Saturday, April 18, 2009

What Are They Building In There?

Yesterday was the first actually nice day in Chicago, warm and sunny. It is still warm today, but it is also kind of overcast, a little heavy and humid. But at least it is starting to feel like Spring, finally, although I'm sure that now that I've said that it will snow or hail or something like that.

So this morning, R.A. drew my attention to this article on Jezebel regarding the "therapeutic techniques" practiced at the Mount Bachelor Academy outside of Prineville. From Jezebel, we linked to the original article on Time.com, "An Oregon School for Troubled Teens Is Under Scrutiny." From this article:

students [of the Academy] say staff members of the residential program have instructed girls, some of whom say they have been victims of rape or sexual abuse, to dress in provocative clothing - fishnet stockings, high heels and miniskirts - and perform lap dances for male students as therapy.


Jezebel has more anecdotes relating to the sexual and psychological abuse reported to go on at the Academy.

I'm no expert on these type of rehab institutes or the techniques that they use. But, growing up in Bend, I did have acquaintances who had undergone so-called "wilderness therapy" rehab programs, and I had heard stories of extreme physical abuse such as forced starvation and dehydration that went on in the desert of Eastern Oregon. And I don't want to be a part of an unproved accusation, but a rumor's not a rumor that doesn't die.

And a lot of scary things have happened out there in the past.

So I wanted to learn a little bit more about this situation. In the Time article, it says that Sharon Bitz, the executive director for the Mount Bachelor Academy, told The Bend Bulletin:

that school officials have never instructed students to act in a way that would "sexualize them," and that the students' costumes came from their own dorm rooms and were chosen by the students. "We would never ask a student to give a lap dance," Bitz told the paper.
OK. So I went to the Bulletin's website. Which insists that I pay a fee to see their fine pieces of journalism. But I do get the headline from Wednesday that reads: "Mount Bachelor Academy Serves Students Effectively, Safely." I would like to know the contents of this article. (I'm not going to pay eight bucks a month for access to the website.) Also, growing up in Bend taught me to be, shall we say, "skeptical" of the Bulletin's journalistic integrity and their interest in "protecting" the community. So if they say that the Academy is effective and safe, please forgive me if I am inclined to believe the opposite.

And then there's this. On Huffington Post (not exactly the most objective of, um, "news sources"), the author of the Time article, Maia Szalavitz, posted a follow-up piece. She says:

For the article, I interviewed more than ten students, two unrelated parents and a current employee who describe bizarre, abusive, one-size-fits-all "therapies" that are neither educational or therapeutic. Most of the teens I spoke with say they had witnessed or were personally made to perform lap dances or other sexualized activity in front of dozens of peers and staff. The school's management denies all allegations of wrong-doing.... I think it's very difficult to argue that sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, food deprivation and isolation from family (kids are only allowed one ten-minute, monitored phone call every other week for months on end, no calls if they are punished) is an effective treatment for ADHD, depression, addiction or any other form of teen misbehavior or mental illness.
Here here. And then there's this:

Mount Bachelor is part of Aspen Education -- believed to be the largest chain of teen residential programs in the U.S. Aspen, as part of CRC Health, which is owned by Bain Capital, was seen by advocates as much more sedate and less given to wacky practices than clearly "out there" programs like those associated with the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP or WWASPS). At one WWASP school, for example, teens were kept in outdoor dog cages.*

Aspen Education runs wilderness therapy, residential rehab, and weight loss programs across the U.S., including SageWalk, which is the program that I had heard the most about, and Youth Care of Utah, where a resident died in 2007. Bain Capital is a private equity firm that was founded in 1984. One of its founders was - get this - Mitt Romney. Another "key person" involved with Bain Capital includes Fraser Bullock, Brigham Young '78, who is also an "area seventy" within the Mormon church.

The Jezebel article addresses the sexism and sexual traumatizing that has been reported at the Academy, and the cruelty that is involved in the all-too-common act of blaming the rape victim for what happened to her. I have two other issues I would like to raise.

The first is the role that "humiliation, deprivation, and isolation" play, or ought to play, in rehabilitation, especially youth rehab. Not coincidentally, these are the same psychological concepts that are used in military boot camps. The idea is that you break down the subject, that you strip away their orientating ideas around which they define themselves, their family, their tastes, their pride, their addictions (chemical and otherwise) their sense of self, and replace them with what you want to be their foundational concept. In boot camp, this is the military. In these rehab programs, however, it is always some permutation of the idea of God.

Take AA's twelve-step program, for example. Key to this program is "admitting that one cannot control one's addiction or compulsion," and then "recognizing a greater power that can give strength." And in order to be able to admit that one cannot control one's self, it helps to be shown over and over and over again that one is too weak to control one's self. (AA accomplishes this through public confession, admission of guilt, and promise of amends.)

The best way to convince someone that they do not have the power to control their own "compulsions" is through constant humiliation. Isolated from their usually self-orienting signifiers - family, money, branded products, TV, water, food, hygiene - it's easier to make people feel humiliated. (Latin humiliare "to humble," humilis "lowly, humble," literally "on the ground," from latin humus "earth." Says Jane in the Jezebel article, "They told me I was dirty and I had to put mud on myself for being raped.") And if you can convince someone that they're unable to control themselves, than you can convince them that they must recognize a higher power that has authority over them.

These are the best methods for cultivating soldiers, for breaking down individuals and making them malleable and willing to follow orders. And, as Jezebel points out, that's how cults work. But, as Szalavitz says, "it's very difficult to argue...as an effective treatment for ADHD, depression, addiction or any other form of teen misbehavior or mental illness." Furthermore, these techniques should force us to ask ourselves under what circumstances we would allow any human being, let alone a child with behavioral or mental issues, to be humiliated. Regardless of the effectiveness of the sort of re-education programs used by Aspen Education Group, and I think that the statistics show that they are not, the question that needs to be asked is to what end should someone, either a parent, a teacher, a pastor, or any other trusted authority figure, go in order to "save" a child. (Or, as Aspen says, "Rescue Your Child for $45o a Month!")

OK, I am going to stop there for now. The other issue that I would like to talk about is why the culture (and the topography) of the western U.S. allows cult cultures to develop, from the Rajneeshees to the Mount Bachelor Academy. It has something to do with how much space we have. It actually makes me think of The Scarlet Letter, where everyone knows everyone else's sins, and you are forever branded. The West provides the opportunity to escape the panopticon, which serves to regulate everyone's actions. But, of course, once we are free from one form of control, we automatically make a new one for ourselves.


Mount Bachelor Academy, near Prineville, Ore.
This picture is from the Time article. The key phrase here is, "PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO PUBLIC ACCESS."

*I wish that Szalavitz would stop referring to the Academy as "Mount Bachelor." They're not affiliated with the ski resort. I bet that Mount Bachelor's going to have to do some damage control over this.

1 comment:

rotsne said...

Funny that mentions Sagewalk known from "Brat Camp". Did you know that a 16 year old boy died there last month and their operations are shut down while waiting for the investigation.

The awful part is that he is only the latest of many.