He is the guy who was coerced to admit to a crime while in Straight, Inc., and after other Straightlingscame forward to “report” him 25 years later, and he ended up in jail for a murder he didn’t commit.
If you are in the Christmas spirit and you would like to send Straight, Inc. Survivor Shane Absalon, a Christmas Greeting to help make his holiday in prison a little better, just write out an extra Holiday greeting card and send via snail mail along with the rest of the people on your list, or you can email him a greeting through the following link https://www.jpay.com/
Shane’s mother-in-law made the following post on Facebook:
As you send out your Christmas greetings I ask those who choose to share a little joy with Shane.
You can send a Christmas Card to Ryland Shane Absalon, 1812762. 810 FM 2821, Huntsville, Texas 77349
John Perez is Shane’s friend in prison and he would also appreciate any thoughtfulness you would like to provide.
John Richard Perez, 1690592 same address as Shane.
More information about Shane Absalon’s court case
Shane Absalon was court ordered to Straight, Inc. as a condition of probation for a charge of criminal mischief in July of 1986. During his time at Straight, Shane was coerced by staff to admit to committing a murder in 1984. In 2009, after seeing a news report, Shane’s former oldcomer and others who sat in Straight with Shane, decided to come forward to confirm that they heard him confess in a group session.
There were very few clients in Straight who weren’t coerced to confess to things they didn’t do, so that it would look like they were “getting honest,” admitting to all the supposed awful things they did before the program, in hopes of someday getting out of that program.
When I was first contacted, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved with Shane’s case because I would never want to release a person from prison if he were guilty of murder.
Much of Shane’s arrest was based on his time at Straight, Inc.
Upon further inquiry, I found that much of Shane’s arrest was based on his time at Straight, Inc. in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 1986. While in Straight, the police came to question Shane about the murder of his friend, and they left as he was eliminated as a suspect. However, after noticing the visit by the police, staff coerced Shane to confess to a murder which many people do not believe he committed, as the evidence points to another man (now dead). The State’s case relied heavily on these admissions which occurred during ‘big group rap sessions’ – and several witnesses were called to testify who had heard these alleged statements at Straight assemblies.
A woman who was the colleague-in-crime of the burglar we suspect as the real killer initially testified that Horace Preston Cox went into the victim’s apartment, then emerged and said he had encountered the occupant in the shower and had “messed her up.” She later retracted. Cox identified Hayden’s apartment as the one he had burglarized to police. He also had said that if he ever encountered an occupant, he would kill that occupant. He died in 1990. None of this was presented to the jury.
Here is another article dated Jan. 26, 1985 (An accused child molester questioned in a series of rapes and slayings that have left nine young women dead.) mentioned that authorities were looking at another man named Remsen Newbold Wolff, 44 of Fort Worth, Texas, in connection with Ginger Hayden’s murder.
No one in the world can guarantee that Shane is innocent. But his mother-in-law and an attorney, who is working on his own time to help Shane get an appeal, and several others that know Shane well, believe that he is likely innocent. This crime simply does not comport with his nature.
Remember how ‘the more outlandish the “confession,”‘ the more brownie points one received? Shane believed the rule about confidentiality that Straight drilled into our heads, so he figured confessing would take the group pressure off of him, and no harm would be done due to confidentiality. Texas law managed to bypass the whole confidentiality law with a ridiculous distinction – those who went in by court order had no confidentiality, while those who were voluntarily participating were guaranteed confidentiality. Even though Shane had chosen Straight as an alternative to doing some time in juvenile detention for the ‘criminal mischief’ (which I believe was vandalizing a car), he was still considered court-ordered rather than voluntarily participating by Texas law. Straight guaranteed everyone would speak in confidence, but the Courts who sent people there did not honor Straight’s promise.
The evidence from Straight was highly doubtful.
The DNA evidence was highly flawed and speculative. The defense did not have it thoroughly analyzed or reported on by a DNA expert. Though they supposedly consulted one informally. Also flawed was other forensic “evidence.” A Straight staff member and graduate testified against Shane, and I believe that was in exchange for leniency in an uncharged matter (so it’s not of record since I believe the agreement was not to formally charge him.) Several others who heard Shane’s big-group rap confession merely confirmed what he said. On cross-examination, those very witnesses spoke of being coerced into confessing to false acts as well.
There is a lot more information regarding this case that is online and public knowledge. After everything I’ve read, I would like to see Shane free and able to be with his little daughter, being her father full-time instead of only on visitation days.
This could have been you
This could be any one of us reading this. Our justice system often works best for those who are wealthy (look at OJ Simpson). We’ve all heard about the dozens of people (maybe more, I’m not familiar with the exact statistics) who have done a lot of time in prison just to be exonerated in the end with no way to reclaim that time which is forever gone.
Remember being in Straight and not having any outside contact with the real world? No phone calls, no letters, absolutely no contact with anyone outside of the Straight, Inc. walls? Well at least in prison, they are allowed to receive letters and apparently emails now too. Let’s try to make Shane’s holidays a little more bearable by sending him some holiday greetings. My cards to him and his friend are already in the mail.
Laura Faehner Reed, Making a Difference with Haircuts for the Homeless.
Many ‘clients’ of so-called “tough love” programs have not only survived their ordeals but have also used their life experiences to drive them forward to shape society in positive ways. Laura Faehner Reed is one such person.
What made you decide to provide haircuts for homeless people?
Reed: I have done hair for the past twenty years, and I love it. When I moved to a different salon several years ago, I was slow because I was waiting for my clients to follow me. In the meantime, I had to do figure out something else to do with my time.
When I started to look through a magazine, I spotted an ad for a place that houses kids with special needs. I decided to offer to free haircuts for the children at this home. I know how difficult it can be to take special needs kids to get a haircut because both of my kids have Tourette’s Syndrome. People look at them, and the kids feel like they are different.
The following day, I met with the director of the children’s home to discuss my proposal. He surprised me when his first question to me was, “What do you want and why are you doing this?” However, I just told him, “I’m doing it because I have some extra time right now.” He asked, “Do you want to get paid?” I explained to him that I had kids with special needs so I would like to give back. Then he told me, “Well, you can’t wear what you are wearing. You can’t wear those earrings because it distracts the kids.” I said I’d wear all yellow if he wanted me to. I just wanted to be able to help the children, because I know how even getting a haircut can be difficult for them. I thought it would be nice for them to have someone come into their environment to give them a free haircut.
[pullquote]The director asked me, “What do you want and why are you doing this?”[/pullquote]
I assume he didn’t get it because he never called me back. I called him two weeks later, but he never returned my phone call. I was beyond livid. I couldn’t have presented myself in a more professional manner to this gentleman. It was just crazy–like he just didn’t trust me. He couldn’t understand that someone was trying to do something nice without any money.
A couple of days later I called a woman’s shelter. I said, “My name is Laura, I have down time…” and they said, “Well, this Saturday we have an event, can you do nails?” I hadn’t done nails since the state board, I mean I do my nails, but I don’t usually do nails in my profession. I said, “Sure! I can do nails.” It wasn’t what I wanted, but I knew it was my ‘in.’
The following Saturday, I brought my stuff, did the ladies’ nails, and the woman in charge loved me. She said, “Oh my gosh, this was great! You helped these women feel so good.” I said, “Well, can I come back and do haircuts?” She said, “Sure! No problem.” So I started doing haircuts there once a week.
It felt so extraordinary to be able to do that, that I started trying to branch out to do a little bit more.
So many shelters had turned me down for various reasons. The reasons they gave made perfect sense. The shelter for abused women couldn’t take advantage of my offer due to safety concerns for the women. I get that, I do, but was discouraging because I just felt like I was always jumping through hoops.
Then one day I saw an interview with this hairdresser, Mark Bustos, in New York. On his days off he cuts hair for the homeless out on the street. I was so excited because I knew I could do this and I wouldn’t have to ask anybody for permission. I could just go out and offer free haircuts.
The following morning I bought some cordless clippers and trimmers. Then I went out to Westminster, Maryland near my house. I’m cautious with whom I approach, but I saw these two guys and I could kind of tell that they were in need. So I walked up to them, and I used my own words to say something like what Mark Bustos says to the people he reaches out to. I was nervous, but I went up to them and said, “Hi, my name is Laura, I’m a hairdresser, and it’s my day off. I offer free haircuts to those who are in need, and I was just wondering if you needed a haircut. When they said, “Sure!” I was nervous, excited and relieved all at the same time.
That was about six years ago, but even today when someone I approach says yes to me, I start shaking. I get nervous because while I am a ‘people-person,’ I am not a ‘crowd-person.’ Each time I do this, it causes the same reaction. As soon as I get the person to sit down, I put a cape on them and start getting out my things; a crowd begins to form. People walk by and see that something unusual is happening, and they stop to watch.
I’ve done this in a variety of places including on the streets of New York City, and it is always the same. People stop to watch. If I were to look up and see a massive crowd watching, I would have an anxiety attack. So I just focus on what I am doing. I put the cape on the person, start combing their hair, and start talking to them. I start cutting in the back because I don’t want this person to see my hands shaking. It takes me about seven minutes per person to stop trembling (I’ve clocked it). After that point, I calm down, I can flow with it, and everything is good. There have been times when people have taken videos of me doing this. When I review the videos, I can’t believe how many people are actually looking at me. I am always thankful that I didn’t look up.
My nervousness begins to fade as I lose myself in what I’m doing. I focus on this person who has allowed me into their life, to touch them and to talk to them. Some of these people haven’t been spoken to or even acknowledged in weeks. These individuals are destitute. They are people who don’t want to go to shelters because they don’t trust the shelters. They are isolated because they have been on the streets for so long that they don’t trust anybody.
[pullquote]I focus on this person who has allowed me into their life, to touch them and to talk to them.[/pullquote]
Before I approach anyone, I usually watch them for a few minutes without them realizing it. I wait to see their mannerisms, how they are acting, and to get a feel for what’s going on with them. I don’t want to walk into a situation that I am not comfortable with or that they may not be comfortable with.
When I start talking to them, they don’t understand what I am doing. Some people say yes to me right away; others don’t. When I first approach a person, I kneel to get down to their eye-level, say hello and give them an apple. I say, “My name is Laura, today is my day off from work. How are you doing?” They usually say, “Good,” then just kind of look at me. Often, I have to talk with them for a while, but they usually say yes.
There was one time when I was in Chicago when I went up to this one guy to introduce myself. The whole time I was talking, he was nodding his head and when I said, “Do you need a haircut?” He responded with an enthusiastic and immediate “Yes!” It happened in one minute, but that is more of the exception than the rule.
Do the people you approach ever ask why you are doing this?
Reed: If they ask me why I’m doing this I usually tell them because I know what it’s like to be at the bottom of the barrel. I know what it’s like to be afraid and scared and to not have anyone to turn it. I do know that feeling well from earlier experiences in life and when they hear that, they understand. It is easy for me to connect with them.
Once I told a person, “I remember what it was like to live out of a paper bag with my name on it.” There was a time when that was all I had. I had shelter, but it was in no way a safe atmosphere and I would have rather been out on the streets. These homeless people are in a terrible situation. They are afraid half the time, and anything could happen, but at least they have their freedom. I did not have that. Even though I had nothing and no one, I also didn’t have my freedom. Luckily they have their freedom and by offering them a haircut, I can give them back some of their dignity. It also affords me the opportunity to talk to them, ask them questions and most important, listen to them.
[pullquote]I remember what it was like to live out of a paper bag with my name on it.[/pullquote]
Most people want to talk. They just pour out everything that is on their mind. I have my entire Instagram account #LauraOntheStreetdedicated to sharing these stories. They are the stories of people that nobody will listen to. I usually ask the person, “Do you mind if I take your picture?” If they say yes, then I’m good. If they said “Ok, as long as you don’t get my face,” I tell them no problem. Then I’ll take a picture of the side or the back of their hair. Sometimes I just photograph the hair that has fallen to the floor. Then I’ll put a caption on the picture and tell their story.
When I leave that person, I leave him or her feeling better than they’ve felt in a long time. And this costs me nothing but a little bit of time. It is so worth it. I feel like I’ve made somebody happier. It is the best feeling in the world to be able to connect with someone in that way. I love doing this work; it is incredibly powerful.
Is there any one category of people you find among the homeless more than another?
Reed: No. Homelessness isn’t picky. It can happen to anyone. I have met men, women, and children of all ages and races. But it does seem that our society as a whole has stereotyped the homeless. I even remember as a kid, when we would pass a homeless person my dad would say, “Oh that’s just a bum. He’s just trying to get money for alcohol.”
Moya: What are some of the ways you’ve heard that people end up homeless?
Reed: First, we are all only a step away from homelessness. It could happen to any one of us. A lot of people think that homeless people are just people with drug or alcohol problems. Sure, some of them are, but it seems that family is a big thing. Many people have not gotten along with their families, and they just don’t have anyone to fall back on. They have had a catastrophic incident occur in their lives and when there is no one to turn to this is what happens.
It’s funny because people often ask me, “Aren’t they dirty? Don’t you come across some dirty hair?” I will tell you this. The dirtiest people that I have met have sat in my salon chair and spent $300.00 on a color and cut. Just two weeks ago a woman came in and her hair was wet. I asked her, “Did you just get out of the shower?” She said, “No, I just played two hours of tennis.” She was sweaty. She smelled bad. Her breath smelled. It was unbelievable. She was dirtier than any homeless person I have ever come across. You have to be careful before you judge people because you never know.
Moya: Is there any man, women or child that particularly stands out in your memory?
Reed: There are so many that stand out, but recently I just did an event in Frederick, Maryland. I was cutting hair for families in need at a local shelter. There was one little girl, who was there with her mother and three brothers. I gave haircuts to the entire family. The kids didn’t look good. They look malnourished; they had bags under their eyes, and they just didn’t look healthy. Before the little girl left, she hugged me, and she had her face buried in my stomach. She was hugging me so tight, and she wouldn’t let go. I had to take her little arms from my waist and take her off of me, but she didn’t want to go.
I had to step outside after that one. Before that day, I’ve never cried or gotten emotional like that. I learned when I was at the fire department as a young adult when people are injured or hurt, we just take them to the hospital, hand the chart to the charge nurse and that was it. I didn’t know if they lived, died, or anything that happened to them from that point on. So I got somewhat used to that disconnection. For me to be able to cut hair for homeless, I can’t follow through on each individual. I just can’t. It’s not good for me; it’s not good for them. I just focus on what we are doing at the moment. I cut their hair, it’s going to be a great half hour or hour, however long they want to talk to me. We will do the haircut and talk, and that’s just it. Good luck with your life. I have to make the disconnection. However, with this little girl, I had to walk outside, that one was very, very hard.
Moya: What did you say to the little girl as you were taking her arms off of you?
Reed: I just said, “It was so nice to meet you. You are such a precious little girl, and you have such a great family.”
Coincidently, just the other night I read a letter that the mom of the little girl wrote to the director of this event. She wrote that she wanted to let the director know how happy she was, and she wanted to know more about me and to thank me for taking care of her family. She wrote, “I’m the mom whose daughter wouldn’t let go of the hairdresser. I want to thank you for providing me a safe place to bring my children, and thank the hairdresser.” That was incredible.
It’s hard when you see the kids, but it’s also hard to see women in their eighties who are in the shelter. I’ve cut hair for a couple of woman in the homeless shelter who have been in their eighties. They tell me that they don’t want to die there. They are getting older, and they don’t know what is going to happen to them. That is extraordinarily hard.
[pullquote]I was at the homeless shelter getting ready as usual. . . I turned around, and I see this woman walking down the hall who used to be one of my regular clients at the salon[/pullquote]
There is one other person that stands out in my memory. I was at the homeless shelter getting ready as usual. I set my stuff up; I tell them I’m ready then somebody walks back to call for the next person. I usually listen to their footsteps and try to imagine what they are going to look like when they come in. This one time I turned around, and I see this woman walking down the hall who used to be one of my regular clients at the salon. She used to spend a lot of money every six weeks for me to cut and color her hair. She had two kids in private schools and lived in an affluent area of Maryland. We recognized each other, and I said, “What are you doing here? Are you volunteering?” She said, “I’m a client.” I was dumbfounded. She was embarrassed. I told her to sit down, and I said, “Wow. How does something like this happen?” She told me she had gone through a divorce with her husband; then her father got very sick. She was taking care of her dad until he passed away. Then there were problems with the will, and she didn’t get the money she thought was coming to her, and the divorce just wrecked her. She just ended up with nothing and nobody could help her. The kids were with their father, but I felt so sorry for this lady who previously seemed to have it all. That was a crazy situation, and I just couldn’t believe it. She was the last person on this earth I would have expected to see in the homeless shelter. It just proved to me that anyone could end up homeless in an instant.
You mentioned earlier that you had some experiences in your adolescent years that allowed you to identify with the homeless, could you elaborate on that?
Reed: Yes, I had some rough times during my teen years which provided me with experiences that allow me to understand what it’s like to be homeless. I tried to forget about those years, but every two to three years something would happen, or I’d see something that reminded me of a drug abuse program that I was in. I knew the things that happened there were not right. The older I got, the more I realized that children should not have been treated like that. There was no supervision and the young people who were in charge, watched as ungodly things happened to other kids. The worst part is that I got pulled into the corruption myself, and what was done to me, I then did to others thinking that is just how to survive in this program. I had a lot of regret for what I had done, so I ran from it for a long time.
About ten years ago, when we got a computer in our home, I decided to google Straight, Incorporated. That was the name of the program I was in from May of 1987 to May of 1989, in Springfield, Virginia. It was, in essence, a cult that operated under the guise of a national, adolescent drug rehabilitation program. I don’t know if you have ever heard of the cult called Synanon that served as a drug rehabilitation program for adults, but this was primarily the same thing only the adolescent version.
When I googled Straight, Incorporated, everything that I had been running from just hit me and I was in tears. I’m a strong person, and I don’t cry over much, but it just hit me. All my thoughts and feelings about those years were validated. When I read some of the things that said that this program was not right, and there are other program survivors out there—the term ‘survivor’ hit me—it hit me like a ton of bricks. I called my husband and said, “You have to come home.” He said, “What’s wrong?” I never do that under any circumstance because I had been through the Straight, Inc. program. That’s how I handle my life, most things that could happen to me couldn’t be that bad because I’ve already been through the some of the worst possible things that could happen. This program basically kidnaped me and forced me to do things that were against my will for two years. When he realized something unusual was going on, he came home. I showed him all of this stuff and told him what had happened to me and others in this program. He already knew I was in this program, but he never knew just how bad it was. It was just so shocking to see all of these ‘secrets’ published online; to see that it was out there.
Moya: What was his response to what you told him?
Reed: He wanted me to put it behind me. He said that this is stuff that had happened a long time ago and that I needed just to move on. And so I did. But sometimes the memories would still come up, and I would talk to him about it. At one point, I guess he got sick of me reflecting back on it, and he turned to me and said, “Stop talking about it! I never want to hear you talk about Straight again.” And so I did, and our marriage ended.
We were married for 23 years; it didn’t end because of Straight—at all. It was just one more thing in the line of things that happened to contribute to the divorce. He met me five years after I got out of that program and I still wasn’t back to normal. I was still getting used to just being back in mainstream society. I was trying to figure out how to adjust to certain things when I met him, and I ended up not being happy, but I just sucked it up like I did in Straight. As I grew older and stronger as a person, and as a woman, when he told me he never wanted me to talk about it again, it was like he was saying he didn’t care about me. I mean I have always run from it—my whole life had been running from Straight, whether I realized it or not—Straight was and is a huge part of my life.
Moya: You mentioned this program was like a cult, so how did you get out of it?
Reed: Well, I was fourteen years old when I was first put in this program, so two years later I was sixteen when they had let me return to school. I was sitting in gym class, and one of the girls wrote on my shoe “I Love Chad.” Now, I did have a crush on Chad, but I was in Straight, and I wasn’t allowed even to look at boys. I surely wasn’t supposed to have a crush on a boy. Those were a part of the written rules of the program, all of which had very literal interpretations. I had to go back to the Straight building directly after school. When I saw another girl from the program read my shoe, I knew I was going to get in big trouble.
[pullquote]you were prevented from going anywhere else including school[/pullquote]
In this program, you begin in the first phase of the program, where you are told that you have lost all of your freedom and all of your rights because you decided to do drugs. That meant you were walked around by another girl like a dog on a leash, only the leash was a girl’s hand tightly wrapped around the top of the back of your pants and her thumb inserted through the belt loop. From the minute you entered the building (even if your parents just brought you there for an assessment, once you walked through the front doors they owned you) you were grabbed by your pants to be walked around and put in a seat. You were not allowed to get up from the seat without asking permission. You were watched at all times, and if you attempted to get up from your seat, other girls would grab you and sit you back down in your seat (or worse). You were watched by other kids 24/7. There were two bathroom breaks during the 12+ hour days, at which time girls who had earned back their freedom would grab you by the pants and walk you to the bathrooms. There were no doors on the stalls, and there were girls standing guard, one in front of each stall. You had 30 seconds to do your thing then you were pulled up and out of the stall and walked back to your chair in the group. This is just one example of the literal meaning of having lost all freedom according to the program. When you weren’t in the building, you were sent home (by the belt loop of course) to another kid’s home where the same treatment continued, and you were prevented from going anywhere else including school. You progress through the phases of the program by proving you’ve become a true believer in their ways, and you slowly earn back freedom along the way.
I had been in this program for two years and was in the fifth and final phase of the program when this “I love Chad” incident occurred. I knew she had seen the writing on my shoe, and she knew I saw her see it. We both knew that she would have to turn me in. It was part of this strange culture; she had to report me so she wouldn’t get in trouble. ‘Trouble’ almost always meant having all of your freedoms taken away once again.
When I was at home that night, I decided I was going to leave the program the next day. I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go, but I knew I couldn’t just go back to the building. If I did, I’d be set back to the first phase and shuffled between random houses with nothing more than my clothes in my paper bag (if I was lucky enough even to have that).
I had a couple of girls in their first stages of the program staying with me at my house that I had to get to the Straight building the next day. Luckily, by then the program had a Straight, Inc. bus that would transport Maryland people to the Springfield, Virginia building. I was so afraid I was going to miss getting them on that bus because I knew if I had to go anywhere near the building that day, that I would get set back to the first phase. However, we got there on time, I got them on the bus, and I knew I was home free. Then, my mother took me to school.
Moya: Where did you go from there?
Reed: I went to the school counselor whom I was close to and had already talked to about Straight. I told her that I was going to leave Straight, and a couple of friends were going to help me. I decided I would just walk into the woods behind the school and stay there until I could figure out where to go. I spoke with the counselor that morning and stayed with her most of the day. At about noon, I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, my parents were standing there in the counselor’s office.
We’re on the fourth floor of the school, and my parents are standing to my right, and there are open windows to my left. I’m looking at the windows and noticed that they open inwardly, but I’m small, so I think if I run fast enough I could jump out the window. There was just no way I could go back to Straight, Inc. My parents saw me looking at the windows and immediately understood what was going through my mind. I started crying, “I’m not going back. I’ll die before I go back, I’m not going back.” They just started crying and said, “You don’t have to go back, Laura. You don’t have to go back.”
[pullquote]I was so messed up in the head from that place I didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe.[/pullquote]
I was so messed up in the head from that place I didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe. I can’t remember how long I stood there contemplating whether I was going to jump out that window or not. Eventually, we sat down in the counselor’s office and started talking and everything kind of simmered down. When my dad drove me to his house, I had my hand on the car door the whole way home because I had a feeling he might still try to take me back to the building. I knew if he got onto the beltway, I would jump out of the car. However, he did end up taking me home.
He called the building and said, “We’ve graduated ourselves from the program today.” The staff, as was par for the course, told him, “You need to come back in. She is a druggy, and she is manipulating you. You need to come back in, and we need to sit down and talk about it.” My dad said, “No. We’ve done enough talking. We’re not going to do this anymore. We are graduating.”
So that night and for the next couple of months, I had my parents put an alarm on my bedroom door. They already had the alarms because the program required parents to put alarms on the bedroom doors to keep all of the kids in their room at nights to prevent them from escaping. But I was nervous that people from the program would come into my house and try to take me back to the program in the middle of the night. I figured if my parents alarmed me in the room, it would at least give me a chance to run. And this was crazy because I never thought that way before I went into this program, I never thought like that. I was… I mean I was a kid that was rebellious, but I never did drugs. I didn’t drink or do any drugs before I went in there. I may have had a couple of sips of Jack Daniels because my friends did, but other than that I never did anything. Then I end up in the toughest drug rehabilitation program in the country.
Moya: Why did that happen?
Reed: It was because there wasn’t enough information out there. My mom found the program through my dentist whose child was in there. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I found out later that you got a discount if you referred people to the program. He said to my mom, “Your daughter isn’t looking good, are you struggling with her?” My mom was like, “Yes, she’s just difficult.” He asked her, “Do you think she’s on drugs?” My mom responded, “I have no idea.”
He proceeded to ask her some questions from a Straight checklist about me and of course, every teenage kid in the world meets the criteria of the list. So she took me to Straight, to find out if I was on drugs. And that is how I ended up there. Just by chance.
Even though it was over twenty years ago when I was 14 years old and in that program, I can still vividly remember that feeling of being completely alone, not knowing who to trust, witnessing horrible violence, and never knowing where I would be sleeping that night. That’s how I can understand the experiences of the homeless people.
Now, I’ve developed as a woman and as a person, and I love where I am in my life. And I love doing the things I have a passion for. I love cutting hair, and I love working with the homeless.
You do seem to have a passion for cutting hair for the homeless, how does this work affect you?
Reed: I will tell you this; I cannot give it up now. If I tried, I would probably have withdrawals. Doing this work is actually very selfish. Going through the divorce, and custody disputes this past summer was probably one of the worst times in my life, especially since Straight was brought up in the custody situation. It was just brutal. While my world felt like it was falling apart, I cut more hair for the homeless than I ever had because it was the only thing that made me happy. It helped me get through it. Helping other people and giving back to other people gave me my life back. It was a beautiful thing to fall back on. So it is was my drug. I would go to shelters, and I would come home and think I did really good today, I helped those people. Cutting hair for the homeless feeds me the drug of satisfaction.
Reed: Oh, I will do this forever. I am going to Australia in a couple of weeks (because my daughter will be studying abroad there), so I’m going to bring my scissors and do it there. I want to keep doing this for as long as I possibly can. I want to give haircuts to the homeless in every city or country I visit.
What is your advice to people who might be interested in doing something similar?
Reed: Oh my goodness! Do it! I found my niche, I kind of stumbled on it. I was very lucky, but everybody has something or some way that he or she can give back to humanity, you just have to find what is right for you.
Moya: I have mentioned what you do to my hairdresser, and she thought it was nice, but didn’t seem interested in doing something similar, what would you say to those people?
Reed: Some people want to do it, and some people don’t want to do it. If you don’t want to give back, that’s fine, but don’t complain about being unhappy. You will find that the happiest people are the ones that give back to others—the ones that make a difference in the world, whether it’s helping animals or people. There are homeless shelters down the street that need things for their clients. It could be as simple as bringing yarn to a homeless shelter, a lot of the ladies knit. There is a ton of stuff that you can do. Anybody can do it, and it isn’t money that these people need.
Regardless of what or if you choose to do anything, at least acknowledge the homeless people. That is what people who have been on the street for a long time say—that acknowledgment is huge. So many people walk by them and ignore them because they just don’t realize that homeless people are individuals too. They need time, and they need to be treated like humans. I think that is the most important thing. I carry apples with me all the time. Sometimes all it takes is a little a bit of acknowledgment, “Here ya go, have a great day,” I say as I hand them an apple.
Robert J. Lifton,M.D., and Steven Hassan, discuss the 2016 USA Elections.
A colleague and old friend from the Straight, Inc. days (early 1980’s) recently accompanied Steve Hassan to interview 90-year-old Robert J. Lifton, MD (expert on thought reform and totalism) to discuss extremism, absolutism, malignant normality, dissociation, and other facets of thought reform and undue influence. They discuss how thought reform and undue influence have been used in the 2016 US presidential election and in the past.
Shane Absalon was court ordered to Straight, Inc. as a condition of probation for a charge of criminal mischief in July of 1986. During his time at Straight, Shane was coerced by staff to admit to committing a murder in 1984. In 2009, after seeing a news report, others who sat in Straight with Shane, including his oldcomer, decided to come forward to confirm that they heard him confess in a group session.
There were very few clients in Straight who weren’t coerced to confess to things they didn’t do, so that it would look like they were “getting honest,” admitting to all the supposed awful things they did before the program, in hopes of someday getting out of that program/hell-hole.
Dead, Insane or In Jail.
If you were ever in Straight, Inc., as a young person, you’ll remember the mantra that was drilled into us, “If your parents didn’t put you here you would have ended up dead-insane-or-in-jail!” (They used to say it as though it was a single word deadinsaneorinjail) The staff and other phasers would also threaten that if you didn’t finish the program, you would meet the same fate.
Then, if you were not able to escape from the program (or you were court-ordered to the program) and your only choice was to try to advance through the program, you claimed that as your own fate. “Let’s be thankful that our parents loved us enough to put us here. If they hadn’t, we would probably be deadinsaneorinjail by now,” (despite the fact we are only 15 years old and haven’t even had a chance to try drugs yet or else we only tried pot and alcohol a couple of times on the weekends at a party.)
For some impressionable young minds, this persistent message more than likely became a self-fulfilling prophecy. While many Straight, Inc. Survivors are very fortunate and doing quite fine in spite of their stint in the abusive program; others weren’t so lucky and ended up in awful situations.
Imagine if once you entered the program, you confessed to murder either (1) because staff members and other phasers were relentlessly accusing you of committing the crime and strong-armed you into admitting to it before they would give you any semblance of peace. (2) as a way to go to jail to escape Straight, Inc. (There have been statements made by survivors who have experienced both jail and the program, who conclude that jail is a ‘day at the beach’ compared to being in Straight, Inc.). (3) you needed to appear more ferocious than you were out of fear of getting beaten or raped. (4) To show what incredible changes you were making to progress and eventually get out of the program.
Before being put in the program at fifteen years old, I remember specifically asking my father how anyone could admit to a crime they didn’t commit after seeing it on a television show. He tried to explain it to me, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around how any circumstances could be so bad that you would confess to just about anything. Once I entered Straight, Inc., it became all too clear how it occurs.
Did you know that the ‘Confidentiality’ rule didn’t apply to those court-ordered to the program?
Neither did Shane Absalon.
Now, add to coercion the fact that you hear several times a day about the program rule of ‘Confidentiality’ and that it very strictly means “What you see here, hear here or say here, stays here.”
In the mind of a young person, making the punishments stop by admitting to anything, even breaking the law (even murder!), is the best solution, especially since we are ‘protected’ by ‘Confidentiality’ and the punishments that come to anyone who dares to break the rule.
I don’t know Shane Absalon, and I have no idea if he murdered Ginger Hayden. Only he, the murderer–if it isn’t Shane, and the victim of the crime, know the truth.
But I’m all too well-acquainted with the intensive coercion that took place inside of the Straight, Inc. walls. My familiarity with that particular type of bullying coupled with becoming familiar with the details of Shane’s case, I sincerely doubt that confession during his time at Straight, Inc. was any more truthful than my own confession of having a drug problem. These were the things we did as our very survival depended on “getting with the program,” and saying the things and doing the things they wanted us to do.
An attorney is looking for affidavits from former Straight, Inc. Clients.
We recently received a letter from a lawyer looking for testimonies regarding coerced confessions from ‘program-clients’ of Straight, Inc. Affidavits from clients who were in the Straight, Inc. Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas location during the 1986-1987 time frame are the most valuable. Next, would be those from the Dallas Straight, Inc., and he welcomes a statement from anyone who can attest to the coercive nature of the Straight, Inc. program at any time and in any location.
Email received from James Drummond, Esq:
I represent Shane Absalon on a Texas appeal from a cold case murder conviction. One of our issues involves his time at Straight, Inc. in the Dallas Fort Worth are in 1986. Shane was coerced into confessing to a murder which I believe he did not commit, as the evidence points to another man (now dead). The State’s case relief heavily on these admissions which were in open meetings – and several witnesses were called to testify who had heard these alleged statements at Straight assemblies.
I am looking for affidavits about the coercion of false confessions necessary to meet Straight’s requirements to progress through that program. Especially prized would be affidavits from the Dallas Straight, especially from around that time, but any and all affidavits at any and all times would be wonderful and the more detail the better.
All I would need is a narrative; I could then convert it into affidavit format and send it back for final review; if the person making the affidavit finds it all accurate, it would just have to be signed by you before a notary, sealed by the notary, and returned to me in a self-addressed and stamped envelope I would provide.
We may have a hearing early this fall, so I would really like to get everything in order as soon as practicable.
He responded right away with a properly formatted version and a lot of gratitude. I have two pretty good reasons for thinking this is worthwhile.
1) I don’t need to know 100% for sure that Shane Absalon is innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted. The only question Mr. Drummond is asking us to answer is whether or not we witnessed and experienced coercion to falsely confess. Simple question, simple answer, yes, every single day. That is the only piece of evidence in this case that he is asking us to address and I feel that I can do that with a clear conscience. The rest of the evidence is Mr. Drummond’s concern.
2) One thing I know about lawyers, they don’t like to lose. And this guy has shut down his practice in Oklahoma specifically to work on the matter of rampant wrongful convictions in Texas. I tend to think that Shane’s case is a pretty strong case because it would hurt Drummond’s cause to pick a weak one.
Thank you for taking an interest in Shane Absalon’s case.My name is Virginia R. McNulty. My family became involved in a program called The Seed in Ft. Lauderdale in around 1970 when I was about 5 years old. My parents placed me in Straight, Inc. in St. Petersburg in Oct of 1980. I left the program in late 1982. At that time, I was on the highest phase of the program and on pre-training for staff.
I can attest to the fact that forced false and exaggerated confessions were a routine part of the program from the start of the intake interview all the way to the present. Among my false confessions was that I had a drug problem. I did not. But, in order to be allowed almost adequate sleep, a break from the constant verbal and emotional pressure to confess, I did say that I was a druggie (program term).
Like every other Straight, Inc. client, I also confessed to having used both marijuana and THC. Every last one of us made that ridiculous claim upon introduction (public confession required at open meeting in order to be considered for advancement through the program); “Hi, my name is [name]. The drugs I’ve done are pot, alcohol, THC, over-the-counter drugs (and then whatever). ”
This was done, in my opinion, for two primary reasons; to break the will of the client, bringing them along by degrees to more and more submissive mindset til one wasn’t really sure what was real and true and what was contrived. After being immersed in this environment for some time, we really were not at all sure ourselves what we remembered and knew from our own observations and what was false narrative imposed by the program. The other reason was to put forth the appearance to the parents and others in the audience they were dealing with the worst of the worst of potentially dangerous drug fiends, when really we were just the unlucky children of parents with more money than common sense.
This was true of the vast majority, though several (like less than half a dozen out of hundreds of clients actually had substance abuse problems and/or violent criminal histories that may or may not have been related to their drug use).
Because I had been involved for most of my life, I knew the system and did not believe much of what I heard people confessing to. But here’s a short list of highly implausible confessions that stand out in my mind.
Libbi McDonald was 16 years old when she entered the program. She was the daughter of a wealthy restaurant owner (not the hamburger chain). She was unusually small, maybe 4’11”. And she became a lifelong devotee to The Seed, being on sr. staff when I was a kid and continuing her affiliation with Art Barker well into the 2000’s. Her story was that she had a $1,000 per day heroin habit…. in 1970 dollars. That would be roughly 80 – 100 stamp bags per day. Suuuuure… but it sure scared the public into shoveling money into the program.
Another commonly accepted, though highly implausible story was that every teenage boy in the program had had sexual relations with the family pet. Now I know that adolescent boys tend to experiment in unusual ways sometimes. But every one? With the dog or cat?? I seriously doubt it!
One 17yo girl and her brother, who was around 20 or so, told the tale of having been in charge of the biggest cocaine import operation in So. Florida. I did notice, but did not mention at the time, that there were no guards protecting them from the cartel.
That’s about all I can recollect off the top of my head right now. Please feel free to ask me any questions.
Again, thanks for what you’re doing. I don’t know Shane at all, but if anything said during newcomer introduction at a Straight open meeting forms a basis for his conviction, it definitely should be thrown out!
Each year on May 29th, I remember the day that my life took an irreversible turn. I tend to mark that day as the last day of my naiveté and the last day of my childhood. That was the day, I unexpectedly found myself in the Straight, Inc. program.
‘Anniversary Reactions’ is the name that social scientists have given the phenomenon in which many people experience intensified memories, and/or emotions on the anniversary date of a traumatic event.
Anniversary dates of traumatic events can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual event, and survivors may experience peaks of anxiety and depression, according to psychologist Susan Silk, PhD, of APA’s Disaster Response Network.
Around the anniversary of a traumatic event, people are likely to remember events clearly and many will feel emotions more intensely than usual. Reliving the sadness is a very natural part of the healing process. But there is no one right way to heal. Try not to compare your reactions to those of others. Each person is different, and each individual will find his or her own way of coping with the memories.
Some of the reactions those affected may experience as the anniversary date nears include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritable outbursts, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep and feelings of detachment from others.
Most people will feel better within a week or two after the anniversary. Over time, the stress symptoms will decrease in both frequency and severity. Providers can suggest strategies to help survivors through the anniversary period. For example, survivors may find it helpful to make specific plans for the anniversary day so that they have other things to occupy their time besides memories of the event. Some may choose to participate in a commemorative ceremony such as visiting a grave, making a charitable donation, giving blood, helping others, or dedicating the day to spending time with family.
It is common for people who did not seek help for the original trauma to feel ashamed that they are still suffering months or years later. However, the fact that someone did not seek help may itself be symptomatic of trauma-related avoidant behaviors and can be viewed as a signal that professional help should be sought.
Unanswered questions about the skeleton in the closet
Before I began to research the facts surrounding the ‘skeleton in my closet,’ my anniversary date was filled with questions about the how’s and why’s of the Straight, Inc. program, followed by anger towards my parents for initiating the action, then allowing the ordeal to continue. I was ashamed of the skeleton in my closet even though I knew I it was a ‘fake skeleton,’ placed in my closet by others. I couldn’t reconcile the feelings I had with the events that occurred. Nothing made sense.
The mixed emotions and confusion are (among other things) what propelled me to research the exact nature of the Straight, Inc. program and eventually work to expose the nature of the Straight, Inc. programs and other similar institutional or residential settings.
Acceptance, and planning for peace and gratitude
For me, learning the truth was the first step in my being able to make some sense of the conflict I would experience each year on the anniversary date of entering the program. Each year, May 29th, still makes its presence known in my life, even though it all began thirty-four years ago. I suspect it will always be one of those dates in which I remember each minute detail of everything that I experienced on that particular day in my life, and because I imagine that this date will always stand out above all others, I have made peace with it.
Each year I view the date as a day of gratitude. I make sure I plan activities that take me outside (to represent my freedom from a warehouse) regardless of the weather, though so far the weather has generally been very good on this day. I usually plan at least one solo action (which represents my freedom from being watched and controlled by others 24/7), and if at all possible I plan something that involves water—either going to a beach, swimming in a pool or walking around a lake. (This represents the trip to the beach that never occurred because it was the pretense under which my parents dishonestly lured me into the dreaded warehouse). I celebrate my survival, my health, my freedom, the love in my life and all of my good fortune.
Was it always like this? No. But it is today and has been for a while and with continued good fortune it will remain this way.
Everyone copes differently
I respect that everyone copes differently, but I also want to put this challenge out there for any willing takers: Each time the anxiety, anger, depression, etc. find their way into your life, go find a way to recognize the good in your life, perhaps help others who are less fortunate, or at the very least, do something nice for yourself.
This year on May 29th, I hope to visit the Korean War Veteran Memorial in homage to my father. I remember my father calling the Korean War, the “Forgotten War.” It was downplayed and considered a ‘conflict’ rather than a war. Because, according to a writer on this site (https://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-Korean-War-called-the-forgotten-war), Even though it was the first “hot” conflict of the Cold War, the Cold War was still young and not wholly appreciated for how it would grip American society.
I’ve been reading through letters that my father wrote while he was fighting in the Korean War. As I read them, I feel a deep empathy for this young man who found himself in a frightening, unwanted situation in a foreign land. I wish I could talk to my father about my own experiences and hear about his, and compare notes. But as you may have read in an earlier post he didn’t survive the program.
He turned 53 years old eleven days before he died on May 11th, just short of my one year anniversary in the program. I believe the excessive stress he experienced in the program put the final nail in his coffin. So to honor a man who gave a lot in the under-recognized (during his lifetime) Korean War and who gave his life believing he was saving mine in another under-recognized war (“the drug war”), I will spend some time contemplating our lives in the presence of the ‘Korean War soldiers.’ After that I hope to visit a nearby park with a beautiful lake and end the day enjoying my home and my neighborhood at the fourth annual neighborhood Memorial Day bash.
What will you do on your next ‘anniversary’?
Add your answers to the comments below, in case your ideas can help out another survivor who is reading this.
For further reading on this topic, search “anniversary reactions.”
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
This is part of a draft of an excerpt from my forthcoming book about experiences in the Straight, Inc. program.
Dr. Bousquet grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. He trained in Clinical Social Work and Clinical Psychology, and is now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is employed as a Supervising Psychologist at The Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque.
During the 1970s and 1980s I heard many stories from graduates of The Seed and Straight, Inc., sometimes in my role as a volunteer counselor at the St. Petersburg Hotline, and sometimes from friends. The stories I heard were completely consistent with a variety of damning reports that have since become available online.
I am writing now from the perspective of an experienced mental health professional, with a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work, and a PhD in Clinical Psychology. In my view, the Seed and Straight, Inc. were ethically indefensible programs that likely did far more harm than good.
The public record indicates that these programs depended upon routine practices more commonly associated with cults and/or with torture:
Isolation from outside influence
Idealization of a leader figure
Intensive peer pressure to conform
Punishment of doubt or any form of questioning
Prolonged physical restraint and physical assault
Food restriction, water restriction, bathroom restriction
Forced sitting for long periods of time in uncomfortable chairs (even leaning against the back of the chair was prohibited)
Public humiliation & forced complicity in the humiliation of others
Lengthy, stereotypical propaganda sessions
Practices that promoted distrust among clients, limiting the potential for mutually supported resistance to the program
Prolonged exposure to over-stimulating social environments with no opportunity for even momentary privacy or quiet
I am aware that there are graduates who laud these programs, claiming that The Seed or Straight, Inc. improved, or even saved their life, and I take them at their word. A few caveats are in order, however.
First, given the many cult-like practices used by these programs, graduate testimonials may be difficult to fully evaluate. When conformity to the party line is reinforced as intensively as it was in these programs, over a significant period of time, program allegiance can become automatic, almost unthinking.
Second, due to the inescapable and high level of control the programs exercised over clients, and reported systematic and idiosyncratic abuses, these were potentially traumatizing environments. Under such conditions, some people will manage high levels of anxiety by adopting a favorable view of the aggressor(s).
Third, the practice of placing more compliant clients in positions of quasi-authority over newer clients created degrees of complicity that could make later renunciation of the programs more psychologically challenging.
Fourth, since most program clients were involuntarily committed by parents, allegiance to one’s parents and allegiance to the programs are automatically confounded.
[pullquote]I have little doubt that The Seed and Straight, Inc. helped some individuals…but there are also people who will tell you, in retrospect, how some terrible personal calamity made them stronger and wiser.[/pullquote]
In any case, in condemning these programs it is not logically necessary to contend that they never helped a single living soul. Again, I have little doubt that The Seed and Straight, Inc. helped some individuals…but there are also people who will tell you, in retrospect, how some terrible personal calamity made them stronger and wiser. Yet I’ve never heard of a professional colleague, or anyone else, prescribe personal calamity as a method self-improvement.
Why is that? Well, of course, because personal calamity would be far too risky, as a means of self-improvement.
While personal calamity might occasionally produce desirable results, the risk of serious, undesirable results (depression, PTSD, suicide, etc.) would simply be too large relative to potential benefits.
We would never suggest throwing the dice, against the odds, in the case of anyone we cared about.
Unfortunately, using a number of deceptive techniques The Seed and Straight, Inc. conned many caring parents into doing just that, committing their children to an unnecessarily risky treatment in the hope of resolving issues that rarely, if ever, warranted such extreme measures.
I knew of instances, for example, in which parents panicked, after finding a single marijuana joint, bypassed every other possible means of intervention, and sent one or more children to The Seed.
The Seed played a siren song to its referral sources, parents and government officials, by over-stating the risk of even minimal drug experimentation, questioning the effectiveness of any other form of treatment, and claiming suspiciously high levels of treatment success without any reliable evidence.
In no way do I mean to minimize the seriousness of drug abuse, especially during the teen years when critical brain development, and social development, can be seriously compromised by reliance upon drugs or alcohol.
Dr. Bousquet’s guidelines for parents with concerns about a child
I would encourage any parent with concerns about a child’s substance use not to panic. Instead, follow these sensible guidelines:
Try to assess imminent and medium term risk in a realistic manner.
Consult with people whose judgment you trust, including medical and mental health professionals.
Become fully informed regarding the range of treatment options and choose an initial intervention that is proportional to realistically assessed risk.
Look for interventions with empirically validated efficacy. Don’t rely on hearsay or pure marketing statements.
Take into account reports of adverse responses to specific treatments you are considering.
Ask who will be directly administering any form of treatment you are considering. Only by insisting on direct treatment by state-licensed professionals can you assure that the ethical codes of the various mental health professions are applicable.
 The so-called “Stockholm Syndrome” has not been well researched. Although it probably occurs less frequently than originally believed, many anecdotal accounts do suggest that a substantial minority of people in captive situations achieve greater comfort, and improve their practical adaptation, within the context of the captive situation, by adopting a sympathetic view of the aggressor(s).
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.
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.
For Straight, Inc. the controversy begins. The same program ‘formula’ was used in the Seed and in Straight so the program-controversy continues, just under a new name.
In the previous post, “A new place for young to ‘get straight,'” the St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer, David M. Snyder wrote a positive toned article about Straight, Inc. It is more than likely he wrote the article based on what he saw at an “open meeting” and what he was told by the staff.
Later a St. Petersburg Times reader wrote a letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times expressing frank concern that Straight, Inc. receives federal money and support (in the form of a favorable news article, March 7) of the St. Petersburg Times.
‘Straight, Inc. staffed by former Seed inmates, promises to turn out kids who have had their drug habits kicked for them.
Hey, presto! No more drugs, no more druggie friends, no more embarrassment to the family.
. . .
‘. . .the people are carnival hawkers who wave their miraculous “cure” rate statistics around, gratefully collect their fees for treatment, and proceed to alter the young drug user’s habits in the quickest, simplest fashion possible, without due regard for unique elements in the drug user’s environment or psychological make up which might complicated matters.
‘Their solution is indeed incredible — “one treatment cures all.”
‘All I know of psychology suggests that submerging a young person in any environment where he or she is vulnerable to intense, consistent pressure to conform, will not generally help that person become more self-reliant or responsible.
‘In good conscience, I could not commit anyone to a program which ruthlessly programs people according to inflexible orthodoxies established by one man (James Hartz) who sits above everything, smiling, as beneficent appearing as God — or Big Brother.
‘I feel very strongly that civil rights are currently being violated by Straight, Inc. and its formal and informal agents. The courts may have the right to commit people to involuntary treatment programs, but it is my belief that this right should not allow involuntary commitment to programs which exercise dangerous methods of behavior modification — and I would include brainwashing among these.’
This letter, poses the age-old question:
‘Devotion to schoolwork — “a traditional goal-oriented life” — these things are terrific, but what costs must be paid? [underline-emphasis added by blog post author]
‘Remember, above all else that Straight, Inc. operates as a money-making project. Behavior modification is a valuable tool when placed in the hands of qualified people with a sense of ethics.
‘People like this do not run Straight, Inc.”
Straight was born out The Seed and The Seed was born out of Synanon, Inc. The program-formulas were all the same. They operate believing that the ends always justify the means regarding their own format of “therapy.”