I can’t imagine being 15 and waking up one morning to find my parents descending on me a with rope in their hands, tying me up, throwing me into a car and driving me to a mental institution. I remember my mom sneaking into my room to check that I was still breathing (this seems to be a thing moms do) and being a little brat and holding my breath to freak her out. But she was checking on me because she was (is) my protector. For Cassie O’Malley there is no one but herself to look to for protection, both physically and mentally.
Told in an alternating Now and Then voice, Kerry Kletter’s The First Time She Drowned introduces us to Cassie who has spent the past 2 1/2 years in a mental institution against her will. When she was 15 she woke up to her parents tying her hands and putting her into a car to involuntarily take her to a mental institution. Now at 18 Cassie is a legal adult and wants a normal life. She’s made friends during those 2 1/2 years, especial with James who is her best friend and whom she doesn’t want to leave behind. But she believes she’s prepared for the real world.
In an odd twist, Cassie’s mother has paid for a year of college. Her mother, her father, and her two brothers barely visited her while she was institutionalized and before you start thinking “Oh God, not another crazy teen in a mental ward that is going to teach me about love, heartbreak, and how to hang myself with that package of gummy worms that the kid down the hall gets in a care package every month from his mother” this is not that kind of book. Not too far into the novel you start to figure out that it’s Cassie’s mother who is at the heart of the abuse and the accusations of mental instability. Think of a mother character from a Gillian Flynn book, just with only one or two attempts at killing a child.
Cassie begins her first week at college in her solitary room, unsure how to make friends. She has pneumonia and spends the week drifting in and out of consciousness. Finally, she drags herself out of her room and to the door of a girl she noticed on her first day and collapses. Of course, they become best friends. Someone passing out in your doorway kind of bonds them to you. Or you get a restraining order. But Cassie sometimes overthinks the friendship and the things Zoey does are alien to her.
Thinking she’s going to experience a normal college life, Cassie dives right in and quickly realizes she is so not ready. Her mother, who she hasn’t really seen in the 2 1/2 years she was in the institution, pops in and out of her life, confiding the weirdest and most inappropriate things to her daughter. Not inappropriate like “When your father and I went to Hawaii and he wanted to scuba diving I was all for it. Then that morning he had diarrhea like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen so many panicked fish. Our instructor got a few pictures of it and I’m thinking about using it as our Christmas card this year.” Reading further, there are many “aha!” moments where you discover the mother should have been put away for a couple of years.
If you like novels about crazy families (and I don’t mean kooky families but families that become a legend down the bloodline) read The First Time She Drowned. I never felt so normal and sane. Most terrifying five minutes of my life.