‘The Elissas’ Is a Harrowing Story About What Becomes of ‘Troubled’ Girls

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the elissas samantha leach
cover: legacy lit; background: Jackyenjoyphotography/getty images

A few years ago, Paris Hilton opened up about her experience with the troubled teen industry, which she described in a Washington Post op-ed as “therapeutic boarding schools, military-style boot camps, juvenile justice facilities, behavior modification programs and other facilities that generate roughly $50 billion annually in part by pitching ‘tough love’ as the answer to problematic behavior.” Rather than helping wayward teens get on the right path, these schools and camps, according to Hilton and many other alumni who have spoken out against them, subject students to surveillance and abuse. The industry is at the center of The Elissas: Three Girls, One Fate and the Deadly Secrets of Suburbia, a chilling new book by Bustle editor-at-large Samantha Leach, about the fate of troubled girls.

Leach grew up in a wealthy suburb of Providence, Rhode Island. Alongside her childhood best friend, Elissa, Leach spent her middle school years experimenting with boys, alcohol and other “rebellious behaviors that were of the socially acceptable, suburban variety—until they became something greater, more fearful.” But while Leach was more of a reluctant participant, Elissa relished in these rebellions. Leach writes, “For as long as I knew Elissa, her life was defined by her desire to burn the brightest. A hunger to experience it all, despite the consequences, that made her destined to burn fast, and then burn out.”

Eventually, Elissa’s parents decide to enroll her at a series of therapeutic boarding schools, including Ponca Pines, a now-defunct institution in Nebraska. It’s there that she meets two kindred spirits, Alissa and Alyssa. The three form a close bond while at the school, eventually all graduating. But rather than coming out of the experience as reformed, productive members of society, the “Elissas,” as Leach dubs them, struggle to reenter the real world, and all three die before age 27.

Drawing on interviews with parents, friends and acquaintances, Leach details how the girls ended up at Ponca Pines and how the system failed them so severely. It’s a powerful indictment of how little we understand about treating addiction and other mental health issues. (Importantly, Leach is careful to note how things often turn out even worse for girls who, unlike the Elissas, are neither white nor well-off.)

The Elissas feels like Leach’s way of making sense of her childhood friend’s death as she attempts to understand why Elissa, Alissa and Alyssa ultimately met a shared, tragic fate—a fate that she was luckily spared.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...