Book Review: The Luckiest Girl in the World by Steven Levencron

I finished reading what I feel is a really true to life account of one girl’s struggle with self-injury, its roots and the recovery process.

14 year old Katie is a high level skater. She’s been skating competitively since she was very young, coached on by her demanding and overbearing mother Catherine. Katie’s world is a strict routine of private coaching, practices, compititions, and schoolwork. She has no time for friends or anything else except the day in and day out regeme. All for what her mother calls “the dream” Right from the startit’s clear that it’s Catherine’s dream that is being lived out through Katie.

Katie is physically and emotionally tough she feels. Life is all about control. She has been told this by her mother all her life. Everything is “mind over matter.” She is not allowed to complain about any physical or emotional issue even her period. Which is why what’s been happening to her for the past two years is so terrifying. When Katie reaches an emotional breaking point her heart races and her mind “just leaves.” She calls this “ spacing out.” Katie quickly found a way to control this overwhelming experience. She cuts herself to focus her mind on the physical pain. This overpowers the emotional sensations that are so strong and brings her mind back where she is in control. She’s kept her cutting a secret and continues to plan to do so.

The pressure increases as her first big program is coming up. She is spaceing out more often and so is cutting more. She is very worried when a caring English teacher notices blood on her sleeve. Things come to a head one day after a very difficult practice. She spaces out and slams her hand in her locker door over and over again. She basically loses all control and has to be physically restrained. After this incident the school staff is painfully aware that Katie has a big problem. Being a private school and close knit some staff would rather “let her be someone else’s problem.” However the English teacher and other staff are in Katie’s corner. The school psychologist gives a half hearted assessment and then refers Katie to Sandy Sherman who has experience with teenagers.

Sandy (a male therapist) comes to Katie’s case with curiosity and knowledge that this will be a difficult situation. Katie lives under the thumb of a very overbearing mother who is resistant to Katie even being in therapy. The school had to threaten that they’d pull Katie’s scholarship in order for her mother to agree to it. Katie is used to pleasing adults and telling them what they want to hear and so is particularly walled off emotionally. From the first session however Sandy has moments of disarming Katie by anticipating what her reaction might be to his interventions and so saying things to throw her off guard. For example, Katie expected Sandy to ask her a lot of questions about why she does what she does when she doesn’t answer he’d tell her to leave. She is conflicted, a part of her thinking good I don’t need help! While another part is terrified and tired of carrying this on her own.

So Sandy talks a lot that first session. Most importantly showing her that he respects cutting as her only coping skill of the moment and that he won’t tell her to stop before she’s ready. That this is her choice in the end. And he talks about the general issue of cutting, why people do it and how hard it is to face feelings that cutting covers. This shocks Katie and she shows both tears and anger at that first meeting.

Their progress is extremely slow. One family session only goes to show Sandy how little support Katie has. Her parents divorced when Katie was very little. Her father came to the family session only to bash his wife. The session was a screaming match and ended with Katie in tears.

Katie is able to intelecutally talk about self-injury but not connect it to her own experience. It is extremely hard for her to admit to any feelings about skating or her family or anything.

Things pick up speed when her coach tells her he’s not working with her anymore. A sensitive man Ron didn’t believe in forcing kids to skate when it’s not fun anymore. After the incident at school though of course Katie or her mother didn’t tell Ron, he sensed Katie wasn’t able to continue to be a championship skater. At her next session Katie spaces out and cuts in Sandy’s office. Thus bringing the issue into the room and forging the relationsip between them.

With things out in the open Katie takes the risk and tells Sandy about spacing out. He clearly explains that this is a combination of an extreme anxiety attack and dissociation. And that with time and therapy she can overcome this. She now does write in a journal and shares some at sessions. Sandy brings in his dog and this adds another dimension of comfort as well as emotionally telling insights to the process.

As time goes by Sandy can see that Katie needs another push. And so he refers her to a teen therapy group. This is a process group of six teens all dealing with various issues from eating disorders to anger issues and there is another cutter in the group as well. This is huge for Katie as she never met anyone else who cut. The girls are extremely honest with each other and it is a safe space to share anything. It seems the progress Katie makes is twice as fast and intense with the group behind Sandy in helping her open up and face her feelings. It is in group that she reveals that her mother was physically abusive to her when she coached her as a child even breaking her ribs. Katie also has the experience of spacing out and then being brought back by Sandy’s insistence she focus on him.

One thing I wish could have been brought out further was the other girl’s reasons for cutting. Which were probably different from Katie’s though a similar internal process was occurring. It would show that everyone cuts for different reasons. Still it is perfectly clear the girls are like their own little family guided by Sandy’s firm but always compassionate hand to face their problems and get as much out in the open as possible.

In the end Katie faces her mother and the experience of just how far her cutting could push her. The book ends on a realistic note. With Katie having the experience of for once being scared by her cutting and how it could get out of control. As well as the slow realization of her need for independence and of her mother’s harmful side. She has the full support of Sandy, his dog, and the group members behind her. It’s clear that she’ll need much more therapy but that she’s on the right path to healing and self-discovery.

I felt the dialogue and therapy process in the book was very realistic. I felt the author did a great job of telling different sections of the book from different characters points of view. I recommend this book for anyone interested in self-harm, at least it’s one perspective on the situation. There could be a million books and you’d still have endless reasons for why people cut and what it means to them. But this is an unflinching account of the why and also most important the healing and what good care looks like. It should be noted as well that this book was written in 1996. I’m sure the author would have even more insights if it were written more recently. Look forward to your thoughts on this book!

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