Interview with a female client who entered Straight, Inc. in March, 1977, continued (pt. 2).
Q. So you lived in what Straight called “foster homes,” right?
Yes. When we were new to the program and for as long as we were on first phase, we would go home with various staff members or other families with kids who had been in the program longer and had earned their way up to higher phases with more privileges including being able to live in their own homes.
A. I don’t know what determined which homes we were placed in, but I was in four homes before I was allowed to go to my own home after 60 days. The first two weeks I went home with staff members, Helen Petermann, and then Marci Moore.
Helen also had a court ordered fourth-phaser living with her when I first when to her house. Then she was suddenly no longer there. I don’t know what happened to her but I think she left the program. She was over eighteen.
Next, I went to live with senior staff member Marci Moore. Marci had another newcomer who started the program the same day as me. One night she left us alone in her room after lights out. She shut the bedroom door and instructed us not to speak to each other. Of course we broke that room as soon as she left. Evidently Marci’s younger brother was trained to listen at the door and he snitched on us. The next day we got in trouble in group for ‘cliquing’ (a Straight, Inc. term for a negative friendship) and I was moved out of that house.
The next house I was assigned to was the home of an oldcomer who was about to graduate. She also had a brother in the program who had his own newcomers. Occasionally her brother would drive us all to the Straight, Inc. building. The highlight of being at this home was the day right before he graduated from the program, that he drove us to the building playing the radio. Newcomers weren’t allowed to listen to the radio, it was against the program rules. “Carry on my Wayward Son” from Kansas was playing and I relished it, replaying it over and over in my mind that day to block out the negative intensity of the rap sessions. When my oldcomer followed her brother and graduated shortly thereafter, I was moved again and lived with two very kind oldcomer sisters and their mom.
Q. You mentioned it was against the rules for newcomers to listen to the radio, what other rules were there?
A. The rules struck me as being designed for prisoners. We were constantly watched. The bathroom door was open as we showered, and we could not talk to the opposite sex or to other peers who were new. We were not allowed to listen to music on the radio or watch TV.
In the building there were seven steps, which were reduced from Alcoholics Anonymous twelve steps, written out on poster board and visible to the group. There were additional rules like “honesty,” or for those who were back at home and school, “no talking to druggies,” and for everyone, “no guy/girl relationships.”
The rules reinforced Straight’s confrontational style and peer-driven behavior modification techniques, “creative” interpretations were not allowed. The goal was to reproduce Straight’s notion of what a “straight” teenager looked, sounded and acted like. Straight’s rules were overreaching and contradictory.
For instance, the motto “Think, think, think” was difficult to implement, as having to regurgitate Straight’s language and beliefs — a necessary part of making progress in order to go home — and being required to ask Straight staff members’ permission to do ordinary things, discouraged independent thought.
These policies were recited and explained by group members during the “rules rap.” There were also recovery clichés like “Easy does it,” “Think, think, think,” and “First things first,” that were also written up and displayed on the wall facing group (just like the seven steps).
Questioning Straight’s rules or staff was not common — at least outwardly — due to the well founded fear of being accused of “screwing up” or having a “druggie attitude.” Such indictments could impede the girl or boy’s progress and in some cases set them back by several weeks or even months. Most were not willing to take the risk and adapted in order to survive.
I didn’t think much of the rules or the steps or any of the other parts of the program especially when I was new as I was just trying to figure out how to go along in Straight to get out.
Q. What was an average day like in the Straight Program when you were there.
A. I started the program during March of 1977. Straight’s hours were 10:00am to 8:00pm, later they were changed to 9am-9pm. Sunday was the only exception, and I believe it started after 1 or 2:00pm and ended at 8 or 9pm. The day consisted of several group “therapy” sessions — and I use that term very loosely — known as “raps.”
Rap topics ranged from the very general, ‘using your awareness,’ (referring to how Straight had taught you to see through others’ “games”) and ‘how you used your friends and how they used you,’ to the more specific raps such as “homes” raps. The “homes raps” were held each Monday and Friday on ‘Open Meeting’ days, prior to the open meeting. These raps were held to determine your progress in the program. Youth who were living away from home, on first phase (“newcomers”) had to stand up in front of the group as peers and staff weighed in on an individual’s attitude and compliance with the program. The group would be asked to vote, by raising their hands, on whether they thought an individual deserved and could be trusted to talk with their parents, or if they should receive any responsibilities (such as being able to walk around the building without an oldcomer holding on to them), or if they were ready to go home (to begin living at home overnight).
On most afternoons, other than on ‘Open Meeting’ days, there were ‘Boys Raps’ and ‘Girls Raps.’ These raps were where the boys and girls were separated and the raps session would discuss the opposite sex with participants providing detailed information about their sexual histories including, at times, graphic descriptions of abuse and traumatic experiences.
We had lunch and dinner at Straight. The meals consisted of a lot of bologna sandwiches, peanut butter, Kool-Aid, potato chips, boxed cookies, etc. The food was not healthy and was made by various parents who would sign up. There was no way to check the sanitation/food preparation and ensure safety. One time a parent made a double batch of peanut butter and pickle relish sandwiches (if you were lucky, as a newcomer, your foster family fed you well at home!).
During meals we sang songs and/or took care of miscellaneous business. Sometimes a boy or girl would be stood up and “told where they were at” (confronted) by the group, often over the belief that they were “conning” the group (‘conning’ meant trying to fake your way through Straight.)
On occasions there would be brief periods of exercise late in the afternoon but we were not able to change clothes or shower before or after the twenty minutes of exercise.
Q. What were the nights like?
A. At the end of the night our foster parents would pick us up from the Straight, Inc. warehouse and drive us to their home. We were required to write M.I.’s and go over them with our oldcomers, before we could go to sleep. M.I. stood for Moral Inventory. Each and every night we had to write about three changes we were going to make in a spiral notebook, as well as how we were going to make those changes.
I usually couldn’t think of what to say, mostly because I didn’t trust the oldcomer with my innermost thoughts. One night during my second week after making up the M.I. and going over it with my oldcomer, I wrote a poem entitled something like “Caring, does it come from the heart or the ego?” In this poem I wrote about my feelings about being in Straight and its practices. I hid my poem in the back of my notebook while my oldcomer was busy with another newcomer. By the next day, to my surprise, my oldcomer had turned the poem in to Straight (apparently the third newcomer in my foster home had noticed me scribbling something intently, then scored some points for herself by acting as an informant).
Treating the two paragraph effort as a high level offense, a staff member read the verses, her voice dripping with biting sarcasm, in front of the big group. This was intended to humiliate me (and it did), as well as to serve as a deterrent to others who might attempt genuine self-expression that departed from Straight’s norms. The episode was instructive; I knew going forward I must be extremely careful about guarding my innermost thoughts and feelings — much more than I had even originally thought.