The Teenage Mind

The internal experience of the young adult

A Conversation with James Tipper

Listen to your children.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to James Tipper, author of The Discarded Ones. I asked James who he was writing the book for and what he hoped to accomplish. He said he had two audiences—parents and teenagers.

To the teenagers, he wanted to say, “You are not alone.” For those of you who haven’t read The Discarded Ones, it is a fictionalized story of troubled youth sent to a therapeutic boarding school. The school, run by amateur therapists, takes on a life of its own similar to Zimbardo’s prison experiment or Jim Jones' Guyana. The youth who are sent there for acting out, fighting with parents, taking drugs, or mental health problems are totally at the mercy of the therapists. Very little academic instruction takes places. Days are filled with physical work (slave labor) and therapy (high pressure confessionals). They are isolated in the mountains. Escape is impossible.

Many of the young people feel abandoned by their parents. One of James’ intentions was to tell these young people you are not alone. Others before you have gone through this and survived. Many go on to healthy, productive adult lives.

His second audience was the parents. To the parents, he wanted to say, “Listen to your children. Pay attention. They are trying to tell you something.” The main character, Charlie, is left alone with a drunk and violent step-father. When he tells his mother, she does nothing. She even sides with her husband. To deal with all the fighting, she sends Charlie away. She tells him it is for the summer.

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When he arrives, he learns it is not a camp and not for the summer. He is signed up for two years. She tricked him. This is a serious betrayal of trust. Charlie feels lost, abandoned, even discarded.

I remember similar experiences. Feeling powerless, I turned to my father, hoping he would protect me from my mother. Too busy with his business, he ignored me. Minors are dependent on their parents and if their parents are too busy or too troubled themselves, young people get neglected. Some are abused. Some even get shipped off to residential treatment centers where therapists take advantage of their innocence.

In the book, Charlie stumbles upon another resident, a young girl who is alone in a quiet, dark room and being stroked by one of the older therapists. These scenarios were not uncommon during the 1980s. Many things happened behind the backs of parents. No one knew what went on and until recently many schools were unlicensed and unmonitored.

The school in The Discarded Ones is expensive. It has a good reputation. Parents thought they were doing the best thing for their son or daughter. This is why it is critical for parents to take their teens seriously. Listen to them.

James Tipper’s book, The Discarded Ones, is a novel based on a true story. It is told in a narrative voice. As readers, we see the world through the eyes of 14-year-old Charlie. This format is very compelling. It is not a sad documentary, it is not a how to book, or even a diary. It is a powerful story that could happen to any of us. For this reason, I urge parents and teens alike to read The Discarded Ones. I couldn’t put it down.

Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine College of Medicine.

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