Jennifer Bliss, Straight, 85-86
Melissa Gypsy Ganz, Straight 1989-1990
I was sent to Straight Inc. in December of 1989, just barely a month after witnessing my boyfriend shoot himself in the head while smiling at me. My parents were convinced I needed a drug rehab, though I experimented at most back then. I was interviewed, strip searched and brought into group. The first two open meetings I remember like it was yesterday.. Exposing embarrassing and traumatic moments of my life.. The first night, was recollecting the night I overdosed on Xanax not long after my boyfriend had died.. The second was the incident itself... I guess I was hoping someone would see the cries for help, but they fell on deaf ears..
the two strongest memories I have of that place was, the days when the pain of being there got so bad, I'd gouge in my arms with my fingernails. It was never a clean cut, so I'd have to dig in the same spot over and over again to draw blood.. I still recall the day I was caught. I was still in the front row of chairs, and I got called on to talk.. I stood up, and heard a few gasps behind me. I continued talking while a girl was trying to stop the blood that was running down my arm. All they ended up doing was a girl on each side of me holding my arms.. I'd fight, and they'd restrain me.. often.. one girl for each limb and one holding my head.. A couple times it was more depending on how hard I fought them. I remember going to the ER once because one girl punched me in the face because I must have hit her at some point when I was being put to the floor.
Another time, I was in group. and realized I had started menstruating. I put my hand out repeatedly only to be ignored. I don't know how long I sat there, but I know it was long enough that the chair and my jeans were completely soaked in blood before they even considered bringing me to the bathroom.
I remember one day coming back from t&r (the stage you earn.. called talk and responsibilities) and found many in group crying. I learned someone I cared about had a razor and slit his wrist in group.
A news crew was there for a couple of days. The clients that staff didn't trust to be on their best behavior were brought into the carpet room so we couldn't talk to them.
For the short time I did make second phase and was allowed to go back to my house, I remember freaking out when I saw all the new locks, and the alarms on my windows and my door.. I tried talking to my parents, but before I could say too much I got pulled away by a third phaser that was at the house with me. Another night at my house, I remember confronting a newcomer. Telling her she had crocodile tears, and I wouldn't let up. I drilled into her for hours. That night while I slept, she broke the light bulb on the night light in my room and slit her wrist.. She eventually was sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Not long after reaching second phase, I had a dentist appointment. Before leaving my house, I knew I was going to run. My Mom even tried to grab me by the belt loop. My Dad shows up and brings me back to the house.. Finally I'm able to tell him everything that goes on in that warehouse.. He calls Straight and tells them I won't be coming back.. Straight agrees but asks that we go in one more time for an exit interview.. I should have known.. Next thing I know my parents come out of a room and yell at me for "manipulating" them, and back into group i go. From that point on, I didn't follow the program. I was a misbehavor.. most of the time we were put in a small room they called the infirmary so we couldn't disrupt the rest of the group. I learned they had tried getting a court order for me to stay... when that didn't pan out, they were planning to transfer me to the program because I was turning 18 within a week. That was until, my father went into the building demanding he see me... I guess he raised enough hell, one of staff said "you wanna see your daughter? she'll be at the back door" I walked outside almost in shock, to see my Mom and Dad standing there, ready to take me home for good.
I'll admit though, I didn't trust them.. I kept waiting to wake up one morning to see (again) five or six host fathers standing around my bed, ready to drag me back to hell.
Rebecca Labb, Stoughten, MA Straight, 1986 (written by Rebecca for a class 07/21/09 - The character Charlene, is Rebecca)
Escape From Straight
Charlene was acutely aware of the repetitive jingle of her father’s keys. He must be nervous, she thought, as they walked without speaking toward the front door of the one story cinderblock building. She glanced at her mother, noticing how serious she looked with her dark framed glasses and pursed lips. Neither of them would look at her and she slackened her pace just a bit so they would have to enter the building first.
Charlene wasn’t sure what to expect here. Her parents thought she was hanging with a bad crowd and doing drugs. It was true she was hanging with some tough characters, but Charlene didn’t indulge in drugs, except for a little experimentation. She didn’t even drink, which only showed how little her parents knew about her. She shuffled behind them feeling smug knowing she was once again right, and anxious about the strangers who were about to judge her.
Charlene’s mother clutched her pocketbook to her side and waited for her husband to pull open the glass door. “C’mon Charlene, pick up the pace.” She quipped, glancing briefly at her daughter.
“Geez Mom, relax! I’m right here!” Her daughter snarled back at her. God, she just couldn’t stand the snippy tone of voice Charlene used. She knew her husband thought Charlene was the reason why their marriage was falling apart. Of course this was ridiculous; she had taken enough psychology courses at the university to know that much. But he continued to make a point of focusing his angry attention on Charlene. Whenever she defended Charlene, she and her husband would end up fighting. She would have never come to the conclusion that Charlene was a druggie, but really, what did she know? Almost nothing about drugs. Charlene had fooled her so many times before, it was best to just agree with him and keep the peace.
Keeping the peace… that is what her life revolved around with this man. It seemed like all her energy was spent deflecting his anger away from the children. Two weeks earlier he had insisted they put her in a drug rehab to “straighten her ass out” and she had dutifully researched the ones in New England finally settling on one that seemed reputable. At least it would get Charlene out of the house and away from him for awhile. It wasn’t cheap but since she was still seventeen, their insurance would pay for it.
She followed her husband through the door and held it open for Charlene. She hated how her daughter looked with her hair cut short and dyed an artificial boysenberry color. The black leather jacket she wore, even in the summer, was also an indication that somehow her baby had lost her way. She knew Charlene suffered the wrath of her father’s temper more than the other children, but there was nothing she could do about it. His new accusation of drug abuse at first seemed absurd, but now it almost made sense. Why else would she look like she belonged in a street gang? She shuddered at the thought of her little girl in a knife fight or snorting white powder off a mirror at a party. Those things didn’t just happen on TV. She resolved to stand united with her husband to save her child’s life.
The cheap mottled brown carpet showed signs of wear from the door to the front of the receptionist’s window. The walls were bare except for the sign hanging above her window, which read Straight Inc. in black lettering. Charlene’s father looked around at the waiting room, suddenly uneasy about the stark surroundings and the decision he had made to bring her here. “Who recommended this place?” he hissed at his wife. She ignored him and he took a seat on one of the four plastic chairs – the only furniture in the room. He jingled the keys in his pocket again and stared at his shoes, purposely avoiding eye contact with his daughter.
“Name?” The woman behind the glass asked in exasperated tone, as if she had been doing nothing but fielding customer complaints all day.
“Epstein. Um, for Charlene Epstein – a nine o’clock appointment.” Charlene’s mother responded.
“Have a seat; someone will be with you shortly.” She said in a perfectly monotone voice.
“Dave, your nine o’clock is here.” They heard her say into the telephone.
Charlene stood at the glass door looking out at the parking lot while her parents sat in the uncomfortable looking chairs. She had no idea what town they were in or even what state for that matter. She hadn’t really paid attention on the hour and a half drive it took to get there. She could see her parents in the reflection of the glass, stealing glances at her. They both looked anxious.
The intake counselor opened the door to the waiting room and strode forward with confidence extending his hand to Charlene’s father. “Hi there, I’m Dave. Welcome to Straight.” He quickly took inventory of the family in front of him. Typical, he mused - fidgety mother, father that looked like he could be a tyrant and a girl who tried to look tough and nonchalant. “Come right in.” He said after shaking hands with the parents and ignoring the girl. He ushered them into a small hallway. As if on cue the door at the other end opened and another counselor approached them. “This here is Tim” Dave said. “If you folks will kindly follow him he will give you all the details of the program.” Tim smiled and motioned them forward.
Dave tapped Charlene on the shoulder. “Uh-uh, not you Charlene, you can follow me; we’re going to get to know you a little better.” He secretly liked this part, the very beginning - when the child’s eyes flashed fear at the initial separation from their parents.
Charlene followed him into a little room that only accommodated a desk and two chairs. She sat down and waited while Dave shuffled through his folder of papers. “Ah, okay… let’s begin with why your parents are so concerned about you.” She had already decided to just be completely honest with these people so they could, in turn, tell her parents they had nothing to worry about – she wasn’t a druggie. “Well,” she began, “my parents think I have a problem with drugs.” She laughed aloud, partly from nervousness, partly from how ridiculous that statement sounded to her. “You’re laughing” Dave responded dryly, “why is that Charlene?”
“Because I don’t do drugs and I find it funny that they’ve spent all this time focusing on a problem that doesn’t exist.”
“Really? So you’ve never tried any drugs?” he asked.
This was the part that she knew would vindicate her – she was sure that the truth would set her free. “Sure I’ve tried a few things, just out of curiosity, but I don’t do them.”
“Ah-ha, I see.” He said in a patronizing tone. “Well, could you just write down, on this piece of paper, what drugs you have tried and how many times you have tried them?” He slid a piece of paper and a pencil over to her.
“Sure.” She replied. She listed them: Pot – three times, mushrooms – once, Vicodin –once. She slid the paper back across the desk to him.
“Great. Thanks. Just wait here for a few minutes.” He said and got up and left.
An hour passed before he returned. “Okay Charlene, you’re going to be staying with us for a little while, so please follow me.”
“What?” she asked incredulously. He ignored her. “What are you talking about? I’m not staying here.” She said, her voice rising in panic. “Where are my parents? Where are they?” She demanded.
“Your parents already left. They are very concerned for your safety. C’mon, follow me – I’ll introduce you to the rest of the gang.”
Charlene’s head was spinning. Suddenly she felt very alone, she couldn’t believe her parents had left her there. She wanted to cry. Dave led her into a room where six girls around her own age stood with folded arms, waiting for her. He shoved her in and closed the door. One of the girls stepped forward. “Hi Charlene, I’m Lisa. I’m an oldcomer and you’re a newcomer so to make things easier on yourself just do what I tell you.” Charlene immediately bolted for the door, but the other girls blocked her path. “Drug test first,” Lisa said motioning to a toilet against the wall, completely open to the rest of the room. “I don’t have to go.” Charlene said defiantly. “We don’t leave this room ‘til you do.” She responded.
Immediately all six girls circled around her. They pushed her to the floor. Three of them held her down while Lisa held a jug of water over her face and poured it down her throat. Charlene gagged and choked, swallowing some but mostly spitting it back up as she coughed. When the plastic jug was empty, they released her but remained in a menacing circle around her. As a group they nudged her with their legs in the direction of the toilet until she was on the floor directly in front of it. They remained stone-faced with folded arms, encircling her. Lisa nodded to her “Go now.” She commanded. Charlene could feel her face flush in humiliation as she unbuttoned her jeans. She sat on the toilet and cried while the girls watched her urinate.
The next twelve hours were a blur of lost freedoms. They removed her watch, jewelry, belt and shoelaces. Those items were privileges that she would have to earn back. They scrubbed her face of all make-up and informed her that she was forbidden to make eye contact with any boys in the program. Charlene followed them from room to room in a daze while they participated in various classes. There were always two girls firmly holding the belt loops on her jeans, restraining her freedom of movement. They watched her when she went to the bathroom again. Privacy was also a privilege to be earned.
That night she was put in a station wagon with four other girls, one of which was Lisa. Lisa’s parents were program sponsors and apparently took some of the girls back to their home each night after their long day of rehab. The doors to the station wagon did not open from the inside, preventing Charlene from jumping out at a stop sign. Lisa leaned over and grinned. “Our house is like that too, all the doors are locked by key on the inside so don’t even bother.”
When they got to Lisa’s house the girls immediately helped themselves to large bowls of chocolate ice cream. Charlene hadn’t been offered food all day, and she wasn’t being offered any then. Hungry and tired she waited for them to finish. They eventually brought her upstairs to Lisa’s bedroom where mattresses crowded the floor. The made Charlene take off her shoes, socks, bra and jeans and tossed them into the hallway. Lisa pushed her mattress up against the bedroom door and turned out the light.
Charlene awoke before the other girls. It was barely light out. She crept toward the second story window which was blocked by a sleeping girl with long dark hair. She had to step on the girl’s hair to get close enough to raise the screen. She climbed up onto the window ledge as quietly as possible. Lowering herself, she hung from the sill by her fingers, wearing nothing but a tank top and underwear. It was cold and raining. She knew she didn’t have the strength to hold on much longer, but she was terrified of the drop below. She heard a voice scream “Daddy!” and instantly she pictured Lisa waking to see her empty mattress and the open window. Charlene released her grip on the sill and dropped to the ground, barely noticing the pain in her feet. She ran across the front lawn and into the woods across the road.
Brambles tore at her legs and the rough terrain ravaged her bare feet but she didn’t slow her pace until she was deep in the woods and found herself in the middle of a swamp. She stopped to catch her breath. Cold, wet, hungry and in pain, she turned her face up to the gray clouds and sobbed. Her body shook as tears of triumphant joy escaped and a wave of relief swept through her.
 “Straight is not a health care organization. It is a business posing as a health care organization and as a result hundreds of kids have been hurt. All of the business operations consist of fraud, double and triple billing of health insurance companies at the same time and they bill government grants while telling parents they’re not the recipients of any kinds of government money.”
--Janet Kennedy, Ph.D. Pharmacy, MS, Hospital Administration, of Austin, Texas after a private, three-year investigation of Straight, Inc. [Channel 12, Eye of Tampa Bay Show,1992]
 “So we were very concerned about a program which we looked at as being something of a private jail, utilizing techniques of torture and punishment which even a convicted criminal wouldn’t be subject to…and I use their terminology—restraint techniques, it would be our terminology that it was child abuse and torture—directed by Miller Newton.”--David Levin, formerly assistant state attorney for Sarasota, Florida – commenting on Straight, Inc.-Sarasota which closed facing numerous possible criminal indictments. One allegation was making kids clean toilets with their bare hands.
 “They run really close to performing psychic murder.”“…a concentration camp for throwaway kids.”--Marge Robertson, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Chapter of the ACLU, speaking to the Cincinnati Post about Straight, Inc.
 “Straight represents one of the worst excesses created by the drug war environment, where an ‘anything goes’ kind of tolerance toward drug users prevails. It is a cult –plain and simple – of people who seize on parent’s frustrations with their youngsters and then subject the kids to torture and brainwashing to make them obedient and drug-free.” --Dr. Arnold Trebach, attorney, author, professor emeritus of criminal justice at American University, and founder of the Drug Policy Foundation
 “The violations that we found when we investigated were overwhelmingly of violations of civil rights and safety and health and people being held against their will, sleep deprivation, restraint, seclusion, things like that.”--Bob Dickson, Commissioner of the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse; speaking on CBS’ West 57th Street, 1-21-89 and explaining why the state of Texas revoked the license for KIDS of El Paso, a Straight, Inc. descendent program.
 “Documentation on file indicates that there have been incident where children have been subjected to unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threat, mental abuse or other actions of a punitive nature, including…interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping or toileting, or withholding of medication.”--Letter dated June 27, 1990 from Fred Dumont, Santa Ana, California District Manager for the Department of Social Services to Straight, Inc. Nation Headquarters explaining why state authorities ordered the program closed in California.
 "The state does not sanction this in any way, shape or form. The state does not sanction the restraint of kids by other kids, the lack of privacy or the lack of visitation. Kids in detention center have more rights than kids coming into this program. People in jail do."-- Rik Pavlescak, HRS district director of substance abuse services, commenting on Growing Together, a Straight, Inc. descendent program founded by former Straight, Inc. training director, Dr. George Ross [Sun-Sentinel, 3-9-1990]
 "It amazes me that despite the pattern of complaints and abuse allegations, Straight chapters can simply change their names and continue to operate." “It's really shocking that the Semblers are still lauded and honored after all that's come out about their organization.” --Rick Ross, cult expert, intervention specialist.
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