This weekend, s.e. and abby both read The Summoning, by Kelley Armstrong. Rather than fighting over which one got to review it, they decided to have a chat instead! Here’s the synopsis from the publisher, and be advised that mild spoilers lie beyond!
My name is Chloe Saunders and my life will never be the same again.
All I wanted was to make friends, meet boys, and keep on being ordinary. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It all started on the day that I saw my first ghost—and the ghost saw me.
Now there are ghosts everywhere and they won’t leave me alone. To top it all off, I somehow got myself locked up in Lyle House, a “special home” for troubled teens. Yet the home isn’t what it seems. Don’t tell anyone, but I think there might be more to my housemates than meets the eye. The question is, whose side are they on? It’s up to me to figure out the dangerous secrets behind Lyle House . . . before its skeletons come back to haunt me.
s.e. smith: I loved the idea of superpowers being read as mental illness at first.
abby jean: well and i thought the twist of “these mortals pathologize difference” to “these people are are trying to control powers” was interesting.
abby jean: or pathologize supernatural difference.
s.e. smith: Yes! In a way it kind of reminded me of the myth that mental illness makes people naturally more creative. There’s that note of ‘scary and uncontrollable’ but also ‘we can use this.’
abby jean: “we just need to breed the good qualities and get rid of the bad ones.”
s.e. smith: Yes, and we just need to get it under control and then everything is fine. And we should put down the ones we can’t control.
abby jean: i thought the whole theme of “i know how i have to act to please the medical professionals” was quite well done
s.e. smith: Yes, and I also really liked the scene where she realises her aunt won’t believe her because of her diagnosis. Even though it later turns out the aunt has her own agenda going on, it felt very real.
abby jean: yeah, how aunt has a narrative going on know that she has no power to alter. and her own experiences and understandings are incorrect and deprioritized. for her own good.
s.e. smith: I think the book even used the term ‘lived experience’ at one point which blew me away.
abby jean: made me think of general discussions on on catholicism and exorcism, which are like “we have to protect these people from what they stupidly believe will help them.” because they cannot understand their own experiences. it was like “if these people are so backwards as to understand their mental illness that way, indulging it is doing them a medical disservice and anything that keeps them from psychiatric intervention is wrong.” which attitude i can see being applied to wrestling with was that a ghost or am i schizo, as mutually exclusive alternatives.
s.e. smith: It was also really interesting to see her coping with the diagnosis, when she thought that’s what it was. Going from freakout and calling herself ‘schizo’ to going ‘ok, this is part of me, I’m the same person, this is not my fault.’…And, you know, the way they treated the episode in the attic as a huge setback/failure, which in a treatment setting would encourage you to suppress your experiences.
abby jean: and how failure was so directly connected to loss of personal control, being kept there longer. freedom = reward for conforming. but then with tori showing how even that doesn’t work. even super conformity is still a failure and embarassment to the fam.
s.e. smith: And stepping up oversight, like with the urine samples. And there was also the whole thing with ‘we respect privacy and don’t talk about diagnoses’ paired with that social control that would have been impossible to miss. And of course you wouldn’t want patients talking to each other about their treatment. Because that might suggest they have agency.
abby jean: and finding common threads of being controlled is seen as a relapse.
s.e. smith: And building close relationships with other patients is deemed unhealthy
abby jean: well clearly their sexuality is totally out of control.
s.e. smith: Oh yes, obviously. *eyeroll*
s.e. smith: I also noted the use of outings to reward/control. Like, not even being able to go outside (even into a fenced and controlled area) without permission.
abby jean: and the nurses as security, medical oversight, and substitute family/domestic workers
s.e. smith: With total control over every aspect of their lives. It was also interesting to see the contradictory messages, like they aren’t allowed to stay in their rooms because it’s antisocial, but they also aren’t allowed to really interact with each other because that’s ‘not healthy.’ So you’re supposed to magically guess the ‘right’ amount of interaction to be rewarded, but no one will tell you what it is.
abby jean: and use your reason and logic to accept medical science and reject the idea of seeing ghosts, but do not use your brain to question anything else. what’s the right amount of reason?
s.e. smith: And, of course, stay busy with chores so you do not have time to think. Putting chores in the ‘free time’ part of the day.
abby jean: and only when you find the exact right amount, with no guidance or instruction and constantly moving goalposts designed to confuse and punish, can you be free to make any decisions for yourself.
s.e. smith: And of course you can’t ask other patients for guidance or mentoring because you aren’t allowed to talk about your diagnosis and will be fed a line of BS about how everyone’s progress is different, etc etc. Nor can you outright ask, because the staff will tell you there’s no formula.
abby jean: and that makes it look like you’re trying to game the system, rather than patiently waiting for the inevitably perfect outcomes that will result from just working their system. if you have to ask, you’re failing.
s.e. smith: Right, you’re supposed to organically understand it. Which is another example of how the lived experience is denied! Because people can say ‘I’m making progress’ and it’s ignored. It’s either assumed they are lying to work the system or they don’t actually know their own minds and bodies.
abby jean: and even compliance with the system can be denied. i really like having tori in there as someone who is trying really hard to work with the doctors and rejects the scheming and questioning and still gets fucked.
s.e. smith: Yeah she gets called the ‘pill princess’ and she’s basically ignored by the staff. That scene with her mother was really heartbreaking. Where her mother is screaming at her as though she, you know, enjoys whatever is happening to her.
abby jean: and the main doctor blowing her off.
s.e. smith: With all of the characters, it’s very much treated as something they should be able to control.
abby jean: even while they are systemically and purposefully being denied any control or agency.
s.e. smith: That was one scene that made me a little uneasy, when she was saying that Derek should be able to control himself and should have been able to prevent himself from hurting her, and he was agreeing with her. There’s a kind of hard line there, where, no, I don’t think it is acceptable to hurt people. But I also think that people do genuinely experience disassociations where they don’t know their own strength and can’t control themselves.
abby jean: i agree that some of their interactions felt a bit off to me.
s.e. smith: Like that scene in the opener where she’s kicking the teachers and the medics. She was basically lashing out the same way Derek did and we clearly weren’t meant to read her as accountable for her actions there. So it’s like where do you draw the line between something truly uncontrolled, and giving people a free pass on physical assault?
abby jean: true. i did think it was trying to say that the person who was assaulted should have some say/control over the punishment, that their experience should matter. so i guess we’d want to hear from the teacher/medic also, which we don’t.
s.e. smith: Yes, I definitely got that impression. And, to be fair, Derek also agreed that he should have been able to control his behaviour. So I don’t want to make the mistake of denying his knowledge of himself when critiquing that scene!
abby jean: he did. and his primary sense of guilt fwas from using it inappropriately. even though he didn’t really have knowledge/control when he was fighting in the playground.
s.e. smith: I think it’s possible to have a sense of guilt over something like that, while still knowing you couldn’t control yourself.
abby jean: i like that their superpowers were directly connected to emotional disturbance, so debating his werewolf strength usage seems more reasonable than thinking about what edward does as a vampire or whatever.
s.e. smith: Yes, yes it does! Speaking of supernaturally beautiful heroes, it was also interesting to me that the closer she got to Derek as a character, the less the book emphasized the fact that he’s supposed to be hideous.
abby jean: and the fact that some of his hideousness was connected to his powers, and as she accepted natural/supernatural differences she was more accepting of other differences. i feel like it took me half the book before i realized simon was supposed to be asian. was that a thing?
s.e. smith: It appeared to be! I enjoyed the way the book integrated people of colour without going ‘look at me! I’m inclusive!’ because it made me confront the way people usually read characters, which is usually white until proved otherwise. I also liked that we didn’t get a sense of supernatural superiority. The characters who knew what they were didn’t think they were better than humans.
abby jean: yes, and there didn’t seem to be any fight/hunt humans elements.
s.e. smith: Yes, and even though it was clear that a class of humans was a threat, they weren’t mapping that over to all humans.
abby jean: and chloe for a while was thinking about talking about things with her previous friends
s.e. smith: Yes, that storyline kind of petered out instead of being addressed. Once she started panicking about what would be in the ‘from’ line on her email.
abby jean: oh, yes. i forgot about that part.
s.e. smith: Which was kind of an interesting example of how people with mental illness get separated by stigma. She was allowed to contact people but she was afraid because she didn’t want them to know, so she was effectively cut off from the outside world.
abby jean: i was just typing basically that. and how it prevented the friends from even having a chance to react positively, so stigma hurts everyone even if you don’t have it!!
s.e. smith: And of course the whole storyline with them being cut off from Liz because she can’t be contacted for ‘safety.’ So basically, the only connections you can have are with fellow patients, but those get cut off as soon as they are transferred or ‘transferred’ in this case.
abby jean: and the idea that you don’t even know what potential options there are for you until they tell you what’s going to happen to you. who knew they could do that?
s.e. smith: Right, it’s like peeling back the layers of an onion. ‘You’ll be here for two weeks’ they say. And each day you learn that’s not only not true, but there’s a whole myriad of consequences for not following the rules. The rules that you don’t know because no one will tell you!
abby jean: but you are ostensibly there for stability and protection! to be free from worry!
s.e. smith: Everything is for your own good! Just relax and don’t think.
In summation: The Summoning is a book you might be interested in reading if you like young adult literature and you enjoy books where mental illness and denial of agency are explored!