Teen suicide has reached epidemic proportions in America, killing one in three teens, while the suicide rate for adults has remained stable. Psychologists believe that suicide is a behavioural contagion - that one suicide leads to another. To fight the outbreak of suicide and depression, some school districts have implemented a treatment plan called The Program. Students are closely monitored for signs of depression or suicide and flagged if a threat is determined. Once a teen is identified as at risk, handlers are brought in and the person is placed into The Program. Once in The Program, all the "infected memories" are erased and a person is returned to his family without any trace of those memories that made him/her depressed. "Returners" go into aftercare, with special handlers who monitor them for relapse. They usually never return to their old life with so many missing memories. There is a Wellness Center which provides a place for returners and normals to interact and get familiar with each other again.
When seventeen year old Sloane Barstow witnesses her classmate, Kendra Phillips, being removed by a handler during school, she is terrified and barely hanging on to reality. Two years ago, Sloane's brother, Brady committed suicide. And six weeks earlier, her friend Lacey was taken after her father called The Program to tell them she was sick.
In an attempt to cope with the constant monitoring of their reactions to all of this, Sloane and her boyfriend, James Murphy, and their friend, Miller try to cover their emotions and act normal. Sloane and James are dealing with Brady's suicide while Miller is trying to cope with the loss of his girlfriend Lacey to The Program. Lacey's reappearance at the alternative school, Sumpter High, leads Miller to try to determine if Lacey has any memories of him. Despite reassurances from friends that maybe someday, his fears are realized when he approaches Lacey and she does not remember him. Deeply distraught, Miller kills himself.
James and Sloane struggle harder than ever to cope after Miller's suicide. They are unable to express their grief openly and this soon becomes too much for James. He is completely undone by Miller's death. James is taken into The Program and without his support, Sloane struggles on. Until the day James returns and shows up at the Wellness Center. When she gives him her signature wave and James doesn't acknowledge her in any way, Sloane knows she's lost him. Her grief at the loss of the boy she loves and her depression results in Sloane's mother contacting The Program.
Once in The Program, Sloane tries to resist, but gradually all her memories are erased one by one. She undergoes intensive psychotherapy with Dr. Warren, who digs deeply into Sloane's life, especially her relationship with James Murphy. Sloane is given a red pill that makes her talk about her life, and a yellow pill afterwards that erases those memories. Sloane knows the pills are harming her, but when she refuses to cooperate, she is given the drugs by injection.
However, there does seem to be someone who can help her and that is a boy in The Program by the name of Michael Realm. At first Realm seems to be simply interested in Sloane as a friend but it turns out that he is not what he seems to be. Sloane learns that Realm is somehow involved with The Program and that he has been watching out for her. Realm tells Sloane that when she leaves treatment he will be in contact with her. Although Realm cares for Sloane, she feels uneasy, as though it is wrong to return his affections.
When Sloane returns from The Program, she is assigned a handler named Kevin who lets her know that he will put her in touch with Realm when she is more settled. Sloane attends Sumpter High but soon begins to feel attracted to a boy named James. Although Sloane has been warned by Kevin and her parents to stay away from James, her attraction to him feels familiar. Will Sloane be able to remember who James is or are those memories lost forever? And if she does remember, will that mean being sent back into The Program again?
One of the strengths of this novel is how the author builds the relationships between her characters. The reader truly gets a sense of the love between Lacey and Miller and also between James and Sloane as well as how they all care for each other. This is done through the narration of Sloane as she remembers events both before she is placed in The Program and also throughout her treatment her memories are erased. This makes the destruction of these friendships all the more poignant. We feel each character's loss which allows us to understand just how wrong The Program is.
What is interesting about The Program is the way in which it tackles the delicate topic of teen suicide. The novel focuses on certain behaviours that make young people more susceptible to suicide - the inability to grieve in a proper way and the lack of understanding and empathy from adults. For example, instead of helping these young people to express the emotions they are feeling over the deaths of friends or coping with intense stresses and difficult situations, The Program's very existence is pushing these teens to bury their feelings, creating more problems. "There is a pamphlet for The Program sitting next to our phone in the living room --....But to me that paper is like a threat, always reminding me of the next step if I slip up. So I don't slip up. Ever."
When Lacey returns, Sloane is horrified at what Lacey is, "washed out", hollow and empty. Unable to grieve properly for the loss of the girl she once knew, Sloane deliberately burns her arm on their gas stove so that she can cry in her own home, in front of her parents. "...And they fuss, letting me cry as long as I want because they think I was accidentally injured. They have no idea that I'm really crying for Lacey. For Brady. And most of all, for myself."
When James is taken away, Sloane must pretend that everything is normal for her teachers, her classmates and her family. "I wish that there were bloodstains or tears, something to outwardly show how hurt I am. But instead it's just a pair of jeans and a pink T-shirt. Something so painfully average that it makes me hate myself."
In fact this leads to a paradoxical situation where teens would rather die than be admitted to The Program and lose their memories and their identity. One of the strongest themes in this novel is that of identity. Part of who we are is our memories of people, places and experiences. But when we lose our most important memories do we lose who we are?
"But The Program steals our memories. They reset our emotions so that we're brand-new, never having been hurt or heartbroken. But who are we without our pasts?"
Sloane tries to explain this to her mother when she tells Sloane that James admittance to The Program will save him.
"Do you really think Brady would have wanted his memory erased? Nobody wants this, Mom. No one wants to be numb. They're killing us!"The loss of identity is also reflected outwardly with the often complete change in appearance in the returners. Lacey's hair is dyed and James has a buzz cut.
"No!" she yells back. "You're killing yourselves. They're saving you."
"...It's not just James! They'll take out parts of me. Parts of Brady. I won't even know my friends. I won't remember why I love going to the river...It's because that's where James first kissed me. Did you know that? That's where he first told me he loved me. And now they'll take that from him and he won't remember. He won't even know who he is."
Of course, there are hints here and there that there is a more sinister element at work. There are rebels working against The Program, which we only learn about later in the novel, and the presence of Realm seems to suggest that there is some kind of resistance network working against The Program.
Overall, this was a very well written novel, the first in a trilogy. Told in the voice of Sloane, The Program is divided into three parts, Part I Uncomfortably Numb, Part II The Program and Part III Wish You Weren't Here, telling Sloane's story pre, during, and post Program. Sloane is a credible, strong and intelligent narrator. The next book, The Treatment is due in 2014.
The Program by Suzanne Young
Toronto: Simon Pulse 2013