Full List of Trigger Warnings: mental health stigmas, sexual assault/sexual abuse/incest, graphic sex scenes, self-harm/suicide.
This review will contain spoilers. I’m choosing not to hide them because they’re necessary for the argument I want to make about this book. I hope that any of the spoilers will deter potential readers from bothering to read this book in the first place.
Unravel by Calia Read
Genre: New Adult | Read for: Mental Health rep | My Rating:
Naomi Carradine, age 20, is locked in Fairfax, a mental institution, against her will. She doesn’t know why she’s there, nor does she feel that she belongs there. The story follows her present encounters with her psychiatrist as well as memories, both from her childhood, and the ones that directly led to her being committed. She talks about her relationship with Lachlan, her childhood best friend-turned boyfriend, and Max, the smoldering stoke broker who comes into her life six months before the present day narration. She talks about what happened to her best friend, Lana, and how that affected Naomi’s sanity. As the story begins to Unravel, the reader attempts to uncover the secret as to why Naomi is in Fairfax, hence the book’s label as “psychological thriller.”
I’ve unfortunately come to expect this from “New Adult” books: lackluster characterization, overly flowery description, and a heavy reliance on romance tropes. For instance, in Unravel we have The Girl Who Can’t Decide Between Two Guys (see also: Elena on The Vampire Diaries) aka every girl’s dream problem, right? We also have what I affectionately term the Christian Gray Male Lead: the slightly older, wiser guy who’s highly sexual in his treatment of the girl, who has awkwardly described sexy traits (like veiny arms—why is that sexy?!). And obviously we have InstaLove, in the sense that I never quite understood why Naomi fell for Lachlan or Max. I’m not even going to get into the romance here—it was so gratuitous and cheese-filled that I just don’t even want to say anything. Oh, and then there’s trope of the Horribly Unhelpful Mental Health Professionals/Institution.
awful mental health rep
Want to know what not to write when it comes to mental health rep? Look no further than Unravel. This book does several things that aren’t uncommon in non-#OwnVoices books about mental illness.
1) the lack of diagnosis to further the plot. At the beginning of the story, Naomi says she’s been in Fairfax for two months without a diagnosis. She also says that she was involuntarily committed by her parents. While I am not a mental health professional, I asked a friend of mine about this. She said that (a) it’s highly unlikely for a legal adult to be involuntarily committed unless she was a danger to herself or others—and that behavior would have to continue within the institution, otherwise they’d have no choice but to release her. And (b) it’s also unlikely that Naomi would’ve been there for two months without a diagnosis. Now, the argument could be made that Naomi is only in Fairfax because her rich parents pulled strings—but this is never addressed as being abnormal. If you’re going to write unrealistic aspects of mental health, the least you could do is acknowledge that your story isn’t the way it usually works.
2) the character who declares she’s “not crazy” while vilifying everyone around her as “crazy” stereotypes. Throughout her time at Fairfax, Naomi isolates herself from the other patients, whom she constantly refers to as crazy. There’s the angry anorexic girl who hates everyone else, and there’s the token postpartum woman who carries around a fake baby everywhere. Despite the fact that Naomi herself has actual hallucinations—she sees and hears people who are obviously not in the room with her, and may not even be real at all—she insists that she is “not crazy” and these other folks are “crazy.” I don’t feel that I need to say why this is problematic. Society has enough misunderstandings of mental illness and mental institutions. We already have sensationalist movies, books, TV shows. We’ve been there, done this already. So why is it still being done? Why is it still okay to write people off as “crazy” without having any sympathy for their situation? Bottom line, it’s not okay, and there’s no excuse, in my mind.
3) relying on mental illness for shock value. I tried to give Unravel the benefit of the doubt. I tried to see why the author would’ve made certain decisions. I had sympathy for Naomi, as I figured out the so-called Big Twist early on. Unfortunately, the way this book was written, Naomi’s un-revealed condition is used for total shock value. Ultimately, she’s diagnosed as having Dissociative Identity Disorder as a result of prior trauma—DID, aka everyone’s favorite sensationalized mental illness.
Formerly known as Split Personality, DID happens when a person dissociates from themselves in order to cope with serious trauma. The person develops a secondary (and sometimes more than one) personality that comes to the surface at specific times, resulting in serious memory loss. This is what I know from my college Abnormal Psychology class and Wikipedia—not exactly difficult research, but clearly the kind of research this author didn’t bother with. In the case of Naomi, it’s unclear that she has memory loss, since she refers to spending time with her secondary personality, who she thinks is her best friend. Additionally, Naomi hallucinates an alter-ego for her own boyfriend—something that ultimately the book doesn’t explain because somehow even the doctors don’t understand it. Maybe because it literally doesn’t make sense.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Naomi somehow “gets over” her DID by the end of the book when she magically realizes that she is Lana, Lana is her. Keep in mind that DID is extremely difficult to treat because it’s a learned behavior—but somehow Naomi just gets to move on with her life. This is unacceptable. Not only is it harmful to young women who have dealt with trauma, PTSD, and even DID itself (which, by the way, is incredibly rare, for all our culture is obsessed with it), this is spreading harmful ideas about mental illness in the name of a good story. A thrilling plot is not an excuse for harmful representation of real people struggling with real illness.
the treatment of abuse and trauma
The major trauma in Naomi’s life is that she allegedly witnesses her best friend Lana being raped by her father. As soon as I read this, I was sick to my stomach, and I knew right away that Lana was really Naomi. We find out that this sexual abuse has been ongoing for over a decade, that the mother knows but is protecting her wealthy prominent senator husband over own daughter. I wanted to slam the book shut at that point. Yes, I understand the realistic aspect of this, and I’m glad that we’re at a point where we can talk about rape and abuse out in the open. Problem is, this was triggering to me despite the fact that I’ve never been raped. I had nightmares in which I was running from the father character. Maybe some people can read a story like this and let it go, but that person isn’t me.
I understand why Naomi would feel like she had no control over her life. I understand why she would lean on Max/Lachlan to take care of the situation—even though I hate the way she perpetuates an unhealthy dependency on a male to maintain her sanity (which is completely unrealistic). I even understand her fear in talking about what happened to Lana (aka what happened to her).
What I don’t understand is how her mom, Lachlan, and presumably anyone else in her life didn’t see the signs. Especially after she’s admitted to Fairfax and starts telling the story to her psychiatrist. I’m just saying that if I, a lay person, can figure out the truth—why can’t a mental health professional? So what we have is bad rep on all fronts, in that psychiatrists get poor representation here as well. Therapists aren’t infallible, but they’re definitely not stupid either. I don’t care how powerful Naomi’s dad is, there’s no way they would release Naomi back into his “custody” (which, by the way, she’s 20, so how does that even work? they can’t technically control her).
overall do I recommend?
Under no circumstances do I recommend this book. For a lot of people this book claims to represent, reading this would be incredibly triggering. For everyone else, if reading about someone dealing with ten years of sexual abuse is fun for you, then you might want to rethink your life anyway. It’s not just that this book is inaccurate in terms of mental health; it’s the fact that this kind of sensationalization of mental illness perpetuates harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes about mental health across the board. This kind of story perpetuates the mental health stigma that still exists in this country. This kind of story keeps young women from seeking help for less serious mental illnesses. This kind of “romance” novel perpetuates the idea that True Love will cure your mental illness with the snap of a finger. This kind of book is harmful, and I’m infuriated that, as of this writing, it has a 4-star average on Goodreads. I would give this 0 stars if I could.