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STRAIGHT, INC. AND TEEN CHALLENGE
THE TRUTH ABOUT STRAIGHT, INC &
Powerless (Entire video):
By Charles C.
From fall of 1989 to the summer of 1991 I was held against my will for 22 months in the Atlanta, GA chapter of an organization called “Straight Inc”. Straight was arguably the most flamboyantly brutal behavioral “drug and eating disorder treatment center” in American history. At least the government thought so. By 1993 every chapter of Straight had been shut down after having deemed to be in violation of multiple state laws. My personal experience with Straight was so bad that it is difficult to describe, even a decade after the fact. It had the characteristics of prison, mental hospitals, ‘70’s-era cults, and “boot camp” facilities, but was actually a lot worse than any of the latter. It remains, to this day, the worst thing that has ever happened to me.
Straight’s approach to “treatment” was not new. As early as the mid-twentieth century, it was fairly well known that you could change an individual, at least temporarily through severe and long-term behavior modification. To do this, you simply cut them off from contact with all friends, family, news or information about the outside world (not to mention access to reading materials, TV, movies, music, writing, the telephone, the internet, or sunshine), strip them of all markers of identity (clothes, or hairstyles), make them repeatedly, publicly confess their most humiliating or shameful secrets, insult and humiliate them repeatedly in front of large groups of people, shout at them until they weep on a regular basis, give them an inadequate amount of sleep, and place them in situations of long term stress, pain, and discomfort. Subject an individual to these conditions for long enough and they will do, or think anything you want them to, at least for a while. Either that or they just go crazy, and people in Straight Inc went crazier than anything I ever witnessed in jail, the psyche ward, or anywhere else.
After the Korean War, when returning American POWs who had been subjected to similar conditions described them to researchers this process was given a name: brainwashing. Unfortunately, the latter term doesn’t really accurately describe a process that is both physical, and emotional, not to mention a very long and intensely unpleasant process that does not, in many cases, succeed in doing what it intended. Straight was popular because it produced short-term results. Parents put their misbehaving teenagers in Straight, and got back girls and boys with short conservative haircuts and bland clothing, who couldn’t seem to do enough apologizing, and seemed to deeply, tearfully regret all previous antisocial behaviors, to a degree that must have seemed downright eerie.
Unfortunately, any positive results that Straight produced were almost always temporary (in the last ten years I have not met anyone who was in the Atlanta Straight program that has stayed “sober”). The negative side-effects (including, in my case, reoccurring bouts of overwhelming rage, nightmares, and permanent estrangement from my family) tend to linger. Parents of “Straightlings,” the only people standing between the kids and the staff in Straight, were not allowed to see or even talk about what went on behind closed doors. Kids in the program were not allowed to talk about it either (especially to police, lawyers, or state government officials). As a result Straight was able to conceal beatings, broken limbs, suicide attempts, sleep deprivation, and keeping kids out of public school for years at a time. What follows is an abbreviated history of the Straight organization and its offshoots. My sources for this article (aside from what I saw for myself in the Atlanta program) come from “The Straights,” the largest assembled collection of news articles, government documents, and personal histories online. If you feel that any of the information in it is inaccurate, feel free to write HEAL.
Straight is largely a product of the 1970’s, an era when people were experimenting with living on isolated communes, joining cults, and attempting to change themselves for the better by taking part in voluntary quasi-psychological programs like “EST,” and other manifestations of the “human potential movement”. All of the cryptic language that was still used in Straight by 1991, such as “rap sessions” and “copping out” had its roots in the 70’s, a time when many parents were terrified by fallout from the ‘60’s counterculture, and the increased availability of new drugs. This climate of parental dread probably helped Straight’s founders attempts to justify the program’s brutality. The organization that birthed Straight was called (weirdly enough) “The Seed,” and was fairly similar to Straight in the way that it applied hardcore physical and psychological abuse to disobedient teenagers in hopes that it would make an ordinary life without drugs seem pleasant in comparison. As the story goes, fed up parents who had tried everything else, who’s lives had been torn asunder by their raging, out of control, drug-dependent offspring banded together to create a new kind of guerilla anti-drug program so severe and awful that it could fix even the worst addicts forever.
At least that’s the legend that my father was told about The Seed by the “parent group” of Atlanta Straight. The Seed was actually begun by a retired comedian named Art Barker. Incorporated in 1972, The Seed conducted business for only four years before it became the subject of a Senate investigation, which dubbed its methods “potentially harmful,” and subsequently shut down. Two of the parents whose children were involved in The Seed, Mel Sembler and Joe Zappala started Straight in 1976, vowing apparently, that it would be a more humane program. It wasn’t; out of the ten “board members” who founded Straight, almost all quit within the first year of Straight’s operation claiming that the new program was just as bad “if not worse” than The Seed had been.
Nevertheless, Melvin Sembler was able to expand his operations fairly quickly. Though Straight’s techniques (sleep and food deprivations, beatings, humiliation exercises, etc.) had originally been used on the most serious drug addicts, Straight quickly began taking kids who were not (at least in the sense of physical addiction) addicts at all, and young teenagers who had barely experimented with controlled substances. Eventually, Straight chapters appeared in Texas, Ohio, California, DC, Virginia, and Georgia. Throughout the 1980’s Straight would expand itself from a drug treatment facility, to a program that claimed it could fix just about any disobedient teen behavior from “behavior problems” to “eating disorders”. The program gained a new veneer of respectability with endorsements from the Reagan Administrations, as thousands of teens were placed in the program by fearful parents, or the courts.
Then came a deluge of lawsuits, state investigations, and horror stories that lasted more than a decade. Among a plethora of suits against the program, the Massachusetts chapter of Straight was forced to pay several thousand dollars after a judge found them guilty of “false imprisonment” in 1983. Two former Straight clients won two lawsuits against Florida Straight chapters on the same grounds (Straight decided to settle in both cases). The mother of a 17-year-old named Michael Daniels who had been in St. Petersburg Straight attempted to sue the program as well, claiming that it drove her son to “psychic breakdown and paranoid schizophrenia”. Dr. Ali Kashfi, Daniels’ psychiatrist confirmed in court that his patients’ condition was “10 times worse after Straight”.
In 1984 the Florida State Department of Human Resources threatened to revoke Straight’s license to operate unless it stopped coercing or tricking clients into entering the program. Florida Assistant State Attorney David Levin compared Straights techniques to “child abuse” and “torture”. Before the Cincinnati, Ohio chapter of Straight was shut down, Cincinnati ACLU director Marge Robinson likened its practices to “psychic murder”. The Santa Ana, CA District Manager for The Department of Social Services accused its state’s Straight chapter of “infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, threat” and “mental abuse”. Jacqueline Ennis, former head of licensing for Virginia’s Department of Mental Health criticized the Virginia Straight for unreported suicide attempts on the part of teens in the program, forcing kids “to reveal their sexual fantasies during group sessions,” as well as the practice of “spit therapy,” where “children would spit on each other to reduce their egos”.
According to Canadian Researcher Dr. Barry Bereyson, “Straight often left ‘restrained’ group members sitting in their own urine, feces, or vomit until suitable concessions were extracted”. Atlanta Straight, the chapter I attended, was cited by the state DHHS for (among other things) denial of water, sleep, and medical attention, as well as illegal dispensing of medications. Strip searches, kidnapping, hair pulling, beatings, broken bones, denial of food and water, “marathoning” (keeping kids awake for days at a time), “nitpicking,” (in which teens were held down and pinched or poked), and a procedure called “the spanking machine” (where kids were forced to run a gauntlet of people beating them on the ass), are only a few of the other accusations leveled at Straight by former clients, parents, and state investigators. The kids getting physically injured weren’t just the “misbehavers” trying to escape, but also the young teenagers (some as young as 12) who were kicked, punched, or head-butted, or smashed with elbows in their attempts to “restrain” the disobedient. By 1993 all Straight chapters had been closed down.
The truth about Straight needs to remain in steady circulation, for it’s model is still being promoted, or mimicked by adults who have never experienced its egregiousness firsthand. Straight founder Melvin Sembler, former Straight bigwig Dr. Miller Newton, and others have spent the last twelve years since Straight closed down attempting to re-open the program under new names such as Atlanta’s “Phoenix Institute,” New Jersey’s “KIDS,” Teen Challenge (in association with Drug Free America Foundation, founded by the Semblers) or Florida’s SAFE. Newton and Sembler are perhaps the two ultimate supervillians of torture therapies, and their own backgrounds are as bizarre as Straight’s “recovery” techniques.
Newton authored the pro-Straight tract entitled Gone Way Down, that helped popularize Straight’s brutal approach in the 1980’s. He was a former Straight Assistant Director who resigned his post amidst lawsuits against Straight, including one by a teenage girl who claimed he had thrown her into a wall. Since Straight’s closing he has been attempting to open Straight-like organizations, many of which have had chapters shut down, during the past decade including KIDS in northern New Jersey. Newton settled for 4.5 million after KIDS was sued by a former client alleging abuse. KIDS was also forced to settle after being sued for 254 counts of insurance fraud and several of the staff at KIDS received criminal convictions as well (for beatings carried out in the program), and soon KIDS, like Straight was forced to shut down its operations. Quite a few former KIDS clients have reported being beaten by Newton himself, and his track record in this regard is worth looking into, as connotations of sadism seem in evidence, at least to me (See “Closure for a Quack Victim,” from the January 2000 issue of New Jersey Law Journal, available online). Recently Newton decided to become a priest and changed his name to “Father Cassian,” and is being monitored by a watchdog organization that looks into the backgrounds of abusive priests. The last I heard, he was living in Florida.
Straight founder Melvin Sembler was George W. Bush’s first-term and extremely wealthy American ambassador to Italy, and former ambassador to Australia (he very literally “purchased” this last title), with large landholdings in the United States and elsewhere. A powerful political friend of and fundraiser for the Bush family, Sembler is nonetheless dogged constantly (as much as it is possible for one to be dogged while living in another nation) for his involvement in Straight and Florida’s SAFE. Without his millions, and his political connections, it seems unlikely that Sembler would have been able to survive the swamp of lawsuits lodged at Straight and its subsidiary programs over the years, but he has pursued the marketing of the Straight model with a rabid enthusiasm unmatched by anyone on the planet. Along with his wife Betty, Sembler continues to cheerlead for Straight-type programs, and fight the prescription of marijuana on medical grounds Betty Sembler can be reached at email@example.com.
To this day the Semblers insist that Straight is a functional, safe, and legal way to prevent drug use. I imagine that they have not bothered to look into the number of people who actually stayed “sober” after graduating the program, the number of people who avoided drugs after disobediently escaping, or the amount of ex-Straightlings that did more drugs (or killed themselves) after release from Straight, due to the trauma they experienced there. Because Straight, (and most of the program’s based upon it) breaks off all contact with families who “withdraw” their children from it, or anyone who criticizes it, no one knows these exact numbers.
The key to defeating the Straight model, I think, lies in proving that it doesn’t “work”. The physical and mental torture aspects are well documented, and should continue to be heard and researched, but there will always be ethically flexible individuals out there arguing for its merit in “extreme cases,” as we have seen from recent sick situations at Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. Of course, most of the kids in Straight were not extreme cases in the sense of physical addiction, or long term heavy usage. Above all, Straight’s story shows us how quickly a “last ditch” effort in curing alleged out-of-control junkies in the seventies quickly became a cure all for any type of borderline teenage disobedience.
I am interested in hearing from any ex-Straight people, especially anyone who was involved with Atlanta Straight between ‘89 and ’91. Criticism from pro-Straight forces is also encouraged. It does not really surprise me that there is so precious little information on the web documenting Straight “success stories” or defending its model, but I’m eager to let former staff members know how I feel and what my life has been like since my “withdrawal” from the program. Write me at HEAL.
My Personal Straight Experience(s)
Note: All Straight lingo has been capitalized to avoid confusion with ordinary North American English.
I spent most of my life before Straight being bounced back and forth between my Mother/Stepfather’s house and Father/Stepmother’s house. My Mom was fairly out to lunch during the 1980’s (like me she’s been hospitalized and medicated for “clinical depression”), and when it seemed like her third marriage was starting to dissolve she sent me to live with my Father, a Methodist Minister who had me institutionalized; first in one of those half-assed “charter hospitals” and then in Atlanta Straight. I was fifteen at the time, and had been using drugs for less than nine months (some kids in Straight were as young as twelve). On the day of my “Intake” into Straight I had such a bad case of the flu that I was more or less delirious with fever. Rather than taking me to the emergency room, Straight’s “Staff” placed me in a “Host Home” (a house rigged with extra locks and burglar alarms where teens in Straight got their meager amounts of sleep at night). Within a week I had short hair, bland clothing, an aching body, and a glassy look in my eye; I had become a Straight “Phaser”.
Like many “treatment programs,” Straight was divided into increments and one had to work one’s way to the top in order to “Graduate”. Unlike most treatment programs, most people in Straight who actually Graduated (a process that took an average of 18 months to two years to complete) spent about a third or more of their time on First or Second Phase, the bottom two rungs on the ladder. Out of the 22 months I was there, I spent at least ten of them on Phases One or Two. First Phase was utter hell and Second Phase wasn’t much different. Phasers at these levels were not allowed any contact with friends, family, the opposite sex, TV, movies, reading materials, music (First and Second Phasers were not even allowed to talk about music), the outdoors, daylight, or news from the outside world. First Phasers were called “Newcomers” although one could end up stuck on First Phase for literally years at a time, or be “Set Back” to Newcomer status at any time, irregardless of how hard one had worked to move up. Most people in Straight were Set Back at least one or more times, and ended up spending quite a while on First Phase.
First Phasers were not even allowed to talk to each other, look each other in the eye, walk, touch, or pick up objects without permission, or wear belts, or watches. Like everyone else in Straight, they were not allowed makeup, jewelry, or any type of clothing, shoes, or hairstyle that seemed the slightest bit nonconformist (Converse All Stars for example). First and Second Phasers were not allowed to attend school or read, even so much as the back of a cereal box (Second Phasers were allowed to read the Bible and the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book,” however, Hooray!) Like all the other young teens in the program they were not allowed to speak to any old friends, use curse words, smoke cigarettes, touch or flirt with the opposite sex, masturbate, or speak to any of Straight’s “Staff Members” without being spoken to first. Criticizing “The Program” or talking about what actually went on in Straight, especially to parents, police, lawyers, or state investigators, was considered one of the most serious offenses and would be punished.
In addition to the deprivations of First and Second Phase, Straight broke people, in part, by keeping them in a constant state of tension, irritation, and terror. During the 10 to 14 hours spent in the “Grouproom,” (a large white-walled former supermarket), this was achieved in a variety of ways. First was the overall claustrophobia of the “Group” set up. Phasers were seated practically on top of each other in purposefully uncomfortable plastic or metal chairs that had to be touching at all times. 95% percent of the time in the Grouproom was spent in this cramped position, in addition to the half-hour to forty-five minutes where we were forced to stand each day in a long line with our bodies pressed together. Phasers in group were forced to sit “up straight” for 9 to 14 with their torsos completely straight, and back arched, hands motionless on knees, feet together, and necks twisted in the direction of the person who was standing and talking. Slouching, stretching, contact with the back of the chair, or any other type of back support was forbidden.
Sitting in this position for 9 to 14 hours a day was, of course, painful and uncomfortable enough for young teens who had been in the program for months or years, but for people who had just entered the program and were not used to it, this was nearly impossible. Staff seemed to anticipate this and anyone who slouched even slightly had the knuckles of the person behind them run forcefully down their spine. This technique of “sitting up” other phasers was often used on kids who weren’t actually slouching. Anyone who continued to slouch had a person seated behind them who would place their fist in the small of the other kid’s back while forcefully yanking back their shoulders. Anyone who wouldn’t keep their hands completely still had their hands grabbed, wrung, or slapped. Anyone who did not keep their neck twisted in the direction of the person speaking would have their neck grabbed and jerked in the proper directions. Anyone talking would have a hand slapped hard over their mouth and held there.
Speaking to, making eye contact with, or attempting to in any way signal other Phasers in Group was forbidden as well. All kids in Group were also forced to “Motivate” or wildly and violently wave their arms in order to get “called on” to speak in group. Like the awkward position that we were forced to sit in, motivating created constant tension and soreness in the back, neck, and arms, and I can remember getting accidentally punched in the jaw by the person Motivating next to me on at least a couple of occasions. We were expected to Motivate all day long, and we did, at least until state inspectors put an end to it on the grounds that it could do permanently damage the muscles of the elbow. Watching a group of a hundred kids motivating is one of the most freakish things that I have ever witnessed in my entire life by the way. Like everything else in Straight, it had to be seen to be believed.
Phasers who had recently entered The Program, and disobedient “Misbehavers” were forced to spend all day sitting in specially-designed punishment chairs called “Blue Sliders” (Note: These were not the same as the flat blue plastic chairs common to all Straight chapters). As the name suggests, the front-most part of the seats of these punishment chairs was literally a slide, and one had to keep the muscles of the calves and ankles stiff and taught to keep from “sliding” off. The worst aspect of the Blue Sliders was two raised plastic bumps that jabbed into the buttocks at the same places where the points of the bone meet the skin. After a day sitting in a blue slider, my ass ached as if it had been bruised or beaten. I have no idea who manufactures these chairs or why.
By far the most painful of Straight’s punishments was the “Restraint”. The word “restraint” in misleading, considering that people were placed in Restraints who weren’t fighting, or trying to run (one could be Restrained for almost any infraction, if Staff felt like it). A person in a Straight Restraint had two people pressing or sitting on their shins and another Phaser sitting back-to-back with them yanking their arms toward the ceiling, a position deliberately designed to hurt as much as possible (there are, after all, much more practical ways of holding someone down). Kids in restraints would generally end up screaming in agony and I remember at least a couple of kids getting their arms broken or sprained as a result, not surprising considering that angry young teenagers, rather than health care professionals were doing the Restraining. That this used as a means of literal torture was evinced by staff members who would stand over the person being restrained howling “Make that restraint tighter! Make him want to go back to group.”
Often, there would be so many restraints going on at one time (I saw as many as six at once), and so many people screaming in pain that it was next to impossible to hear the person that the “Group” was supposed to be listening to.
If the danger to the person in a restraint was unethical, the danger to the people doing the restraining was worse. Kids were bitten, hit with chairs, and seriously beaten up in the process of trying to apply Restraints. Because the Phasers in Group were seated so close together, everyone else was in danger of getting kicked or smashed by the thrashing bodies of those trying to fight back. I was not one of the macho dudes who were the first to jump at the chance to apply a Restraint, but I still managed to get kicked, headbutted, spat on, and had my fingers pinched between metal folding chairs in the day-to-day chaos of The Grouproom. Trying to “Get Sober” in this environment was not particularly easy.
Hardcore sleep deprivation was also an old Straight favorite for years, and was not halted until Straight was on the verge of shutting down nationally. “Marathoning,” or keeping kids awake for days at a time while screaming at them was used often until state investigations made it less popular. At the time I was in Atlanta Straight it had fallen out of favor somewhat, though I remember that a few people were indeed threatened with sleep deprivation (and probably subjected to it, though I never did this to any “Misbehavers,” that I supervised). Ultimately it didn’t matter, for even compliant Phasers were often lucky to get five hours worth of sleep. The long days in group, the long drives back to the Host Home, the time spent cleaning the host home, supervising showers, supervising dinner, washing dishes, writing “Moral Inventories,” and “Reviewing” Moral Inventories, and the complex procedure necessary for going to bed ate up one’s whole day for the majority of people in the “Program”. A Moral Inventory, by the way, was an idiotic essay that everyone had to write per evening about the “changes” or moral growth we made during the day, which is pretty funny considering that most people spent their days doing little but sitting on their ass in the Grouproom.
All boys in the program were forced to sleep in only their underwear in a room that was completely bare except for mattresses and sometimes sheets. Because all windows and doors in this “Phaser Room” had to be either locked, or equipped with burglar alarms on the outsides to prevent escape, all Phasers had to go to bed at the same time, and wake up at somewhere between six or seven in the morning.
As part of the ongoing harassment, some Phasers were made to wear purposefully humiliating clothing, (this happened to me), some were refused regular meals (a practice that was abandoned when Straight began treating “eating disorders”), and the most disobedient were placed in “Intake Rooms”. The latter were small, moldy rooms in the back of the Straight building where “Misbehavers” were continually screamed at, Restrained, and probably beaten. Like sleep deprivation, beatings, along with systematic hair pulling, “Spit Therapy,” and “Nitpicking” (holding Phasers down and pinching or poking them), were common in Straight until they were pressured to stop, by lawsuits from parents and state investigations. I only saw a Staff Member beat a young teenager (knock the crap out of him in fact) once in group, but from what I now know from my research, beatings of some type or other were probably going on at least until the end of the eighties. Ultimately, it didn’t matter when the beatings stopped; the Restraint was painful enough.
Other physical behavior modification techniques included the denial of an adequate amount of water; only one cup per 10 hour period, and two cups per 15 hour period during the day were allowed. Although hideous grade D prison food was served once per weekend night in the group room, food was often scarce otherwise. All food (including weekday night dinners and the bag lunch that was brought daily to the building) had to come from the Host Home, and many Host Families did not keep their fridges well-stocked. The lack of hired health care professionals, and the use of Host Homes to house Phasers made Straight fairly affordable, and as a result many Host Families around Atlanta were fairly poor. Breakfast, in particular, was often skipped. Food was eaten in Group sitting in the same painful position as Phasers spent the rest of the day in.
The psychological aspects of wearing Phasers down was as important to the operations of The Program as its physical deprivations. Each day in group was divided into three-to-four “rap sessions” consisting of the same three parts. In the ultra-somber “Past Rap,” Phasers were forced to stand up in front of the group and cry (the code phrase was “Share Feelings”) about terrible awful things that happened to them as a result of their “Problem”. Anyone who failed to cry was seen as refusing to “Share Feelings” and would be “Stood Up” for a “Confrontation” later in the rap session (more on Confrontation in a minute). During “Guys and Girls Rap” where the sexes were separated we were urged to tell our most humiliating sexual secrets (the time I put honey on my crotch and let the dog lick it off, etc.) that had little to nothing to do with drug use, but functioned pretty well as a means of making people feel awful. People who did not admit to having at least one overwrought story involving molestation, rape, animal sex, homosexuality, or being caught masturbating, was generally looked upon with suspicion.
Needless to say a lot of kids had trouble weeping and blubbering on cue during Past Rap. Some had been placed in Straight after only experimenting with pot and alcohol (or no drugs at all), and had no terrible stories to tell. Although I had been in a few dangerous situations involving drugs, I only had a few of such “times in my past” to describe, and at fifteen-years-old, I had very little feelings about them prior to being placed in the program. This was, I imagine, the same boat that most Phasers were in. Then again, “Sharing Feelings” wasn’t really the point. The aim of Past Rap was to instill feelings about our past lives; to associate negative emotions, depression, and despair with our “Past,” those dark, terrible years before we had been rescued by the benevolent people of Straight. As a result Past Rap was hilariously morbid, and Staff members would often dim the lights, light candles, make us close our eyes, or play sad songs on a tape player to exaggerate the depressive mood as much as possible, and often the whole room would be weeping as a result. The most ill-conceived Past Rap, the aptly-named “Death Rap,” involved the staff reading everyone in group a fictional (but graphic) account of their death from drug overdose, drunken car wreck, etc as the whole room wept and bawled.
The next part of “rap,” “present rap” involved anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half of “Confrontation”. During this period, Phasers were “Stood up” and screamed at, cursed at, called names, laughed at, and often boxed-in physically by staff members who would stand a centimeter away from them, sometimes daring them to run or throw a punch. During a confrontation, the person being screamed at was not allowed to talk back or defend themselves in any way, and they would be slapped in the mouth if they tried. The screaming in Straight was bloodcurdling. It sounded more like people being murdered, than the measured shouting of a military drill sergeant. People in Straight were always screaming and screeching; screaming themselves hoarse and purple with spittle flying everywhere.
Often staff would encourage the entire group to laugh at the person being Confronted in unison, or shout something ugly at them in unison. Sometimes they would have the whole group literally sing songs about how much of a loser they were. Those who were in their first few weeks of the program, or anyone who openly criticized any aspect of Straight was confronted constantly in Present Rap, and at night in the Host Home (sometimes all night). Over and over, they were told that they were hopeless, that their old friends didn’t love them, and their families didn’t want them, and that if they left Straight they would suffer a drug overdose in short order. They were told they could trust no one but Straight and that being cutoff from the program would result in their death. The goal of confrontation was, again, to produce tears, and it always worked. Nevertheless it would continue until the person was both weeping and professing their loyalty to the Program, agreeing that they were helpless addicts and incurable fuckups who would literally die without Straight. These screaming sessions could take up to thirty minutes, or even an hour.
The last ten minutes of each rap was “Positive Rap,” wherein one was supposed to “Motivate” like a wild animal to get called on and then stand up like a grinning idiot screeching and howling about how good it felt to be clean and love Straight. The sheer quickness with which the Group’s mood swung from the gloom and depression of Past Rap, to boiling rage of Present Rap, to overwhelming glee of Positive Rap was truly terrifying.
This process was repeated three times a day in addition to “rules rap,” where twenty or thirty of the programs rules and the reasons for them were recited (Straight had so many rules, “Steps,” slogans, “Signs”, and “Criteria” that it would have taken four or five hours to recite or explain them all). Additionally, two hour “reviews” were conducted twice a week that consisted of nothing but Confrontation, screaming, trembling, and weeping. As was the case with Present Rap, the mood that overtook the Group as we Motivated to be called on during Review was an exercise in pure dread. No one wanted to be called on but everyone knew that they had to Motivate like crazy anyway, or they would get in even more trouble. Phasers were made to “Report” themselves or Report other Phasers for breaking any of Straight’s hundreds of rules, and did this via paper “Chain of Command” forms that were passed around the group every morning. Staff used these forms as the basis of the Confrontations that occurred during Review and Present Rap. Since Straight had rules prohibiting everything from playing with oneself in the shower, to accidentally reading passing billboards as the car drove to the host home at night, there was always something to scream at someone about. Teenagers are teenagers, whether in Straight or the outside world, and their competitive, often bullying tendencies only added further fuel to the paranoia of Review and the Present Rap.
Though all of this would seem to be enough, every six months or so the Staff would up the ante and scour the group, including even upper-level Phasers, for those who were “Full of Shit” (phasers, who were not allowed to curse substituted the phrase “Full of it”). It’s a difficult thing to explain without sounding ridiculous, but it was not enough to simply follow all of the many rules in Straight and to yearn for a life of future sobriety and obedience to one’s parents’ every whim. Doing all of that alone was called “Going Through The Motions,” and it meant that one was indeed Full of Shit, and had better “Get Honest”. “Honesty,” in Straight did not refer to truth-telling. What was required was that one love Straight with all one heart, to find it faultless, and to harbor no secret criticisms or doubts about anything that its Staff said or did for any reason. To even have the opinion that a forbidden brand of clothing (including most types of shoes or boots) looked cool, was to be dangerously and treasonously Full of Shit. So much time in Straight was spent attempting to locate, scream at, humiliate, and break down those who were secretly or flagrantly Full of Shit that the specifics of how we were going to stay sober after we Graduated from Straight were seldom discussed.
This situation made for some trouble, especially considering that the rules of Straight changed all the time. During the time I was in the Atlanta Program, Straight chapters were being shut down all over the country, and Staff was doing everything it could to placate state investigators, while still keeping our Treatment as harsh as possible. When the Virginia chapter of Straight was shut down, its Phasers were shipped to the Atlanta Program where the rules were slightly different. Immediately, the Virginia Phasers began reporting and confronting the Phasers in the slightly-more-liberal (I guess “liberal” isn’t really the word for it) Atlanta program for being Full of Shit on multiple counts. In one extremely funny incident, a respected Fifth Phase girl in the Atlanta program who wore a type of black canvas shoe that was forbidden in the Virginia program was Reported to Staff for Confrontation. Soon both girls were crying their eyes out in front of the group until staff ruled that all black canvas shoes were now off-limits.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of Straight’s horrific treatment of human beings the ultimate question for many people is whether or not it “works”, rather than how inhumane it might be in practice. It did not keep me from drinking or smoking, and I imagine that a lot of the people in the program who sat, day in and day out listening to people telling them that they are doomed to be an “addict” for the rest of their lives were not less likely to indulge when they got out. One of the most cult-like aspects of Straight was the way most graduates ended up moving to Atlanta, becoming Straight Staff members, marrying other Straight graduates, and clinging desperately to the Program.
It should be kept in mind that only a minority of the people in Straight actually graduated. Most were “Withdrawn” in frustration by parents who had been laboring under the impression that Straight was indeed a “six to nine month treatment center,” (as they were told) rather than a year-and-a-half to two-and-a-half-year treatment center.
Even more cultish was the fact that “Withdrawls” were completely shunned by everyone in Straight, and were not even allowed to cross its property line. One could not speak to, telephone, or even mail a letter to even the parents or siblings of a Withdrawl. What you had then, was a bunch of kids being told over and over again that they were doomed to die without the Straight Group, pulled out it suddenly and forever separated from Straight, creating what seems like a pretty self-fulfilling prophecy of “Relapse”. When one kid in the Atlanta Program escaped and killed himself we were told, in essence, “See! That’s what happens to people who leave Straight!”
Another reason for Straight’s ineffectiveness, was the fact that Staff really knew next to nothing about our individual problems and histories, other than our “Drug Lists”. It was completely obvious that quite a few of the kids in Straight had hardcore mental problems (I think of the kid who carved “NWA” into the black of his hand in inch-wide, three-inch- long letters, or the “Misbehaver” boy who made himself throw up on people). The diagnosis that I’d received months earlier at the psych ward and the anti-depressant, and antipsychotic medication I had been prescribed there were completely ignored by Staff. Straight failed utterly in dealing with the psychological or long-term family problems that had caused everyone in the Program to use drugs in the first place. Their obsession was with our loyalty to The Program, not our long term sobriety, as evinced by the songs we had to sing after each Rap Sessions, including such hymns to the great god Straight as “You Can Be Straight,” “I am Straight,” and (I’m not making this up), “When the Straights Go Marching In”.
Also, as anyone in Narcotics Anonymous will tell you, it is ultimately impossible to browbeat a person into believing that they are an addict. It is a purely personal decision that must be made after one “hits bottom,” from their continual drug or alcohol abuse, a process that can take decades for some. Straight tried to streamline and speed up this process, but Phasers weren’t suffering on account of their drug use, or Behavior Problems, or Eating Disorders; they were suffering from Straight. As a result, they were shell-shocked into a temporary compliance by The Program. When the Program was taken away from their lives most of them very likely went back to whatever got them there in the first place, I know I eventually did.
The day my Father pulled me out of Atlanta Straight, I remember passing by a Staff Member named Josh Markham (fuck you, wherever you are) in the building’s front lobby. “Hope ya stay sober!”, he smirked. As it turned out I stayed sober for an additional year and a half, but the experience was so little fun that I may as well have been shooting crystal meth. As relieved as I was to be out of Straight, I felt overwhelming guilt about it, though I had no control over the situation of my being Withdrawn from the Program. My emotions were totally pureed, and though I hate weeping I was doing it all the time, out of the habit I’d picked up in Straight. After having zero privacy for the last two years I couldn’t deal with being alone, but I didn’t know how to talk to people in the outside world either. Everyone seemed “Full of Shit,” particularly my parents and classmates. I was also a full year behind in school as a result of Straight.
Though my Mother and Father had grown to despise Straight, they were not exactly sympathetic about my problems. They had failed to meet even the bare minimum “Parent Group” attendance requirements, so they didn’t know how long it took most people to finish the Program. As I was forbidden to talk about anything that went on in Group (and was too freaked out to talk about it after I got out), they knew little about what I’d been through for the past two years. My Dad was as pissed off at me for not Graduating as he was at Straight for ripping him off. As a result he sent me back to my Mother’s house where all my Behavior Problems had started in the first place. My Mother, though somehow holding down a job as a schoolteacher, was as loony as ever and she and her husband were at each other’s throats as much as they had been three years before. She had a bad feeling that something weird had happened to me in Straight, and after a while she decided that she knew what it was: I had turned gay! Though I was then abstaining completely from drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, and was making higher grades than I had since Kindergarten, the fact that I’d gone back to listening to Black Flag and wearing funny clothes meant that I was headed back down the path of Baal, a not uncommon view in small town North Carolina in 1991. She told me to pack my bags on my 18th birthday, so in the next five years I did as many drugs as I could stuff down my gullet.
Nowadays my life is more stable than it has ever been since I’ve been alive, though that’s not saying much. I’ve still got problems at 31, but I’ve finished my Associates, and two Bachelor’s degrees and I have almost completed my Masters in English (yeah I know this thing is full of typos, I’m tired). Straight succeeded only at making me an angrier, and less patient person. I don’t think things between my parents and I will ever be the same again either. My Dad used up so much money keeping me in Straight that he told me he couldn’t afford to buy me a car, or send me to college.
STRAIGHT INC.--SURVIVOR STATEMENT #1
(removed at author's request--May 25th, 2010)
(removed at author's request--May 25th, 2010)
Straight Inc.--Survivor Statement #2
DECLARATION UNDER PENALTY OF PERJURY
PURSUANT TO 28 USCA 1746
I, Amy Hall, declare and state as follows:
1. Straight Inc.
2. Chesapeake, VA
3. 02/90 – 05/90
4. My parents placed me in Straight when I was 15 years old. I had experimented with alcohol and marijuana but most definitely did not have a drug problem. I was, however, a rebellious child. My family was somewhat dysfunctional and my father could be abusive at times. I admit that I had anger issues, but I was not an out of control teenager. At the time, my father was involved in a parents support group called GRIP (Greater Richmond Informed Parents) and the director (?) of the program, Gordon Pryor, was a huge advocate of Straight Inc. One night I came home from a friends house and my family was waiting for me. I was told by my father that he was taking me to be evaluated at Straight in the morning. I didn’t know anything about the program so I agreed to the evaluation. Since I didn’t have a drug problem, I saw no reason to be worried.
When we arrived at Straight the next morning, I was taken to a room and my parents were taken to another room somewhere else. There was a girl about my age in the room with me. She started asking me questions about my drug use and sexual history. I told her that I’d drank a few times, tried pot and had only sex with my boyfriend. She called me a liar. Another girl came in and the first girl told her what I’d said and they both laughed and said they knew I was a druggie whore who slept with guys to get drugs. I told them I’d never done anything like that and they just laughed at me. This went on for about 4 hours. Finally, they took me to the room where my parents were and my dad told me that I wouldn’t be coming home. He said he was disappointed in me for the things I’d done and that I needed help. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I started crying and I tried to tell him that I hadn’t done anything. The girls grabbed me and took me out of the room.
I was taken to the bathroom where I was strip searched. I think there were about 4 or 5 girls with me at the time. I didn’t want to strip, but they made me. My clothes and body were searched for drugs. I was crying and telling them that I didn’t have drugs on me, but they just laughed. They pinched me and poked me while I stood there naked and crying. Finally, I was allowed to put my clothes back on and they took me to introduce me to the group. At that point, I think I was in a state of shock because I barely remember the rest of that day. I think the rules were explained to me at some point. I remember seeing the kids in group waving their arms around like they were having some kind of fit and I was told that they were “motivating”. Kids were stood up and screamed at for things I couldn’t understand. Kids stood up and shared things about their past drug use or sexual history. I remember thinking that I’d been put into an insane asylum.
While at Straight, I never made it off first phase. We spent 12 hours a day in group. I always had an oldcomer holding me by the back of my pants (beltlooping) and I never got to shower or use the bathroom alone. Almost every day for the first month, I was stood up in group and screamed at for hours because I wasn’t motivating hard enough, or because I was still “lying” about my drug use. When I refused to sit with my hands flat on my legs, members on either side of me would force me to and when I fought them, I was restrained by 4 or 5 of them. Restraining involved being thrown on the floor and either being sat on by other members or being held in the “hog tie” position with my arms and legs being held, almost touching, behind my back. Sometimes, another member would hold my chin and lift my head up so that I had to look at the person screaming at me. There were at least 3 times that the oldcomer holding my head would suddenly let go, causing my face and chin to slam into the concrete floor. This left bruises all over my jaw and chin. Once I was sat over on the guys side to be restrained by the guys because I had hurt the girls around me. They guys were bigger than me and easily overpowered me. They were also more brutal.
Each day at Straight I became more and more depressed. There are some days that I honestly don’t remember, either because I have blocked things out or maybe I was just so depressed I had begun to disassociate myself from what was happening. One night, I managed to drink about a quarter of a bottle of Windex at my host home, in hopes that I would either die or get sent to the hospital. When my oldcomer saw what I was doing, she told her mother and I was kept awake all night as punishment. I think I was sick for about a week, but I was never once, taken to a doctor.
I think it was my second month at Straight when I tried to run. It was early morning and we were in the kitchen in the host home getting ready to leave. My oldcomers mother had left the front door slightly open so I ran. My oldcomer caught up with me in the yard and grabbed my shirt. I managed to get my shirt off and I almost made it to the road when she grabbed the back of my bra. It broke and I continued to run, half naked into the street. By then, my oldcomer and her parents tackled me and drug me back to the house. Neighbors had come out of their house to see what was going on. I can only imagine what they thought when they saw me being dragged half naked back into the house kicking and screaming.
That day in group was hell but also a turning point. I couldn’t fight them anymore. I accepted that I was never getting out and I needed to “get with the program”. After a few days, I began motivating as hard or harder than the others around me. I admitted that I was an addict and that I would die if I left Straight. I had given up and in a sense I felt relief. I realize now, that was part of the brainwashing process. I had come to think the way THEY wanted me to think. I was a worthless druggie and deserved what I got. I stood up in group one day and shared my guilt and humiliation over trying to run away. At the time, I was humiliated. I actually felt guilt for trying to leave when they were trying to desperately to save me. I shared my guilt and shame over my past druggie ways. That day, after I shared, I was hugged for the first time in 2 months. I never got to the point where I could yell at other newcomers though. I still felt compassion for what they were going through. Because of this, I never made it to second phase.
Sometime in May, just before the Friday night open meeting, I was approached by an oldcomer who told me that my parents were there to bring me home. I was being withdrawn from the program. I didn’t believe them at first. I thought it was a test. She grabbed me by my beltloop and took me to where my parents were. I hadn’t seen them in almost 4 months. When I saw them, I immediately started crying. I didn’t know what to think. I wanted to leave, but I was afraid to go. Part of me did not want to leave because I didn’t want to go back to being a druggie whore, even though somewhere in my mind, I knew I never was one to begin with.
When I got home, my parents told me that I needed to attend A.A. or N.A. meetings. I had to do a 90 in 90, meaning, I had to go to a meeting every day for 90 days. My parents still believed, thanks to Straight, that I was a druggie. I went to A.A. for awhile. I stayed clean for 9 months despite the constant anxiety and depression I was trying to deal with on my own. My parents refused to let me talk about Straight and when I did, they denied that I suffered any abuse. They withdrew me from the program when Straight personnel tried to dictate how my parents lived their lives.
It has been 18 years since I was in Straight. For a long time, I tried to forget about my experiences there and for awhile I succeeded. A few days ago, I ran across a video on Youtube that showed a program that looked just like Straight. I did more research and found that the center is actually based on the Straight model. The institution is called Pathway Family Center. When I watched the video, I was a terrified 15 year old again for a moment. Memories of Straight came rushing back over me like a tidal wave. Since then, I have been on every website I can find, posting my story and finding other stories just like mine, warning parents that these places are evil. Abuse disguised as treatment cannot be condoned under any circumstance. Our children deserve better than that.
I give HEAL permission to use this statement. I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on October 21, 2008.
SPECIAL NOTE: STATUTE DOES
NOT REQUIRE NOTARY]
Teen Challenge Survivor Statement #1
DECLARATION UNDER PENALTY OF PERJURY
PURSUANT TO 28 USCA 1746
I, Joseph V. Agrifolio , declare and state as follows:
1. Teen Challenge
2. Sanford, Florida
3. January 2004 through August 2004
4. Teen Challenge professes to be a Christian Program that helps with life controlling issues such as drugs and alcohol addiction. The program is allegedly a not for profit agency affiliated with the Assemblies of God Churches. In actuality, this program is a work camp that forces clients to work 8 – 10 hour days in ways that are not helpful to them and not always legal. Residents are frequently outsourced for jobs with local companies to earn money for the organization. They are often reduced, in exchange for 1 – 2 hours of Bible study, 1 hour of unprofessional counseling per week and room and board, to beggars taking up collections on street corners for profit, or setting up carwashes in department store parking lots for profit.
Clients without driver’s licenses drive vans full of other workers to and from these money-making ventures. In Sanford in 2004, two workers were killed on the interstate in an auto accident. The van had two faulty tires, no brake lights and an unlicensed driver. Teen Challenge was sued by the families of the victims and the case was settled out of court.
I myself, a convicted drug abuser, was assigned a job as Medical Coordinator in Sanford, dispensing medications to other residents. Not only was that illegal, it was dangerous to both me and the other clients. Any competent and respectable rehabilitation organization should have more appropriate policies and procedures in place and practice.
Also in Sanford, convicted felons working at outsourced jobs were directed to get clients’ credit card numbers over the phone. When it came to light, the customers became very angry that convicted felons had access to their credit card numbers and got the courts involved. In reality, people trying to get their lives together should not be spending their time performing illegal activities for Teen Challenge or its clients. Teen Challenge workers were as much victims as the customers.
The director of the program was re-assigned out of state when the Sanford Teen Challenge came under legal and financial scrutiny. Despite legal, moral, ethical and financial issues, Teen Challenge quickly ushered in a new Director where it continued business-as-usual.
At best, Teen Challenge is a human-trafficking operation that takes advantage of people’s problems, holds clients captive and uses them as commodities for its own gain. It forces them to work long hours only for the monetary benefit of the program and its administrators. At its worst, it is a brainwashing cult. It complicates problems and turns out robots that have problems making educated informed decisions for themselves. Despite the statistics it spouts out, Teen Challenge has no success rate. Prison or county jails are better alternatives than places like Teen Challenge.
I give HEAL permission to use this statement. I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on _January 14, 2009.
Joseph V. Agrifolio
Joseph V. Agrifolio
firstname.lastname@example.org SPECIAL NOTE: STATUTE
DOES NOT REQUIRE NOTARY
DECLARATION UNDER PENALTY OF PERJURY
PURSUANT TO 28 USCA 1746
I, Vaughn Mario Di Frisco_____ [NAME OF DECLARANT]_____________, declare and state as follows:
1. [Teen Challenge InternationalNAME OF PROGRAM]..
2. [Sanford, FloridaLOCATION OF PROGRAM]
3. [Hired: 2-19-07 Fired: 8-18-08 PERIOD OF INTERNMENT MM/YY TO MM/YY]
4. [Attached or already sent DECLARATIVE STATEMENT]
TEEN CHALLENGE INTERNATIONAL FLORIDA HEADQUARTERS
I give HEAL permission to use this statement. I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on March 11, 2009.
Vaughn Mario Di Frisco
17 Santiago Road Debary Florida 32713
[NAME OF DECLARANT]
SPECIAL NOTE: STATUTE DOES
NOT REQUIRE NOTARY]
If you would like to submit your statement about Teen Challenge, Straight, Inc., AARC, or any other Straight, Inc. Spin-off (i.e. KIDS of NJ), please e-mail us for information.
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