Ellen Hopkins


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Impulse Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Impulse by Ellen Hopkins.

Impulse (2007) is a young adult novel in free verse by Ellen Hopkins. In short, two-page chapters written from the points of view of three different teenagers, the novel explores the dark, harrowing things that have brought them to where they all are today: recovering from suicide attempts in a mental hospital. The novel is gritty, and its critics worry about a variety of issues: everything from a problematically portrayed gay character, to a cavalier approach to mental illness, to the inability to successfully tackle the myriad traumas it inflicts on its young characters with real emotional depth.

The novel doesn’t shy away from graphic descriptions of self-harm and suicide, and there are studies showing that people at risk for this behavior are more prone to act on their ideations after consuming media that portray them.

Seventeen-year-olds Vanessa O’Reilly, Tony Ceccarelli, and Conner Sykes have just been admitted to Aspen Springs residential center in the wake of their unsuccessful suicide attempts. The center follows a behavioral model of treatment, rewarding its charges with extra privileges for a series of increasingly progress-demonstrating acts. The summary will take each teen’s story in turn, though in the novel they are interspersed and not always chronologically arranged.

Outwardly, Vanessa is pretty and intelligent, but she has no ability to see herself that way because of her dysfunctional family situation. Her father is abroad, with no particular interest in his children, while her mother is severely mentally ill and liable to self-medicate with a variety of addictions. Vanessa has been left to take care of her younger brother. She copes with her life by cutting. The already precarious situation spirals out of control when her mother starts talking to “her angel,” is hospitalized, and eventually dies a slow and horrible death. On top of all of this, Vanessa has an abortion to stop her unwanted pregnancy. Finally, no longer able to handle all of this, Vanessa slits her wrists. In the hospital, she connects with Conner and Tony, forming a romantic triangle of sorts.

One glaring problem with Vanessa’s portrayal, as pointed out by several mental health professionals, is encapsulated in her idea, “I’ll never stop cutting, lithium or no lithium. Only love can make me stop.” Which actually seems to come true at the end of the novel. It is a deeply flawed message to propose that romantic love can cure depression and it shouldn’t be proposed as a treatment for mental illness.

Abandoned by his father at a young age, Tony’s mother is neglectful to an extreme in her quest to never be without a boyfriend. When Tony is a preteen, he is raped by one of his mother’s boyfriends and runs away from home. He then finds himself trying to live on the streets, where the only possible means of providing for himself is being forced into underage sex work. Eventually, Tony finds the man who abused him and kills him – an action of belated self-defense that gets Tony sent to prison for six years. In prison, he is befriended by the kindly Phillip, the only trustworthy adult he has ever come across. Phillip does his best to mentor Tony, but unfortunately, he dies. In response, Tony swallows a handful of pills that he hopes will end his life as well.

An enormous issue with the portrayal of Tony is the approach to his sexuality. Tony comes to Aspen Springs a gay young man. However, the more his depression is treated, the more he suddenly realizes that he is actually straight and attracted to Vanessa. In fact, the novel posits that Tony “turned” gay because of his sexual assault; getting better for him means recognizing that although he starts off the story confident in his sexuality, he comes to realize he is straight. Critics are very put off by this throwback conversion-therapy, especially since the novel never considers that Tony may be bisexual.

Conner comes from a wealthy, status-driven family that values image over everything else. His parents expect him and his twin sister, Cara, to strive for perfection at all times: to be a great student, an amazing athlete, to be good-looking, and live up to a whole host of unrealistic expectations. Conner manages to do this for a while but is never quite as good at the charade as Cara. Eventually, he is forced to confront the fact that he will never be what his parents want him to be. Instead, he would rather spend his days dreaming about having sex with older women. The stress his family puts on him overwhelms him, and he tries to shoot himself.

While the teens are recovering, Conner and Vanessa strike up a romantic connection, but then she realizes that she is actually more in love with Tony. Tony and Vanessa kiss, and when Conner finds out, he is despondent. Soon after, he has an opportunity to go home for a brief stay; there he realizes that his parents will simply never change and that as soon as he leaves Aspen Springs, his life will go back to the way it was.

To finish their treatment, after the three have made enough progress, they attain the mental hospital’s highest level of achievement: “level four wilderness camp,” a long hike along a cliff. Conner takes the opportunity to throw himself off the edge and dies. The novel ends as Vanessa and Tony leave the hospital together.