Book review: Hate List by Jenifer Brown

I just finished a beautifully written young adult novel. Hate List deals with issues of bullying, violence, , and one girls healing process to find herself when everyone seems most against her.

Valerie and Nick are seniors in high school. They’ve gone out since freshmen year. Valerie loves Nick and feels he’s a protective, funny, and over all good guy and boyfriend. His outbursts of anger do scare her, and she feels helpless when he’s constantly bullied by the popular crowd. As time goes by he becomes more and more withdrawn, associating in the past year or so Jerimy who does drugs and drinks a lot. Nick seems to focus a lot on death and suicide in talk with Valerie and others but they pass it off as some kind of joke.

What starts as a harmless outlet for them both is the Hate List. Valerie does not have an easy homelife which makes her relationship with Nick even more important for her sense of self and having someone she feels she can turn to no matter what. Her parents fight so often that her house is not a welcoming place. She spends as much time as possible with Nick. Still things get to her. One day in class she was writing a list of all the people and situations that were bugging her just to get it out. Nick saw it and asked what it was. He said she should add their teacher to the list and she laughed and agreed.

This turned into a thirty seven page notebook of all the things and people she and nick Hated. Mostly Nick. As time went on he became more focused on this, and they e-mailed back and forth about how they would want to kill people who should be added to the list ETC. The list became a place where they could let off steam. As this all took on a darker tone Valerie didn’t realize how close Nick was to doing something horrible. She had no idea he was going to do what he did on may second.

On this day a popular snobby girl broke Valerie’s MP3 player on the bus. She jokingly asked Nick to “get” the girl back for her. He was looking drugged and said something about finally finishing “this” And promptly walked into the cafeteria and started shooting. In Valerie’s rush to stop Nick she jumped between him and another girl Jessica, who was on “the list.” This ended the shooting when Nick turned the gun on himself.

Valerie was left with a bullet to her thigh and more painfully emotionally shattered numb, and then feeling like she has nowhere to turn. In the hospital she pieces this history together trying to figure out where things went wrong. Was she as guilty as Nick? Did she really hate these people enough to kill them? Did she want to kill herself? In the mediate aftermath of the shooting she was unable to have the time and emotional support to answer these questions. She had to deal with a detached and not very compassionate detective questioning her for hours and trying to get her to admit to things that she wasn’t even sure of herself. Angela Dash, a very unprofessional reporter seemed to have already painted Valeria as just as guilty as Nick and focused on the “victems” the students who died or were severely injured.

Valerie’s father didn’t even come to the hospital. Her mother was there physically but emotionally extremely unpredictable. Going from crying to screaming at her for going out with Nick in the first place, and though it’s unspoken it’s clear her own mother thinks she’s guilty.

Then Dr. Bentley arrives. A very detached and unempathetic psychiatrist who only sees a “disturbed girl” who “tried to shoot up the school” and who wanted to kill herself but didn’t get the chance. She is transferred to the psychc unit for ten days. This is more traumatic on top of everything as everyone knows who she is and they either ignore her or ask insensitive questions. Dr. Bentley continues to be totally insensitive and not understanding that Valerie needs to be there at all. She leaves feeling even more confused.

Fortunately when she finally gets home she is refered to Dr. Hieler. Dr. Heiler is the perfect therapist for Valerie. He is relaxed but direct. He doesn’t insist she start talking about difficult things right away. But Valerie has been so traumatized and the events have taken up so much of her mind that she doesn’t even remember things like what she used to like. To help her he lists things he likes to do including (jokingly) a back handspring. Then he gets up and pretends to do one when the subject they’re talking about in that first session gets uncomfortable.

This wins Katie over and she is able to trust him as time goes on. Seeing Dr. Hieler is the one safe place Valerie has. Dr. Hieler also sees her mother, and is able to keep Valerie’s mom from becoming so anxious over every little thing and give Valerie room to settle down. This doesn’t always work and there are some scenes where her mom panics and calls the police or books “emergency appointments” for therapy that aren’t really needed. Ironically at a time when Valerie really is in trouble at a party with kids from her school, the police aren’t called.

At the start of the book the huge obstacle for her is going back to her school where this all happened. Rationally she knows she was not in any way guilty and did not hurt anyone. She had every right to go back. Emotionally she knows none of the kids will see it that way. But she has Dr. Hieler’s constant support and so plunges ahead. She’s right. The kids either talk about her behind her back or directly say accusatory comments to her. One of the girls, who was shot in the face and is horribly disfigured, sees her and emediately leaves crying. The guidance counselor and teachers try to seem caring but Valerie can tell what’s behind the forced smile.

What saves her sanity over the months of being back ends up being drawing. Dr. Hieler is constantly reminding Valerie to “see things as they really are.” So instead of focusing on the bullying and superficial ways the girls in the cafeteria act she draws them as an aggressive pack or wolves. In this way she’s able to capture the essence of the emotion behind the faces and voices of the people she encounters.

Valerie’s biggest battle is how the kids at school treat her, but one girl surprisingly goes out of her way to try to talk with/ sit with her. It’s Jessica the girl that Valerie took the bullet for. Who was an enemy before the shooting. Valerie is suspicious of this. Her friendship with Jessica reflects the ups and downs of her healing process. As at first she ignores her, then when pressed to come to a student counsel meeting and help plan a memorial she reluctantly goes. She tries to handle the shunning by the other girls with Jessica’s support but still doesn’t fully trust that. When she is on a down spiral she distances herself from Jessica. On the upswing she reinstates their friendship. Jessica seems a solid extremely compassionate girl who is able to somehow flow with these changes.

On the homefront things continue to get worse. Valerie discovers her father is having an affair. Her mother continues to be an emotional wreck and thinks Valerie’s in all sorts of trouble when she’s not. Dr. Hieler had to have a lot of patience to deal with her mom more than with Valerie. She really can’t then depend on her parents at all through this. And the family challenges make things worse. She really uses Dr. Heiler as a safe place to draw strength from. And then after a session discovers Bea’s art studio. Bea is a very eccentric artest who seems to be extremely intuitive about Valerie’s emotional state and how to guide her to let her feelings out through art. Bea is an art therapist without the degree and truly amazing in how she is able to see what’s going on with Valerie and give her space to express it.

It is after she finally a year later visits nick’s grave and has an important conversation with a friend of his that she realizes she has to put thepieces of the tragedy back together, find her place in the events for herself and be grounded in who she really is. With the help of Jessica she is able to create a strikingly beautiful memorial and connect with the victems and families. And claim her place as a victim of the shooting, while at the same time owning where she went wrong with focusing so much on the superficial things.

By the end of the book things aren’t perfect for Valerie. Her parents are divorced. Her father is still extremely angry and unforgiving, her brother feels in her shadow. She doesn’t feel she can stay in this town after graduation. She doesn’t know where the future will take her. But she has a solidity, and an energy to her of someone who’s survived one of the most terrible events one can imagine, and who’s scars have become a part of her identity. In an empowering way. She has a core knowledge of herself and in a way is better off than before. She has more depth is ble to sit with uncertainity.

I deeply loved how this book was written. It’s not a simple don’t bully because horrible things will happen book. Everyone played a part in their own way in what happened, but not everyone just forgives and moves on. Everyone in the book is in their own process of healing throughout and by the end of the book things are open and unfinished. There is a telling interview at the end of the book where the author talks about how she likes open ended stories. And wants the reader to imagine where Valerie would have gone next. She also talked about how out of the two males, though Nick shot up the school, her father is the major villain. And victim in his own way. And how she purposely had her family have major issues and not be a fully supportive stable family, because that’s often reality. Trauma can bring people together, pull them apart or keep them the same. That in the end Valerie had to fight these battles within herself independent of her family.

I especially like Dr. Hieler I think he’s awesome. I actually laughed out loud at some of the scenes with him. He really reminds me of my therapist actually. A little unconventional, relaxed but amazingly skilled and creative. The author said that her husband is a clinical psychologist and after discovering the character of Valerie she asked him to do therapy with her.

I would highly recommend this book. It has so much c complexity and layers to it it takes awhile to read and digest. It took a few weeks for me to read and a few days to organize my thoughts for a good review. Obveously the major trigger here is violence. So this could be too much for many readers. As well as bullying. However I know it’s worth the read. And brings up wonderful insights and points to discuss. Whether in schools, between friends, or in therapy. Please let me know your thoughts.

icon-envelope-tick-round-orange_184x116-v1.png Virus-free.

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