Anxiety in the ‘Truly Devious’ Series

With regards to the actual mystery itself, this review is spoiler-free.

Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious trilogy—a time entangled mystery narrative set in boarding school Ellingham Academy—offers a captivating narrative from start to finish. The ‘boarding school for individuals with particular, individual gifts’ setting provides the perfect backdrop for a range of characters with various interests and challenges. However, despite the easily identifiable character tropes: intelligent detective; glamourous journalist; troubled writer; geek girl; quirky artist; and bad boy, I didn’t feel that Johnson quite made full use of the opportunity for diversity that she gave herself. 

Despite most characters being abled and neurotypical however, Johnson did try to represent the experiences of someone with panic disorder through central character, Stevie. Though the attempt at representation at times felt quite forced, the character benefitted from the fleshing out of her insecurities. The jealousy Stevie felt at the first friend she made bonding with somebody else, and then immediately acknowledging that it was a ‘crazy thought’ and trying to forget about it (book 1, p. 68) made Stevie human. I don’t know that there’s anything more annoying in this life than a lead character who thinks nothing but pure, angelic thoughts the whole way through. This human moment of jealousy, therefore, was point one to Stevie Bell.

When it came to the actual portrayal of Stevie’s anxiety on the other hand, I felt the series could have benefitted from a first-person narrative. Though it can be difficult for a person in a state of high-anxiety to describe how they feel, this very sense of confusion and frustration at one’s own feelings can offer a powerful statement about the all-encompassing effects of anxiety. In the third-person narrative of the Truly Devious series, the attempts to describe and explain Stevie’s experiences with anxiety feel rather clinical. Though I appreciated the acknowledgement of the third-person narration that ‘night always brought the worry,’ alongside Stevie’s pre-panic attack concerns that she might have one being almost debilitating in and of themselves (book 1, p. 110), the blow-by-blow account of the onset of each symptom during the panic attack felt like it had been lifted from a medical book and fleshed out with some adjectives to make it more exciting (book 1, p. 185). A first person narrative, though likely to express the feelings of panic less articulately, may have done a better job of making the reader feel the sense of urgency Stevie experienced in wanting to make the feelings stop, and presented her feelings in a more personal and identifiable way to readers who have had similar experiences. 

This said, Truly Devious did a much better job of dealing with the aftermath of Stevie’s panic attack. As is so common in books, TV shows, and movies, I was afraid that the narrative of the day following Stevie’s night-time panic attack would fail to address it at all. On this count, I was pleasantly surprised. Stevie’s statement that the attack had left her feeling ‘a little nauseous’ and ‘tired’ (p. 187) was a welcome change from the presentation of anxiety disorders as illnesses which turn up for a few minutes and then go away again. The shame and guilt about turning to a friend the night before that Stevie seemed to experience upon seeing the beauty of the weather was also a powerful reminder that those with anxiety disorders do not want to be a burden, and often feel high levels of frustration about the fact that they cannot simply make their brain and body calm down, even when they know that, logically, there is nothing to be afraid of.

Overall, Truly Devious’ depiction of life with an anxiety disorder is a mixed bag. Whilst the description of Stevie’s panic-attacks themselves could have benefitted from allowing Stevie’s own voice to shine through, the aftermath of her experience was appropriately and delicately considered. I feel many in creative industries seeking to explore anxiety-related challenges in their work would do well to follow Johnson’s lead in that regard, making sure to represent not only the anxiety itself, but the physical and emotional symptoms which can come later.

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