The First Time She Drowned

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
The First Time She Drowned Book Poster Image
Beautiful, gripping story of healing after abuse.

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Kids say

age 12+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Provides examples of good and bad approaches to therapy for teens. Readers will learn about the deep, lasting effects of emotional and physical abuse.

Positive Messages

It’s possible to start a new life and heal. You're always worthy of love. It's never too late to get help for your problems. Sometimes healing means letting yourself feel pain, but in doing that you can begin to heal.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Even though Cassie's childhood is filled with uncaring, damaged family members, she does encounter some compassionate people. Some of them are able to help her, some are not. Her uncle Billy tries to distract her from their family's dysfunctions, and he tries to talk to Cassie's mom when he's worried that Cassie might have been molested. James is Cassie's confidante in the mental institution and bolsters her self-confidence. College friends Zoey and Chris both like Cassie and try not to judge her, even though she is unstable and sometimes unkind to them. Liz is a wonderful therapist who's patient with Cassie and helps her tremendously. Wade helps Cassie in high school by being her only friend and understanding how messed up her family is. Cassie is a great main character. She endures so much cruelty and suffers from self-loathing and doubt, but she finds the strength to confront her issues.


Sexual molestation is described in hazy detail. A mother slaps family members on several occasions, and her daughter slaps her back once. A girl is chased and tied up by her parents when she's taken to a mental institution. Siblings wrestle and punch each other a couple of times. Mom and Grandma emotionally abuse and belittle their kids and spouses. Adults get into a fistfight at a family dinner. Description of cooking live lobsters.


Some kissing and making out at college parties. One couple is on a bed, and the guy feels up the girl, but it doesn't go beyond that.


Swearing and name-calling, but not frequent: "f--k" and its variations, "s--t" and its variations, "hell," "a--hole," "ass," "Jesus," "damn," "God," "bitch," "bulls--t," "pissed," "goddamn," and "balls."


The products mentioned don't feature prominently and are for scene setting: Smurfs, Marlboros, Snickers, Cocoa Puffs, Diet Coke, Jim Beam, Maybelline, and Scrabble.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teen characters smoke throughout. A few adults smoke cigarettes. Adults smoke pot in front of children on a few occasions. Underage drinking at college shown as a normal occurrence, including at keg parties and homecoming dance, plus references to kids puking and crying drunkenly. Teens get drinks at a bar, and an adult buys them wine at dinner. Adults drink at family gatherings, often to the point of getting drunk and violent.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know The First Time She Drowned follows Cassie O'Malley as she digs into her past and figures out how to move on from being raised by an unreachable, unloving mother -- a mother who lied to have Cassie committed to a mental institution for two-and-a-half years. This heartrending story is intensely emotional. Sexual molestation, physical abuse, and other violence is depicted, but those passages aren't so graphic as to be hard for sensitive readers to get through. Mental cruelty features prominently. Lots of alcohol consumption is shown, including at college parties as well as family gatherings where adults get drunk. Some adult and teen characters smoke cigarettes, and adults smoke pot in front of little kids. Swearing isn't frequent but includes "f--k" and its variations, "s--t" and its variations, "bitch," "a--hole," and "pissed."

User Reviews

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There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

Teen, 13 years old Written bykinkajousrule23 June 19, 2016

Favorite Book!

I absolutely loved this book. It has a powerful message and is extremely well written, although it does swear quite a bit. Some characters smoke but it is not p... Continue reading

What's the story?

Cassie O'Malley is bewildered when her parents suddenly tie her up and pack her off to a mental institution. For the next two-and-a-half years, her family rarely visits, leaving her isolated and unsure of what she did wrong and what the future holds for her. She's able to release herself from the facility when she turns 18 but faces life completely unprepared for interacting with others. As the book moves between Cassie's present and past, the story of her upbringing and her mother's cruel, abusive treatment unfolds. The book examines how mental, physical, and sexual abuse can run in families, causing lasting damage in a variety of ways. Through the help of her friend and a therapist, Cassie begins to uncover the sources of her trauma and must make some decisions about how she can move forward, heal, and break her family's cycle of abuse and neglect.

Is it any good?

Heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting, this powerful first novel deftly captures the depth and ripple effects of childhood abuse. The beautiful, poignant prose and the deep truths will appeal to adult readers as well as to teens. Even though the subject matter is heavy, the story never feels like too much of a downer. Cassie is a fantastic main character, who's relatable even given her dire circumstances.

Author Kerry Kletter brings to life the sad desperation of a child trying to please her unreachable mother. Her vivid writing lets us feel everything Cassie has endured, even as Cassie is uncovering and reliving her own repressed memories. She's always wanted her mother's love and approval, and it's painful to see a kid feel so unloved, especially when her mother dotes on her brother while pretending Cassie doesn't exist. When her mother comes back into the picture, Cassie is paralyzed with conflicting feelings of self-preservation and the need for her mother's love and approval. Watching her wrestle with her relationship with her mom while putting together the pieces of her past makes for a gripping and emotional read.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about emotional abuse, which can be subtle or obvious. Do you think media portrayals of cruel parents can be over the top? Are some more believable than others?

  • Many young adult novels deal with physical or mental illness. Which others have you read and liked? What's so compelling about these topics?

  • Lots of books and movies show college kids drinking a lot at parties. Do you think these scenes encourage this behavior?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories

Themes & Topics

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