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Katya Cengel became patient number 090 71 51 at the Roth Psychosomatic Unit at Children’s Hospital at Stanford in 1986. She was 10 years old. Katya’s young age set her apart from the other – mostly teenage – children on the psychosomatic unit: anorexic girls became her babysitters, non-compliant diabetic boys were her big brothers. Instead of learning her multiplication tables, Cengel learned how to throw up. The bulimic teens taught her that. Visitors from other units showed her how to be ashamed. Hospital staff put her in a straitjacket – and on anti-psychotic medication. Her young age, the length of her stay, and her lack of diagnosis inspired a rare intimacy in staff and patients, allowing Katya to penetrate a hidden world more deeply than most.
Thirty years later Katya, now a journalist, discovers her young age was not the only thing that made her hospital stay unusual. The idea of psychosomatic units themselves, where patients have dual medical and psychological diagnoses, was a revolutionary one, since largely fallen out of favor. Katya documents this, tracking down the doctors, psychologists and counselors who once cared for her.
What happened to her as a child is told in the voice of the troubled 10-year-old girl she once was. The two narratives unfold simultaneously. The result is a gut-wrenching account of childhood mental illness told from the inside interspersed with updates from experts in the field.
“Beautifully written, Straitjackets is a searing page-turner and wake-up call.”
–Joan Steinau Lester, PEN-award winning author of Loving Before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White
“Straitjackets and Lunch Money is a marvel—a bracing account of the author’s childhood mental illness written with such lucid honesty, such palpable empathy, that the reader becomes immediately invested in the fortunes of each sick or lost child we meet. It is a wise and merciless book, humble and deeply brave. I can’t imagine what it cost Cengel to write this book, but I’m profoundly glad that she wrote it.”
—Ted Scheinman, senior editor of Smithsonian magazine and author of Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan
“Katya Cengel’s heartbreaking, unsparing memoir Straightjackets is a clear-eyed look at what it’s like to be ten years old trying to starve yourself — as well as a deep examination into the flawed science used to treat her.”
—Frances Dinkelspiel, New York Times bestselling author of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California and co-founder of Berkeleyside and Cityside.