In the prologue of Stephanie Wrobel’s mystery “This Might Hurt,” an audience sits quietly in a vast auditorium waiting for the appearance of the night’s star attraction. A woman enters and strides to the center of the room. “This is not her first stunt, will be far from her last,” readers are told.

“’Fear is not real,’ the woman says with composure. ‘unless we make it so.’” She picks up a pair of shears, sticks out her tongue and cuts it in half.

As the prologue sets up, the central theme of “This Might Hurt” is fear, how people handle it – or don’t — and the consequences of seeking to free oneself from its grip.

Natalie Collins, the protagonist, is an attractive powerhouse, head of a major New York City marketing company and a performance artist. She receives an email from the self-improvement retreat center on a coastal Maine island where her younger sister, Kit, has lived for six months. Natalie had tried to talk her out of going, but Kit had defiantly insisted. The unsigned email to Natalie has a single line of text. “Would you like to come tell your sister what you did – or should we?”

Natalie calls Wisewood Wellness and Therapy Center in Maine and asks for Kit.

“I think you’ve done enough, don’t you?” says the man who answers the phone. The line goes dead. “What has she told them about me?” Natalie wonders.


She departs immediately for the long drive to Maine.

“This Might Hurt” follows along as the sisters undertake to liberate themselves from the abuse and the binding, blinding shame their father bred in them, borne of his cruel, sociopathic narcissism. They are compelled to call him “Sir.” He forces them to perform meaningless, demeaning tasks to accumulate points to earn privileges. In one, he forces the young Natalie to lower herself fully dressed into the frigid lake behind their house. She starts to descend, then hesitates. He presses his foot against her fingers on the dock ladder, forcing her into the wintry waters.

Even after the sisters grow up and leave home, “Sir” continues to instill shame and fear in them.

In Maine, Natalie forces her way onto the private boat that ferries new arrivals to Wisewood. Tight control dominates the island culture, she quickly learns. Secrets abound. The center is run by an elusive woman known as “Teacher,” who retreat residents adore and constantly try to curry favor with. “Teacher” is assisted by eager devotees, whose discipline vacillates between firmness and threat.

The chronology in “This Might Hurt” is porous, sliding between distant past, near past and the present. As the book progresses, those shifts breed a sense of disassociation with reality, an atmosphere intensified by name changes of main characters between, and even within, chapters.

Natalie’s adult backstory is that of a performance artist with a large following, who are attracted by her mesmerizing, dangerous stunts. In one, she sets herself on fire. In another, she submerses herself beneath the ice of a frozen lake, seeking to set a record for remaining underwater without air. The careless stunt costs the life of a devoted assistant.

Natalie is eager to find her sister to tell her what really occurred after their mother’s death some years earlier, but try as she might, she cannot locate her. Kit, she learns, has been groomed by “Teacher” to be her handpicked assistant and confidant. Unfortunately, in the last quarter of the book, the story becomes so permeable, it takes on a hallucinatory cast that threatens the reader’s ability to follow it. The maze of twists is burdensome and confusing, and it becomes difficult to distinguish who exactly is who. The final reveal brings more relief from fatigue than surprise.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. It was also named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by Shelf Unbound. Smith can be reached via his website,

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