The Girl Behind the Door (9 page)

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
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I hated to see her beat herself up like that. “Honey, what's it about?”

“It's an essay for English on the Eiffel Tower,” which came out in a rapid-fire staccato:

I corrected a few minor typos and punctuation errors before affixing my smiley face at the end with my verdict—
—returning the finished piece to her as she sat at her desk. She grabbed the paper, crinkling it in her fist. I winced as I kissed the top of her head, wet from her evening shower, and left her alone to process my remarks.

Near midnight, shrieks echoed from the other side of the house—Erika and Casey at war. I had to investigate. Stepping into her room, I saw Casey at her desk, her shoulders heaving from choking sobs, while Erika stood over her with hands on hips, a disgusted look on her face. Igor lay on Casey's bed, shivering.

Erika quivered with outrage. “Why do you do this to yourself, Casey! Why!” It looked like she was on the verge of tears herself. “You're going back to therapy, young lady! I've had it!”

Casey picked her head up, tears streaming down her face. “Stop it, Mom! Therapy is stupid and useless! If you try to take me again I'll kill myself!”

Oh brother. Teen girl dramatics

Erika turned to me, her nose inches from my face. “Your daughter just ripped up her English homework that she spent all evening on!” Had she saved the paper on her computer? No.

“What? Casey!” I was exasperated. Did she have some kind of self-destructive impulse? Despite all of her bluster and pride, the slightest disapproving tone from me hit her like a sledgehammer.

“Dad, don't you know how much I hate myself? You just make me feel worse!” Her words were a cold slap in the face. Her reaction to stress and adversity was always out of proportion to the circumstances. What had we done to induce this kind of self-loathing, or was this just part of growing up?

The self-loathing became more evident as she made her way through middle school and increasingly turned her rage inward, the hyperbole becoming ever more strident.

“You make me feel like I'm subhuman!”

I couldn't tell what was normal anymore or what should have sounded the alarm bells. We just wanted Casey to be like the other kids, so we looked for signs of “normalness” and they were there in abundance.

The vast majority of the time, she was still delightful, happy, and charming, a good student who would have made any parent proud. The professionals had to be right. She was just a bit of a drama queen like a lot of teenage girls. So it was easy for me to overlook her more troublesome behavior.

Since taking her out of therapy with Dr. Darnell, we had turned back to our friends, and once again they reassured us that there was no reason to panic. We were good parents and Casey was a good girl. This was fairly normal—though irritating—behavior for a middle schooler. That's what I wanted to hear, and I found that people were eager to tell us what we wanted to hear.

Still, we'd laid down the marker of consequences for bad behavior and had to make good on our threats. Erika was adamant that Casey go back to therapy, and I wasn't about to fracture the parental alliance.

We found Casey's next therapist, Tori, at Apple FamilyWorks, a community-based mental health center in San Rafael. She reacted to the prospect of more therapy as if Mom and Dad were about to send her off to a Soviet gulag.

she spat as she yanked her bedroom door closed. I was furious at her—a thirteen-year-old acting like a spoiled, bratty two-year-old totally devoid of coping skills. Why couldn't she grow up and accept that things couldn't always go her way?

When tears wouldn't work, she resorted to relentless negotiation to wear us down. Erika and I were convinced that if Casey didn't become a writer, she'd have a promising career negotiating arms control treaties.

“If I go to therapy and I don't like it, I get to drop out!”

“If I go to therapy, then I don't have to do any chores!”

“If I go to therapy, then I demand an increase in my allowance!”

Perhaps she was angry and humiliated because her parents forced her to see a therapist in a low-rent district of San Rafael rather than the chichi therapists in Larkspur that her friends went to.

After several months, we met privately with Tori to discuss their progress together. Sitting in her office, I spoke frankly. “Casey won't stop complaining about therapy. She refuses to get in the car no matter what we say or do.” We were spent.

Tori responded, apologetic. “I understand. At first she started to open up and talk, but then after a while she refused to cooperate.”

“Do you run into this problem often, with teenagers who simply refuse to work with you?” I asked.

“Honestly? Very rarely.”

Erika spoke up. “Why do you think she's so resistant, Tori, when other kids aren't?”

“Well, she
very strong willed.” Tori paused to think. “She's just an extremely private person.” Once again, we had no discussion of her early abandonment, the orphanage, or her adoption.

We agreed that it was counterproductive to force Casey into therapy as long as she resisted. So, with great reluctance, we stopped the sessions with Tori. Casey would have to understand that this concession was with conditions. She needed to maintain her grades and keep her behavior under control or she'd be back in therapy. But next time—if there was a next time—we'd let her choose the therapist if it would motivate her to go.


asey entered Redwood High School in Larkspur as a fourteen-year-old freshman in the fall of 2004. With about fifteen hundred students, it was four times the size of her middle school, Del Mar, and drew kids from the surrounding towns of Corte Madera, Kentfield, and Greenbrae. The student body was more socioeconomically diverse than at the Tiburon schools, where the kids lived in a bubble of relative privilege.

In a way, Redwood's size afforded the opportunity for a middle schooler to reinvent him- or herself, shake off an unwanted nickname or reputation, and cast a wider net for new friends. It was a fresh start. But it also meant change, and I knew how hard it was for Casey to adjust to the unexpected. She'd had many of the same friends since kindergarten, and while some of her friendships had been strained over the years by breakup, betrayal, or rejection, there was still a measure of comfort in those familiar faces.

Several of her best friends—Roxanne, Maryse, Max—had gone away to private schools. Others—such as Joel, Julian, Ben, and Emily—enrolled at Tamiscal, a small, alternative independent-study school. I hoped Casey wouldn't be intimidated by Redwood's size. She would need to keep up with a heavier workload and start thinking about college. Maybe she'd put her writing gift to good use by contributing to the student newspaper. She might even find a boyfriend.

She'd never had a love interest that I knew of, but then, many of her girlfriends hadn't either. It wasn't that they were antisocial—far from it. They were in constant contact with one another, but it was often through online chats or texts from the privacy of their bedrooms.

Since she'd wormed her way out of therapy with Tori, Casey had been in good spirits. Erika and I were worn down, often disregarding our parenting instincts and house rules by ignoring a rude remark, backing away from a defiant challenge, or capitulating to a demand just for the sake of peace. It was humiliating to feel our authority regularly undermined by a teenager, but we'd do almost anything to ward off a meltdown. Perhaps, we told ourselves, by showing kindness and forbearance, we could coax, rather than force, good behavior from her.

In one such instance, I walked through the front door at the end of the day from work. Casey was sprawled on the sofa, her dirty, sneaker-clad feet propped on our new coffee table next to a can of Diet Dr Pepper missing its coaster. She was engrossed in a video game, The Legend of Zelda

My instinct was to snarl at her lack of respect; she'd broken two house rules—no shoes on the coffee table
use a coaster. But when she saw me walk in, she extended an arm for a hug and a kiss on the cheek, her face glued to the screen. I melted. All was forgotten.

“Honey, could you please take your shoes off the coffee table?” I asked.

“Oh. Sorry, Dad.” She kicked off her dirty shoes and planted her bare feet back on the coffee table.

“Thank you.”

Of course, our families and friends saw this as a sign of parental weakness, but then, they didn't live in our house. The reward for temperance was well worth the sacrifice of authority Erika and I had over our daughter.

Casey seemed to make the transition through freshman year smoothly, but by her sophomore year, the A's and B's that she'd proudly produced since grade school had slipped to C's and D's. Even English—her strong suit—had suffered. She could have counted on an easy A but was down to a D-plus. There was no question that she understood the material; it was about her inability to complete assignments on time.

Letters from Redwood addressed to
Parents or Guardians of Casey J. Brooks
arrived in the mail with increasing regularity, reporting a growing list of tardies, unexcused absences, and missed assignments. This violated the spirit of our cease-fire over therapy, but we were conflicted over how to handle the situation.

Erika felt we should have stuck to our agreement. There should be harsh consequences for this academic slide. She was probably right but I was, again, loath to confront Casey and upset the peace in the house. After all, these were just warnings. It wasn't like Casey had gotten busted for drinking or drugs.

In truth, I was just plain tired of parenting my daughter. She was a constant chess match, a constant challenge. I was worn out from trying to hold a job, keep a roof over our heads, and protect our family from imploding. Confrontation was a last resort.

Casey seemed to have anticipated a conversation over her grades and the letters from Redwood when Erika and I sat with her in a moment of calm in the kitchen one day after school.

“I know what you guys are going to say.” She covered her head with her hands in a gesture that could have been rehearsed. “I suck. I'm an idiot. You don't have to remind me.”

I bit my lip. “Casey, honey, you know you're none of those things. We just want to know if you need help.”

She rolled her eyes. “
, Dad. I can handle it!”

“We can get you a tutor,” Erika offered.

, I don't need a tutor. I just have to hand in a paper for English and that'll raise my grade from a D-plus to a B.”

Erika persisted. “Casey, we just want you to know that we can get you help if you want it.”

She hopped up from her stool, spun around, and shot off to her room, her arm outstretched and palm turned up to signal STOP as she mouthed,
Thank you!
Our attempt at a family meeting lasted all of three minutes.

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
6.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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