Trigger warning: discussion of suicide and suppressed memories
In a future that isn’t too different from our present, suicide has been declared an all-out epidemic among teens. In a desperate attempt to “cure” them, the nation has developed a treatment program that involves the involuntary confinement of anyone “at risk” of suicide (including those who know someone who committed suicide). The treatment involves altering the brain to remove painful, traumatic memories . . . or as Sloane learns, any memories associated with “dangerous topics.”
After Sloane’s brother commits suicide, Sloane and her boyfriend James (who was also her brother’s best friend) do their best to hide their grief in order to avoid being flagged. Unfortunately, their plan doesn’t work. Shortly after her boyfriend is taken into the Program, Sloane is deemed at risk and taken too. She emerges with her memory wiped of her brother’s suicide and of her entire relationship with James.
However, unlike what the Program promised, she’s not given a fresh start and a happier life now that her memories are gone. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed with emotions that she doesn’t understand, a grief that seems to have no place, a love that seems to have no object. Her body remembers what her mind can’t, and it tortures her as she struggles to put the pieces together.
This is an intense book—so intense that I had to take multiple breaks from reading it. Not five-minute breaks. More like month-long breaks.
But it’s fantastic. I almost think it should be required reading.
Despite being set in the future, I feel like Suzanne Young was referencing more reality than speculation through most of the book.
Memory wipes, for instance, are already in the making. A couple of years ago, one of my psych teachers showed the class a video discussing the new “hoped for” treatment for PTSD that involved preventing traumatic memories from forming and blocking already formed memories. They had already even had a few test subjects.
I’m not sure if Suzanne Young based The Program off of this developing “treatment,” but she definitely understands the drawbacks to which the developers seemed to be blind. Memory isn’t just held in the brain. Muscles hold memories too. Even now, I can sit down and play songs on my violin that I can’t consciously remember the notes to because my fingers remember the way the movement feels.
And yes, my body remembers my abuse even when I can’t consciously recall the details. It’s terrifying and confusing to have my body react to something that I can’t see or even fully remember. My vagina doesn’t care if I can pull up an exact image of my sexual abuse or not. It spasms just the same. My bottom doesn’t care if I can recall how many times a belt was drawn across my bare backside; the muscles clench anyway when I’m exposed to triggers.
For someone who has spent over twenty years with patchy memories, the most terrifying thing I can imagine is a treatment that removes my memories. If I were to imagine hell, hell would be knowing something bad happened but not being able to remember it. People live that hell every day, yet science thinks they are offering a solution to pain by offering to put people in that hell.
But memory isn’t what drives The Program (It may be what drives the sequel, but I’ll have to wait to find out where she takes that).
Rather, the main thrust of the book seems to be about the way society responds to depression and suicide. Perhaps it’s exaggerated a little, but not a lot. Even today suicide risk is one of the things for which a therapist is required to break confidentiality. Friends and family members are encouraged to report if they believe someone is contemplating killing themselves.
And the response? The same! Lock you up; take away your autonomy.
Now if that isn’t a recipe for desperation and isolation, I don’t know what is.
In the book, Sloane and James are afraid to even cry in genuine grief. They have no one to confide in about their feelings except each other, and even then they have to be careful about where they confide to each other for fear that someone will notice them looking “sad” and report them. They have a school therapist, but the therapist is all but useless because…how can they trust someone who has the power and responsibility to flag them for what they are feeling?
The bottled up emotions don’t dissipate. They become stronger until even normal emotions seem overwhelming. They are drowning in their emotions, but it’s the only choice they have because the alternative is to lose themselves entirely.
The Program directors try to make themselves look good on the television and to parents, but amongst the teens it’s pretty well understood that the Program isn’t a cure. It’s an erasure. The “epidemic” of suicide grows because teens would rather die than be taken into the Program.
I felt as though Suzanne Young were pulling back the veil on our own societal stigma around suicide—a topic so taboo that most people can’t bring themselves to talk about struggling with it, leaving them to flounder in their emotions alone.
Those who do talk are given medication that may not erase memories but certainly deadens their emotional response. They’re shamed and treated like they have a horrible disease, often hospitalized whether they want to be or not.
And perhaps because we view depression as an illness that needs to be cured rather than something that should be worked through, we encourage people to assume that once “infected,” they can’t think rationally. They start to act as though they can’t think through their feelings, and it all becomes a rather tragic self-fulfilling prophesy (or group-fulfilling prophecy).
Ultimately, despite the lives that are saved by drugs and bed restraints, I don’t think our solution is any more effective than the Program is. We make suicide the problem rather than the symptom. We treat those who struggle with the desire to kill themselves as though they are broken rather than autonomous, rational individuals who are in pain.
In essence, we create a war against those we are trying to save.
I think Suzanne Young wanted to make us think about what it would be like if, instead of punishing and shaming those who feel depressed and suicidal, we supported—genuinely supported—them with resources that empowered them to navigate their own emotions and thoughts constructively rather than locking them into a destructive pattern of fear and reaction.