When I was a kid, my mother locked me in a warehouse and left me there. For 16 months. Her husband had been beating and molesting me, but then I hit puberty and started fighting back ― and nobody wants to deal with a loud, angry teenager.
The warehouse was occupied by a “tough love” program called Straight Inc. Straight branded itself as a drug rehab for kids. The American Civil Liberties Union called it “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.” Straight opened in 1976 with a single facility in Florida; over the years it would branch out to include operations in California, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. My stint began in one of the more brutal branches in Springfield, Virginia; I finished my time in the Stoughton, Massachusetts, warehouse.
My story starts out like your standard Oprah guest’s: My father died when I was 1. My mother needed a place to live. She shacked up with a guy with a foxy accent and a home. The guy turned out to be a sadist, an alcoholic, a Chester the Molester who began abusing me when I was in first grade. Ho-hum almost, right?
Except then I turned 12, grew some balls, and got loud when he fucked with me. And then I turned 13, and he beat me into a corner while my mother stood and watched. And she didn’t move a muscle when I begged her for help. So I ran the hell away. I turned 14 in a homeless shelter for kids.
One month later, in 1985, with the Just Say No campaign in full swing, Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana visited a branch of Straight to witness the miracles being worked there with troubled teens. A distant relative saw the newscast and called my mother. The timing was handy, as my 30 days at the shelter were up and there weren’t any foster families lining up to take me in. Next thing you know, POOF! I’m being diagnosed as a drug addict (I’d smoked weed three times in my life at that point), cavity-searched by a teen male staff member, and steered, with a fist clenching the back of my waistband, into the never-ending warehouse room.
To lay eyes on the rows and rows and rows of chairs.
Chairs filled with rows and rows and rows of teenage bodies.
Bodies with arms in the air, hands whipping around, heads bashing and cracking, left, right, front, back.
I was shoved into the front seat of this agony carnival and left there to rot. I wouldn’t be allowed to speak to my mother for the next eight months. At month eight, I earned the right to a three-minute supervised “talk” with her, where I was only allowed to recite the party line: “I want to tell you about a druggie incident from my past” and “I’m sorry. I love you.”
I earned that right by finally (but falsely) confessing, to the hundreds of brainwashed Straight clients I was locked up with, that I had realized I was a true druggie scumbag. That I had made my stepfather molest and abuse me by being a flirtatious 6-year-old. That it was all my fault.
Those words ― “It’s all my fault” ― were a winning lottery ticket for my mother. *Ting!* She was off the hook. For 16 months, she wrote fat checks made out to Straight Inc., drawing from the Social Security funds I got after my father’s death.
For 16 months, I sat in that warehouse for 12, 15, 18 hours a day, motivating ― the head-whipping, arm-spinning Straight version of raising our hands ― and confessing to false sins.
Straight had a brilliant formula for getting us to believe we were addicts and admit to our misdeeds, whether we were one of the handful of kids who actually had a drug problem or one of the vast majority who had barely drank a beer.
Lock us in a building with no windows.
Beat the crap out of us verbally, physically and psychologically.
Make it clear the beatings won’t stop until we not only admit but believe we are evil druggies.
Show us the look, the behavior, the thoughts we need to adopt, in the form of kids who have earned what we most crave: tiny slivers of freedom, and eventually, release from the warehouse.
It’s a time-tested, proven method for behavior modification. A congressional investigation of The Seed, the program from which Straight Inc. was a spinoff, compared it to the brainwashing techniques used in Communist North Korean prisoner of war camps.
Straight used torture techniques taken right out of the POW handbook ― isolation, starvation, sleep deprivation, humiliation ― and updated them for American teenagers, giving them v. cute names. There was “the spanking machine,” where a string of kids lined up pubes-to-butt, spread their legs, and leaned forward, eagerly spanking the butt of the poor soul crawling through their parted knees. And “the peanut butter diet,” where an especially resistant kid would eat nothing but peanut butter, bread and a cup of water for weeks or months at a go. And the old reliable “spit therapy,” where kids took turns screaming insults, and hocking loogies into the designated victim’s face.
“Straight used torture techniques taken right out of the POW handbook ― isolation, starvation, sleep deprivation, humiliation ― and updated them for American teenagers, giving them v. cute names... 'the spanking machine'... 'the peanut butter diet'... 'spit therapy'...”
The initial indoctrination period was called “first phase,” and first phase was hell. We were trapped, and Straight made sure we knew it. Every time a first-phaser stood up or walked around, an “oldcomer” ― a kid who had made it to a higher phase by “admitting to their addiction” ― gripped a hand through their back belt loop and waistband, then pulled upward in a wedgie. This practice had multiple benefits. It was humiliating, it felt like sexual violation, and it prevented the first-phaser from running.
When a first-phaser got to go to the bathroom, an oldcomer stood 18 inches away and stared. If the first-phaser was being punished with “T.P. therapy,” they got three squares of toilet paper. Period. No matter what dropped into that toilet.
On first phase we spent every waking hour in the Straight warehouse, sitting in a blue plastic chair, motivating for the right to stand up and talk about what absolute demons we had been in the past. We did not have contact with our families. We were not allowed to speak without being told to speak. We were not allowed to read or listen to music or watch TV. Upper-phase guys guarded the doors and stood circling the guys’ side of the group; upper-phase girls stood flanking the girls’ side. They were angry layers of human barricade.
At night, we were put into empty rooms with locks and alarms on the outside of the doors and windows. These rooms were in the homes of upper-phasers; their brainwashed parents locked us in. When “60 Minutes” did an episode on Straight, a parent described the concern he had voiced to Straight staff: “What if my home were to ever, uh, catch on fire during the night?” He then gave staff’s canned response: “If your child was on the street, the child would die. In the case of a fire, the child would die. So you’re not any worse off.”
It took me 10 months to get off first phase. My first phase was considered short.
On Monday and Friday nights, we had marathon spit therapy sessions called “review.” That was when the real psychotic breaks took place. Kids who hadn’t yet “gotten honest with themselves about their addiction” were stood up in the middle of the seething mob and assaulted.
One after another, frenzied Straight kids ― whose loud anger at their parents had been bastardized into loud anger at their peers ― would lunge up into the victim’s face and scream and spit and tell the kid that they were hated by everyone they knew, that their being locked in Straight was proof. When one abuser finished and sat down, the victim stood still while the hundreds of peers around her started motivating, punching and smacking and slicing her with hands and arms and heads, until another got called on to give her more spit therapy.
If a kid tried to run or tried to sit down when they were being spit on or tried to cover their face or wouldn’t sing a Straight song or didn’t put their hands up to motivate or leaned back in their chair or spoke to the kid sitting next to them or didn’t look at the person speaking or did any of hundreds of other innocuous, vanilla, basic human things, they were slammed to the concrete floor and “sat on” by the biggest, meanest kids in the group. One big kid on each arm, another couple angry kids on the legs, a fifth brutal kid cramming the “misbehavor’s” skull down onto their lap. In one of the many, many lawsuits filed against Straight, a girl won a $37,500 settlement for, among other things, being “sat on” for 10 hours.
“When I got out of Straight and went back to my mother’s house, I was a decimated human. I was 15 and a half and ancient ― a brainwashed zombie, deeply believing the lies I’d been forced to tell about myself.”
For 16 months, I watched as Straight kids tried, and tried hard, to kill themselves. As the other kids laughed at their hand-carved, bleeding limbs. I never saw the sun. I never saw the moon. I never pet a dog. I never had a friend.
I’m not sure why Straight released me when it did. It certainly wasn’t pressure from my mother, who was delighted to have one less body in the house. I suspect it was a combination of mounting lawsuits and increasing negative press coverage. Straight needed to be slippery and lean in its later years, holding on to just a small number of lucrative clients, for when social service agencies compiled enough information to close one branch down, Straight had to be ready to pivot. Sometimes that meant shuttling kids to another building and calling it a new Straight. Other times it meant keeping the same kids, and the same staff, in the same building, but giving the program a brand-new name. The last Straight was closed in 1993, but copycat programs live on.
When I got out of Straight and went back to my mother’s house, I was a decimated human. I was 15 and a half and ancient ― a brainwashed zombie, deeply believing the lies I’d been forced to tell about myself. I returned to my “druggie high school” with all the trappings of being a religious cult freak: My mother’s to-the-ankle skirts. Enormous thrift store shirts. Haunted, staring eyes. Man, did I need a friend. Man, did I not find one.
I spent my nights and weekends at recovery meetings ― Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous ― swearing I was an addict, though I’d never done the drugs. The adults there were kind to me. A kindness you can’t imagine. They listened to me talk. They gave me store-brand cookies. They told me I could call them. Anytime, day or night. I finally had parents. Hundreds of them.
Then I got a miracle, in the form of a 10th-grade English teacher. Soft-spoken and blowsy, she was in love with the literature she taught us. She worshipped every one of our vocab words. And she saw something good in my writing. She read it, out loud, to the class … and the high school kids who laughed at me ― the jocks, the cheerleaders, the still-stoners ― they liked it. They asked to hear more of it. In English class, I was reborn. My writing would be my savior.
It took decades to scrape together the chutzpah to really write. The messages from Straight were concrete in my brain. I was a scumbag. I was hated. I wasn’t worth three squares of toilet paper. I moved away from my mother’s house as soon as I was able, but my mental health was a dumpster fire. I couldn’t hold a job. I couldn’t maintain a relationship. And they don’t give college scholarships for the sports I excelled in: getting taken advantage of by men and carrying a pitched desperation to die.
But I’m stubborn. And creative. I scraped through my 20s cleaning rich people’s toilets by day and disappearing into library books at night. For a stint, here and there, I got free therapy. Word by word, in books and in counselor’s offices, I pieced back together my soul.
At age 29, when I finally got to college, I shed my Straight-freak skin and turned human. Just like in that heavenly high school English class, during my classes at university, I had strong ideas. I had standout talents. I was seen as what I presented myself to be, instead of what sadistic observers told me I was. I started winning awards. I graduated with honors. I walked out with a spinal cord.
When I met my safe, kind husband, the concrete cracked and the Straight memories flooded in. Instead of drowning in them, I wrote about them. It took 10 years of obsessive writing ― 10 years of flashbacks and panic attacks and micro-breakdowns ― but in the end I had a manuscript. And then I had an agent. And then I had a book deal. Today I have two award-winning memoirs about my experience with Straight. They’re featured in big media. I now life-coach and speak to teens all over the world about how to power through hard times.
My mother is little more to me now than a number in my cellphone, a digital reminder of the narcissistic blame she puked at me in our final call. She paid Straight to disappear me. To break me. To cut off my balls. But I figured my shit out. I took all those beatings and morphed them into lessons. And words. And power to help other kids. I didn’t have much of a childhood, but you know that old saw, “Living well is the best revenge”? Today, revenge is mine. And damn, is that shit sweet.
Cyndy Etler is a teen life coach and author with two award-winning memoirs about her experience in Straight Inc. Her work has been featured on CNN, The Independent, The Progressive, She Knows, Jane Friedman, Vice, Bustle and CBS’s The Doctors. Visit her website for more info.