Get An Exclusive First Look At A New Book About The Troubled Teen Industry

Samantha Leach’s The Elissas tells the story of three young women who, after attending a school that promised to reform them, met the same tragic fate.

by The Editors
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There’s nothing quite like growing up in suburbia, with its manicured lawns and uppity homeowners’ associations and simmering angst over keeping up with the Joneses. It’s easy, as one reaches adolescence, to look around and smell the rank hypocrisy — and to reject it, seeking solace in being bad, in doing whatever will keep you off your parents’ well-manicured life path. And that’s when things can go wrong. In her debut book, The Elissas: Three Girls, One Fate, and the Deadly Secrets of Suburbia, Bustle’s Entertainment Editor at Large Samantha Leach takes readers inside one such story: that of three best friends, none of whom reached their 30s.

Leach was separated from her childhood friend Elissa in ninth grade, after Elissa wasn’t asked back to their private school outside Providence, Rhode Island and later sent to a reform school — one of the institutions that make up the infamous “Troubled Teen Industry,” a system that claims to help the wealthy’s wayward youth, but often ends up doing more harm than good. (See: Paris Hilton’s own experience of abuse at such schools.) While there, Elissa became close with two other rebellious girls, Alyssa and Alissa. Leach kept up with their exploits from afar, via social media — a passing interest that became an obsession after she learned of Elissa’s death at age 18. In the years that followed, Alyssa and Alissa would die, too.

The Elissas, out June. 6 from Legacy Lit, is Leach’s search for answers about what happened to these three young women. Here, for the first time, get a peek at the cover of The Elissas — and read an exclusive excerpt below.

Read An Excerpt From The Elissas:

At that age we were always teetering on the edge of true rebellion. We snorted Pixy Stix, pretending the powder was cocaine. We burned incense, acting as if the fumes were pot. When we got back to the kids’ club, we decided to make condom water balloons. The four of us hovered around a sink in the girls’ room, filling each plastic casing with lukewarm tap water. I’d never seen a condom in person before and I marveled at the different shapes they formed. One, growing wide and circular like a silicone breast implant. Another, becoming long and narrow, like the limp limb of a balloon animal. Once done, we lifted our shirts, cradling our creations in the fabric as we migrated to the secluded area behind the kids’ club. There was nothing to do but throw them on the ground. Elissa wound up like a pitcher taking the mound, cranking her arm around again and again, trying to rev up the most centrifugal force. I stood on my tiptoes, lifting my hand as far into the sky as I could possibly get it, hoping to access more of gravity’s power. Then, we let it rip.

“Holy shit. Holy shit,” Elissa and I both screamed.

The balloons cannonballed, splashing water and latex onto The Breakers’s red brick-lined grounds. We were giddy and glowing; screaming again, again, again as we threw every one of those condoms smack against the now-desecrated courtyard. With each toss we thought less about appearing cool to the boys. Soon, we forgot they were even there. We were besotted in our girlish abandon; nobody existed outside of us.

That was the thing about being friends with Elissa. I had to understand that there was no pleasure without pain. That the further she pushed my elastic limits, the more outsized the reward. The more uncomfortable she made me feel, the more fun we’d have in the end.

It wasn’t until seventh grade — the year of the naked photos — that Elissa’s self-fulfilling prophecy of becoming a slut would truly begin to calcify, and her rebellious streak would begin in earnest. Poor little rich girls don’t just wake up one day fully formed, ready to denounce the patriarchal and privileged order that they were born into in the name of a good time. It starts as a ringing, nearly imperceptible at first, that grows louder and louder until it’s impossible to ignore. While I never quite heard it, I’ve come to realize that this ringing is the realization that life among the cohorts at the country club is not all that you were told it would be. It’s the mounting rejection of the slow march toward becoming your mother, to marrying a type like your father, to putting out carbon copies of yourself that one day will also dine at the same country club, co-mingling with the same cohorts.

Rebellion becomes a mold you can pour yourself into, modeling your behavior off the glamorous portrayals of poor little rich girls before you. The fictional ones like Lux Lisbon, Daisy Buchanan, Marissa Cooper. Or the ingenues so mythologized, they feel like characters: Edie Sedgwick, Peaches Geldof, Paris. White women have an experience of being a teenager that’s in total opposition to that of young girls of color, whom society views as adults from the onset. Robbing them of their innocence at the first chance. Instead, these poor little rich girls experience a youth so romanticized, its lure is undeniable. There’s a cost to joining this lineage — and sometimes it’s the ultimate price.

In sixth grade, Elissa was just beginning to hear the ringing. The danger was still to come.

Excerpted from THE ELISSAS: Three Girls, One Fate, and the Deadly Secrets of Suburbia by Samantha Leach. Copyright © 2023 by Samantha Leach. Reprinted with permission of Legacy Lit. All rights reserved.