Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication: Date: May 10, 2016
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Sixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.
Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But is ambition alone enough to get her in?
Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa steps into his world, along with her charming boyfriend, Clark, and soon the three form an unexpected bond. But, as Lisa learns more about Sol and he and Clark grow closer and closer, the walls they’ve built around themselves start to collapse and their friendships threaten to do the same.
I first heard about Highly Illogical Behavior in a piece that connected its upcoming release with John Corey Whaley’s personal experience with anxiety, and so I was inevitably interested in a YA story concerning mental health written with a personal perspective. It wasn’t among my most anticipated titles, though, and I ended up picking it up from the library because I was interested in reviewing it because, honestly, the premise isn’t that great. The idea of “fixing” someone with a mental illness isn’t okay, but the back of the book seemed to suggest that this would be subverted, and I like myself some satire. But…well, days after finishing it, I’m still conflicted. In general, I just feel like this book wasn’t for me on multiple levels.
Naturally, since I’m going to be discussing how this book ends, a warning:
So. Highly Illogical Behavior is told in third person, alternating from Soloman and Lisa, though a lot of chapters have them both in it. And yet…I feel like this was really Lisa’s story. She starts out as absolutely insufferable, almost a caricature of the bright student with her whole future planned out. It ends with learning her lesson (that everyone has been telling her all along, really) of how she shouldn’t have approached Sol trying to “fix” him, how she herself learned that getting the scholarship and leaving town wasn’t the only way to make her happy, and her reflection that Sol is also now less “invisible” thanks to her. She hurt people, but in learning that lesson she also kind of helped Sol, so she can have her cake and eat it too. I came out of the story feeling that it was mostly about Lisa and Clark understanding how mentally ill people aren’t really that different from them. The perspective is one of “normality,” as Lisa and Clark are mentally healthy (and also not gay). As I don’t belong in that same sense of normality, not only did I not need the message, but I also felt a little cheated that this wasn’t Sol’s story of understanding himself…it was about understanding him. And that made him a bit of an Other character for most of the book, filtered through Lisa and Clark’s lens so they could learn a lesson, and that’s just cheap for the different character to ultimately bring about a change in the normal character.
Honestly, I felt quite distant from Sol, and I say this as someone who believes third person can be just as effective as first for getting into someone’s head. The somatic stymptoms and components of panic attacks were well-defined, but aside from some dialogue in which his mentality was apparent, the cognition and thoughts were barely present. There is one scene in which he describes his thoughts as “looping,” but then it’s described in vague terms, with an example removed from the situation at hand. Maybe I’m still riding a high after Some Kind of Happiness, which captured the inner thoughts and worries so well, but I do find that such an integral part of mental health, and I felt like Sol was kept at arms length as a result.
Soloman’s character growth is more about friendships, experiencing his first crush and heartbreak, and feeling less removed from society than anything to do with his agoraphobia and panic disorder. Lisa reflects that she gave him a reason to consider more interest in the outside world and feel better, and that makes sense, because agorophhobes don’t necessarily want to stay in their houses all day. And he does improve a little, acting on his idea (from pre-Lisa days) to get a pool and swim, and the climax involves him riding in a car that’s been painted like the Holodeck (and his garage). The end suggests he continues to swim with Lisa and Clark and may one day leave the house, but…that’s it. It isn’t too different from the middle of the book, except that Sol knows the truth now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very difficult to conclude a mental health storyline because things are never completely concluded, as it never fully goes away, but the ending was just so vague and once again (see below) avoided the common avenues that most individuals seek for mental health treatment. That only added to my feelings that the book really wasn’t “for” mentally ill/anxious/etc kids, because it doesn’t offer them (us) much information as far as some constructive ways to begin recovery and reintigrating into society. There are so many big `identity questions that come with that, and so it felt like a missed opportunity to me.
The book is also written in a style I guess one would call “quirky.” I don’t think this is inherently a problem, but I didn’t find this as funny as other reviewers seemed to, though I do love me some Star Trek: The Next Generation references (and there are plenty, including 2 fake Holodecks). But I didn’t exactly gel with the tone, as much as Lisa would correct her friend who called Sol “crazy” multiple times…though she herself writes in the essay at the end, “Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy,” meaning “I realized he was a real person, too, but I’m going to call him crazy to get my point across here,” which admittedly isn’t too varied from the casual tone (with curse words) she used throughout the essay. (I guess when you know you’re not getting a scholarship, you might as well be informal?)
Meanwhile, when Sol’s grandmother finds out he’s gay, she remarks that now she can brag to her friends to seem hip. Lisa’s mom says, “Everyone’s gay nowadays.” Lisa herself is curious as to when Sol realized he was gay and writes in her essay, “So, I thought I should add another reason: my kind and handsome boyfriend, Clark. What better way to tempt a homosexual recluse out of the house, right?” It’s all very OOOH LOOK, A WILD GAY PERSON!! which, to put it charitably, was too much quirk for me.
They also call therapists “shrinks,” which I know is common, but I do have a couple of nits to pick when it comes to the portrayal of therapy. Or rather…the absence of it. We get a little backstory as to why Sol doesn’t see professional help, and the fact that it didn’t work when he was younger because he didn’t want it to is perfectly reasonable. But then there’s this:
“She kept putting me on medicine that made me sick. I begged and begged and they finally told her to stop coming.”
I’m sorry, but WHAT KIND OF THERAPIST/PSYCHIATRIST IS THIS?? I’m pretty sure this violates a few ethical codes. If a patient is trying for medication, they are well informed of the potential side-effects and encouraged to report immediately if anything is wrong. At which point, they’ll likely try a new medication, because it’s often tricky to find just the right one. Or they might try a different approach, because meds aren’t for everyone. Regardless, therapists should never be this irresponsible, especially with someone with such intense anxiety as Sol. It seemed like a very convenient way to write out a therapist figure because it would obviously interfere with Lisa’s plan, as well as strangely dismissing the way most seek help. And it takes a lot for teens to ask for help, because of the stigma…so do we have to put down therapists and medication? Should we? I mean, according to Lisa, he needed a reason to leave his house, which was other people, but…that sure as hell isn’t going to make him self-sufficient and help him deal with the onset of anxious thoughts and panic attacks. It isn’t as bad as “love cures all!” but it does come a little too close. You can’t rely on other people to help your mental health. They’re not always around. You have to help yourself, and that’s what therapy is for.
Another thing that really bugged me was that after Sol’s breakdown when he found out Lisa’s original motivations, Lisa and Clark are (rightfully) horrified because he slapped himself, and this is when Lisa starts to seriously bring up the fact that Soloman may need professional help. Yes, it’s clear that Lisa doesn’t always know what she’s talking about, but this little thing was never resolved and it bothers me because I know it happens. I know that there are people who won’t take kids who are approaching them about their mental illnesses seriously until it’s apparent their lives are at stake. It’s happened to at least one of my friends, and yeah, I’m still sour about it.
Something I noticed, but was never directly brought up: the scholarship Lisa is going for may not have even been for her. The topic of “my experience with mental health” suggests something personal, and the description for the scholarship states it is intended for a student with the “highest need of assistance and highest likelihood of bringing a new perspective to the field of psychology.” Assistance might mean financially, but the rest…sounds like someone who has had personal experience in their own heads, which grants them a unique perspective. This was never really elaborated on in the book, but I find it a perfect summation of Lisa, and how she, the normal girl, gets to have the real story while Sol is shortchanged.
So the general message? Good, important. Did I enjoy the journey getting there? Not particularly. But I didn’t not like it either. The style just wasn’t for me, and this is also a strange case of a book involving mental health not giving me something to think about in regard to myself or understanding others. For what it’s worth, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, my standard rating for “meh” and “both good and not-so-good.” My bottom line: If you’re going to give someone (especially a teenager) a book to read about mental health, don’t pick this one.