Thursday, June 8, 2023

Q&A with Samantha Leach




Samantha Leach is the author of the new book The Elissas: Three Girls, One Fate, and the Deadly Secrets of Suburbia. It focuses on the lives and deaths of Leach's friend Elissa and two of Elissa's friends. Leach is the entertainment editor at large at Bustle.


Q: In your Author’s Note, you write that you “first started trying to tell some version of this story back in 2011” and “began in earnest in the fall of 2019.” Can you say more about why you decided to write the book, and about the impact of your friend Elissa's death?


A: I first started trying to write about Elissa’s loss in the months that followed her death, in the creative writing workshops I took throughout my time in college. My grief was all-consuming; I didn’t know where I began and it ended. And as such, it was the only thing I could write about.


However, I kept trying to find different mediums to express my pain. Whether it was the ethnography of her Facebook page I wrote in my anthropology of media course or the story of a woman obsessed with the memorial profiles of the deceased for a fiction class that sounded way more like Ottessa Moshfegh than my own writing.


For a long time, I kept hiding behind these modes of storytelling — until 2019 when I finally decided to embrace my own voice, and tell the story of Elissa’s life through my own perspective. 


Q: The writer Nancy Jo Sales said of the book, “Leach’s investigation into how the Elissas perished adds much to our understanding of how dangerous misogyny can be to the health and well-being of girls and young women.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was extremely touched by Sales’ description of the book, as exposing the dangers of misogyny was very much my aim throughout writing.

I was particularly interested in the concept of “upper‐middle‐class white morality.” Because women have the potential to become mothers, we moralize their choices. If they use drugs, abuse alcohol, are promiscuous, etc.


Especially when it comes to white women, such deviations from the “domestic realm” may lead to the penalizing, sidelining, and shaming that I believe each of the Elissas experienced during their time in the Troubled Teen Industry. 


Q: How would you define the Troubled Teen Industry, and what do you see as some of the perceptions and misconceptions about it?


A: The Troubled Teen Industry is a network of private, for-profit, unregulated residential programs designed to quell the behaviors of wealthy, wayward teens.


I think one of the biggest misconceptions about these programs is that because they’re expensive — often costing upwards of $10,000 per month — that they must be good. But, as I show time and time again throughout The Elissas, these schools specifically target wealthy families in order to profiteer off of them and their desperation to help their children.


Q: How would you describe the legacy of your friend Elissa, and those of her friends Alyssa and Alissa?


A: I think the best way to describe the legacy of Elissa, Alyssa, and Alissa is through the phrase “save our souls.” Save our souls was the inside joke that was tattooed onto each of their bodies, and was what Alyssa and Alissa used to sign off on the messages they posted on Elissa’s wall after her death.


For a long time, I sought out to find the true meaning behind Save our souls. But when nobody in their life could remember it, I attached my own sentiment to it in the book. “Save our souls was their catchall: for all the pain and punishment they were put through in the pursuit of being fixed. For their ability to survive rather than surrender,” I wrote.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m primarily focusing on the work I do at Bustle, as their entertainment editor at large. I’ve recently published profiles on Rachel McAdams, Alison Roman, and Tina Brown. I have a few other exciting entertainment-focused features in the works at the moment, but you’ll just have to stay tuned to see what those are!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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