Ellen Goldberg, PhD, is a Psychotherapist Member of BPSI. Her below remarks originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the Hann Sachs Library Newsletter, which can be read here.

Whitehead, Colson (2019). Doubleday, 224p.

In a new heart-breaking story, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Colson Whitehead, provides a window into a kind of abuse black teenagers faced in the 1960’s. The Nickel Academy is based on Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a 100-year old reform school in Florida, which closed in 2011 after allegations of abuse and violence perpetrated by the staff. Recent discoveries reveal there were probably over 100 bodies buried on the school’s grounds, further investigations are apparently ongoing (The University of South Florida has undertaken the discovery of graves and forensic research). Although the book is fiction, the author admits that the current political climate was the impetus to write it. “I didn’t want to do another heavy book,” he says. The Underground Railroad took a lot from me. I didn’t want to deal with such depressing material again.” But then Trump was elected. “I felt compelled to make sense of where we were as a country.” (Israel, 2019)

The school in the book has two separate campuses for white and black boys. The alleged goal of the Nickel Academy is to rehabilitate troubled boys, so that they can learn some skills and leave the school to lead productive lives. The protagonists, two black boys, as well as other students, struggle to figure out how to survive in a hot bed of corruption, back market greed, and sadism. All the black students quickly learn about the inequities of care and food supply based on race.  Whitehead’s perspective surely makes you more sensitive to the world of a black child. The level of child abuse, death threats, and perversions makes the book painful to read, but it is a wonderful story and an eye opening experience nevertheless. Implicit in the story is the fact that a number of Nickel Boys have compromised lives and never recover from the trauma they experience in the reform school. Nowadays, my colleagues and I see a lot of traumatized children and adolescents, including those who are at risk of being separated from parents who are facing potential deportations. Generally speaking, the intensity of trauma may not be comparable to what the Nickel boys go through, but I worry that the loss of a parent, unnecessarily imposed on children and adolescents, will likely affect their capacity for trust and attachment. The book made me even more concerned about the vulnerability of this population. It also made me think in a different way about the issue of bullying and identification with the aggressor. One of the highlights of the story is how some of the bullies were resilient, gamed the system, found places to hide and times to unwind. Many of the bullies had an acute awareness which staff members were dangerous and which were more benign. This insight helped them survive. As mental health professionals point out “Bullying is not a disease of individuals, but, instead, a symptom of a social process gone wrong.” (Twemlow & Sacco, 2013). There are many social processes that have broken down in our country, but the conundrums of young children living in camps without their parents are heartbreaking and infuriating. The richness of Whitehead’s writing brings the current turmoil into a stark reality. It is tempting to think of this moral crisis in an abstract way, but given the increased number of trauma cases we face daily, this is in actuality a large-scale abuse of children.


Twemlow, S.W. and Sacco, F.C. (2013). Bullying Is Everywhere: Ten Universal Truths About Bullying As A Social Process In Schools & Communities. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 33 (2):73-89. 

Israel, Y. (July 16, 2019). “The Outrage Was So Large and So Secret”: Colson Whitehead Talks Hope, Despair, and Fighting the Power in The Nickel Boys. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from https:// www.vanityfair.com/style/2019/07/colson-whitehead-thenickel-boys-interview

Ellen Goldberg, PhD, is a Psychotherapist Member of BPSI. She has a private practice in Newton, MA and she is on the faculty of the Brenner Center at William James College.

Ellen Goldberg can be contacted by email here.


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