“i think/i am going to die tonight./and some-thing inside me/looks forward to it./and something inside me/is twisting my intestines around,/trying to make letters out of them,/trying to spell the word/NO.” When sixteen-year-old Chelsea Marie wrote those chilling words a little over a year ago, she had also composed a suicide plan, seven farewell letters, and nearly half of the 301 poems that now make up her pseudonymous memoir, What Gives The shy and artistic Oklahoma City high schooler (who was raised in and has recently returned to a town—unnamed for privacy’s sake—in Texas) originally used her journal as “someone to talk to,” and to a reader, the diary initially seems to chronicle merely a virulent strain of high-IQ, rebellious-teen malaise: Chelsea plays in a band and paints, loves her friends, and hates herself.
But as the tales of self-loathing and self-destructive behavior pile up one on the other, it becomes obvious that something is profoundly wrong. (She writes, with a lockerful of ironic self-awareness: “when mom is getting ready in the mornings/i pour pure vodka into my lion king thermos.”) Chelsea’s parents finally clue in when they read “the plan” on her computer, and they hospitalize her for treatment and observation. The week of suicide watch passes at a mental hospital, an institution not unlike a hard-edged high school with tougher kids, weirder cliques, and more-dire consequences for failure.
This is serious stuff. Teen suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-old Americans, and What Gives? is a strikingly voyeuristic peek into that abyss. But more than just a blueprint for a movie of the week or an after-school special, it is an introduction to an author—inexperienced and raw but with real chops—who is somehow guileless, smart, and creative in the face of her paralyzing desperation. We plunge from page to page not because of the young diarist’s despondency—depression is not especially attractive or compelling— but because we are fascinated to see that while she is fending off demons with the one hand, she is writing verse with the other. Chelsea Marie has performed an act of literary bravado worthy of that archetypal angst-ridden 16-year-old Holden Caulfield—but hers is more real by far. Togi Entertainment, $26.95