. I didn't have a voyeuristic desire to read every detail of those sixteen horrid months, but I felt somewhat distanced from Cyndy' story. That said, I think Etler chose the moment transitioning into the time jump well. 

  • The style. I think part of what distanced me from the narrative was the somewhat procedural writing. Pre-Straight, Cyndy's voice (Etler's own, remade as a teen) is solid. Her naivete, innocence, and desperation to be loved and free resonates from every bit of 80s slang, every cheerful expression tinged by dramatic irony. When she gets to Straight, however, a lot of the narrative becomes less showing, more telling. In moments when I wanted to be in Cyndy's head, living in her experience, I felt held at arms' length. Like a news article. It weakened the connection with Cyndy's character that was so strong in the first half. The other characters are a little enigmatic, but not implausible. Just vague in the way of memories. It's also written from the POV of an 80s kid, and some of the language is definitely not PC. 

  • Though a little spotty in a craft sense, Etler's memoir is nonetheless quite powerful. The emotion is palpable, sharpening the pain of her experiences to a point that knifes through you on each page. Her author's note, which gives the history of Straight and its chilling role in American society, ties everything together and provides context. It would be a great book to teach in school, a nice alternative to Go Ask Alice and its faux-real cautionary tale. 

        in a sentence

        The Dead Inside is a little clumsy in its execution, but affecting nonetheless with its powerful simplicity and evocative, emotional writing. 


        will i read this author again?  Maybe, depending on what she writes  
        will i continue the series?  I don't think there's a companion planned 

        Note: I received this copy from the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

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