This is Part 1 of the interview
In these interviews, the names of the adult employees and staff members have not been changed. People who are granting these interviews, (and were youths while involved in the program) will have their identifying details changed to protect their privacy, unless they specifically request to use their true identities. Any other youths who are mentioned when interviewing former clients, will have their identifying details, including names, changed to protect their privacy.
[Author’s note: At this time, and in this program, the term straight, was used was used as a short form of straight-laced; primarily it meant using no drugs or alcohol.]
Straight, Inc.: St. Petersburg, Florida
Q: In which adolescent behavioral modification program were you enrolled?
A: Straight, Inc. — St. Petersburg, Florida.
Q: When did you enter the Straight, Inc. program, how old were you and how long did you remain there?
A: I was enrolled in Straight at 14 years old, in March, 1977. I remained there until May 1978.
Q: What was your family’s socio-economic states at that time?
A: We were middle class. Both of my parents were college educated and had been teachers. My father got into retail management in order to make more money for our family.
Q: What do you think brought you and your parents to Straight, Inc.?
A: My family moved a lot when I was growing up. We lived in several different cities on the West Coast before moving, in the summer of 1975, to Largo, Florida (a city near St. Petersburg). I adjusted well to the previous moves, but I was about to start the 8th grade when we moved to Florida and it felt like one move too many (at least to me, as an adolescent).
At the beginning of the school year I made friends with two others youths (one also ended up in Straight) who were new to the area and school as well. It was a tough year to fit in and together we fell into the crowd that was rebelling, smoking pot, and ditching school. That year a friend (also 13 years old) took her father’s car out in the middle of the night (we were “going back home”). Fortunately, we were intercepted by the police and taken into custody. Our parents were called at 4:00 in the morning; quite obviously they were concerned and deeply horrified.
By 9th grade I was making increasingly poor choices. A friend and I were caught with some other teenagers smoking pot outside during a school assembly and were sent to the principal’s office. However, there were so many of us that we were told to wait in the lobby. My friend and I were so worried about facing our parents that we left the campus and ran away. I was gone for two or three days—we stayed with a friend’s cousin who let us sleep in his parent’s guest home. When we finally decided to go home, my parents were extremely upset.
My behavior became increasingly self-destructive over the next few weeks, culminating in my getting in trouble again. This time a group of friends and I were caught defacing the library—in retaliation for an earlier in-school suspension. It was a brand new high school and they were not happy. Another student and I got suspended for one week.
It was during that week that the school administrator recommended Straight, Inc. to my bewildered and frightened parents. I do not blame my parents at all for enrolling me in Straight, Inc. My parents loved me, but they were as their wit’s end. I take responsibility for being placed there, however, this does not change the problems and abuses that were inherent in Straight’s DNA.
Q: What did your parent tell you when they decided to take you to Straight, Inc.?
A: It was a Friday morning when my mom and dad said we had a counseling appointment. The building we drove up to seemed strange, it looked more like a factory than a doctor’s or therapist’s office. (This was the second Straight, Inc. building – The Rahall Building)
As we walked toward the entrance, I asked my father, “What’s the name of this place?”
Dad was a strong and decisive man, and my gut registered the uncharacteristic way he stopped in his tracks, clenched his car keys in his palm of his hand, and hesitantly replied, “ummm…Family Counseling.”
When we got to the door an older man (I think it was Mr. Ed, a man who had previously been affiliated with The Seed) opened it for us, and led us into a small room. Two adults were already in the room waiting for our arrival. I would soon learn that their names were Mr. Batchelor and Mrs. Helen Petermann.
Immediately, Petermann and Batchelor took a confrontational tone as they asked me questions—which sounded more like accusations—about my drug use.
After a few minutes, Mr. Batchelor’s son came in and began talking about how he used to use drugs but was now “straight.”
One of my 9th grade classmates was sent to Straight, he remained out of school for a while and when he returned he wouldn’t talk anyone else who was not in Straight. The program had a reputation for “brainwashing” kids who entered the program. After I heard how this guy was talking I turned to my parents and said, “This is Straight, Inc., isn’t it?”
When they acknowledged that it was, I headed for the exit.
It was locked.
Next, Straight, Inc.’s director, Jim Hartz, entered the room and started asking me what drugs I used. When I answered, “pot,” he smirked and replied, “Amazing…she looks right in the eye when she’s lying to me.”
Never having been exposed to this type of approach, I remember wondering ‘who the hell is this guy?’ But I just clammed up.
After my parents left, I was led into the bathroom by a female staff trainee and a female junior staff member to be strip searched. I had to go into a stall and take off all of my clothes. I had to give them my clothes so they could be searched, but they didn’t touch me. I specifically remember having to take off my underwear to show them. Little was said and they acted routine about it.
Next, I was brought into the big group room to be introduced while a ‘big group rap’ was being conducted.
Q. What was your first impression of Straight, Inc. when you were brought into ‘Group’?
A. The space was a barren warehouse, it was very muddy gray, ugly and smelled like cigarette smoke. There were rows of blue and orange plastic, hard back, folding chairs in which about 50 other kids sat facing a wall with signs that contained seven steps (condensed from Alcoholics Anonymous twelve steps). Two young staff members sat in bar stools facing the group of kids, as they lead the ‘therapy’/’rap session,’ calling on kids to stand up and talk about themselves and their drug problems. I also noticed that the people in group were smoking cigarettes, and I wished I had mine.
It was frightening. At 14 years old I was younger than the majority of people in group. Most of them looked to be about 16 to 17 years old. During the first ‘rap session’, a 16-year-old-girl was crying as she described sexual abuse at the hands of a boyfriend. I could not believe that the staff and group reacted by shaming her. When I mentioned it to an ‘oldcomer,’ (another kid further along in their progress through the program) she said the girl was playing games and I was falling for it.
Later that evening, we had an ‘Open Meeting’ (an Open Meeting occurred twice a week on Monday’s and Fridays, during which rows of chairs were set up for parents and guests of the Straight program. The kids switched the direction their chairs so they were facing the rows of parents. Parents were allowed a few seconds to speak publicly to their child across the crowded room.) I felt incredibly sad and forsaken when I saw my parents, and also completely mystified by the strange behavior of my peers who were ‘motivating.’ Motivating was the word they used to describe the vigorous waving of their hands to be called on when executive staff asked them to participate. Also notable was the singing of childish, or bizarrely co-opted military or religious songs, accompanied by hand motions with a level of animation that resembled a cult group.
Here is a part of the first song that I heard at Straight—it was a rearranged WWII classic—“Over hill, over dale, we will hit the druggie trail, as the Straightlings go marching along, hear them scream, hear them shout, they’ll get straight without a doubt, as the Straightlings go marching along . . . shout out your feelings loud and clear WE LOVE YOU.”
We love you? I remember thinking what a contradiction this song was compared to how the group members and staff were treating that girl during the earlier group rap. At the end of the Open Meeting, the Lord’s Prayer was recited.
That night, at about 10:00pm, I went home with an oldcomer who lived with Helen Petermann. They locked me into a dark bedroom so ‘Mary’ (the oldcomer) could do her homework in the kitchen. ‘Mary’ locked the bedroom door, took the key with her and told me to go to sleep. I remember being sunburned on my chest and sleeping in a frock kind of thing that I was given. My skin was peeling and I did not have any of my lotion to put on it or anything else of my own. I felt very vulnerable and scared. Though I was in a stranger’s home in a strange city, I knew that the streets offered me no refuge.
Besides the double bed, I had seen a very old-fashioned dresser in the room before the light was turned off. It may sound funny after all of my escapades, but my parents had taught me to respect others’ homes, so I don’t remember anything else about the room because I didn’t turn on the light or search the room.
I could hear Helen Petermann’s voice just outside the door pretending to call the police, loudly stating, “She’s about 5’4,” 110 pounds, auburn hair. Yes, drive around tonight and pick her up if she runs.”
I knew I was not going anywhere—St. Pete was not my city, and I had already run away from home and learned that such actions were in no way beneficial.
Pulling the covers over my head and sinking into bed, I silently prayed for help.
To be continued…