Attempts to Turn Burnouts, Gangstas and Misfits into Dale Carnegie Through Scrubbing Floors, Wearing Diapers, and Sitting Motionless on a Bench for a Month

(And Where Are These People Today)

©2009 Kevin Heldman

This is the history of this story: 

It started as an article in my college newspaper in 1990 - - “Just Say No to Drug Rehabs ” - - which led to a bizarre booking on the John McLaughlin Show (screaming for no reason, bombastic talk show host) where I was slouched down in a chair between an expert reporter from Newsday (Dennis Duggan) and an expert from the New York Times (Michel Marriot) trying to explain that rehabs back then sometimes were way out of control; not good places (I was in two of them for two years as a teenager). Residents from the drug rehab Phoenix House (one of the places I was in) were bussed in as audience filler.  Their president, Dr. Mitch Rosenthal ( was the featured interviewee. Surprisingly he didn't seem to have a feel for what the hell goes on among residents in the basement of a treatment facility in a tenement in the Bronx.

A number of agents and editors encouraged me to write and rewrite and rewrite this story into a book proposal or a book - - Penguin, Sterling Lord Literistic, Seven Stories Press, The Karpfinger Agency.  All heavy hitters.  It was just too unwieldy a project for a new journalist and I gave up.

Eventually I got the story contracted by Rolling Stone (they were going to focus on John, a boy I was in with who masterminded an escape from prison and now is doing many years upstate).  I interviewed him for hours, reported the story but gave up and left to Texas for newspaper work.

In 2001 I was back in NY and I got the story under contract for Harper’s (different focus - - find the kids I was in with back then, see where they're at). I did. It was a good article I turned in.  In August of 2001, because they always do, the editor asked for more vague rewrites, more Red Bull, more 4 A.M.s, more print outs with marked up red ink (that's why we become teachers or Michael Finkel).

September of 2001 no one, self included, cared about rehab.  Sept 19, 2001 my wife, only real friend and family, was diagnosed with late stage cancer. The world fell apart. The editor left Harper’s, and I started working on ambulances.  


Edited and revised over 20 years, now finally over, here it is:

In 1982 I was 16 and I was very ordinarily destroying my life. Or my life was falling apart, depending on how you partition out the blame and responsibility. This should have been the standard story of the troubled adolescent whose problems either mostly dissipate by adulthood or fester throughout a lifetime.  But I got lucky, lucky because me and my dysfunction didn’t just hang out at home fighting with my parents. I propelled myself, and I got yanked, and I ended up with a whole new identity (that I’m just about done with).  I was placed in treatment, the system, institutions  -- you get a new life, a subculture, an enemy, war stories,  your problems get promoted from banality.  You get to hear people all day say “I’be dead or in jail if not for this place.” 

I came of age in something called the therapeutic community, the TC.  A TC is where I had to wear a diaper at 17-years-old. It’s where you called your fellow residents “Family;” where residents wore crocodile masks (for phony tears); where boys were dressed in women's clothing, in clown outfits, as hobos, superheroes and donkeys (required to say “hee-haw” before and after each time they spoke); where residents had to sit in a playpen all day wearing a pig nose.  

It’s where you have to dig your own grave outside, scrub the parking lot with a toothbrush, scrub the sun off the roof, wear cardboard penises around your neck for sexual acting out, wear tape on your mouth if you break a speaking ban. It's where you sit for 27 days straight in a fixed position on a wooden chair with a cut off back staring at “Our Philosophy.” It's where you’re made to eat buckets of baby food, where they shaved heads for rule breaking (it was toned down to a low crew cut when I got there and the girls had to wear stocking caps - - there’s the legendary TC story of how some girl committed suicide after a shaved head and they stopped it).  It’s where the entire Family sits silently in chairs all day for a week with pens and paper writing down our infractions ("copping to our guilt") being periodically threatened and screamed at by staff - - “Cop to it, cop to your guilt, clean your belly, do you have guilt? Guilt kills, have you accepted anyone's behavior? It all comes out in the wash, tell on yourself, tell on everyone else” -- while Billy Joel's Honesty played over and over.     

17 and trying to look cool as a ward of the state - - nowhere else to go and nothing else to do



Here We Go

TCs are 18 to 24 month "total institutions," constituted by complete isolation from the outside world and a psychologically rigged behaviorist environment designed to destroy the resident's old persona and replace it with their model. 

It all started with Synanon, the original therapeutic community founded in 1958. (at the heart of its program was something called, “The Game”). Although the term therapeutic community was used in England twelve years earlier to describe the democratic sharing of power between patients and staff in psychiatric hospitals. And researchers trace The Game back to 19th Century American communes). 

Synanon took the TC philosophy to an extreme (the outside world is a dangerous and contaminated place, no reason to return to it) and in the mid-Eighties descended into violence, bizarre behavior and illegality.  Its founder, the legendary Chuck Dederich -- was convicted of, among other things, placing a 4-foot rattlesnake in the mailbox of a lawyer who was litigating against them. (Matrix House, is another early TC that  disintegrated in 1973,  corruption and abuse in the house, it’s leader sent to federal prison).

The goal of the TC was to resocialize you, to make you excessively normal through a highly structured, Puritanical penitence system where labor was both salvation and punishment. Discipline was public, grossly exaggerated and intended to shame and ridicule and it came from both staff and your peers. TCs were 18 to 24 month programs constituted by complete isolation from the outside world, “unrelenting surveillance,” and intensive confrontation.

Sociologist Barry Sugarman writing on Daytop, an early TC, in 1974: “…the function of Daytop is to give residents a second chance to grow up…they are required to live under a regime of restrictions more appropriate to children or infants than to adults. And the rules under which they live are stated in absolute, harsh, black-and-white terms…indeed, the Daytop moral system is perhaps more rigidly fundamentalist than that of early childhood.”

In the 1983 book, The Untherapeutic Community: organizational behavior in a failed addiction program, researcher Robert Weppner cautions that the mechanisms of therapeutic communities can be “…considered by the naive observer inhumane treatment.”

From 1964 to 1971, according to the research literature, former Synanon residents and those familiar with Synanon founded the first generation of TCs: Phoenix House, Daytop Village, Odyssey House, and Samaritan House, among others. They all still exist today. These TCs spawned hundreds of other TCs over the years, each program putting their own twist on the concept. 

For over forty years TC researchers and residents and staff have been saying it’s one of the most effective forms of drug treatment and its saved lives. And for over forty years they’ve been saying we don’t do that anymore, we’re moving away from that -- trying to distinguish punishment from therapy, occasionally allowing intent to determine content.

Today, Therapeutic Communities of America, a trade organization, counts some 400 programs in their membership. The executive director, Dr. Linda Wolf –Jones, says there are many more TC or TC-like programs out there that are not members. There are countless out-patient programs, therapeutic schools, residential treatment facilities, Christian schools, wilderness programs, boot camps (especially for adolescents) that are either specifically or generally based on the TC model.

Classic TCs as I experienced them are just about gone these days; my generation was probably the last generation to experience them. 


School Nites Don’t Matter Anymore when you’re an Afterschool Special

At 16 I spent most school nights (once a substantial term in my life -- gifted program and all that -- at the time meaningless) lying in bed smoking weed out of a pipe carved from an apple, staying up to watch The Life of Riley at 4:30 am.

I'd wander around outside my high school wearing my sister’s bellbottoms and form fitting androgynous shirt getting high and trying with limited success to join the counterculture (that is to say, the boys who made bongs in shop class, rolled perfect joins in the wind with one hand, and took mescaline in the parking lot of the state psychiatric hospital to bug out).

Among a certain crowd back then being a burnout was an attractive position to aspire to; Leif Garret hair in front of vacant stoned eyes, hunched over in remedial classes wearing army field jackets. I thought being a loser was a beautiful thing.

I was failing most classes. I'd hitch back and forth on service roads and expressways just to pass the day. I was drinking extract (peppermint 98% alcohol) in between periods. I intentionally fasted for days at a time -- so bad that I would almost salivate when I saw food in the kitchen (and then do some more sit-ups); solicited lift me off my feet punches in my stomach from football linemen; was heavily in debt, betting on everything from handball games to tossing crumpled pieces of paper into wastebaskets.

About to lose my mind on an acid trip alone in my room. Puking up the gin and Thai stick into a Coin Prices magazine in the school library. Climbing head first into my window, a ski coat filled with seeds, stems, Ez-Widers, tin foil, baggies, screens and corn cob pipes while my mother pounded her fists on my back.

I wanted adventure: run off and join the circus, run off and become a burnout, run off and join a rehab. That was part of it. I also had no sense of a future, of going to college, driving a car, living a life. All this seemed inconceivable and no one told me otherwise. I saw myself doing nothing but spending the next forty years trapped in my room with my mother screaming outside (this is a bit realistic and a bit teenage fatalistic). Add in some anxiety, depression, self-hatred, anger. Very ordinary, but I was going to get out or kill myself trying. I started saying the hell with it, more and more, at each incremental stage chastising myself for not having the courage to really say the hell with it and then going a little further. 

Meetings with guidance counselors, school officials, psychologists, doctors -- somebody recommended putting me in CDC. 

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