The day before yesterday, I posted the essay “Good Riddance, You Brutalizing Hag,” about my experiences with Nancy Reagan’s pet project, Straight Inc., and the damage that it did. In that article, I said that the things that happened to my girlfriend in the program were not my story to tell. She decided, for reasons of healing, to tell that story. Here it is, posted verbatim with her approval. The rest of this post is in Cathi’s own words. It is long, but important.
One November day during my Senior year of High School at Osbourn Park in Manassas, VA I disappeared. It was during choir – a class I had to AUDITION for and one which I enjoyed. We were getting ready for the Christmas concert. I also during this time was trying out for the lead in Sganerelle with my Drama class. I was really enjoying going to school – despite the problems I was having sleeping at night which caused me to be sleepy in my Senior English class. I had my schedule just the way I wanted it with the classes I wanted to take – including being a teacher’s aide for my Freshman English teacher Mr. Shirley. I was taking Sociology – which was one of my true interests, drama, choir, Algebra II, Earth Science … and looking forward to graduating in the Spring. I had NO idea what was in my future when I got the hall pass to go to the office where my mother was waiting to take me out of school.
(Senior year photo of the author)
She had my 19 year old brother (and best friend) in the van, which was rather confusing. I could not understand what was going on and I was told that we were going to check him into a drug rehab. Little did I know that my mom’s plans included putting ME in as well. See, she had attended some sort of seminar in the weeks previous that PROMISED her that they would change her kids. If we were making choices that she didn’t like, if we were using alcohol or drugs, if we were defiant, if we were … well, basically anything other than EXACTLY what she wanted us to be then this organization would “fix” us for her. I don’t know if my brother ACTUALLY had an addiction to anything other than LARPs and King’s Hawaiian Bread, but I do know that he had smoked some dope, drank, and maybe snorted coke. I do know that all I had EVER done was smoke some dope and drink – and our PARENTS ***BOUGHT*** the wine. Butch was old enough to be “grandfathered in” to buy beer in Virginia since he hit 18 a few months before they changed the law. But I don’t think that he had ever done anything else. Had he possibly tripped on acid? I don’t honestly know. What I DID know is that I had no problems. I occasionally took a BENEDRYL (which *I* referred to as Bennies) to help me sleep. But in terms of illegal drugs, I had just passed around a joint or a bowl with the rest of our JOINT friends. So I never thought that my mother might be hoodwinked into thinking that I belonged in a drug treatment center. I figured that a REAL drug treatment center would know the difference. I didn’t know how WRONG I was. My main “sin” in my mother’s eyes was that I wanted to go to VCU for college – which is where my 21 year old boyfriend, Phil was studying Drama – instead of the all-girl Junior college in Missouri that SHE wanted me to attend (since it would take me far away from my boyfriend).
(UPI photo from the visit of Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana to the Springfield location of Straight, Inc.)
We walked into this nondescript building on Backlick Road in Springfield that actually was a converted warehouse. It had a nice lobby from what I could remember and there was this HUGE color photograph of Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana of Wales framed on the wall. My brother was herded into one small room with two teenaged boys and I was taken into another with two teenaged girls. I have no idea where Mom went. There was three blue plastic chairs in the room and a cheap desk. It all started fairly friendly enough with small talk and then they got into the real purpose: the interrogation. They asked me what drugs I had ever done. I told them pot and wine. I was told that I was not being truthful – that they KNEW I had done so much more than that or why else was I there? I *thought* I was there to discuss my BROTHER and I told them that. That’s when I was told that he would be admitted but that my parents were putting ME in as well. I was so confused, and they started the interrogation again. I was asked for DETAILED information about my sexual history – which included one guy … my then-boyfriend. I was asked if I had ever had an abortion and was told that I was lying when I said no, I was on birth control pills. I was asked if I had ever had anal sex (the answer was no). I was asked again about what drugs I had ever taken. I was asked about prescription drugs and OTC drugs. But no matter what I said, I was told I was lying. They even told me that my BROTHER had told them that I was using coke (not a fucking chance … I did my 11th grade research paper on the negative effects of cocaine on the body and how you could go into cardiac arrest on the first, tenth or thousand and tenth time you ingested it). I was told that he had said that I was having sex with the teenaged guys my mother “adopted” and who moved in with us – all friends of my brother and I. I’ll bet it would come as a real shock to Billy (Oron Wolf) and Steve and John that I was supposedly hopping from one bed to another once the lights went out. I knew that Butch would never say shit like that, but the two teens in the room with me talked rapidly and before I could get out a denial they had another accusation ready. One question really took the cake, though. They asked me how many times I had had sex with Butch. Wow. By this time I was fuming and I told them to get out of my way, I was LEAVING. Fat chance. I was forcibly held in my chair and told we could do this the easy way or the hard way, but that I WAS being admitted and that my mother had already left the building and gone home.
(Blue industrial chair, of the type used in the Straight Inc. offices. Kids might spend as long as 16 or 18 hours in such chairs per day.)
At that point I felt more than mere abandonment. I felt more than mere betrayal. I can’t even put into words the utter despair I felt. They then brought in an older teen who instructed me to strip. I was given a cavity search. With no gloves, and lots of comment on how I was SO SKINNY I must be doing either coke or heroin or BOTH. Now, ANY person who knew me when I was 16/17 would tell you that I was just thin. I was 1” short to go into modeling but had the classic model’s build naturally … I was all of a size 3 if not a size 0 and 5 foot 7 inches tall. I ate at least four meals a day (six on the weekends) and just had a fast metabolism. But that thin body with my small bones was proof positive that I was a junkie – despite no needle marks in my body (I must have been shooting up in between my toes). Once the strip/cavity search was done I was allowed to get dressed and some chick put her middle finger through my belt loop in the back of my jeans and then twisted it and put her fingers down the back of my jeans, holding onto the waist band. My months of torment and torture had begun.
(Straight Inc. “drop-in center,” Cincinnati , OH, 1980s)
At the end of the day, I was beltlooped again and walked out to a vehicle that would be taking me to my first “host home”. It actually was not too far away from the warehouse. This happened at about 8:00 pm. Once we got to the house, I was informed that I could ONLY speak to my “oldcomers” or the house parents, I could not read anything – not even a cereal box or a pizza box, I had to perform a “Moral Inventory” every night, I was to take a shower with some girl standing on the other side of the shower curtain, I was given some ratty old underwear and pajamas and we were locked into a room at night until it was time to get up to go back to the building. I can remember the first night somewhat – they ordered pizza with anchovies on it and I was told that I could eat the pizza or I could go to bed hungry (dinner at the building was not terribly filling). I was given some other girl’s clothes the next day and brought back to the building at 6:00 in the morning so that the oldcomers could get to school and the parents could get to work. I was deposited into a VERY tiny room with a bunch of other girls and we all had our PBJ sandwiches and maybe a piece of fruit for lunch. I remember the room had one of those half-doors and we could see the guys coming in past our room to go to their own tiny room until it was time to form a newcomer chain to go into “group” in the huge warehouse room.
They apparently had told my parents that they would keep up with my medications – I was on a tri-cyclic antidepressant (Tofranil) at the time – so towards the end of the first night I was called up to a medication cart and given the medication. That didn’t last very long. They “decided” that I didn’t actually have major depression, I was “just” a druggie so the antidepressants had to go. They stopped them abruptly. I’m lucky I didn’t have a heart attack, since that is one of the dangers if you either take an overdose (as I found out much later) or if you stop the medication suddenly. You have to taper off the medication in order for it to be safe … and that was not something Straight, Inc. had time to do. It was one indication that the program had no medical or psychiatric oversight. When I asked why I was no longer getting medication, I was told I didn’t really “need” it and that it was a part of my “druggie past” as a “drug of choice”. What the Everloving FUCK?
Days “in the building” were the same with only minor variations. I have blocked out a great deal of what happened during the day to day scream-fest that being “in group” was. It always consisted of sitting in blue plastic chairs for most of the day, flailing your arms about violently. The goal was to either flail enough to get called upon to share something or bring up something on someone else. The ultimate goal while “motivating” was to flail so hard that your fingers hit together with a snapping sound. That’s how you KNEW you were really “motivating”. There would be different shifts of “staff members” leading the “raps” – and most of these staff members were no older than I was (17) and some were younger but all had one thing in common … they were former clients of Straight. They had received NO training, they had very little oversight in how they conducted the raps. Sometimes the kids called out other kids directly, but usually if you were going to get called out it was a sneak attack that started with “Where’s Cathi Jones?” from the staff member at the front. Or you would be standing up sharing something voluntarily when the staff member would spring the trap on you. So, whenever Staff would ask where you were specifically, it was a heart-pounding event. “Confronting” people involved a person standing there while person after person after person would flail about, get called on and then start screaming at the person being confronted.
If the confrontations in the raps didn’t cause you to tell them what they wanted to hear then you would be up for consequences. Consequences could range quite a bit. The most severe consequences were 2 hours of sleep per night, 5 minute showers, 7 strokes with a hairbrush per day, no lotion or conditioner. Which ones you received and how many were up to the Staff and how much you were resisting the program. At one point, I was on ALL of them – at the same time. The 2 hours of sleep was done in “Shifts” and depending on how many oldcomers were in the house, you could be allowed as little as 15 minutes per attempt to sleep before you were sat up and watched to make sure you weren’t sleeping. I was informed that they program was required to allow the kids 2 hours of sleep per night as a minimum, but it DID NOT have to be 2 consecutive hours. So your amount of sleep was arbitrary. I never got more than 30 consecutive minutes during my consequences time to attempt to rest. Five minute showers were timed with a kitchen timer. Your shower would start once the water was running and you stepped in the shower. Once the five minutes was up, your water was shut off and you had to get out. If you still had soap or shampoo on your body, tough luck. You would get to live in the itchy soap scum until the following night when you could attempt another shower. Let’s just say that I can STILL perform a 5 minute shower if I need to. The trick is to get all wet, put shampoo in your hair and lather briefly then quickly wash your “stinky areas” before rinsing EVERYTHING off at once.
The other consequences should be pretty self-explanatory. Someone would literally count each stroke of the hairbrush or comb and remove it from your hand when the seven strokes were done. I have baby fine hair and psoriasis. After a month of “7 strokes” my hair had mats that had to be cut out (more on Straight haircuts later). I had weeping sores on my head from the psoriasis which oozed a sticky fluid which made the situation much worse. My skin was so dry it would crack and bleed. Needless to say, it was a painful experience and one designed specifically to break a person down physically, emotionally and mentally. In order to “get off consequences” you had to comply with the “sharing” part in group and tell them essentially what they wanted to hear. If you had to make shit up, you made shit up just to stop the pain. I don’t remember all the shit I made up just to satisfy the staff member who put me on consequences (since the staff member who inflicted the punishment was the only one who could remove it). I do remember that he was sick for a few days so he didn’t show up to the building and I was stuck. I also remember his name – it was Brady.
I don’t remember much about the dinners in the building. I can only remember two – tuna salad sandwiches and some vegetable soup with a side of an entire bagel with a hunk of cream cheese. That last one was actually filling and didn’t taste like ass. I can’t speak to the tuna salad – I *hate* cooked fish in every variety so I would eat whatever came on the side, try to mangle the sandwich so it looked like I had eaten something and drink my little cup of water. Let’s just say that dinners were not terribly memorable to me – except in the general sense of not being enough on a day to day basis.
So, the daily routine was: Get up, get dressed in whatever clothing you can find (more on clothing later), eat breakfast, make your bag lunch, go to the building, get put in Newcomer Hell, go into group, sit through raps where there was a LOT of verbal, psychological and emotional abuse (if it wasn’t directed at you it was directed at someone else), flail your arms over your head until your chair moves, move your chair back into a straight line, stand up and talk or get screamed at, eat lunch, have someone sticking their hands in the back of your pants, hold your bodily functions until lunch or dinner, sit with unnaturally erect posture at all times, and slowly lose your ever loving mind. Day in, day out. If you were really unlucky, you got to witness someone who was “acting out” get restrained. Picture, if you will, someone being grabbed by 6 people and CARRIED to an open area of linoleum over concrete flooring. Then, imagine that they are THROWN to the floor and you see people scrambling, wrestling, screaming. When the dust settles, you see someone with at least one person per limb, one at the head and one on their chest (if they’re LUCKY). Then they STAY on the floor for at least a couple of hours. Many kids wound up with broken limbs, broken ribs, cracked skulls, concussions from this treatment. And if you’re me … you can’t help but wonder when YOU are going to be thrown around like a rag doll. Is this what happens if the consequences they have you on don’t cause you to start lying your ass off? Is THAT the next step? Oh, and if someone gets a broken anything … good luck getting PERMISSION to have your injuries get looked at by a doctor. See, even getting an aspirin involves asking your oldcomer who asks the host parents who either make the oldcomer wait until morning or call a staff member (if the HOST PARENT deems it is a SERIOUS ENOUGH emergency) who would then have to call a SENIOR staff member and then MAYBE the “medical director” (who I suspect had no actual medical training). If your oldcomer is told to wait until morning, they must put in a REQUEST to a 5th phaser who would then put in a request to a staff member then to senior staff etc. Let’s just say that very few people received actual medical treatment. In fact, there was an epidemic of chicken pox that ran through the boys’ side while I was there and they simply put the poxed boys into a small room all day. I have no idea what they did in there, but I assumed they were at least allowed to lie down – which made me wish I could also come down with chicken pox. I never was restrained. My brother WAS. I cried … and was blasted FOR CRYING OVER HIS INJURIES, for crying over watching them savage my brother, for my helplessness and wanting to go over to him and check him out and hold him close. They broke his arm – I believe it was the left one, so at least he could write his MI every night.
(Saved from digits.newsvine.com)
And they DID break me. I “got with the program”. I confronted people. I lied my tits off. I accepted the brainwashing. I even admitted to some really strange crap. Like … one of the rules of the program is that you can’t talk about someone behind their back. If you were snitching on someone you have to do it in this weird “Such and such WAS SAID”, “reading WAS DONE”, “music WAS LISTENED TO” instead of actually naming WHO did it or even that a PERSON had done it instead of a chicken or a spider. Now, this got taken to weird extremes in Springfield in November ‘86 through March ‘87. If you had a THOUGHT about the building being too cold or the dinner being gross, you were “talking behind food’s back” or “talking behind the building’s back”. And yes, I self-reported that I “talked behind the back” of BOTH at one point or another. I was all set to go home the Friday after my 18th birthday. They had held Butch back by a week because the staff REALLY wanted the special occasion of a set of siblings “going home” TOGETHER. It would have made the staff so very fucking happy for both of us to stand up and scream “Mom, Dad, WE’RE COMING HOME”. Now, if this sounds vaguely like a TV movie from the 1980’s that you somewhat remember … it is. “Not My Kid” was entirely based on the Straight, Inc. program. The child locks on the doors of vehicles to prevent runners, the oldcomers bailing out to chase after someone “copping out” (the term for running away from the program), the entire Open Meeting structure … everything was cleaned up but the kernels are there. But their dreams were destined to be dashed.