When we meet Deborah at the beginning of the novel, she's a sixteen-year-old who's struggling with mental illness, who's recently attempted suicide, and who's living part-time in an imaginary world called Yr and part-time on Earth. And no one really understands her.
In short, she's a bit of a mess, and she needs help.
Deborah rails against whatever is uncomfortable in both worlds, and she seems immature, defensive, and pained. The first time we get to see her deal with the voices of the Collect revving up to deafen her against both Yr and Earth, we're told that "She was fighting against their coming the way a child, expecting punishment, anticipates it by striking out wildly" (2.2). Deborah is clearly suffering, and she's having trouble functioning; it's so bad that the world she created as an escape for herself is now controlling her.
Deborah's parents have tried to help her out by dropping her off at a mental hospital, where a world-renowned psychiatrist has agreed to work with her and try to get her to open up to the idea of living in the real world. Dr. Fried is the best thing to happen to Deborah. It's 1948, and Deborah could just as easily have been stuck with a doctor who wanted to run electricity through her body or slice into her brain with an icepick.
Yeah. It was that bad back then. And you thought mental health issues were bad enough today?
Despite being overwhelmed by all her zipping between two worlds, Deborah shows us she also has a sense of humor. When a nurse tells her to get ready for her first appointment with Dr. Fried, for example, and explains what a big deal it is that such a big-time doctor is going to see her, Deborah says, "If she's that good, I'll wear my shoes...Known and loved by madmen the world over...Let's go" (3.15).
Then, when she's talking with Dr. Fried for the first time, Deborah remarks, "The prisoner pleads guilty to the charge of not having acute something-it is and accepts the verdict of being nuts in the first degree" (2.45). This witty comment makes Dr. Fried smile and come back with a quip of her own. From this moment on, we know these two are going to get along and—and maybe even make some progress.
In fact, Deborah's humor is one thing that shows Dr. Fried that she's got the self-awareness and strength to get better.
Now, despite her sense of humor, Deborah is still seriously disturbed by others' perceptions of her. She's gripped by a fear that Dr. Fried and the other doctors at the mental hospital will find out all her secrets about Yr. When Dr. Fried assures her that she won't have to give up her "symptoms" without wanting to, Deb feels "a rope of fear" like a "noose" around her neck (3.27).
Er, that's probably not what Dr. Fried was going for there.
Deborah's insecurities are mirrored by the Censor, who warns her not to trip over any tables in Dr. Fried's study. The Censor is an Yr figure whose only job is to make sure that Yr stuff stays in Yr, Earth stuff stays on Earth, and Deborah doesn't embarrass herself.
He's not exactly the life of the party, and he's always telling Deborah not to be clumsy. Deborah's always been a bit of a klutz, and it makes her super self-conscious. Kids at school made fun of her for it, and the gods of Yr do the same. Nice friends, right?
After managing not to trip on anything, Deborah sits down and reveals to Dr. Fried why she thinks she's been admitted to the hospital. "Clumsiness is first and then we have a list: lazy, wayward, headstrong, self-centered, fat, ugly, mean, tactless, cruel. Also a liar...Also unfriendliness" (3.30).
All these negative traits are things other people have said to Deborah so much that she now believes them. The Censor has evolved, as annoying as he is, to protect her from acting in ways that would tempt others to call her those names again. And as if the Censor weren't bad enough, Deborah's got a whole group of judgy folks in Yr called the Collect who laugh at her and tease her about any even remotely embarrassing she's ever done and thought about. Just in case she needs a little more ridicule.
After she purges her thoughts about her negative traits, Deborah feels like she's "spoken her true feelings for the first time" (3.30). How sad is that? She's sixteen, and this is the first time she feels this? Well, we can't be that surprised—she has a mother whose motto is Pretend everything is okay, no matter what, and she's got a father who has never told her he loves her.
Sheesh, somebody call Dr. Fried.
Over the course of her treatment, Dr. Fried helps Deborah navigate to the roots of her illness. And, yes, her parents are a big part of it. With their actions, they've reinforced Deborah's feeling of not being able to trust anyone. When she started wetting her pants at age five, for example, the 'rents actually encouraged the nanny they hired to beat Deborah to get her to stop.
But, okay, when they found out the accidents were caused by a tumor in Deborah's urethra, they told her they'd take her to a doctor to get better.
"Better" didn't exactly happen right away, though, and the doctors weren't quite the help Deborah's parents said they would be. When she had she had the tumor removed, for example, the doctors told her it wouldn't hurt. They also called her female parts a "doll" and talked about putting the "doll" to sleep. Ew.
Deborah was a smart kid. The experience of being patronized and lied to, and then going through an embarrassing and excruciating medical procedure (that whole thing about it being painless was a lie) helped set the stage for her gradual decline into mental illness. That's when Deborah started to invent Yr and all its gods and magical landscapes.
But that's not all, of course. There are many other challenging events in Deborah's life that fuel her continuing need for an imaginary world. Being Jewish and spending the summers at a camp where even the counselors are anti-Semitic—and let you know it—will do a number on your head. It certainly gave Deborah some serious identity issues to add to her already dysfunctional mix of issues.
But wait—there's more. Let's add up the rest of the issues Deborah's had to deal with.
Yep. What we have here is a recipe for one messed-up teenager, folks.
When your parents don't understand you, when you have a kid sister you can't stand and didn't ask for, when you are lied to about some pretty major things, when pretty much the whole world seems like a terrible, scary place—yeah, imaginary friends are gonna seem so much better than the real world.
Now, five-year-olds having imaginary friends is no big deal. The big deal comes when Deborah spends more time in Yr than on Earth. It comes when Yr starts controlling how she spends her time on Earth, and it starts controlling what she says and when. Basically, it kind of takes over her whole life. Deborah feels like she has to build Yr up to help control the feeling that she's going to explode all the time.
Deborah describes herself as a volcano whose slopes she decorates to look beautiful to the outside world. Meanwhile, the slow build-up to eruption becomes the reality she combats on a daily basis. The decorating of the volcano, as well as the feeling that it's going to explode, develops gradually over the span of eleven years. It's the overall metaphor for her illness that she returns to over and over again.
Creating Yr helps keep Deborah from exploding.
Dr. Fried is the guide who helps Deborah get through the maze of her mind and her illness. From the get-go, Dr. Fried is compassionate and patient—pretty much the most insightful and kindest friend or parent anyone could want. And Deborah, even though she can be stubborn, totally picks up on the good vibes.
Deborah's used to people being a little creeped out by her odd behavior, even doctors. But when they first meet, Deborah notices that Dr. Fried "was not frightened […] or horrified, or ridiculing, or making any of the hundred wrong expressions that people had always shown in the face of her trouble. She was only completely serious. Deborah began to tell her about Yr" (7.20).
Calm, open-minded, and easy to talk to? Sounds like a great therapist to us.
Deborah eventually learns to reject Yr and side with the world, and she gets there by trusting Dr. Fried and taking a leap of faith that the world can offer her more than the gods of Yr. After all, the gods of Yr start punishing her for communicating with people of Earth and divulging Yri secrets; what's the point of making up a world if it starts to hold you back and control you?
Deborah realizes she was so caught up in her secret world that she no longer knew how to interact with other people. She didn't even know how to make her facial expressions match up with how she really felt. Once she lets go of Yr and accepts that the world can be a cool place to live in full-time, she gradually learns to be less self-absorbed and more empathetic toward others. She even makes friends.
Feeling warm and fuzzy yet?
Near the end of the novel, Deborah feels grateful to her parents for taking her to the hospital and leaving her there for three years to get free of the grip of mental illness. She learns that she doesn't have the corner on suffering, and she starts asking staff members at the hospital about their lives. She's able to take things less personally and be there for others, like Carla and other patients.
This evolution has come at a huge price, though: Deborah suffers enormous inner pain when she gives up Yr. Deborah has lived with her gods of Yr for most of her life. They are real to her. Sure, they can be mean sometimes and throw her in a Pit to punish her for talking to Earth people, but they're still her friends. Until she met Carla and Dr. Fried at the hospital, they're her only friends. And she gives them up only by taking a leap of faith that she'll be able to make it without them.
As Deborah lets go of Yr, the volcano inside of her explodes and pits Yr against Earth. When this collision of worlds first occurs, Deborah blacks out and has to be put in a cold-sheet pack to cope with the overwhelming feeling of losing a world she built and lived in for eleven years.
The ongoing collision is like a series of earthquakes and aftershocks that makes Deborah feel like a walking time bomb. Sometimes she can't speak intelligibly. She'll slip in and out of English and Yri. (Did we mention her made-up world comes with its own made-up language?) She scrawls on walls in her own blood. She burns herself with cigarettes to ease the pressure she feels exploding inside of her. It's not a pretty scene.
Despite the intensity of the volcano's eruption, though, Deborah survives it. The major turning point comes when she goes to burn herself with a cigarette. Instead of the release of pressure she usually feels, she finally feels the pain of the burn. It sounds weird, but feeling this pain makes Deborah really happy. It means she's not numb anymore. It means she's totally in the world, and she's completely her Earth self. The pain means she's real and in the moment.
And life is only going to get better for Deborah. After all this, she works hard to make a place for herself in the real world. She joins a choir. She rents a room outside of the hospital. She gets her GED. She's committed: "I am going to hang with the world. Full weight" (29.116).