Bad Girls Club, by Judy Gregerson, is a dark and disturbing story of the havoc that mental illness can wreak on a family, and the bond that children maintain with abusive parents. As the summer begins, sixteen-year-old Destiny struggles between asserting her independence and taking care of her family. Her mother, June, always mentally unstable, starts exhibiting dramatically self-destructive behavior. Destiny has to protect her five-year-old sister, Cassidy, because their mother can't stand the younger girl, and beats Cassidy if given the chance. Cassidy, not surprisingly, is emotionally vulnerable, pulling out her own hair, and often refusing to speak. Destiny's father is a remote, hapless figure, unable to control his wife, depending on Destiny to take care of things, and blindly determined to keep the family together.
June's behavior rapidly worsens, and before long she is sent to jail for committing a violent act against a stranger. Even when she is absent from the house, her shadow plagues the other three members of the family. Destiny, in particular, is haunted by an event that took place five years earlier, when Cassidy was a baby, at Crater Lake. Destiny's memories of that traumatic event are gradually revealed, in flashbacks and memories. Meanwhile, Cassidy starts talking to a violent imaginary friend. Things become even worse when June returns, and starts revisiting disturbing events from her own childhood. Eventually, the situation reach a crisis point, and Destiny has to decide what to do.
Throughout the book, Destiny's grandmother and Chloe both encourage her to give up on her mother, and even on Cassidy, and save herself. But she can't do it. She feels responsible for the state of her family, and continues, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, to think that she can fix everything. And despite the horrors that June puts her through, Destiny still loves her mother, and cares what happens to her. As an afterword explains, children who suffer from parental abuse and abandonment "are more loyal to their parents than children who are not abused. The break in the bond between mother and child is so traumatic that a child will do just about anything to reconnect with the parent."
This is a hard book to read. I wanted to shake Destiny's father, to make him realize what was going on. I wanted to shake Destiny, to make her listen to the people who were trying to help her. I wanted her to call back the nice boy who wanted to be with her. But because the story was told in the first-person, from Destiny's perspective, I could understand, at least to a point, why she couldn't let go.
I'm not a big fan of "message books" that are out there to make a particular point, but I don't think that's the case here, because Bad Girls Club isn't about what one should or shouldn't do. Judy Gregerson is trying to help readers understand, by giving us a deeply personalized example, the effect of abusive and unstable parenting on victimized children. (See an author interview here for more details.) She's putting a human face on stories we might casually notice in the newspapers, and showing us one of the stories from the inside. I believe that it's no coincidence that the story includes June's flashbacks of her own abusive father. We can see, from June's rantings to Destiny and Cassidy's eroding behavior, the legacy that violence and trauma cast down through families. There's no magic solution, but seeing and understanding can build empathy.
I didn't enjoy this book, exactly, but I'm glad to have read it. I read it quite quickly, because I couldn't leave Destiny hanging -- I had to know how it all would turn out. The suspense around the events at Crater Lake and the death of June's sister as a child kept me reading, too. I think that teens, especially those with dysfunctional families, or friends from dysfunctional families, will find the story compelling, though I wouldn't recommend it for younger kids, because of the dark content. I'm expecting to hear a lot more about this book once it's publisher later this month.
Book: Bad Girls Club
Author: Judy Gregerson
Publisher: Blooming Tree Press
Original Publication Date: June 15, 2007
Age Range: 14 and up
Source of Book: ARC from the author
Other Blog Reviews: Reading Junky. See also an author interview at Buried in the Slush Pile
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.