Monday, March 12, 2018

Spotlight Excerpt & Giveaway: Dead Inside by Cyndy Etler

Title: Dead Inside
Author: Cyndy Etler
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

For readers of Girl Interrupted and Tweak, Cyndy Etler’s gripping memoir gives readers a glimpse into the harrowing reality of her sixteen months in the notorious "tough love" program the ACLU called “a concentration camp for throwaway kids.”

I never was a badass. Or a slut, a junkie, a stoner, like they told me I was. I was just a kid looking for something good, something that felt like love. I was a wannabe in a Levi’s jean jacket. Anybody could see that. Except my mother. And the professionals at Straight.

From the outside, Straight Inc. was a drug rehab. But on the inside it was…well, it was something else.

All Cyndy wanted was to be loved and accepted. By age fourteen, she had escaped from her abusive home, only to be reported as a runaway and sent to a “drug rehabilitation” facility that changed her world.

To the public, Straight Inc. was a place of recovery. But behind closed doors, the program used bizarre and intimidating methods to “treat” its patients. In her raw and fearless memoir, Cyndy Etler recounts her sixteen months in the living nightmare that Straight Inc. considered “healing.”

Excerpt from Dead Inside:
The problem with me is that I never have the right pants. Think about it. When you go to the city, all you see are girls swiveling their hips, trying to make you notice the name on their butt. And it’s not just in the city. When I lived in Stamford, the recess yard at my elementary school was this cornucopia of designer jeans. All the girls had at least one pair from the good brands, and some girls had all four Jordache pocket styles.

Designer-jean girls are always named, like, Heather or Samantha or Jessica. They wear their richness all casual, like a perfume. I spent every recess on the sidelines—watching them, trying to learn popularity—while wearing my big sister Kim’s hand-me-down corduroys. I had three pairs, in a rainbow of depressing colors: beige, evergreen, and maroon. This one time, the three most popular girls in the whole sixth grade crossed the blacktop to get to me. I was all, Oh my God! Is this really happening? You can guess how that went.

Popular Girl: What brand are those jeans, Cyndy?

Me: These? These are a new kind of designer jeans—Garan. I have two Jordache and three Sasson at home, but I can’t wear them to school. Only on weekends, when I visit my boyfriend in Norwalk.

I was like, Yeah! Now they’ll really like me—I have designer jeans and a boyfriend! Here’s what she said back.

Popular Girl: Well, you call them Garan, but I call them Garanimals.

Oh my God. Garanimals is Sears-brand kids clothes, and Garan is totally the preteen version. She saw through my lie, and made me pay for it in front of everyone. What’s that disease where everybody stays away from you ’cause, like, your limbs are falling off? Oh yeah, leprosy. I’m a poor-kid leper in a rich girl’s world.

Once we moved out to Podunk Monroe though, the pants thing got easier. People in Monroe worship Levi’s, not designer jeans. And Levi’s have only one pocket design. So it’s a lot easier to keep up. Plus, since moving to Monroe—this is the really good thing—I get to steal my sister Kim’s best clothes since she’s never here.

Losing her stuff is just the price Kim pays for being so lucky. Seriously. How does she get to stay with some church family in Stamford for her senior year while my mother and step-thing Jacque move us to this hick town? Friday nights, I’m looking for a hiding place where Jacque and his itchy hands won’t find me while Kim walks around the Stamford mall, having guys whistle at her. I swear. If I didn’t need Him as a friend so bad, this could make me wonder if God’s even out there.

But actually, the friend thing has gotten better since I moved to Monroe. And it’s pretty much because of my pants. Well, Kim’s pants. When Kim does everyone a favor and visits Monroe, she switches the clothes she’ll bring back to Stamford. That’s how I get her good stuff. Last time she left behind the most awesome Levi’s ever. 501s! Button fly! And they fit me! So now, because I have 501s, I’m cool. And because I’m cool, I got my best friend. Joanna.

Joanna’s from Bridgeport, which is the murder capital of the United States. But her parents bought a second house in Monroe because Oh, it’s safe! And so pretty! Really, though? They bought a house here because it’s, like, one hundred percent white. Their Bridgeport house is right on the edge of Father Panik Village, which is where bad Masuk High boys go to buy drugs from black guys. And it really is a shady place, I guess. Joanna found a loaded gun in her backyard bushes. She thinks if she hadn’t showed it to her father, she’d still be living there. But now, instead, she lives in Monroe. Too bad for her, but lucky for me.

Joanna’s told me all about Bridgeport. In detail. When I picture it, I get this feeling like there’s a mountain of shattered glass in front of me, and I can reach out and touch it. It’s glittery and scary, and anything can happen there. And we’re going tonight and staying for the whole weekend!

So of course I’m wearing my 501s, plus my denim jacket. I’ve gotta wear my Keds since I have no other shoes, but here’s what’s good: I get to finally wear those Barbie-pink undies I found hidden in Kim’s dresser. You don’t even pull them on; you have to tie them on, with little ribbons on the sides! I’ve been saving them for a special dress-up occasion, but if tonight’s not special, I don’t know what is.

Joanna’s dad, Mr. Azore, looks like Mario from Donkey Kong. He’s short and wide, and he has that kind of mustache that curls at the ends. I really like him, because he laughs a lot. And whenever Joanna says, “Dad, I’m going out tonight. Can I have some money?” he hands her a twenty. A twenty.

Other than their laugh, Joanna is more like her mother. They’re built like the ladders Mario has to climb: tall and rectangular, with nothing extra up top. Listen, I friggin’ love Joanna, but she’s got bad eyeliner and guy hair. Sorry, Jo.

The ride to the Azores’ Bridgeport house is better than anything. It’s like freedom, like me and Jo are the dudes in a motorcycle movie. My window’s rolled all the way down, and Mr. and Mrs. Azore are so cool, they don’t make me roll it up when we get on the highway. I flip between asking Jo what we’ll do tonight—“Hang out. Go see what the guys are doing.”—and staring out the window, trying not to ask for more stories about “the guys.”

The changes in scenery remind me of kids’ book pictures, how they tell the story better than the words do. Outside the window in Monroe, it’s all boring, clean streets and fresh grass. But the longer we’re on the highway, the tighter and darker everything gets. Halfway to Bridgeport, in Trumbull, there are still trees, but the slabs of rock on either side of the road are all graffitied out.

Then you hit Bridgeport and bang! It’s like someone pulled down a screen. Everything’s suddenly gray. By the time you’re off the exit and going by the gas station, there’s nothing natural at all, just hunks of cars stripped down to shells and rocky dirt lots. But somehow you can tell, in the middle of all the deadness, this place is where real life happens.

So, like, life is pretty much perfect here. Joanna takes me out behind their house and shows me where she found the gun, and then we order pizza like it’s no big. By eight o’clock we’re out walking, four fives in Jo’s pocket and a curfew of “Not too late, girls.” Dag.

Joanna takes me by the houses of her Bridgeport friends, Mary and Torpedo Tits. And um…is it possible she wants to keep me all to herself? Because she didn’t even tell them we were coming. We have to sneak up and then run right past their houses. I’m trying really hard to be cool, but I can’t stop my hyena laugh, even when Joanna cups her hand around my mouth and says, “Shut up, Etler! They’ll hear us!” She’s laughing too, though, so I guess I’m all right. Damn, it feels good to have a best friend.

Next she takes me where the road curves a hard left because if it kept going straight, you’d drive right into the ocean. Joanna told me that a few years ago, some white boys from Westport forgot to turn their car when the road turned, so Bridgeport put three giant boulders there, to protect all the drug buyers from themselves. Now I guess these rocks are the Place, because as soon as we reach them, this young kid comes out of nowhere. He looks just like the kid in my favorite elementary book, J.T. The one about the bad little Harlem boy who makes friends with a one-eyed alley cat.

“Wanna cop?” he asks, his head level with Joanna’s boobs.

“Yeah. Gimme a dime,” Joanna says back to him, cool as fucking Fonzie.

Haloed by the streetlight, the kid slides a hand into his Adidas pants pocket. Then he palms out a bag the size of the lid on a fancy ring box. It’s fat with shreddy dark stuff. Joanna licks her pointer finger to slide one five, then another, off her wad of bills. She’s got all the time in the world.

The kid pinches the fives in their upper corners and snaps them so they’re straight, holding them up in front of his eyes. Then he gives us a nod.

“Later,” he says.

And he’s gone. And we have a bag of pot. What the fuck? We have a bag of pot.

“Oh my God, Joanna! What do we do now?”

If I was Kim, I’d know what to do. She’s just…cool. And that’s why I steal her stuff. When I wear her clothes, it’s a tiny bit like I’m Kim.

The best thing I stole from her is this pin I wear on my denim. It’s got the Rolling Stones lips on it, and underneath, in blurry letters, it says “Stoned.” Not Stones, Stoned. What’s cooler than that?

But with an actual bag of pot in front of me, I can’t even try to be cool. It’s useless. I’m totally that yippy cartoon dog at the chill bulldog’s heels. Soon Jo’ll reach a paw around and smack me.

But she doesn’t.

“Let’s go by the Zarzozas,’” she says, like I’m not a major embarrassment.

The Zarzozas are a bunch of brothers who make up half of “the guys.” When you first hear their name, you think their story will be beautiful too. It’s not. It’s a flower gone rotten, all slimy and black. When Jo first told me about them, I stopped feeling so bad about my situation.

The oldest brother is thirty, but he never hangs out, so he doesn’t count. The youngest brother is sixteen. His name is Tony, and he looks like Zorro. The middle brother is twenty-eight. He lives in the basement, and his name? It’s fucked up. One day, after taking a wicked crap, Dad Zarzoza starts fighting with the middle brother. To win the fight, the dad grabs his son by the neck and pushes his head into the toilet—which the dad hadn’t flushed. That brother’s been called Shithead ever since.

There used to be a mother, but Jo doesn’t know what happened to her. Oh, and Tony has the hots for Joanna. But she thinks he’s gross. “I am not going out with a kid whose father doesn’t flush it,” is how she put it.

The D’agostinos are the other half of “the guys.” They live down from the Zarzozas, on the ocean side of the street. Steve D’agostino, the guy Jo has a crush on, is fifteen. His brother Rich is twenty-five and too good for everyone, but he’ll party with Steve and his friends when there’s nothing else to do. Joanna points out their house as we walk by. It’s tiny and gray, and I wonder how a father and two brothers can all fit inside it.

Jo says Mr. D’agostino owns a fishing company, which explains the lobster traps all over the lawn. “Their dad’s out on the lobster boat most of the time,” she says.

For some reason we both laugh at that. It becomes funnier and funnier until we’re bent over, wheezing, and our sides hurt.

Up ahead, we hear different laughter, guy laughter. Four shapes loom out of the darkness like extras from the “Thriller” video. Their faces are in shadow, featureless as olives. All I can tell is they’re white and male and wearing a lot of denim. “Woahhhh!” one of them says. Then there’s more laughter.

Joanna has this crooked grin on, so the ghouls must be her friends. She slaps her hand on my back, and together we walk forward. Good, Cyndy. Good dog.

“Dudes,” Jo says.

And suddenly we’re surrounded by man-boys. I can tell which one is Tony Zarzoza. His hair is pitch black, and his lips and nose look royal. He’d be good to have as your boyfriend, if his dad wasn’t a shit pervert.

“This is Cyndy,” she says, tilting her chin at me.

None of them say hi. For two lifetimes, we just stand there—me with my eyes on the biggest guy’s belly, them with their eyes wherever. I feel like I’m electrified, all crackly and glowing. This is real life, on a dark city street, surrounded by hoods. Fuckin’ A.

Ever cool, Joanna breaks the silence.

“I copped,” she says to the big guy. To Shithead.

“Good girl,” he tells her. He reaches out and pinches her nipple through her shirt. And Joanna just jabs her shoulder at him, breaking off the pinch.

“Fucking Shithead!” she goes, but she’s laughing. The nipple’s standing out against her shirt, hard as a doorbell.

Then the dude with the Miami Vice hair and polo shirt is shoving his palm at Joanna. It’s gotta be Rich D’agostino.

“Lemme have it,” Rich says to Jo.

“Jesus. Chill, asshole,” she says back, but she’s sucking in her belly, squeezing her fingers into the pocket of her skintight Levi’s. She pulls out the little baggie and hands it over.

Now watch: this’ll be the moment they talk to me, wanting to know what kind of pot I like. Fuck! Why do I wear this Stoned button? All it does is make people ask questions I can’t answer. When everyone starts moving, I run-skip ahead and fake deafness. Still, I catch slips of sentences.

“Who’s got papers?”

“Anyone got a bowl?”

What do we need bowls for? I thought you smoked pot. Thank God I don’t have to know, because I’m in my own bubble. I’m flying through Bridgeport air, through the fizziest night of my life.

“Where’d she get those?” I hear from behind me. They’re talking about me. They’re talking about…my boobs.

Joanna’s words, “Shut up,” are drowned by more laughter. Like, sharp, razor laughter.

Five minutes later, we’re at the Zarzozas’. Shithead goes first, leading us around the car on blocks, the upside-down armchair in the driveway. I’m at the back of the line, behind this chopstick of a kid. He must be Steve D’agostino. There’s no streetlights or anything, so when he stops short, I bash right into his back.

“Hey, sorry,” I tell him, and he actually turns and looks at me. And smiles.

“No prob.”

His bangs are even longer than mine, all the way down to his nose. When he tosses his head and his bangs swing sideways, you see long, long lashes and cow-brown eyes. Maybe he’s cute. Maybe I get why Jo likes him.

When me and Steve get around back, the rest of the group is leaning on this huge dead tree that lies across the yard. I stand next to Steve in the perfect spot, where two limbs as thick as cans of soup form a V. I can’t see anyone’s face real good, only their outlines, so I don’t know what’s happening, exactly.

“Fucking careful, man!” Jo says.

“Chill out and gimme yer lighter,” a guy snaps back.

That’s Rich. He’s not the nicest guy. You can tell. But Joanna chills, or at least, she doesn’t say anything back to him. I wonder what Mr. Azore’s doing right now. I wonder what he’d think of how his twenty got spent.

Click-shhhhhhh. A face is lit with an orange glow. It’s a big face, probably Shithead’s. He’s holding something up to his mouth, something shorter and wider than a cigarette. He’s got the lighter sideways over it. I don’t know what the fuck he’s doing, ’cause he’s holding the flame in just one spot. Shouldn’t the thing be lit by now, for crap’s sake? Finally the flame goes out. I can’t see, but I can feel everyone’s eyes fastened onto him.

“It’s good shit,” he croaks, in a voice that sounds like it hurts.

He hands the thing he’s holding to Rich and then barks out a cough, which makes everyone but me crack up.

So this is getting stoned? And I’m supposed to know what I’m doing? Jesus. I better watch what the fuck Rich does.

When the mystery thing gets to me, I grab it from Tony’s hand, like I’ve done this a zillion times. And I swear, it’s like Satan’s biting my fingertips.

“Ooowww! What the fuck?”

Those are the first words I say to these guys. Nice. Tony cough-laughs and pulls the thing—the boiling hot, little fucking metal pipe—away from me; I stick my burnt fingertips into my mouth. Was Go Ask Alice this stupid, before she turned cool? Couldn’t she have given us directions?

“You gotta hold the bowl at the middle part, Cyndy. At the glass part. You ever smoked pot before?”

Tony’s on to me. He knows what a loser I am. He totally smells my hot nervousness. But I cover it up with my Kim voice.

“Course I have.”

“Sure you have.”

Shithead peels off of the trunk and steps over to me, a greasy warmth coming off his body. Before I can tell how I feel about this, his hot dog fingers are clamped over my mouth and a metal circle’s pushed between my lips. It clacks against my teeth.

“Okay, lock your lips around it. When I light the bowl, inhale. But don’t open your mouth.”

My heart is pumping blood so fast, I can hear it skidding through my veins. This moment is vital. If these guys don’t like me, I’ll never get to come back. I’ll be stuck in Monroe forever, in that devil house with Jacque. I have to get this right. I will get this right.

I tighten my lips and lift my eyes. Shithead’s face is so close he could take a bite outta me. With a click of the lighter, he’s all lit up. He’s got shark-teeth.

After my father died, but before my mother met Jacque, Kim and I would play this game called Damsel in Distress. A villain would capture a damsel and tie her to the railroad tracks. She would scream, “Help! Help!” and then, right before the train hit, a hero would show up to save her. Kim always got to be the damsel, of course. And I always had to be the villain. And the hero. When I pictured what the villain would look like, Shithead’s face was pretty much what I saw.

He brings the flame to the end of the pipe and I inhale thorny smoke.

“Hold it in! Hold it in!” he’s saying, his face even closer than before.

From behind him I hear cheering and a “Yeeaaaah!”

There’s a lumberjack in my throat trying to ax his way out, but I hold it in. I hold it ’til an invisible kick in my back knocks me forward, slamming the smoke out of my lungs. My hands catch my knees, and I crouch there and hack. I hack out flames and axed-up throat chunks.

But after that there’s this feeling of…well…winning. I smoked pot, and the man-boys cheered. I’m here in Bridgeport, in this blue ink night, so crisp you could snap it in half. I’m surrounded by tough guys, cool guys, where Jacque could never find me.

So this is what it’s like, getting high. Getting high equals getting safe. Yeah. Now I see why everybody wants it.

Praise for Dead Inside

“Compelling. Scary. Totally real.” —Ellen Hopkins, New York Times bestselling author of Crank

“Etler’s story is both inspiring and completely shocking; this is a memoir unlike anything else on the shelves today.” –GERM Magazine

“Etler channels her younger self's voice with pitch-perfect verisimilitude as Cyndy goes from wide-eyed disbelief to acquiescence, having finally found a place where she feels like she belongs. An epilogue offers a redemptive conclusion, and an author's note provides chilling context for Straight's history and Cyndy's story. Raw and absorbing, Etler's voice captivates.” –Kirkus

Other Work by Cyndy Etler:

Title: We Can’t Be Friends
Author: Cyndy Etler
ISBN: 9781492660903
Release Date: October 3, 2017
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
The companion to The Dead Inside, "[An] unnerving and heartrending memoir" (Publishers Weekly)

This is the story of my return to high school. This is the true story of how I didn't die.

High school sucks for a lot of people. High school extra sucks when you believe, deep in your soul, that every kid in the school is out to get you. I wasn't popular before I got locked up in Straight Inc., the notorious "tough love" program for troubled teens. So it's not like I was walking around thinking everyone liked me.

But when you're psychologically beaten for sixteen months, you start to absorb the lessons. The lessons in Straight were: You are evil. Your peers are evil. Everything is evil except Straight, Inc.

Before long, you're a true believer.

About the Author:
A modern-day Cinderella, Cyndy Etler was homeless at fourteen, summa cum laude at thirty. In her current work as a teacher and teen life coach, Etler happily teaches teens that books work better than drugs. She lives with her husband and dogs in North Carolina. Find her at
Social Media Links:
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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  1. Sounds like a very interesting book! :)

  2. I'm really intrigued to check this out :)

  3. Sounds like a very interesting story. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I rarely read YA but this one is calling to me

  5. Great post. Not my type of book but it sounds intense!

    1. Thanks. It does sound like a good one.

  6. Thanks for putting this on my TBR Sounds interesting

  7. Sounds like a good book and Cyndy Etler sounds inspirational.

    1. She does and it's seems like a good read.

  8. I like the sound of Dead Inside, from the excerpt.

    1. Me too. It seems like it would be a good one.

  9. What a true horror story. As a mom of young kids, I find this terrifying and yet compelling as a cautionary tale. Thank you!

  10. Not my kind of book, but great post! Thank you so much for sharing your awesome post.

  11. This sounds like it'll be a super emotional book. I'm so torn between wanting to read and hearing about what happened to her and not wanting to read it because I know it's going to be upsetting.

    1. That's what makes it so appealing but I would have to be prepared to have my heart sad before I began.

  12. Love reading the excerpt. Sounds like an interesting book!

    1. It does. Seems like it would be an emotional read.


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