Editor’s note: Today Marcus Chatfield continues his series on Straight Inc., the involuntary treatment program for adolescents suspected of drug use that operated in several states between the 1970s and 1990s. Parts 1 and 2 of the series can be found here and here.
In Help at Any Cost (2006), Maia Szalavitz reveals some of the troubling history of coercive programs. The sub-title of her book is, “How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids,” and this is one of the hardest things for a survivor to describe – the deceit that protects abusive programs. Dr. Charles Huffine writes, “I cannot tell you how many youth I’ve been in contact with that do not tell their family about the painful aspects of their experiences for fear of making their family feel bad — though I can say they number in the majority. All too frequently, simply, they did not know they were abused, or worse, that the abuse was justified and necessary for them to ‘get better.’”
Tough-love programs often ritualize emotional testimonies and require testimony about conversion experiences as a prerequisite for release from treatment. Because there is no scientific evidence to validate the safety and efficacy of coercive methods, these anecdotes are the “hook” that this multi-billion dollar industry is built upon. Many victims of thought-reform treatments, like victims of domestic violence, will defend their captors as a self-protective survival response. Similar to abusive dynamics in families, when people are beaten down long enough they may believe it’s normal, deserved, and even good for them. As one former staff member of the program said to me recently, “at the time I graduated I was so duped into believing that I’d been helped, I couldn’t even begin to see the damage caused to me.”