With attorney general Jeff Sessions hellbent on a 1980s-style revival of drug war hits like lengthy mandatory sentences, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price dismissing evidence-based addiction medicine in favor of faith-based programs, it's only fair to wonder if old-school, harsh teen rehab is far behind.
Cyndy Etler's recently-published memoir, The Dead Inside, aims to remind parents and young people of the irreversible harm this approach can cause. Though she'd only smoked marijuana three times, her mother placed her in a notorious program called Straight, Incorporated, in 1985—when she was 14—after hearing praise for it from Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana. She was there for 16 months.
At its peak, Straight "treated" some 50,000 American teens, and spin-off programs operated until at least 2009. They relied principally on a hideous form of attack therapy, aimed at breaking youth psychologically through constant verbal—and sometimes physical—assaults. As a result, many developed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, dozens committed suicide, and some became addicted to cocaine and heroin despite often only having used marijuana and alcohol before entering the program.
While "troubled teen" programs and "emotional growth" or "therapeutic boarding schools" that use similar tactics took a big hit following media exposes, survivor stories and the crash of 2008, with economic growth returning, there are murmurs in addiction recovery circles of a revival, buoyed by fears of a newly-ascendant drug warrior crowd in DC. VICE spoke to Etler about her experience and why a return to "tough love" is not what teens need right now.
VICE: Why did you get sent to Straight in the first place?
Cyndy Etler: The short version is my mother's husband was sexually abusing me from an early age. When I hit puberty, I started fighting back—I ran away. I was homeless for a month in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which is a danger zone. It was the best month of my childhood.
The shelter where I stayed was fantastic—but I could only stay there for 30 days. On day 28, Nancy Reagan and Princess Di visited this place, Straight, Incorporated in Springfield, Virginia. A relative saw it on the news and called my mother and said this is where Cyndy belongs, and boom.
I had literally tried smoking pot three times.
So what happened when you first arrived?
I was in the intake room for a long time and then strip-searched—like cavity-searched by a guy—before I went into the group room. Then, they opened the door into this warehouse.... There's really nothing to compare this to.
I was walked into the back of the room and it's hundreds of bodies in rows of chairs. And they've got their arms up above their heads and they're bashing their heads around and arms clicking as they hit other kids in the head. This sound, there's no way to duplicate this sound. It's like somebody shushing and spit pouring out.
Did you feel like you had been put into a cult?
At the time, it was such shell shock that… it was just like my bowels froze, my brain froze. Somebody's hand was in the back of my pants pulling it up into my recently violated [genital area]. There's no way to prepare yourself for that assault on every level, especially as a child.
What was the worst part of it for you?
It was [what they called] "review." Standing up, surrounded, trapped by the bodies of hundreds of kids who hate you. Their entire existence depends on slaughtering you psychologically. You're getting hit in the boobs. You're getting hit in the butt by these arms, slapping around, hitting you—and their goal is to get called on to stand up and scream in your face and spit on you.
I think the worst of it was, if you're in jail, if you're in the military, if you are a prisoner of war, you have allies. In this situation, for the entire 16 months, I didn't have a friend. Everybody was out to get me every second of every day.
Because in order to advance in the program, you had to show that you were compliant with the rules by enthusiastically attacking the other kids?
Yeah. You kind of had to and I guess I did—but I'm not that personality. I just sat there.
So what did you do to "advance" towards graduation?
I think what got me—and this is just heartbreaking—but what I think finally won me enough brownie points to not be the one "stood up" in every single review was when I confessed that I had made my step-father molest me.
It's hard to imagine now that anyone could have ever thought that was a good idea, but in these programs, the idea is that everything that happens to you is your fault and you have to "take responsibility" for it, even if it is something like being molested by a pedophile. So you felt like you had to confess that you had led him on?
It's bizarre, right?
Finally, when you are 15, they let you go home. And you are back in high school and back with your mom and the guy who's abusing you?
[My mother] had filed for a divorce. By the time I got out, he was fresh out of the house. I suddenly was back at my druggie high school with these kids I hadn't seen for a year-and-a-half. I had the zombie eyes.
When you came out, did you believe that you really had a drug problem and that Straight had been good for you?
Yeah. I just went to AA meetings around the clock and they were good, kind adults, so I sort of got parented. The AA people were really kind to me.
A lot of program survivors I've spoken to comply at home for a few months—and then get farther into drugs than they ever were before. Did that happen to you?
No. Instead, I went into deep, deep, suicidal depression and then I just started screwing boys.
So what made you want to write this book? You did manage to complete high school and college and become a teacher, working with troubled youth—it was pretty well behind you, no?
When I was a little kid I wanted to be a writer. Other than having big boobs, the one thing I got praised for was my writing. I just love it. My drug is writing.
I tried multiple times—and I couldn't do it. When I met my husband and turned 30, I was in this weird place and then I did the compulsive reading about it and like, What the hell was this? I think then I kind of started in my brain to put it together.
When I really actually started writing this book, we moved down North Carolina. I started getting up at 4:30 in the morning and I started writing. It just tumbled out of me. I would bring it in to teach with and these kids who don't want to read, they hate reading, they're gangbangers. They loved it. I mean my students' fingerprints are all over this book.
So basically you really began processing it only when you started to write?
Yeah. I had to write this book to take people into it because when you experience reading this book, you are living that child's life—now you know what the fuck happened. I can't tell you what happened, but I can make you feel it. I never talked to a therapist about it because I didn't know how.
What would you say to parents right now who are concerned about their teens?
I got trained to be a teen life coach. The biggest takeaway for me was: Shut up and listen! That's what the kids need. We've got to take ourselves out of it. Listen and validate them and then help them figure out: What is it that you really want, and what are some other ways that you can reach that?
Learn more about The Dead Inside here.
Follow Maia Szalavitz on Twitter.