The Crazy School


By Cornelia Read

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From the acclaimed author of A Field of Darkness comes another compelling novel featuring the acerbic and memorable voice of ex-debutante Madeline Dare.

Madeline Dare has finally escaped rust-belt Syracuse, New York, for the lush Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. After her husband’s job offer falls through, Maddie signs on as a teacher at the Santangelo Academy, a boarding school for disturbed teenagers. Behind the academy’s ornate gates, she discovers a disturbing realm where students and teachers alike must submit to the founder’s bizarre therapeutic regimen. From day one, Maddie feels uneasy about smooth-talking Dr. Santangelo but when she questions his methods, she’s appalled to find that her fellow teachers would rather turn on each other than stand up for themselves, much less protect the students in their care. A chilling event confirms Maddie’s worst suspicions, then hints at an even darker secret history, one that twines through the academy’s very heart. Cut off from the outside world, Maddie must join forces with a small band of the school’s most violently rebellious students-kids whose troubled grip on reality may well prove to be her only chance of salvation.


Also by Cornelia Read

A Field of Darkness

To all the kids who attended the Desisto School, especially those of you who were my students,thank you for all that you taught me.

Part I

Western Massachusetts, 1989

"As a matter of fact, I've always had a theory about anxiety. I've decided my anxiety always increases in direct proportion to the absence of Richard Nixon in my life."

Julie began to smile. She knew where I was headed.

"When he was around, lying, cheating, trying to destroy the Constitution, I was furious, but I had no anxiety. Then he resigned in '74, and I swear that's when my anxiety got really bad. What's more, I bet I'm not the only person who is walking around psychologically crippled by the absence of Richard Nixon in their lives."

—Barbara Gordon
I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can


Halfway to Christmas, Forchetti stated the obvious: "You can't teach for shit."

The other six kids went quiet, looking from him to me—teen-angst scratching and hair twirling and pencil chewing arrested for once.

He cracked his gum, noise reverberating off the jaundice-yellow cinder block.

It was an ugly room. Demoralizing. I didn't want to be in it, either, only you're not supposed to say that when you're the grown-up.

The trees outside were losing their last Robert Frost touches of burnished brass and copper—sorry leaves ready to drop from maples and elms and whatever the hell else kind of East Coast trees I still didn't know the names of, twelve years after leaving California.

I dragged my eyes back from the window and crossed my arms. "Did you read the damn chapter?"

Forchetti smirked and pincered the spit-warm raisin of Juicy Fruit off his tongue. He held it up, pretending to sight down the damn thing, straight at my forehead.

I stared right back at his narrow face, at those baby features overwhelmed by black eyebrows he hadn't yet grown into. " Did you?"

Without looking down, Forchetti opened his copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings at a random page. He dropped the little gum wad inside and mashed the paperback shut against his chair's faux-wood paddle of desk.

"I wouldn't read this piece of shit," he said, "if you dropped to your knees and blew me."

Wiesner hissed, "Shut the fuck up, Foreskin."

Good-looking kid, Wiesner: six-five, white-blond hair slicked back, gray eyes with long dark lashes. He was just back from eight days in county lockup, after holding a teacher and a couple of students hostage with a carving knife so he could call his girlfriend long-distance on the principal's office phone. Now I had him for two out of three classes.

Forchetti dropped his eyes to the carpet.

"She is a shitty teacher," he whined, "and you owe a dollar to the Rape Crisis Fund for saying the F-word, Wiesner."

Which was true. Big-time rule here at the Santangelo Academy, because Dr. David Santangelo felt that "fuck" was a word fundamentally linked to violence against women.

It was, in fact, the only word the students weren't allowed to say. Or the teachers.

Wiesner pulled a crisp five from his pocket. "Four to go, then." He lifted his right hand, waggling the digits in Forchetti's direction.

"Madeline is not a fucking shitty teacher," he said, folding his index finger down on the stressed word. "You, on the other hand, are a fucking"—middle finger—"suckbag fuck"—ring finger— "and if you don't leave her alone, I'm going to fucking"—pinkie— "stomp your skinny ferret ass the next time I catch you alone in the showers."

Wiesner wadded up the money and tossed it at Forchetti's feet. "Be a sweetheart," he said. "Put that in Santangelo's little jar for me."

Forchetti blushed, but he picked the bill up off the floor and put it in his pocket.

I would have told Wiesner to lay off threatening a foot-shorter kid he had fifty pounds on, except Patti Gonzaga started growling, which was what happened the first week, right before she chunked her chair at my head.

The lunch bell went off, thank God. They stampeded into the hallway, all except Wiesner, who just stretched his legs out, still in his seat and grinning.

One last door slammed down the hall.

He ambled over and sat on the edge of my desk. "Penny for your thoughts."

"I think you'll be late for lunch."

"Figured I'd walk you over," he said.

"I still have to do everybody's marks."

We were supposed to rate how each kid behaved, right at the end of class. Forchetti'd racked up three straight weeks of zeroes—winner and still champion.

Wiesner lounged back on an elbow. "I can wait."

I pulled open the top drawer, looking for a pen. "They'll get all pissed if you're not there for the meds."

"You just seem kind of shaky," he said, voice all soothing. "I want to make sure you feel okay."

The drawer was full of crap, souvenirs of my predecessors—paper clips, barrettes, dental floss, half a roll of TUMS, and a screwdriver.

Teachers left this place in a hurry.

Wiesner leaned over, perusing the contents.

I looked up. "Of course there isn't a single fucking pen."

He smiled, extracting a Bic from his jacket.

"Trade you for that screwdriver," he said. "I need to make a phone call."

Wiesner and I angled across the lawn toward the dining hall. I didn't want to get there. I wanted to cut off into the woods and have a smoke, alone, only I couldn't because the other teachers would have smelled it on me and narked.

I shoved a hand deeper into the pocket of my leather jacket, fishing through its torn lining to grip my crumpled pack of Camel straights.

I hadn't even thought about cigarettes since college. Now they were the focus of my existence, along with caffeine. We weren't allowed to have that, either, which didn't stop me from sucking down thick-walled cups of the tepid institutional decaf, hoping in vain they'd missed scrubbing the kick from a bean or two.

The Santangelo Academy air was crisp and fresh after a week of rain, edged with wood smoke and rotting leaves. There was even a sweet breath of cider drifting up from the weed-choked orchard, planted back when this had all been some Bostonian nouveau magnate's country place, before the Civil War.

It was beautiful here in the Berkshires. I'd give it all that much.

"I like that Caged Bird book," said Wiesner.

He was lying. I shouldn't have cared.

"The lady who wrote it," I said, "I knew her brother Bailey. He used to come to our house."

I was going to tell Wiesner about this one time when I was little, maybe 1970, and Bailey saw me cutting dry rot out of a tree trunk in our backyard with a paring knife. He told me he'd bring me a switchblade as a present the next weekend he came down from Berkeley. Said he wanted to make sure I'd be okay "come the revolution," since I was pretty hip for a white kid.

I never got the knife. He never got the revolution.

Wiesner nudged my upper arm with his fist and said, "So, d'you do him, her brother?"

"Chrissake, Wiesner . . ."

He grinned down at me. "Can't kid a kidder."

"I was, like, eight years old."

"Sure," he said, laughing now. "Sure you were."

I stopped walking. " Seriously,"

He gave me a pat on the head.

"What the hell kind of thing is that to even say?" I said, batting his hand away. "To anyone, let alone a teacher. I mean, would you pull that shit with Mindy or Gerald or Tim?"

"Do I look like an idiot?"

"So why me?"

"How about because you look good in that little skirt, and you're blonde with green eyes, and you're wearing cowboy boots, and it's a gorgeous day."

I rolled my eyes. Started walking away.

"Are you sure you want to know?" he asked, behind me now.


"Turn around."

I sped up.

"Fine with me," he said. "I'd just as soon check out your ass from here."

I turned around.

Wiesner was still smiling.

"We're late," I said. "If you want to say something that's not merely about pissing me off, I'll give you ten seconds."

He looked at the ground, a little embarrassed. "I say shit like that to you, Madeline, because I know I can, okay?"

I was touched. "Because you trust me."

"No, because you're too whacked to maintain appropriate boundaries."

He raised his eyes again, but I looked away. At the trees and stuff.

I'd always despised the shrink-sponsored murder of language—all precision and metaphor and beauty boiled away until there was nothing left but carbonized lumps of jargon.

"You have issues around authority," he continued. "I figure that's why you're here."

"That's why you're here, Wiesner. I'm here because it's a job."

He shrugged. "When you're ready to own your shit, you'll know why you're really here. That's what this place does."

"Cha," I said. "'Good for the disease.'"

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"It's from this book," I said. " Magic Mountain."

"Books don't help," he said.

"You'd be surprised," I said, even though I'd never managed to finish reading it myself, back at Sarah Lawrence.

He took my elbow and started us walking. "Can't kid a kidder."

Sometimes you can, Wiesner.

I was here because I'd killed a guy. And I owned the hell out of that.

The fact he'd been trying to kill me at the time hadn't helped me sleep any better since.

Neither had this place.


The dining hall had the acoustics of a hockey rink, the voices of a hundred-something students and thirty-odd faculty bouncing between thin carpet and low curved ceiling.

I sat with the teachers. Wiesner didn't.

The last open seat was next to Mindy, who was trying to explain to everyone around the circle of table how her TMJ was acting up again. She could barely open her mouth.

A friend of mine had that: temporomandibular-something-something.

"What does TMJ stand for again?" I asked.

Mindy turned and blinked at me, twice. "Tense mouth and jaw," she said, pronouncing the first word "tints."

"I'm so sorry you have to deal with that," I said.

"Aren't you sweet?" she said, blinking again, twice.

When not stricken with TMJ, Mindy chewed gum with her mouth open. She was from Ohio. Every inch of furniture surface throughout her campus apartment was jammed with stuffed animals, all of them pink. She'd brought the canopy bed her parents gave her as a sweet-sixteen present with her all the way from Dayton.

We couldn't stand each other, but I hated her more. She was so shallow she couldn't even dislike people properly.

I despised her receding chin and her stupid fluffy perm and her stupid fluffy pink sweaters and her fucking giggle. It made me happy that she was fat, since I'd dropped twenty pounds doing time at Santangelo, having been too fucked up to eat much of anything.

I pushed the little piles of lettuce and cottage cheese around my plate, just to annoy her.

"Don't forget we have Sookie today right after lunch," she said.

"Thank you, Mindy," I said, "but I know we have Sookie today."

I chose to believe that our mutual loathing wasn't the reason the two of us got assigned to the same Santangelo therapist, though it wouldn't have surprised me. We went twice a week for an hour, along with Tim.

Mindy turtled her head forward, talking across me. "I know you'll remember, Tim. You're not passive-aggressive, like some people."

Blink. Blink.

Tim was a little guy, mostly harmless, with skin and hair so pale he was practically opaque.

Sookie reminded me of a golden retriever—big-pawed, blonde, and brimming with indiscriminate affection.

Everyone at the school had to do Santangelo-approved therapy—not just the kids but the teachers, the administrators, and the parents of every student. We did ours on campus. Santangelo had a traveling crew of shrinks who met with parents around the country. If they missed a session, they weren't allowed contact with their kid by phone or mail for a month. I couldn't believe that was legal, but they were desperate enough to suck it up without complaint.

They wanted to help their children get better—they wanted to believe Santangelo had the secret cure, that he'd fix everything so their kids could resist suicide, or heroin, or schizophrenia, or the urge to inhale fumes from glue and gasoline and hair spray and that stuff you spray on records to get the dust off.

I wanted to believe Santangelo could fix me, while he was at it. Who among us does not want to be shriven, to confess all, in the hope of being made clean and whole and new?

It's just that I was second-generation at this, one of those kids dragged along for the ride by parents trying to achieve escape velocity at Esalen or Woodstock or, God help us, Jonestown.

Forage through the five-for-a-buck milk crate at any midlife suburban garage sale, and you'll run across at least one of us in a photograph—captured frolicking, blond, and naked on some scratch-hazed, blunt-cornered old album cover. Eat a Peach. McCartney.

We were the ideal, pretty babies poised to inherit their fresh Eden after the war, after Nixon, after all the world's bitter, stupid old men stopped trying to pave paradise and put up parking lots and shit.

Not like I can blame my parents. Who wouldn't have wanted to get out from under the black-hole physics of Levittown and Eisenhower, the whole Herb Alpert–Republican death trip?

So there I was, November 1989—Madeline Dare, age twenty-six and at a total loss, sitting on a hill in the Berkshires.

Locals called this Wifflehead Mountain: a single peak tucked into the lush hills and canyons just west of Stockbridge, a baby Matterhorn that had drawn to itself all manner of seekers and lost boys, wild girls and pagan sprites—a century-long parade of Adult Children with enough cash to kick and wail against the trammels of age and responsibility, mortality and the scientific method.

Santangelo's "therapeutic boarding school" was just one facet of the primary native industry.

There was the yoga center where you could pay a thousand dollars a week to subsist on watery juice and sleep on a mat no thicker than a dish towel.

There were grand Georgian sanitariums that had dried out the country's more artistic drunks and junkies, enough of whom stayed on to give the Berkshires a permanent bohemian foundation.

There was the detritus of untold communes and utopias—from the celibate Shakers, who'd died out through lack of breeding, to the wholly licentious latter-day acidheads who'd left behind nothing but their fleas and half-finished macramé plant hangers and lawnsful of broken major appliances.

Then there was this place, its stone gates surmounted by an ineptly welded arc of steel butterflies, mascots fluttering along the school motto: "Free to Be."

I pushed away my untasted salad and reached for the jug of fake coffee, suddenly exhausted.

Mindy put her arm across my shoulders. "Are you going to talk to Sookie about your issues around food?" she whispered sweetly.

"Are you going to talk to her about yours?" I whispered back even more sweetly. "There's probably some ice cream left."

Even Mindy didn't deserve that.

She jerked away, leaving fluffy pink angora lint all over my not-fluffy-at-all black sweater sleeve.

"Mindy," I said. "I'm sorry. That was an asshole thing to say. I slept about three hours last night, and my stomach is just a goddamn nightmare. That's no excuse, but I hope you can accept my apology."

"I'll accept your turn-in," she said, "at tonight's faculty meeting. Unless you think it would be more appropriate to fire yourself."

"She can't fire herself."

Mindy looked across the table at Lulu. Lulu taught Spanish, a language she'd picked up during a Peace Corps stint down in Peru. She'd come home to the family farm in Pennsylvania, landing here after the only work she could find was checking in guests at the local Econo Lodge.

She was the saving grace of the entire Santangelo experience, in my opinion. Despite her fondness for show tunes.

"And why can't Madeline fire herself?" asked Mindy. Her jaw clicked with a sharp snap, like a pinball popping up to hit the glass.

"Because she fired herself yesterday," said Lulu. "You can't fire yourself if you've already fired yourself. It cancels out."

"Like Double Secret Probation," said Tim.

Lulu closed her eyes, exhaled through her nose, and rubbed her fists back and forth across her spiky dark hair. Not without gusto.

I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking, No, Tim, that is NOT AT ALL like Double Secret Probation, as you would know if you understood ANYTHING, which you DO NOT, despite the fact that you have watched Animal House thirty-seven times, as you told us all in the faculty group therapy session at which Madeline fired herself last night.

She opened her eyes and grinned at me.

And then we were saved by Dr. Ed's arrival with the stack of Med Plates.

He walked around the table, handing a disc of thick white dining-hall crockery to each teacher/dorm parent currently on duty.

These were preloaded with semicircles of tiny manila envelopes, a form of stationery I'd last seen stuffed with impotent Mexican dirt-weed on Fourteenth between Second and Third in Manhattan, circa 1983.

I still thought of them as nickel bags, which wasn't the kind of word-association thing I could've shared at that table.

Each envelope was marked with a kid's last name and first initial, followed by a list of medications contained therein: Haldol or imipramine or lithium or Thorazine.

Lulu, Mindy, Tim, Gerald, and the New Guy were dealt their respective plates by Dr. Ed, New Guy last.

Dr. Ed conferred with him, pointing from each envelope to its intended dosee.

The New Guy took it in with great seriousness. Then he caught me watching and winked. He was a babe—blond hair in loose curls that made me reminisce fondly about those portions of my youth misspent necking with surfers.

The plate bearers rose to make their appointed rounds. Each kid had to dump the meds into his or her mouth, hand the empty envelope back, take a sip of beverage, swallow, and then tilt his or her head back, open his or her mouth, and shift his or her tongue up, left, and right, so the doser could check that all pills had been ingested properly.

No hide-and-seek allowed. No save 'em, collect 'em, trade 'em with your friends.

I never got a Med Plate at meals because I was the only teacher who lived off campus. I was grateful to escape each night, but lately it had been hard to readjust to normal, like getting the bends because I'd come back to the surface too fast and didn't have a decompression chamber to get the painful "therapeutic" bubbles out of my bloodstream.

I leaned back in my chair to catch the sun coming down through a skylight, right when this big cloud cut across it.

Perfect. It was just going to keep on being that kind of day.

New Guy was the first member of the Clean Plate Club. He walked back to the table and sat down next to me, in Mindy's seat.

"Um," I said, "I think that's Mindy's seat."

"Are they assigned?" he asked. "It didn't seem as though the two of you were getting along, exactly."

"Um," I said, "no."

"No they're not assigned, or no, you two aren't getting along?"


"I don't want to freak out Mindy," he said, "you're just the only one I haven't introduced myself to yet."

Mindy would be freaked out anyway. She always was.

"I'm Madeline," I said.

"I'm Pete," he replied.

He had one of those really slow smiles, the kind that just kill you.

At that exact moment, the cloud moved on past the sun, and a big fat warm beam of light came down and hit all his blond curls.

I looked across the room and saw Wiesner tapping a butter knife against the edge of his glass, checking the two of us out.


Sookie's office was a slanted little room under the eaves of the Mansion.

Such a tacky word, "Mansion," though the building itself was a sadly perfect monument to that forgotten magnate's fortune, back when it was freshly minted.

His family crest still flanked the front door in twinned cement relief, so you wouldn't miss the credential even if you happened to be blind in one eye.

Santangelo claimed the place had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, but I found that hard to believe. The building's interior sagged under its sheer tonnage of embellishment: marble and parquet and stained glass and carved oak, gilt-scroll-encased ceiling murals crammed with ugly petulant cherubs, grand double staircase tortured into a frenzy of varnished pretension.

I pictured the flight of the man's horrified offspring, shamed by this testament to their gentility's raw vintage.

The place had since housed third-rate spas and schools, each enterprise patching over another layer of furbelow with asbestos or gypsum board or fire-retardant dropped-ceiling tiles. The roof leaked. The faucets dripped. The ballroom stank of mildew and mouse piss.

I jogged up three flights to Sookie.

Mindy and Tim had claimed the love seat. Last one in got the rotten-egg wobbly chair by the radiator.

"Welcome," said Sookie. "Tim was just going to start us off."

Tim raised one hand slowly, placing his palm flat against the center of his chest.

Sookie nodded with approval. "Tim's feeling like he needs to nurture himself."

Mindy stroked his hair. We were supposed to touch each other a lot.

"I talked with my dad again?" Tim said, glancing down at his hand. "He's so . . ."

"Judgmental?" Sookie's forehead wrinkled with healing concern. Another nod, coaxing.

Tim teared up, nodding back with relief.

Mindy slid a box of Kleenex onto his lap.

At Santangelo, there was always a box of Kleenex.

"He wanted to know if I'd changed the oil in my car. And I couldn't even . . ." Tim dabbed his eyes with a fluffy blossom of tissue.

Mindy went for his hair again. "It's okay."

"Sookie?" he went on. "I wanted him to say something that didn't have all his disappointment around it. Just once."

"Let yourself feel that," Sookie said. "We're here for you. I'm here. Mindy's here. Madeline's here."

He closed his eyes. "My mom was on the other extension, you know? She didn't even . . . I mean, he told me to go out and write down what it said on the odometer. That he'd wait for me to come back and read it to him?"

I looked out the window. Not that I didn't feel for the guy. He was in genuine pain. The room fairly brimmed with it.

"Madeline?" Sookie turned to me.

I kept my eyes on the window.

Just the glass. Not the actual view.

"You're shutting down again," Sookie said. "I know it's hard for you, but can you try to let this penetrate?"

"Sookie, I'm soaking in it."

"You are so cold," Mindy said. "You are the coldest thing that ever lived."

I turned my head slowly until our eyes locked, which got her started blinking again. I stared until she had to look down at the Kleenex instead of me.

Blinky bitch.

"Let's let Tim have the focus," I said. "He's hurting."

Mindy got pinker. "How can you even say something like that without any emotion at all? Like you're all . . . like you don't even have anything inside except, like, words."

Sookie and Tim's attention snapped back and forth between us, like this was Wimbledon or something.

"It's cultural," I said.

"She's all, so, like"—Mindy flapped her free hand, trying to get the other two on board— "cold."

Some people are bi-polar.

I'm just polar.

I sighed. "It's an illusion."

"It's disgusting," Mindy said, blinking at Sookie and Tim in turn. "Madeline's, like, this gross disgusting robot."

And you're like this repulsive inarticulate piece-of-shit tawdry butthead, so neener neener fucking neener.

Sookie turned toward me, crooning, "Madeline, how does it make you feel when Mindy says that?"

"Um . . ." I looked at the window again.

"Now, be honest," she said.

"Well, okay." I dropped my eyes. "I guess Mindy's saying that I'm 'a gross disgusting robot' makes me feel as though she only cares about Tim as a prop on which to, like, lavish utterly insincere gestures of affection, so as to mask her apparently crushing sense of generalized inferiority with a temporary veneer of ersatz empathy and concern?"


"And that," I said, leaning over to squeeze Tim's knee, "that just makes me feel really, really sad for her, you know? Because Tim deserves to be heard."

"You are so . . . She is such a . . ." Mindy would have been blowing out flecks of spit if her jaw weren't still frozen shut.

Sookie turned to Tim. "Would you be all right if I followed up on this with Madeline for a little bit now?"

He mumbled assent.

"So, Madeline," said Sookie, "how are you?"

"Sookie, I'm terrified."

Then my eyes got all leaky and my nose started running, but that bitch Mindy didn't offer me a single Kleenex.


Terrified?" Sookie leaned forward and rested her hand on my knee. "Tell us about that. What are you scared of?"

"I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing here. I just want—" My throat closed up.

Maintaining immaculate eye contact, Sookie started to nod, her head rising and falling so slowly that I flashed on those prehistoric-bird-looking oil derricks you see along desert highways, bobbing for sips of crude.


  • "How nice it is to hear that rebel voice [of Madeline Dare] again."—New York Times Book Review
  • "Madeline's deadpan voice, acid wit and psychological depth are the perfect counterpoint to the novels positively Gothic plot... She's a great character, and her creator is a great storyteller. Caustic, gripping and distinctive-intelligent entertainment."—Kirkus
  • "Read's novel is fast-paced; once the action starts, don't even think about putting it down."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "Read's plot crackles and pops."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "Gutsy."—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Feb 12, 2010
Page Count
352 pages

Cornelia Read

About the Author

Cornelia Read grew up in New York, California, and Hawaii. She is a reformed debutante who currently lives in New York City. To learn more about the author, you can visit her website at

Learn more about this author