‘Joe vs. Elan School: A True Cult Classic’ reviewed

A graphical memoir from a survivor of an abusive school for troubled teens.
“Joe vs. Elan School: A True Cult Classic” is a book that’s off the beaten path. It has been released one chapter at a time since 2018, with the final chapter released on Sept. 15, 2023. It is available online completely free for any reader who stumbles upon it. It combines written narration with art and visuals. It is a memoir, but it’s completely anonymous. It is a tale that has touched the hearts of many readers over the years. It will make you sad, it will make you angry, perhaps it will make you smile at times. It will make you stay up later than you should, unable to resist taking a look at the next chapter. And ultimately, it will leave you different than it found you.
Above all else, “Joe vs. Elan School: A True Cult Classic” is a true story. And it is the sort of true story that you might be more comfortable not knowing. But it is far too important to know the truth rather than try and avoid it. And it is far too well-crafted of a work to cast it aside and not read it.
Joe Nobody (the pseudonym of the author) starts the story as a typical teenager. He was a normal kid living a normal life until he found himself being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and driven across the country. Not by kidnappers stealing a kid from under his parents’ noses, but with full approval of his mother and father. Without him knowing it, they had enrolled their son in the Elan School. And so he entered a nightmare.
The Elan School is a real school that ran from 1970 to 2011. It made millions of dollars of profit off of families duped by glittering lies, willing to pay thousands of dollars to send their children to live at a school hiding extreme levels of abuse and inhumane treatment. A simple article is not enough to paint a picture of the cruelties faced by the prisoners of Elan. A major reason why Joe wrote out his entire story is because in his life after Elan he could not express what the experience was like with simple descriptions. The designers of this program had sadism down to a science. Imagine being publicly humiliated in front of others for any misstep, real or fabricated. Imagine having the blankets pulled off you regularly at night to ensure you had not made a run for it. Imagine being screamed at by a group of your peers about how worthless of a person you are. Imagine being placed into a boxing ring and fighting your fellow students one after the other. Imagine being sat in a corner against a wall for weeks or months on end, with another student watching you to ensure you don’t do anything to try to keep yourself sane. Now imagine being forced to participate in inflicting these punishments on your peers, because if you did not do so then you would become the subject of the punishment. All this and more is what Joe faced in his time at Elan.
Most of “Joe vs. Elan School: A True Cult Classic” is the story of Joe’s fight to make it through this program. The combination of his words and art brings you into Elan alongside him, and gets you fully invested in his tale.
Eventually, Joe manages to get out. The reader follows Joe’s life after Elan, and it is quite the story. A story with music, art, travel, friendship, love, arrests, drug kingpins and more. But through it all, Joe bears the weight of the trauma he went through. It burdens him, wears him down and gives birth to inner demons that nearly consume him fully. This is the true tragedy of Elan. When he left Elan, Elan did not leave him. One by one he watched his former friends fall victim to addiction, homelessness, imprisonment and suicide. Joe barely made it through this phase of life himself.
Eventually, his story begins to take a new direction. After years of soul searching, he eventually finds a degree of stability, and through a moment of realization he commits himself to a mission: taking down Elan. Through all the chapters before this point, Joe proved himself to be a fighter. Now he enters the ultimate fight. One anonymous man against people making millions of dollars from brainwashing families, with 40 years of experience in deflecting any attempts to stop them. All the institutions in place in the United States to protect children failed to stop Elan. Police and journalists refused to look into Joe’s story. His only weapon to fight with ends up being a computer and the internet.
This is where the book earns its title. Joe Nobody, the man you’ve spent so much time getting to know, tries to take down the villainous institution you’ve spent so much time hating.
After a long, brutal fight he does it. Elan School shut down in 2011, in real life and in the story. It will never traumatize an innocent child again. But it is not much of a victory. Every person who went to Elan in its 41 years bears the consequences of the experience. And Elan was only one aspect of the troubled teen industry. Though it has been weakened in recent years, the troubled teen industry still exists and is still profiting off of exploiting children. And many people know nothing about it. This is Joe’s ultimate goal, to use his story to raise awareness about this issue. “Joe vs. Elan School: A True Cult Classic” will open your eyes to a problem that is right in front of you that you might have otherwise gone your entire life without thinking about.
You do not have to take my word on whether or not you want to read this book. You can pull out your phone, go to the web address elan.school, and read the first ten chapters in just seven or eight minutes. I hope I have managed to encourage you to at least try it out. It is a powerful, painful, triumphant story. Most importantly, it is a true story.

Post Author: Isaac McGill