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)


I Searched For and Found Old Staff Members

“I had a terrible time with it [CDC treatment],” said Beverly Feigelman a counselor in the program when I was there. She later became director of the program. When I found her 15 years later she was teaching social work at Adelphi University. “First of all, because I didn’t go through a program and I saw it as punitive, I saw it as humiliating, I saw it as all the things that I was just trained not to be doing as a professional.

“We would have staff meetings and depending upon whether those [counselors] were in a good mood or bad mood, they would go crazy, they would explode. So if they did it with staff can you imagine what they were capable of doing with residents…These were crazy people and for me to be a worker in that setting and how I justify to a normal kid that I’m working with a bunch of people who are a little unstable at times -- we had to work together as a team, we had to defend each other and we had to be consistent and yet there were some things that were very harsh which we would fight behind closed doors and say, “No, you can’t do that to this kid.

“I’d talk to some of these kids and I’d see what seemed like love for [these counselors] and I used to say ‘I’m like a piece of chop liver here,’ there’s no attachment to me the way they have that attachment. I knew it was coming from fear but I also felt maybe this is what people needed, maybe this is what they wanted.”

One of the staff members she’s talking about was my counselor. But I never disliked him or felt any anger toward him -- I still don’t. There was no way he could hurt me or hate me more than I was hurting or hating myself at that time. The harshness of CDC was all I respected and it was what intrigued me. I poured my heart out to my counselor in sessions and he genuinely cared and he was understanding. I would’ve never come to Beverly back then. But talking to her for hours about CDC as a 30-year-old, I felt nothing but that attachment she said eluded us both back then. 

Ken Amann, the director of the program when I was there and at the time of the interview still supervising CDC as director of substance abuse services at Hillside Hospital said, “All those tools were not necessarily well-suited to the needs of the population that we had. Frank [Robertson] tried to bring his residential TC, people in their late twenties, living on the streets shooting drugs into suburban teenage life, that was actually radical in its time and it was a clumsy attempt… I think in the years since you’ve been here we’ve come even more to the center where it’s a blend of understanding, insight and not pulling people out of the mainstream as much as we used to.”

Around 1990, the old CDC was gone. “I lost a lot of the staff when I became the director,” Feigelman said. “They resigned because they could not go with the way the program was changing and becoming a more sensitive, humane kind of treatment facility … it was moving away from some of the punitive aspects of TC.”

Amann, at the time a professor at Molloy, e-mailed me about the change: “…we eliminated the head shaving… Object Lessons were still assigned but they had to be done in consultation with other clinical staff and were used for more limited periods of time. We felt that these checks and balances produced a better clinical setting and one in which counselors were encouraged to thoroughly defend the thinking behind an assigned Object Lesson. ”

He added in defense of the TC model: “I should tell you that after thirty years in the clinical field, I still find a well thought out OL to be a great learning tool for an acting out adolescent with limited insight. The key is to defuse the potential for abuse of authority…When looking at behavioral techniques, it is important to not 'throw the baby out with the bath water' by saying that all behavioral interventions are harsh by definition and that insight alone will enable a person to develop control over destructive patterns of behavior. This last concept has been dubbed the 'classic error' of conventional psychiatry which pursued insight alone and not structured behavior change as well.”



Today They're Medicated

It was too easy to see CDC as a game, as Hogan’s Heroes. There was not much to do but become fervent about the program or rebel against it.

That’s a large part of why CDC is different today, according to Martin Moskowtiz, the current director (when I went back to visit in the late 90s) -- less focus on petty rules, surface behavior and the program.

The majority of the residents today are on medication: anti-depressants, Lithium and Depakote for bi-polar disorders, Ritalin, the occasional anti-psychotic.

Like at many TCs there are no more Blowaways, stocking caps, no more scrubbing on your knees. There are still signs but you don’t have to wear them. The Chair is a desk they sit on for a day. They have to earn points for privileges like using the phone. They still clean and read their guilt to the Family.

The day I was there the residents were all out at Rikers Island (show them where they could end up therapy). I asked Moskowitz if any of the counselors came through TCs. He said he didn’t even know anymore -- it’s not something they can ask in the hiring process because of legal issues.

“The goals are different now,” he says, “we’re not trying to make such drastic forever changes. Then it was two years -- half of a kid’s adolescence -- now it’s six months.”

The residents came back in the middle of my visit screaming "fuck this, fuck that," screaming about how it sucked, laughing that “they wanted my ass [at Rikers].”



I spent most of my time in CDC in trouble -- on my knees scrubbing hallways, gagging on the baby food I had to eat as punishment for not bringing my lunch, wearing a body-length oak tag sign around my neck that said “You can run, but you can’t hide.” I had my bed taken away (was made to sleep on my basement floor in a sleeping bag), was dressed as a hobo (until they concluded that that was “feeding into me”), walked twenty miles on the expressway from my house to the program as punishment for waking up late.

I split several times, slept outside, crawled through windows into pitch black boiler rooms of apartment buildings looking for shelter, came back for another Family Meeting, another crew cut, another stint on the Chair.

Late in the program I had a negative contract with three or four boys in my weekend group. We were cutting up whatever was in the medicine cabinet to snort, drinking, breaking all the rules. Toward the end I was lying in bed using a lighter to heat up a razor blade and carving the word HELL into my arm -- I knew I was gone soon. 

After 11 months I was “terminated” from the program, ushered out without being able to speak to anybody. I was on Bad Standings, so were my parents, not allowed to ever associate with anyone connected to CDC (the director of a Phoenix House facility told me that when he was in Daytop in the 70s they would have a funeral for people who split). I was referred to a residential TC, Phoenix House.

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