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“But here’s one thing: I am alone. I’m the only one who can hear the monsters, feel the panic. I’m the only one who can feel the urge to pick at myself drumming through me like an unstoppable rhythm. When the problem’s in your head, no one can see it but you,” Lily. —The Words We Keep
The Words We Keep
by Erin Stewart
It’s been three months since Lily found her older sister, Alice, bleeding from her wrists on the bathroom floor. Now, with her father having drained his bank account for Alice’s mental treatment program, Lily knows she is not allowed to be a burden to her family. She’s told no one about her panic attacks, or how she impulsively picks the skin on her stomach until it bleeds, sometimes even in her sleep. She constantly wonders to herself, “What if you’re going crazy? Just like [Alice]. What if . . .you’re already gone?” Still, Lily knows she cannot let any of this out. She needs to keep her eyes on the prize – that being a full track scholarship to Berkeley.
Her sister’s return home from Fairview is coupled with a boy named Micah transferring to Lily’s high school. As it turns out, Micah was in treatment with Alice, and he’s also Lily’s new partner for a school art project. The two embark on a project that involves leaving poetry in unexpected places throughout the school. The two maintain their anonymity, gaining the title “the guerilla poets of Ridgeline High.” Lily knows Micah can assist her in finding a way to help her sister. However, Lily also finds that she needs Micah to help her, because the words she’s kept inside for too long are beginning to break through.
Told from Lily’s perspective The Words We Keep is a vivid and gripping story about the effect depression and anxiety can have. The reader feels the push and pull of Lily knowing she needs help but wanting to be strong for her family. The poetry she writes communicates this struggle very well. The highlight on mental illness and self-harm is unflinching, and while at times difficult to read, the narrative handles the difficult subject matter beautifully. Occasionally the chapters end by showing the reader Lily’s Google searches and her word-a-day calendar entries, which allow for deeper glimpses into her psyche. Other chapters end with comments on the high school’s student message board, offering insights into how other students perceive Lily and Micah’s poetry project.
Lily and Micah’s tentative bond and eventual romance is developed well. Micah’s mysterious nature and affinity for the characters of Winnie the Pooh intrigue Lily, and she muses that he might be able “to understand [her struggles]. Maybe he’s the only one who could.” The strained relationship between Lily and Alice is also very important to the narrative. The sisters are both suffering, but unable to console each other because they are holding their struggles back for the sake of the other. Through their relationship, the importance of openness with those close to us during trying times is emphasized.
The major characters in The Words We Keep are largely well-developed and likable, but those outside of the main cast are too numerous and one-dimensional. For example, a bully named Damon is at points unrealistically cruel to Micah. Damon goes as far as giving Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note suggesting that he kill himself, which Micah just shrugs off. Other characters, like Lily’s best friend and her stepmother, provide little substance to the narrative and seem to leave and reenter the story at random periods with little impact, leaving the reader to wonder why they were included at all.
The flaws of The Words We Keep ultimately do little to detract from the impact of the story. Readers will be able to connect with Lily and will want to see her story to its finish. While not for the faint of heart, this is an important novel that explores the pain of suffering in silence, and how to overcome the fear of letting it out and asking for help. Readers will learn that many people around them may be fighting inner demons, and that compassion and openness about one’s own struggles is imperative. Readers who want to explore mental health through fiction should add Paper Girl by Cindy R. Wilson and Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge to their reading list.
- Lily texts Micah saying that a talk with her sister went over “like a fart in an elevator.” Afterward, Micah jokingly texts Lily that she needs to “work on [her] sexting skills.”
- When students begin leaving poems throughout the school, Lily notes “the occasional blow me” written along with them.
- Lily says that her father and stepmother are newlyweds, “which means sex. And lots of it.”
- Lily and Micah almost kiss in a janitor’s closet and rumors spread. One student speculates on the student message boards that Micah was “banging [Lily] in the janitor’s closet.”
- When Lily and Micah kiss for the first time, Lily describes, “his lips [moving] slowly, as gentle as a breeze, but the taste of him makes my whole body hum . . .our bodies, our lips, melt farther into each other.”
- Lily and Micah go skinny dipping in the ocean. Lily says, “I taste the ocean on his skin as I press my mouth to his shoulder, his neck, his jaw. He groans, low and guttural, when his lips find mine.”
- Lily sees her sister going skinny dipping with a guy at a beach party. He later says that the two of them were “messing around.”
- Micah was with Lily and her family at the hospital after Lily attempts suicide. He later confesses, “‘I have to tell you something . . . they put you in a hospital gown and I totally saw your butt.” She jokingly asks if it was “good for [him],” to which he responds it was.
- As a child, Lily nearly drowned while swimming in the ocean. Her sister guided her back to shore. Lily remembers, “salt water fills my mouth, my ears, my everything . . . and then I’m on the sand. Dad’s swearing. He’s pounding on my back. He’s yelling my name so loudly, it hurts my head.”
- Lily discovers Alice on the bathroom floor, “blood draining from her wrist, pooling on the tile . . . Dad scoops her up, legs limp, blood dripping like a fairytale crumb down the stairs.” Alice is taken to the hospital and then to a mental facility. Lily recalls finding her in the bathroom several times throughout the book.
- Kids at school discuss rumors surrounding Micah. One boy says, “‘I heard someone found him perched on Deadman’s Cliff, trying to, you know. . . ’ [he] makes a throat slitting motion with his thumb.”
- One student says they heard that Micah “went full psycho on a kid at his last school. Like stomping him to the ground.”
- On a message board for students at Lily’s high school, someone suggests they make bets on “how long until [Micah] offs himself.”
- Lily self-harms. The earliest incident the reader is privy to is when she vigorously plucks hairs around her eyebrows, “[digging] the tweezers in until blood beads on my skin. But I keep going . . . got it . . . I wipe the pinpoints of blood from my eyelids.”
- When Lily was seven, a man, who is later revealed to be Micah’s father, leapt from Deadman’s Cliff. She remembers “watching the body covered in a white sheet like a bloated whale on the sand” on the news.
- Lily picks at the skin on her stomach, constantly picking off scabs and opening new wounds. She says, “it helps calm me, keeps me from having a full on meltdown . . . before long, blood coats my fingertips.” This process is described vividly throughout the book.
- Lily picks at her wounds in her sleep as well, waking up to find “bright red, angry splotches where I’ve ripped open my skin.”
- Micah lashes out at one of his bullies. In a fit of rage, Micah pushes him “up against a locker, and he’s hitting him, hitting him, hitting him.” A school security guard apprehends Micah and he is suspended from school and sentenced to do community service work.
- Alice has a breakdown at a beach party and tries to jump from Deadman’s Cliff, apparently convinced that she might fly. Lily tries to climb up to convince her to get down. She reaches for Alice’s ankle and “as she yanks her leg away, her other foot slips . . . and she’s falling. And screaming . . . and there’s blood in her hair. So much blood.” Alice survives the incident, ending up with a concussion.
- After her sister’s fall. Lily picks the skin on the entirety of her body in the bath, saying, “I continue even though the pain fills me. Because the pain fills me . . . I scrape myself away.” This happens over three pages.
- Lily has a nightmare about finding her sister in bed with “a waterfall of blood [pouring from her covers]. Soaking her nightgown. Splattering onto the carpet.”
- While in her room, Lily opens a box of razors and runs her finger “across all the razors and pencil sharpeners and scissors . . . If pain is all we’re going to feel anyway, why not bring it on?” She snaps herself out of it before she can act on the urge.
- Lily runs away from home in the middle of the night and attempts suicide by jumping off of Deadman’s Cliff. She thinks, “I just want it to stop. All of it—the monsters, the guilt, the never enough. It’s the only way.” Alice, Micah, and her father arrive and stop her. This scene lasts six pages.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Lily finds her father cleaning out a medicine cabinet in preparation for Alice’s homecoming. She suspects this is so he can “make sure Alice doesn’t down a fistful of Aspirin when she gets home.”
- Lily’s father takes sleeping pills.
- Lily begins secretly taking her father’s sleeping pills to combat her intrusive thoughts.
- A bully leaves Micah a bottle of aspirin with a note reading, “Do us all a favor.”
- After picking at her entire body, Lily takes one of her father’s sleeping pills and one of Alice’s prescribed pills. She sleeps for days while her father and stepmother are constantly with Alice at the hospital. When she awakes, she takes a double dose of sleeping pills and several of Alice’s before returning to sleep.
- After Alice falls from the cliff, a student on the message board says that she and Lily are “total attention whores. The world would be better without them.”
- Shit, bitch, and damn are said on a few occasions.
- Lily says that she and her family talk with her therapist while holding each other’s hands “like we’re saying a prayer. And maybe we are, supplicating a higher power to help us.”