Wednesday, May 11, 1983 – Springfield, Virginia
It was the end of another day in the Straight, Inc. warehouse. Day 347 to be exact. By now things were somewhat easier than they were initially. Living my days inside a large, windowless, fluorescent lit, and (with the exception of rows of blue plastic chairs for ‘clients’) mostly empty warehouse room had become my new normal.
I had finally assimilated to this tiny alternative society that was within, but separate from, the larger “normal” community outside of the warehouse walls.
What used to seem foreign became familiar. (And the formerly familiar had become foreign.) Each day I was with the same people, doing the same things, for the last 346 days, which is what made this day, Wednesday, May 11, 1983, seem all the more bizarre.
At the end of each day, staff announced host-home changes. Since there was no way of knowing when or why staff would choose to shuffle newcomers in between different host-homes, I listened closely to find out if the same two newcomers who were with me last night would still be coming home with me tonight. I wasn’t too surprised when I heard one of my newcomers’ names called and assigned to a different oldcomer’s home, then I heard my second newcomer’s name called and reassigned. After that, I waited patiently to learn who would be coming home with me in their places, secretly hoping it would not be any of the newest girls who were still trying to come to terms with being placed in this radical program. This was because I had to worry more about brand-new newcomers than those who had been there longer. The people newest to the program were the most likely to run and if they succeeded, I would pay the price the next morning when I returned to the warehouse.
When Staff finished announcing the host-home assignments, they began calling people to line up for dismissal. It seemed they had forgotten to assign replacement newcomers to my house and I panicked. It was not that I didn’t welcome the break from taking care of newcomers and finally having some alone time, but an oldcomer whose newcomers were removed from their house and not replaced with others typically meant the oldcomer was getting set back to newcomer status and everything awful that went along with being new to the program, including the loss of all freedom.
Staff dismissed everyone from group just as they did every other evening, except they left me sitting in a blue chair and one other girl standing in front of a door. Angela* had been in the program for a few months longer than I had but we were both on the fourth phase of the five-phase program, which meant we were more than half way towards getting out of that crazy place.
What on earth was going on? I searched for a reason for being left behind. What kind of trouble could I be in? I retraced every movement I made earlier in the day and for the past week but I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong. I had no idea what was coming my way but I suspected I was about to get ambushed.
Angela remained standing in her position as guard at one of the doors and I remained seated alone in one of many hard plastic chairs, as the other kids lined up heal-to-toe, with their noses in the necks or hair of the person in front of them. Like every other night, Staff made the group stand like that for what seemed like hours (probably ensuring everyone’s rides had arrived, but back then it seemed like just another power play) then finally said, “Group dismissed!” Everyone silently filed out of the building to the vehicles waiting for them in the gravel parking lot behind the building. Each oldcomer held tightly on to two newcomers by their waistbands to ensure they didn’t run away.
When the warehouse became still and most of its fluorescent lights turned off, only Angela and I remained. I was left to wonder if the staff members had forgotten they left us in this room. I looked over at the Angela to try to detect what was going on, but had to turn away when she turned to look at me. We were not allowed to talk to, or look at each other, or communicate in any way in this ‘big group’ room. I didn’t want to do anything to cause myself any more trouble than it appeared I might already be in, and no one ever knew who might turn you in to staff for a rule infraction, real or imagined, in order to save themselves from trouble, or further their own progress in the program. Trust no one was the only rule I had set for myself while in that program.
Finally the young female staff member, Patti,* walked back into the room, and with her best poker face, she motioned to me with her hand to come follow her, and as we walked by Angela she motioned for her to do the same. We followed Patti out of the main warehouse room and up the hall to the front office. This walk, though it lasted less than two minutes, felt like hours, as I searched the deepest corners of my mind to prepare myself for what might be happening, even though I couldn’t come up with anything. We finally followed Patti over to the door of one of the two conference rooms located right off the lobby of the front office.
Because it seemed as though only the three of us were left in the building I was surprised to see that there were rows of chairs set up in this conference room in a horseshoe shape filled with silent people facing me, mostly adults, some I recognized from the program and some I didn’t.
I scanned the horseshoe from left to right and front to back until I spotted my sister and mother in the front row towards the right side of the horseshoe. Patti directed me to sit in the empty seat next to my mother. My eyes widened, and continued to scan the room waiting for an explanation. I half hoped Mom finally came to her senses and decided to withdraw me from this place, yet I was not completely sure I still wanted out of this place, which by now was all that was familiar to me. All of my old friends, and old familiar places and happenings from my pre-program days now seemed as though they had existed only in a dream.
My sister’s face looked stone cold as usual while she stared at the floor, but the expression on my mother’s face was one I had never seen before and it annoyed me. Would someone just say something? I finally heard one of the executive (a.k.a. adult) staff members behind me speak up, “Mom, do you have something to tell Kathy?” It seemed the executive staff were always in charge of communications between the family and the kid in the program. My mother’s face contorted and she weakly spoke, “Dad died today.”
Instantly, it felt like my mind detached from my body and spun around faster and faster doing a reconnaissance of the room and the people in it while trying to make sense of where I was and what I was hearing. The sight of my mother’s face twisting in a way I never saw before infuriated me, was she pretending to cry? Meanwhile, the voice in my head that was previously interrogating me by saying, “What did you do wrong now, Kathy? You do realize you are never going to get out of this place, don’t you? Did you do something? Or did someone falsely report you so they could score points with Staff?” switched to saying more protective things like, “What? What are all of you people looking at? What do you want me to say? What do you want me to do? I’ve never been in this situation before and I don’t know how to react!”
Finally, I heard a voice from within the room, I think it was the same executive staff that had spoken earlier, “Kathy, what are you feeling right now?” I continued to stare forward as my brain functions seemed to operate separately from my body. “How do you think I feel?” I thought silently. I was enraged, but I couldn’t say that. Now was not the time to get in trouble or I wouldn’t be allowed to go to my own father’s funeral.
Oh my god! Would I even be allowed to go to his funeral? I had seen several people prevented from attending family funerals by the program. By now my rage was off the charts and even though I knew I had better answer when spoken to by executive staff I just couldn’t. Thankfully, my mouth would just not cooperate. I heard the talking continue in the room, but I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. Thankfully they let me go to my own home that evening.
The next thing I remember is walking in to my house alone for the first time in a long time without holding on to newcomers. I was vaguely aware that Angela had been sent home with me, not holding on to my pants, but sent home with me nonetheless for whatever reason I didn’t know or care. As I walked through the kitchen, my mind flashed to just twenty-four hours earlier in that same spot when my father tried to quietly say good-night to me without interrupting me, while I was tending to newcomers. But I asked him to please wait just one minute. He did. A minute later I gave him a big hug and kiss good-night and told him, “I love you.”
He was fine just last night! This can’t be real! If this is another one of the program’s sick lies, I might just kill somebody, I thought as I mindlessly walked up to my parents’ room hoping for proof that this was just a completely distasteful hoax (which wasn’t out of the norm for this program). But when I turned on the bedroom light instead of seeing my father, I saw a bed without its usual bedspread and an imprint on my mother’s normally military tight bed sheets. The indentation in the sheets outlined where my father took his last breath.
*Names have been changed to protect identities