Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Boot Camps Mess With Your Head

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser
3Q 3P, J S

Chilling. Disturbing. Horrific. Tense. Disheartening. Gripping.

Garrett admits that he is skipping school, stealing money, and having an affair with his (former) teacher. He doesn't see why is parents are so angry, though. Does it matter that he's not in class every day? Even attending school two or three days a week, he is still easily maintaining an average that will allow him into almost any school. Yes, he has taken money from his parents. But that's because they've refused to give him any sort of allowance because they disapprove of his girlfriend. What else is he supposed to do? And it's not like they can't afford the $20 he takes here and there, since his mother runs her own crisis management company (protecting an image is everything to her) and his father is a corporate lawyer. And yes, he is dating his teacher. He and Sabrina connected almost from the first day he walked into her class. Despite every obstacle thrown in their paths, he is not willing to give her up. For these crimes, Garrett is sent to a boot camp to straighten him up.

He is taken to the camp in handcuffs. When he arrives, he's strip searched and manhandled at every opportunity. And he's told,
"Your parents have signed and notarized a consent form allowing Lake Harmony to use restraint whenever necessary. The type and degree of restraint administered shall be at the discretion of the staff. Lake Harmony and its employees will not be held liable for any injury sustained by you during the administration of restraint as it is understood that such injury is the result of willful disobedience on your part."

The introduction to the camp's Bible (information for inmates) reads:
You are now a member of the Lake Harmony community. You will be released when you are judged to be respectful, polite, and obedient enough to return to your family. During your stay here you will have no communication with the outside world, except for letters to your parents. After six months your parents may visit you for a day if they choose.

The treatment that Garrett receives at the camp is brutal. His "father" (each group of campers is assigned a "father" or "mother" leader) is determined to break him down and make him admit that his actions were wrong and that he is sincerely sorry for causing his parents so much trouble. Higher level campers are used to keep lower level students in line, and there are no lines drawn at how they can do this, with the exception that any bruises can't be in a place that shows. (The same holds true for the staff.) Another common punishment is TI, Temporary Isolation, where the inmate is forced to lie facedown on a cold concrete floor for twenty-four hours a day.

Garrett is a very strong-minded boy. He knows that some of his actions were technically wrong, but he refuses to admit that loving Sabrina is wrong in any way. He also knows that it is wrong to stand idly by while kids are beaten by thugs and bullies, and he can't help coming to their defense (in particular, he stands up for a boy named Paulie). He also refuses to suck up to the staff. For these infractions and insubordinations, he is often sent to TI, and he is often beaten. Still, Garrett refuses to give up. He listens during group meetings as kids on higher levels say things like, "I'd be dead if it weren't for Harmony Lake" and "I deserved every punishment I got" and can't imagine those words ever coming out of his mouth.

There are two other inmates who have also refused to get with the program. Sarah has been at the camp for two years. Paulie has been there for well over a year. Both are still at Level One, meaning they've made no progress in accepting their guilt or misbehavior. When Garrett first arrives, Sarah is still defiant, but as the weeks go by, both she and Paulie begin to lose their will to fight. They know if they don't get out of the camp, they'll die. But neither will give in to get ahead, so their only chance is to escape the camp. And their only chance to escape successfully is if Garrett comes with them.

I thought that Garrett's situation couldn't get worse, but I was wrong.


As I said above, I found this book chilling to read. I also have to admit, though, that I kept asking myself if Strasser wasn't exaggerating the conditions of camps like this. But he provides a list of resources he used to research this book, and he certainly has evidence on his side.

I did find, though, that the villains of the piece were too one-dimensional. Almost every staff member is rotten any way you look at him (we meet only one female staff member), never having even a moment of doubt about what he's doing and never having even a moment of looking at these kids as though they're fellow human beings. I can easily believe that there are a few people on staff who glory in sanctioned bullying and sadism, but I find it harder to believe that every staff member is like that. And of the teens, only Garrett, Sarah, and Paulie are developed in any way. Only three or four other teens are even named, and they exist only to perpetuate and perpetrate the bullying. I think the book would have benefited by having more shades of gray in these characters.


To learn more about Todd Strasser, check out his web site.

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