In her new, eye-opening and unflinching memoir Stolen, out now in paperback, Elizabeth Gilpin exposes the abusive “troubled teens” industry of specialized “therapeutic” boarding schools, that she herself was subjected to, and recounts the horrors she endured, from being kidnapped from her bed in the middle of the night by hired professionals, to being strip-searched, force-fed, and having her name changed to a number. She writes openly about the friends she lost to suicide and addiction, the trauma she suffered, and how she eventually learned to cope with it and deal with her own undiagnosed depression.
Elizabeth Gilpin is an actress, writer, and producer. She starred in and produced Life Boat, a short film directed by Lorraine Nicholson which premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Live Action Short Film at AFI Fest and won the Audience Award at the Napa Valley Film Festival.
Grace Van Patten is the star of Netflix’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers, and will soon be seen in Hulu’s Tell Me Lies. She sat down with Gilpin to discuss the book, her hopes and goals, the writing process, mental health, and what it’s like to have such a personal story out there for all the world to read.
Grace Van Patten: What was it like sharing such a personal story publicly for the first time? What did you learn about yourself while writing it?
Elizabeth Gilpin: The hardest part of the process was after Stolen was released. I protected my story for so long, even hid it from myself and suddenly, it was out there for the world to read. You have to be vulnerable and understand that you can’t control what others will think or feel. I’ve always been a strong believer that the universe doesn’t put anything in front of you that you can’t handle. I learned that I could survive something that seemed impossible at the time, and then used it to grow and help others.
GVP: Tell us a bit more about your writing process. How did you decide which parts of your journey to share in this book? Has it been healing for you?
EG: Whenever I had the urge to delete something I had written, I took that as a sign that it was something that should stay on the page. It is usually the stories that scare us most that are the ones that have the biggest impact on other people. Understanding that, and coming to terms with my story has been incredibly healing. Part of having it out there means I can no longer pretend it didn’t happen. A huge weight has been lifted.
GVP: Do you turn to books when you’re writing? What books inspire you, and what are you reading now?
EG: Books were a big part of the process for me. They are the perfect escape and the perfect way to get inspired. I read every memoir I could find while working on mine. I wanted to understand what made them great, what got me feeling and wanting to read more. I just finished Where the Crawdads Sing, which is maybe the best book I have ever read. I’m currently reading The Monkey Wrench Gang, which I also highly recommend!
GVP: What are you hoping readers will take away from your story? What advice would you give to young people struggling with their mental health?
EG: No matter how bad you think things are, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to struggle with anxiety, depression, or whatever it may be for you. We are all different and that’s what makes us special.
GVP: What’s your goal with this book?
EG: I hope my words help a parent when they are most vulnerable, to perverse manipulation and help them choose healthier methods to address their child’s troubles. I also hope that it will speak to any child that has ever felt alone or misunderstood. And overall, help survivors feel heard.
GVP: Do you think these schools prey on scared and frustrated parents?
EG: These schools and consultants try to manipulate parents when they’re vulnerable.
GVP: And why do you think it’s taken so long for the true horrors of these experiences to come to light?
EG: I actually think the horrors have been told time and time again, but generally by people with smaller platforms. It’s taken someone like Paris Hilton coming forward with a megaphone to really get people listening.
GVP: In the book, you remain hopeful through much of your time in the woods, and you look forward to reconnecting with your old friends and returning to the sports you once loved.
What are some memories and coping mechanisms that you used to keep going in these difficult circumstances?
EG: I’ve always had an unwavering belief in myself. A belief that I have agency and can make the outcome whatever I want it to be. The darkest times in my life have taught me so much. They are a reminder of how strong we are as human beings. I learned to constantly check in with myself; that the most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves. I try to always remember my goals and the things that make me happy. The blessings I have. No matter how dark it gets, there is always light at the end of the tunnel.
GVP: Have you ever imagined where would you be now if you had never gone to Carlbrook?
EG: I used to think about it a lot, but I think I ended up right where I was supposed to be. My younger self would like to believe that I’d be an Olympic athlete and maybe have a Wheaties box!
GVP: What was it like adjusting back to the real world after leaving Carlbrook?
EG: If there was ever a time in my life that I struggled, it was after Carlbrook. One day I was living in this prison, and the next I was on my own. In the real-world, music isn’t used to abuse kids and insulting your friends is not normal. It was a long adjustment period, and I made a ton of mistakes. But my story is my story and it made me who I am today.
GVP: What’s something that may surprise people to know about you?
EG: I’m on the board of a nonprofit called Represent Justice. The heart of the organization is the power of stories about the justice system which help transform culture and narrative.
GVP: Can you share any information about the advocacy work you are doing to address this industry?
EG: Yes! I am so excited about the amazing policy work being developed to finally address this opaque industry. I’ve partnered with Paris Hilton, Jessica Jackson, Caroline Cole and other institutional abuse survivors to support the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act (SICAA). This bipartisan piece of legislation is led by Congressman Khanna (D-CA), Congressman Carter (R-GA), Senator Merkley (D-OR), and Senator Cornyn (R-TX), and should be introduced next month! SICAA mandates that states create minimum standards to protect youth in institutional settings, increases funding for the crucial protection & advocacy system in each state, and increases transparency and accountability of providers through public data reporting. No more kids should be traumatized or die in the name of treatment in the U.S and I am so proud to be a part of it.