The Elissas

Three Girls, One Fate, and the Deadly Secrets of Suburbia


By Samantha Leach

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Amazon's Best Nonfiction Book of the Month for June 2023
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Glamour’s “15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2023, So Far”
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Three suburban girls meet at a boarding school for troubled teens.
Eight years later, they were dead.

Bustle editor Samantha Leach and her childhood best friend, Elissa, met as infants in the suburbs of Providence, Rhode Island, where they attended nursery, elementary school, and temple together. As seventh graders, they would steal drinks from bar mitzvahs and have boys over in Samantha’s basement—innocent, early acts of rebellion. But after one of their shared acts, Samantha was given a disciplinary warning by their private school while Elissa was dismissed altogether, and later sent away. Samantha did not know then, but Elissa had just become one of the fifty-thousand-plus kids per year who enter the Troubled Teen Industry: a network of unregulated programs meant to reform wealthy, wayward youth. 
Less than a year after graduation from Ponca Pines Academy, Elissa died at eighteen years old. In Samantha’s grief, she fixated on Elissa’s last years at the therapeutic boarding school, eager to understand why their paths diverged. As she spoke to mutual friends and scoured social media pages, Samantha learned of Alyssa and Alissa, Elissa’s closest friends at the school who shared both her name and penchant for partying, where drugs and alcohol became their norm. The matching Save Our Souls tattoo all three girls also had further fueled Samantha’s fixation, as she watched their lives play out online. Four years after Elissa’s death, Alyssa died, then Alissa at twenty-six. 
In The Elissas, Samantha endeavors to understand why they ultimately met a shared, tragic fate that she was spared, in turn, offering a chilling account of the secret lives of young suburban women.


Author’s Note

January 23, 2023

Though I first started trying to tell some version of this story back in 2011—in the creative writing workshops I took in the wake of Elissa’s death, eager to transmute the details of our friendship onto the page—the process of compiling this book began in earnest in the fall of 2019. Just months after Alyssa passed away, and nearly three years after Alissa had died as well.

In the almost four years that I’ve worked on The Elissas, I’ve spoken to over sixty people and reached out to countless more. While I went to great lengths to interview nearly every living person mentioned in the book, there were some subjects who were unreachable or simply uninterested in talking with me. In cases where those subjects featured more prominently in the story, I changed their identifying characteristics for purposes of anonymity. Those subjects—along with all others featured in the book, excluding myself and the Elissas—were also given pseudonyms.

It was through these conversations that I crafted both the scenes and the dialogue that you find in this book. Without the Elissas here to speak for themselves, I relied on the recollections of those closest to them to capture the spirit of the stories depicted in the following pages. These stories have also been fleshed out through my exhaustive reporting on these women, as I’ve incorporated my perspective on what they would be thinking, feeling, and experiencing in any given moment.

Throughout my reporting, I also made great efforts to speak with representatives for each of the programs that were mentioned at length. Only some of those administrators chose to reply, and their responses have been included where they either contradict or clarify details shared by other interview subjects. Ultimately, the aim of The Elissas is not to issue a blanket indictment of the Troubled Teen Industry, nor should any mention of a program in the book be taken as an indictment or accusation. Rather, this is my endeavor to honor the lives of Elissa, Alissa, and Alyssa, which were taken far too soon.



There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for Elissa, and she knew it.

We’d met when we were merely a few months old, and even in the early years, our friendship consisted of an endless onslaught of compromises. Elissa: Scheming up some elaborate act of debauchery. Me: Objecting, then relenting.

When we were in seventh grade, Elissa promised an older boy a topless photo. Selfies didn’t exist yet, so she invited me over to play photographer. At first, I denied her request, fearful of the ramifications. But another, more mortifying emotion came to drown out my apprehension: jealousy. Boys never asked me for nudes. Through helping with Elissa’s photo shoot, I’d become a phantom limb in the frame, basking in the warmth of the attention she received from boys by proxy. So we set to work on securing the perfect shot.

Elissa’s bedroom walls were painted a pale violet, a color not unlike the faint purple veins that crisscrossed the paper-thin skin of her legs. Leaning against one such wall—triumphantly bare-chested, although quite small-breasted—Elissa instructed me how to best capture her form with my pink Motorola Razr flip phone.

“Go a little bit more from above.”

“Let’s try one where I’m not smiling.”

“Take one with my face cut off.”

Elissa was a master of her self-image, having coveted it and scrutinized it since we were in fifth grade. Growing up, she had always been a tomboy. Her hair was sheared in a brown Peter Pan–like pixie cut and her wardrobe consisted of oversized giveaway T-shirts, athletic shorts, and hand-me-downs from her older brother. She was a lanky child who loved cartwheels and showing off how fast she could run. For a long time, she was grateful to her body for its gifts of speed and flexibility—never considering its flaws. Then fifth grade came, and its flaws were all she could see.

In fifth grade, Elissa came over and we spent the afternoon examining ourselves in my bathroom mirror. My childhood home had been built in the 1940s and many of the bathrooms received face-lifts in the 1970s. Mine was tiled over in a kitschy mint-green color. Everything from the floors to the ceiling, all the same shade. My mother hadn’t done much to refurbish the bathroom, but she’d plastered on a cheerful wallpaper to offset the aggressive tiling. It displayed a series of half-girl/half-flowers. A violet with a smiling child’s torso appearing in the pistil, legs sprouting out of the lower petals. When I looked in the mirror I mimicked their expression, smiling with full teeth.

But Elissa wasn’t smiling. Her parents had recently separated; mine had the year prior. What Elissa and I first bonded over was our on-the-surface sameness. A sisterhood built on being born and raised in the suburbs of Rhode Island, going to the same private school, the same temple, and the same country club. When our parents divorced in tandem, it didn’t feel like a crazy coincidence. It was just the natural order of things, yet another experience for Elissa and me to share.

It was Elissa who clued me in on whom my father had started dating after my parents’ divorce. One day, while hanging on the monkey bars, she whispered to me, I saw your dad and Auntie Becs holding hands. Rebecca was Elissa’s aunt through marriage, and the mother of Faye, Shoshanna, and Zach: the three other kids who filled out our group. Rebecca was also a friend of my mother’s. Before my parents’ divorce, we’d all gone on shopping trips to Boston together and played at one another’s houses. After, I only saw Rebecca on the Wednesday nights and alternating weekends that I spent with my dad.

Other than the hand-holding comment, Elissa and I rarely spoke of our parents’ divorces. I internalized it, developing a crippling case of anxiety. Elissa became solely focused on the external: her outward appearance and how it would appeal to the opposite sex. That day in the mirror—and for years to come—she prattled on about her physical shortcomings. Her nose, which in high school she’d go on to have fixed via rhinoplasty, was much too large. Her hair was too dull, freckles too pronounced.

“We’re the ugly girls, Sami,” she said.

The thought had never occurred to me, but if Elissa was ugly, of course I was too. I nodded in response, paralyzed by her pronouncement. Elissa’s raucous nature was alluring, but it also overwhelmed me. I locked eyes with myself in the mirror and noticed how pronounced my cheeks became when I smiled, how my stomach protruded beneath my T-shirt. I bit my cheeks and sucked in my belly as Elissa continued to list her physical flaws.

“Boys don’t like ugly girls,” she said while looking at us in the mirror.

“Oh,” was all I could muster before the weight of her words rendered me silent for a second time.

She kept repeating the word, ugly, like naming it would take away its power over us. I knew less about ugly and more about beauty. Beauty was something my mother had in spades, but she’d still become depressive and despondent after the divorce. Beauty, as far as I could tell, didn’t exempt you from any of life’s hardships. But in Elissa’s mind, beauty equaled absolution. That’s what society had instructed her, anyway. As we contorted ourselves to exaggerate our greatest insecurities, Elissa spoke about beauty and boys in a way she never had before. She spoke about them with the language of desire.

Like many young women who grow up ingesting the detritus of our culture’s obsession with attractive women, Elissa bought into the false promise that good looks would grant her immunity from her inner, unspoken pain. Poor little rich girls like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were just beginning to dominate the tabloids. In 2007, Newsweek conducted a poll that found that 77 percent of Americans believed women like Paris had too much influence on young girls. And in the case of Elissa and me, they were right. Their bodies, bank accounts, and bad behavior beckoned to us. We misinterpreted the headlines that mocked their sex tapes and arrests as sheer, unadulterated praise. How could you be pretty, rich, and unhappy? Impossible. Elissa had the wealth, now she just needed to become desirable. That would solve everything.

“I want to be a slut,” she told me while standing in front of my childhood bathroom mirror. It was the first time she said it but wouldn’t be the last. Again, I nodded.

The following year, in sixth grade, Elissa wasn’t quite ready to make good on her promise to become a slut, but she was eager to explore the more benign implications of the title. We were both spending our March vacation in Florida visiting our grandparents, and while we’d always intended to spend time together in the Sunshine State, it wasn’t until then that our best-laid plans came to fruition.

My grandparents lived in Palm Beach Gardens, an expanse of gated golf communities and gussied-up strip malls. Elissa’s grandparents lived on the other side of the bridge, in the ritzier, more elite Palm Beach proper. That spring break it was my father’s turn to take my sister, Jordan, and me, and instead of “slumming it” at my grandmother’s relatively modest winter home, he had booked a stay at The Breakers: a Renaissance Revival–style luxury hotel that had been an institution on the island since the late 1800s. My father, Douglas, was a bit of a showboat—a medical malpractice lawyer who spent more of the workweek on the golf course than in the courthouse—and The Breakers’ grandiose stature suited his sensibilities.

The one thing my father wasn’t, as he often lamented, was a member of the LSC: “the Lucky Sperm Club.” He’d grown up with money, sure, but not the generational kind of wealth that Elissa’s family—whose patriarch had been a luggage entrepreneur—was born into. When I finally visited her grandparents’ ostentatious waterfront home that vacation, all I could hear were the letters LSC ringing in my head.

Upon arrival, I was guided to the outdoor patio to meet Elissa. Taking in their perfectly heated pool looking out on the family’s private stake of the Atlantic, I couldn’t have felt further away from my grandparents’ community pool, where you had to go early to reserve seats and contend with swarms of hungry Jews for the best of the lunch buffet. Seeing me, Elissa shot up. Her family kept a tidy and orderly home, one Elissa was always eager to escape.

“Palm,” she shouted, a nickname she’d given me for my love of chicken parm and my frequent visits to the Palm Beach area.

“Ivy,” I just as energetically shouted. She wore an Allen Iverson basketball jersey nearly every day of fourth grade, and though she’d since traded athletic garb for Abercrombie miniskirts, Ivy had stuck.

“SLEK,” we cheered in unison as we embraced, repeatedly exclaiming the combination of our initials, which we’d temporarily tattoo on our wrists in pen during math class.

Elissa hurried to collect her belongings. As she packed, I scanned her three siblings luxuriating in the ocean breeze. She was the second oldest and was close with each of them. Seth: her older, nerdier brother, whom she always included, both on her childhood playdates and on teenage party outings. Colin: her younger brother, who traveled in a pack of boys that Elissa would endlessly entertain on their nights sleeping at the family house. Sarah: the youngest, who in her youth had a fiery streak that Elissa both revered and encouraged. On the patio, the three of them all busied themselves with different activities—swimming in the pool, walking down to the ocean—at ease amid the ostentatiousness.

Back at home the differences in our socioeconomic status were subtly omnipresent, but in Florida they were overstated and obvious. Elissa lived directly on Blackstone Boulevard, the pinnacle of Providence living. My house was just a stone’s throw away from the boulevard in Pawtucket: a less prestigious province known for its lower taxes and more diverse population.

Though I never went without, I never felt totally at ease with my family’s financial situation. My dad drove a Porsche, took us on trips to places like The Breakers, and belonged to multiple country clubs. But there always seemed to be a stack of bills on the island in our kitchen, with the words Past Due typed out in a bolded font. Whenever I’d listen in on my parents’ fights, my mom would be crying about money. And that day at Elissa’s grandparents’ house confirmed everything I’d suspected about her family. Their wealth was real; it had roots.

There were elements of my life that she desired, too. Elissa’s grandmother, the heiress to the luggage empire, kept a watchful eye over her children. She controlled the family trust, and so controlled them. To the adults, Elissa’s wily demeanor wasn’t charming or precocious—it was worrisome, something to curb. My family had far fewer rules, which Elissa and I exploited, constantly. Our day at The Breakers was no exception.

Once back at the hotel, my father established himself poolside, lathering his leathery body in an SPF 5 oil. My sister, Jordan, who was seven, hung behind with him. He was the only single father there—though he wasn’t truly single—a status he exulted in, using it to flirt with eligible passersby. The rest of the sun worshippers, by and large, were all families who had flown in from posher East Coast suburbs like Fairfield and Westchester Counties. Come summer, they all flocked to the same locales: Nantucket, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard. Packs of chummy, moneyed families playing musical pool chairs, in one luxe locale after another.

None of it interested Elissa or me, so we made our way to the hotel’s “kids’ club”: a small, house-like building with a variety of billiards and arcade games designated for the young patrons. To Elissa and me, it was Bungalow 8, but in reality, it was nothing more than an elevated rec room. Elissa had a nose for sniffing out boys. While she still wasn’t exactly beautiful, she’d grown out her hair and purchased a push-up bra. We both watched The Simple Life religiously and treated our viewings like finishing school: Elissa mastered Paris Hilton’s baby-voiced, come-hither demeanor while I studied Nicole Richie’s sarcastic, sardonic schtick. Back at the kids’ club, it didn’t take long for Elissa to find Wyatt and Archie, two polo-shirted unwitting tweens, for us to try out our Paris and Nicole routine on. Wyatt had shaggy, surfer blond hair and Archie kept his in the properly clipped cut of an older man. Neither of us was particularly attracted to them, but it didn’t matter. They were science experiments, not suitors.

“How far have you gone?” It was one of Elissa’s favorite questions to ask, immediately disarming any twelve-year-old who dared to enter her orbit. Wyatt and Archie shifted in their loafers, uneasy in their lack of experience. At that point, Elissa was also inexperienced, but her chutzpah made up for her never-been-kissed status.

“Ummm,” Wyatt began to respond, making it clear that I wasn’t the only one Elissa could silence.

Before they could volley the question back to her, Elissa was on to her next mind game. A hallmark of The Simple Life was Paris and Nicole’s shared love of hijinks. The deliberately ditzy twosome was always cooking up some sort of ruse to unnerve the “real Americans” they encountered in their travels. After Elissa, Wyatt, Archie, and I took turns playing Pac-Man, she decided it was time to pull a prank of our own. Elissa and I would go to the hotel gift shop and purchase a pack of condoms. Not for sex, not yet. In sixth grade it was about the thrill of anything that suggested sex. The word alone sent shivers up our spines.

The Breakers had a stretch of storefronts surrounding the main entrance. A Lilly Pulitzer store for moms and daughters. A Polo Ralph Lauren for fathers and sons. The Signature Shop was where you could purchase travel-sized Kiehl’s products, tees and totes with the resort’s label, and luckily for us, condoms. We spotted them quickly but took our time scanning the aisles, to appear “discreet.” The waiting weighed on me the most. I ran my fingertips against The Breakers’ emblazoned glassware, La Roche-Posay sunscreen, and Acqua di Parma fragrances as I ran through the list of possible outcomes for our actions. Is there an age requirement for buying condoms? I wondered. You have to be eighteen for cigarettes and lottery tickets, but condoms? Elissa’s overly excited, darting eyes snapped me back into the present.

“I’ll bring them to the counter, but you have to give your room number,” she told me.

“Fine,” I conceded.

That was the extent of our plan. Elissa made her way to the counter first, and as she threw a pack of gum in with the condoms, I choked out a quiet declaration of the junior suite we were staying in. The male cashier surveyed the two twelve-year-old, Juicy Couture–clad girls in front of him. We looked every bit the part of a Breakers hotel guest, down to our unshakable air of entitlement. He had at least twenty years on us, but we were the guests and that status meant he completed the transaction, no questions asked. While he put the Trojans into a plastic bag, I attempted to maintain my composure as a wave of exhilaration spread through my body. My worry had transmuted itself into elation.

“Told you it’d be fine,” she said.

“That was crazy,” I replied breathlessly.

Elissa’s on-the-surface attitude was blasé, but her eager eyes betrayed her true emotions. She was fucking thrilled. Wyatt and Archie waited for us outside the shop—not even playing lookout, just barely curious bystanders. When we rejoined them, they appeared more shocked than stoked by our bounty. Our success presented a new challenge: What would we do with the condoms?

“What are you thinking?” Wyatt asked, mainly looking at Elissa.

“I have some ideas,” she said, casually buying time.

At that age we were always teetering on the edge of true rebellion. We snorted Pixy Stix, pretending the powder was cocaine. We burned incense, acting as if the fumes were pot. When we got back to the kids’ club, we decided to make condom water balloons. The four of us hovered around a sink in the girls’ room, filling each plastic casing with lukewarm tap water. I’d never seen a condom in person before and I marveled at the different shapes they formed. One, growing wide and circular like a silicone breast implant. Another, becoming long and narrow, like the limp limb of a balloon animal. Once done, we lifted our shirts, cradling our creations in the fabric as we migrated to the secluded area behind the kids’ club. There was nothing to do but throw them on the ground. Elissa wound up like a pitcher taking the mound, cranking her arm around again and again, trying to rev up the most centrifugal force. I stood on my tiptoes, lifting my hand as far into the sky as I could possibly get it, hoping to access more of gravity’s power. Then we let it rip.

“Holy shit. Holy shit,” Elissa and I both screamed.

The balloons cannonballed, splashing water and latex onto The Breakers’ redbrick-lined grounds. We were giddy and glowing, screaming again, again, again as we threw every one of those condoms smack against the now-desecrated courtyard. With each toss we thought less about appearing cool to the boys. Soon, we forgot they were even there. We were besotted in our girlish abandon; nobody existed outside of us.

That was the thing about being friends with Elissa. I had to understand that there was no pleasure without pain. That the further she pushed my elastic limits, the more outsized the reward. The more uncomfortable she made me feel, the more fun we’d have in the end.

It wasn’t until seventh grade—the year of the naked photos—that Elissa’s self-fulfilling prophecy of becoming a slut would truly begin to calcify, and her rebellious streak would begin in earnest. Poor little rich girls don’t just wake up one day fully formed, ready to denounce the patriarchal and privileged order that they were born into in the name of a good time. It starts as a ringing, nearly imperceptible at first, that grows louder and louder until it’s impossible to ignore. While I never quite heard it, I’ve come to realize that this ringing is the realization that life among the cohorts at the country club is not all that you were told it would be. It’s the mounting rejection of the slow march toward becoming your mother, to marrying a type like your father, to putting out carbon copies of yourself that one day will also dine at the same country club, commingling with the same cohorts.

Rebellion becomes a mold you can pour yourself into, modeling your behavior on the glamorous portrayals of poor little rich girls before you. The fictional ones like Lux Lisbon, Daisy Buchanan, Marissa Cooper. Or the ingenues so mythologized, they feel like characters: Edie Sedgwick, Peaches Geldof, Paris. White women have an experience of being a teenager that’s in total opposition to that of young girls of color, whom society views as adults from the onset.1 Robbing them of their innocence at the first chance. Instead, these poor little rich girls experience a youth so romanticized, its lure is undeniable. There’s a cost to joining this lineage—and sometimes it’s the ultimate price.

In sixth grade, Elissa was just beginning to hear the ringing. The danger was still to come.



From the moment I discovered Alyssa, I was excruciatingly envious of her relationship with Elissa. The two met when they were roommates at Ponca Pines, and the connection between them was immediate—a bond based on the shared pronunciation of their names, being raised in our Jewish, upper-middle-class milieu, and each harboring an unruly obsession with boys. But whereas Elissa cast a wide net—commanding the attention of everyone she encountered—Alyssa’s desires were singular. Or, to put it how they would: Elissa was a slut and Alyssa was a boyfriend girl.

Growing up in Northbrook, Illinois, Alyssa had been a slouchy, submissive girl who ripped her sandwiches into pieces throughout a meal, too anxious to take a bite. A people pleaser by nature, she looked to those around her to make her whole. She’d had a few boyfriends who temporarily flooded the levee to that vacant part of her being. But when she met Owen, the dam was destroyed. His love runneth over.

Owen, for his part, was a dime-bag, small-time drug dealer, a distinction that made him irrelevant in the eyes of the law, but an outlaw to the high schoolers who kept his business afloat. It’s easy for these types of pot pushers to take on a mystical quality to their more naive patrons. To contact them requires a friend to vouch for a friend who’s been previously vouched for by another friend. They don’t text in legible sentences, rather in a poorly crafted secret language where “Christmas tree” means weed and “Megan Fox” stands for cocaine. Their existence is confined to the shadows of abandoned parking lots and alleyways. When they cast their gaze on you, it’s electrifying.

In Providence, our Owen stand-in was Auggie, a boy Elissa knew from her childhood Little League team who smoked us out with our first joint in the same dugout where they’d met as kids. A couple of years later, after Elissa was sent to Nebraska, Auggie and I reconnected at a party where he punched my classmate and then ushered me out back to smoke a Marlboro Red. Everybody loves the quarterback until they meet the bad boy.

“Hey,” was the first word Owen ever spoke to Alyssa. Though the two had never met, mutual friends had invited Alyssa to go hang in Owen’s unfinished attic. When she arrived, Owen realized how badly he wanted to get to know her.

“Hey,” Alyssa echoed.

“Smoke?” he asked.

“For sure,” she replied.

“Word,” Owen said, ushering Alyssa into his room.

Owen didn’t know it, but the square shape of Alyssa’s childhood frame had only recently contorted itself into the curved figure before him. She’d lengthened and thinned, becoming a skinny teen girl of above-average height. Only her breasts retained the weight she’d lost. Alyssa had the kind of disproportionately Barbie-esque breasts that feminist parents warn their daughters about, telling them that if a woman actually had the doll’s chest, she’d keel over under the sheer mass. Owen wasn’t the first boy to notice them. Her breasts beckoned to her high school classmates. She was everything teen movies had taught boys about a girl’s experience of puberty—that overnight, the ugly duckling will sprout double Ds and transform from an innocent outcast to a fully sexualized woman, ready for the taking.

It wasn’t just the boys who objectified Alyssa. She could do that all on her own. While Alyssa had the biological gift of hotness that Elissa and I aspired to, she still had to learn to play the part. Teen girls are taught that there’s no greater achievement than being hot. It’s a term so ubiquitous that Paris Hilton even used it as a stamp of approval, declaring of anything cool, good, or worthy, “That’s hot.” In the 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, journalist Ariel Levy explores how being called hot was an entirely different distinction from being recognized as beautiful or attractive. Instead, it was rooted in the fuckability and salability of your body. In order to achieve this status, Alyssa fashioned herself in tight, low-cut tops and corresponding low-rise jeans, flatironing her dark brown hair and tracing her lower eyelids in smudgy black circles. She stopped hunching in the hallways and began performing the role of the hot girl, now strutting through them.

Self-objectification is a rite of womanhood, but it’s an exhausting one. Suddenly you’re overcome by a quiet yet constant reevaluation of how your body looks at any given moment. As Elissa instructed me that day in the mirror, your body isn’t a whole, but a collection of worrisome parts. At any given moment your arms can look too fat, your thigh gap too narrow, your breasts not perky enough. Every reflective surface becomes a tool for self-examination, an outlet to pick your body apart as you ready it to be perceived by boys, girls, adults, fellow teens. Girls aren’t discriminatory when it comes to approval.

In Peggy Orenstein’s 2016


  • “Like the Furies and the Fates of Greek mythology, the subjects of Samantha Leach’s The Elissas are troubled and troubling young women enacting a drama that feels both ancient and inevitable. If the addiction narrative has ascended to the level of myth in America (and it’s all too easy to argue that it has), then Elissa, Alyssa and Alissa are a familiar archetype: poor little rich girls, young and rebellious, their problems surely solvable by Daddy’s money. In this smart and gripping debut, Leach refreshes a familiar heartbreak by weaving the stories of these three lost young women into a larger, more complicated and ultimately tragic narrative of a nation not so much losing the war on drugs as on a death march every bit as doomed as the last battles in Sparta.”—New York Times
  • “…a searing exposé.”—Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)
  • "An intimate, moving narrative peppered with harsh statistics, love, angst, and the author’s own admirable vulnerability."—Library Journal (Starred)
  • “[Leach] develops sensitive portraits of each girl and suggests how social pressures, combined with health and environmental factors, conspired to damage the minds and then destroy the bodies of three vulnerable young women. A poignant and heartfelt mix of sociology and memoir.” —Kirkus
  • “Leach takes the reader through this harrowing, heartbreaking story . . . With great care, she reveals the paths that led these girls’ deaths at 18, 23, and 26, when their lives should have just been beginning. The loss is enormous, and Leach painstakingly, lovingly, braids their stories into one indelible work.”—Glamour
  • The Elissas is elegiac and investigative in equal measure. Leach channels her grief from her early friend’s loss into compassionate, poignant reporting—and one of the best nonfiction books of the summer.”—Harper's Bazaar
  • "In this urgent expose of the long-term trauma caused by the troubled teen industry, Samantha Leach investigates the life of a close friend lost to addiction, and the two girls who shared a friendship with her at boarding school and also perished far too young. These lives cut short unmask the brutal social control behind the concept of reform schools, where well-off parents pay thousands to have their children beaten, starved, abused, and otherwise coerced into toeing the line." —CrimeReads
  • "When Bustle editor at large Samantha Leach’s childhood best friend, Elissa, passed away at the age of eighteen, she was understandably devastated and confused. In seeking answers about her friend’s untimely death, Leach uncovered a complex story; the years before she died, Elissa had been living at one of the many unregulated boarding programs that make up America’s scandal-ridden troubled teen industry. As Leach further investigated what happened to her friend, she learned of Alyssa and Alissa, Elissa’s closest friends at the school who, in addition to sharing a penchant for partying and matching Save Our Souls tattoos, also died young, in their early twenties. The Elissas explores the secret lives of wealthy young suburban women, the impacts of reform school, and the fate that led to their paths diverging in such a tragic way."—W Magazine
  • "Leach’s exploration of the troubled teen industry and suburban girlhood is heart-wrenching, culminating in a book in the same addictive vein as Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women."—Nylon
  • “[A] high-wire act of writing about privilege and the pain of losing your oldest friend.” —Vogue
  • “Leach was deeply inspired by Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, but unlike Taddeo’s book, The Elissas reaches beyond the lives of Elissa, Alyssa, and Alissa and examines the larger forces that shaped their course of their lives, that sparked and fed their rebellion: pop culture, including Leach and Elissa’s treasured The Simple Life, the Troubled Teen Industry, and the opioid epidemic.”—Rumpus
  • “Chilling . . . Drawing on interviews with parents, friends and acquaintances, Leach details how the girls ended up at Ponca Pines and how the system failed them so severely. It’s a powerful indictment of how little we understand about treating addiction and other mental health issues.”—PureWow
  • “In The Elissas, Samantha Leach writes with great compassion about the pressures on girls to live up to today’s punishing beauty standards. With insight and precision, Leach exposes the ways in which the so-called Troubled Teen Industry preys upon girls’ vulnerability and capitalizes on their parents’ naivete—and bank accounts. The Elissas is both a deeply personal story of loss and an indictment of the societal forces that contributed to robbing a young woman of those closest to her. Leach’s investigation into how the Elissas perished adds much to our understanding of how dangerous misogyny can be to the health and well-being of girls and young women.”—Nancy Jo Sales, New York Times bestselling author of American Girls and Nothing Personal
  • “Rebellious and real, troubled yet hopeful, The Elissas presents an abiding portrait of friendship forged in the coercive clutches of upper and middle class America. From the basements of suburban homes to the innermost workings of the Troubled Teen industry, Samantha Leach holds a magnifying glass to adolescent girlhood and the capitalist forces that equate youth with desirability, beauty with success, safety with secrecy.”—Allie Rowbottom, author of Aesthetica and Jell-O Girls
  • “A decade after losing her best friend, Samantha Leach is haunted by her loss. Why was she spared the fate that befell Elissa? In incisive, fearless prose Leach investigates the realities of the Troubled Teen Industry and reevaluates her own role in the chaos and rebellion of adolescence. There are hard truths about girlhood, friendship, and boundaries in The Elissas, each of them heart-rending and ultimately, inspiring.”—Stephanie Danler, New York Times bestselling author of Sweetbitter and Stray
  • “Samantha Leach's The Elissas is a compelling fusion of memoir, reportage and cultural analysis that serves as both a damning indictment of the exploitative troubled teen industry and a compassionate look at the young people who have fallen prey to it.”—Sam Lansky, author of The Gilded Razor
  • "It's a shocking story...I think there is so much honesty and vulnerability in the book. Even now, I think Gen Z readers will relate to the pressures and the culture and the honesty that Leach has around her relationship to shame."—Emily Ratajkowski

On Sale
Jun 6, 2023
Page Count
288 pages
Legacy Lit

The Elissas - Book Club Kit

A bookclub resource for THE ELISSAS by Samantha Leach - including questions, supplemental readings, and other extras!

Samantha Leach

About the Author

Samantha Leach is the entertainment editor at large at Bustle. She has also written for Glamour, Elle, NYLON, and many other publications. The Elissas is her first book.

Learn more about this author