Earlier today I finished reading Escape From Asylum by Madeleine Roux. For the past several months, whenever I’d be at a store and see the Asylum series of books I was always drawn to it. Creepy looking YA books? Yes, please! But I always passed them over because I either had other things already picked out, or simply didn’t have the money at the time to get them. But they were always there in my mind and I always wanted to read them. Well, the other day I found this prequel book at a discounted price and picked it up. I read it in a week. But, honestly? I’m not sure how I feel about it.
The protagonist is bisexual and his love interest is a black transwoman. (Though, throughout the entire book, neither the term “bisexual” nor the term “trans” was used at all.) However, they’re in an asylum. More specifically, they are in an asylum for being queer. Kay is routinely misgendered by her doctors (and forced to wear men’s clothes and cut her hair super short). Ricky talks about his relationship with Martin and how his stepdad found him “perverted”. This is set in the 1960’s so I give a slight break. However, the entire novel is about how they need to escape yet behave at the same time to avoid hypnosis, brainwashing via experimental pills, and even electroshock therapy.
There is a small mystery wrapped up in the story–that being what happened to Ricky’s biological father. His mother only said he left them, but never gave any other details. In this book you find out what happened to him.
So, while I was very happy to have accidentally stumbled upon a book that had queer protagonists (and that had the creepy, haunting, gothic feel that I adore), I was quite sad to learn that their queerness landed them in lock up. In today’s social climate that’s a very dangerous book to be putting out. Being queer should not be punishable at all. In this book Kay and Ricky accept each other just as they are, but all around them are adults telling them how wrong they are. That’s not the kind of message to be sending right now. And it’s certainly not the kind of message young adults need to hear. Ever.
Throughout the book Warden Crawford (head of the Asylum) says he doesn’t want to change Ricky–that he’s perfect the way he is and isn’t perverted. Yet every day he doses him with medication that makes him forget things as basic as his father’s name and the lyrics to his favorite song. He had clearly been falling for Kay, yet after a few doses of this medication he all but forgets her. And when his parents do finally get to visit, Butch (Ricky’s stepdad) repeatedly asks him if he is still queer. So, clearly he’s supposed to be in this place to be “cured of queerness”.
Warden Crawford does talk about having a different goal–that he’s doing experiments to do something completely different. It’s hinted that this thing is immortality, but it’s never made explicitly clear. It’s kind of vague, and left me wondering if that was just a line he was feeding Ricky to manipulate him into being more cooperative.
The more I write about this the more issue I have with it. I initially picked up the book because it’s setting was a creepy, old asylum. The blurb made it sound potentially haunted. I didn’t expect queer characters (which, honestly having queer characters is a plus) and I certainly didn’t expect them to be locked away for being queer (a BIG negative). I wouldn’t have bought the book had I known that’s what landed them in the asylum.
I want to like this book, because it does contain queer characters and a setting that I would otherwise really, really love. But because of how the kids are treated, the reason they are locked up, and the overall message that the adults in the book send (that being queer is Wrong) I just can’t recommend it. I can’t say this is a good book. I desperately want to be able to. But I can’t. I give this book just one star. It is well written (as in, the prose is well written, it’s lyrical and has a rhythm, and Roux does a good job with description), but there are issues that I can’t ignore and that I can’t support.