REHAB AS SKINNER BOX, BOYS TOWN AND HOGAN'S HEROES - - Attempts to Turn Burnouts, Gangstas and Misfits into Dale Carnegie Through Scrubbing Floors, Wearing Diapers, and Sitting Motionless on a Bench for a Month (A Memoir, sigh)


Reform School for the Work Boots and Denim Jacket Set

CDC was the Community Day Center, an intensive behavioral modification program for the troubled adolescents of the mostly white middle and working class suburbs. It was affiliated with Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center (think my mom liked the name).

CDC was founded in 1974 by Frank Robertson, one of the first graduates of a TC called Topic House, which in turn was founded by one of the first graduates of Daytop. CDC was a daycare model of a TC. Most of the staff were ex-addicts who came through programs, would scream like mad in your face and tell you war stories about their drug use that were part cautionary, part bravado as most of those don’t-be-like-me stories usually are.

Most of the boys were the type who wore beat up work boots, army jackets, denim jackets with Blue Oyster Cult painted on the back and a hooded sweatshirt underneath, listened to classic rock, hippie hobo. There were a few who were doing tough -- hair combed, thin leather jackets, work boots new and sturdy.

The girls mostly modeled themselves on Stevie Nicks, would make jokes about wanting to blow Charles Manson, wore feather or roach clip earrings, and bought pretty silver pipes in mall head shops. Or they wouldn’t pick their heads up or take the hair out of their face.

We all pretended at serious drug habits that we wouldn’t really have for another five or ten years and staff treated us accordingly. I was playing at being a drunk before I could even handle my alcohol. Weed, alcohol, acid, mescaline, PINS (Person in Need of Supervision) Petitions, cutting classes, cutting arms. 


 TC Life

Upon entering CDC you relinquished all contact with the outside world. Your room at home was "ripped" by a resident with status (an older resident who had earned rank) and he confiscated anything considered "negative.” (your No One Here Gets Out Alive Morrison bio, black lights, posters, concert t-shirts). You stayed indoors at the center until five each day cleaning, going to groups, going to tutors, reciting slogans, screaming and being screamed at, cleaning some more. 

The atmosphere was highly structured and the punishments and the rules excessive. At five your parents picked you up, brought you home and you stayed in the house. If, for example, you were to see someone you knew en route from the car to your front door and they said "Hi," you were to respond, "I'm in a drug rehab, I can't talk to you." If you said anything other than this, you had acquired "guilt" and you would have to “cop to it,” tell on yourself, or run the risk that someone else would, including your parents who were trained to respect the rules of the program. You were required to make daily lists of your own and other peoples’ guilt to hand in each week.

You couldn’t use the phone at home, couldn’t carry money, couldn’t walk to the mailbox to get the mail. Absolutely no contact with “old friends.”

In the facility you weren’t allowed to walk alone, curse, flirt with a girl (you had to cop to “acting off eyes”). Various residents were on bans with each other (even eye contact was prohibited). Unless you had the privilege to talk to another resident you had to ask an older member to monitor your conversation.

You were disciplined for talking negative, criticizing the program, “goofing on House lingo,” criticizing staff, reacting to criticism, leaning on a wall, putting your foot up, conspiring to have negative contracts with other members, telling war stories, touching a member of the opposite sex, breaking confidentiality, “getting inappropriate.”

If, for example, a resident cursed, another resident with status (an Expeditor, for example) would announce, “Hold it up,” and all movement and talking in the room would cease and all the windows would be closed (lest the people outside think we were crazy in there). The Expeditor would stand the resident across the room and at the top of his lungs would scream institutional slogans at him related to the particular program rule he broke. The rule breaker was careful not to react verbally or even facially under threat of further punishment. This is called a Blowaway and they went on all day. Residents with newly acquired status would practice their Blowaway techniques in empty rooms. 

Once a week you’d knock on a door.

(scream) "Who is it?"


(scream) "Wait."

You wait, for a long while, nose almost pressed against the closed door.

(scream) "Get in here."

Inside two residents are sitting down holding the list of your guilt that you handed in for that week. At the top of their lungs they would scream admonitions at you for each of your infractions, always ending it with the harsh, “Now get out of here.” These were called Haircuts.

You were punished even if you did nothing wrong because it wasn’t punishment, it was therapy. If they felt you were “hiding in the woodwork, not fully participating, your Object Lesson (OL) could be to stand in a shower stall all day holding weights because you were “dead weight” in the program.



Some Residents Became Data Drunk

They believed in the program with a pedantic, fervent zeal. They spent their days going up to residents reciting this script: “Can I confront you? Do you have any guilt? or “ Can I pull you up? You shouldn’t talk negative. You should cop to it.” They’d turn in voluminous accounts of their guilt.

Some of us would subtly, tentatively wink at each other but it was dangerous to explicitly criticize the program or break any rule with someone -- you never knew who would turn you in (to save your life). This dynamic and its worst case scenario is documented in Weppner’s "The Untherapeutic Community," a book that chronicles the demise of Matrix House,a 1973 TC that disintegrated in corruption and abuse, its leader, Ron X., sent to federal prison for 36 ½ years.

You had to memorize the House Philosophy and recite it each morning in unison with the Family. You were never to criticize or mock The Philosophy. That would be considered serious guilt and you'd be appropriately punished.

Break a Cardinal Rule in the program (fighting, getting high, splitting -- the universal TC term for leaving the program still in use today -- physical intimacy) and you would be made to sit on the Prospect Chair (a wooden chair with the back cut off) for weeks. The Chair was placed inches away from a wall that had a photocopy of Our Philosophy taped to it. You sat on this chair, back straight, feet flat on the floor, arms at your side, staring at Our Philosophy -- all day, in complete isolation. You talked to no one, you made eye contact with no one. You were watched constantly by an Expeditor. 

After two or three weeks on the Chair, you get stood up in a Family Meeting, your knees a bit weak from the change in posture, facing your peers who are sitting out in the audience in rows of chairs. The staff then attacks you, screaming in your face, creeping up behind you and exploding, trying to making you jump, trying to make you cry, insulting you relentlessly. Then they order the family to “take care of feelings.” One at a time family members start to scream at you, curse you, insult you. With two hands they hold onto the seat of their chair while rocking and seizing back and forth, the chair jumping spastically, as resident after resident is encouraged to cathart.

Then you are "shot down," "put on contract," given an "Object Lesson"or “Learning Experience” (signs, costumes) - - you had to scrub floors with toothbrushes, wear large oaktag signs around your neck that said PITY ME or I NEED ATTENTION, sing self-deprecating ditties on the hour. You're then placed on a ban with the entire Family for approximately a month. Then you’re taken out to get a crew cut.  At home you were on a ban with television and music.

I was on the Chair many times (11 separate times). The monotony of the posture you had to maintain felt unbearable sometimes (especially for a hyperactive teenager) -- keeping silent all day, day after day, staring at a piece of paper with three paragraphs of self-help Hallmark blather on it. The tremendous boredom, loneliness, the aching in your back, the sickening thought that there was nothing to look forward to except more monotony. And you never knew what day you would finally be taken off. To distract myself or change the type of pain, I’d place my finger -- the soft skin where the finger meets the nail -- on the bottom rung of the Chair and carefully rub it and grind it as hard as I could until the warmness of a new injury flowed through my body. I’d forget about my spine and it gave me something to do. 

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