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My Rehab: Coming of Age in Purgatory
September 26, 2013
In 1982 I was 16 and destroying my life. Or my life was falling apart, depending on how you portion out the responsibility. Me and my dysfunction didn’t just hang out at home fighting with my parents. I propelled myself and I got yanked. I was placed in treatment, the system, institutions. You get a new life, a subculture, an enemy. You get war stories. You get to hear people all day say, “I’d be dead or in jail if not for this place.”
I came of age in the TC, the Therapeutic Community. A TC is where I had to wear a diaper at seventeen, as what they call a “Learning Experience.” It’s where you call your fellow residents “Family.” Where residents wear crocodile masks (to correct phony tears); where boys were dressed in women’s clothing, in clown outfits, as hobos, superheroes, and donkeys (required to say “hee-haw” before and after each time they spoke). It’s where residents had to sit in a playpen all day wearing a pig nose.
The goal of the TC, as I experienced it, was to re-socialize you, to make you excessively normal through a highly structured, Puritanical penitence system where labor was both salvation and punishment. Discipline was public, grossly exaggerated, and intended to shame and ridicule, and it came from both staff and peers. TCs were 18- to 24-month programs characterized by isolation from the world, unrelenting surveillance, and intensive confrontation. It’s where you had to dig your own grave outside, scrub the parking lot with a toothbrush, wear a cardboard penis around your neck for sexual acting out, wear tape on your mouth for breaking a speaking ban.
It’s where you’re made to eat baby food, where they shave heads for breaking rules (although this was toned down to a low crew cut about the time I got there, and stocking caps for the girls; there’s a TC legend about how some girl committed suicide after they shaved her head).
TC is where the entire Family sits silently in chairs (called a Closed House) for a week, writing down our infractions (“copping to our guilt”) while being periodically screamed at by staff—“Cop to it. Cop to your guilt. Clean your belly. Do you have guilt? Guilt kills! It all comes out in the wash—tell on yourself. Tell on everyone else!” This while Billy Joel’s Honesty plays over and over.
It started with Synanon, the original Therapeutic Community founded in 1958. Synanon would take the TC philosophy to an extreme (the outside world is a dangerous and contaminated place, no reason to return to it) and in the mid-1980s descended into violence, bizarre behavior, and illegality. The sociologist Barry Sugarman, on another early TC called Daytop in 1974, wrote that “the function of Daytop is to give residents a second chance to grow up…they are required to live under a regime of restrictions more appropriate to children or infants than to adults.” In the 1983 book, The Untherapeutic Community, researcher Robert Weppner cautioned that the mechanisms of therapeutic communities can be “…considered by the naive observer inhumane treatment.” I was, perhaps, naïve.
When I was 16, I spent most “school nights” lying in bed smoking weed out of a pipe carved from an apple, staying up to watch The Life of Riley at 4:30 a.m. In the daytime, I’d wander around outside my high school wearing my sister’s bell bottoms and a form-fitting androgynous shirt (pretending it was 1969), getting high and trying with limited success to join the counterculture (that is to say, the boys who made bongs in shop class). Among a certain crowd back then, being a burnout was an attractive position to aspire to: Leif Garrett hair in front of vacant, stoned eyes, hunched over in remedial classes wearing an army field jacket. I thought being a loser was a beautiful thing.
I was failing most classes. I’d skip school and hitch back and forth on service roads and expressways just to pass the day. I was drinking peppermint extract (high alcohol) in between periods. I intentionally fasted for days at a time—to the extent that I would almost salivate when I saw food in the kitchen. I was heavily in debt, betting on everything from handball games to the ability to toss crumpled pieces of paper into wastebaskets.
Some images from those years: about to lose my mind on an acid trip alone in my room; puking into a Coin Prices magazine in the school library, after consuming gin and Thai stick; climbing head first into my window late at night, a ski coat filled with seeds, stems, tinfoil, and EZ-Widers, while my mother pounded her fists on my back. (In our family my father, though he was at home, didn’t exist.)
I wanted adventure: run off and join the circus, run off and become a burnout, run off and join a rehab. That was part of it. I also had no sense of a future, of going to college, driving a car, living a life. All this seemed inconceivable and no one told me otherwise.
Add in some anxiety, depression, self-hatred, anger—all very ordinary. But I was going to get out or kill myself trying. I started saying the hell with it, more and more, and at each incremental stage, chastising myself for not having the courage to really say the hell with it and then go a little further. After meetings with guidance counselors, school officials, psychologists, doctors—somebody recommended putting me in a program called CDC.
CDC was the Community Day Center, an intensive behavioral modification program for troubled adolescents of the mostly white middle and working class suburbs. It was loosely affiliated with Long Island Jewish Medical Center (I think my mom liked the Jewish part). But really, we were in our own world.
Most of the staff members were ex-addicts who had come through similar programs, and who would scream in your face and tell you war stories about their drug use that were part cautionary and part bravado, as those don’t-be-like-me stories usually are. Most of the boys in the program were the type who wore beat up work boots, army jackets, denim jackets with Blue Oyster Cult painted on the back, maybe a hooded sweatshirt underneath—hippie hobo, listening to classic rock. A few were doing tough—hair combed, thin leather jackets—and their work boots were new and sturdy. The girls mostly modeled themselves on Stevie Nicks. They made jokes about wanting to blow Charles Manson. They wore feather or roach-clip earrings. Or they wouldn’t pick their heads up, or take the hair out of their face.
We all pretended at serious drug habits that we wouldn’t really have for another five or ten years, and the staff treated us accordingly. I was playing at being a drunk before I could even handle alcohol. Weed, alcohol, acid, mescaline, PINS petitions (Person in Need of Supervision, as designated by Family Court); cutting classes, cutting arms, breaking into houses, dealing—that’s who we were.
Upon entering CDC you relinquished all contact with the outside world. Your room at home was “ripped” by a resident with status (an older resident who had earned rank) who confiscated anything considered “negative” (your No One Here Gets Out Alive Jim Morrison bio, your black lights, posters, concert T-shirts). You stayed indoors at the center until 5 p.m. each day—cleaning, going to groups, going to tutors, reciting slogans, screaming and being screamed at, cleaning some more.
The atmosphere was highly structured and the punishments and the rules excessive. At 5 p.m., your parents picked you up, brought you home. You stayed in the house. If, for example, you were to see someone you knew en route from the car to your front door and they said “Hi,” you were to respond, “I’m in a drug rehab, I can’t talk to you.” If you said anything other than this, you had acquired “guilt” and you would have to “cop to it,” tell on yourself, or run the risk that someone else would, including your parents, who were trained to respect the rules of the program. You were required to make daily lists of your own and other peoples’ guilt to hand in each week.
You couldn’t use the phone at home, couldn’t carry money, couldn’t walk to the mailbox to get the mail. Absolutely no contact with “old friends.” In the facility you weren’t allowed to walk alone, curse, flirt with a girl. Various residents were on bans with each other (even eye contact was prohibited). Unless you had the privilege to talk to another resident, you had to ask an older member to monitor your conversation.
You were disciplined for talking negatively, criticizing the program, “goofing on house lingo,” criticizing staff, reacting to criticism, leaning on a wall, putting your foot up, conspiring to have “negative contracts” with other members, telling war stories, touching a member of the opposite sex, breaking confidentiality, or “getting inappropriate.”
If, for example, a resident cursed, another resident with status (an Expeditor, for example, a resident who wore a tie when he achieved that status) would announce, “Hold it up,” and all movement and talking in the room would cease. All the windows would be closed (lest the people outside think we were crazy). The Expeditor would then stand the resident across the room and, at the top of his lungs, scream institutional slogans at him related to the particular program rule he broke. The rule-breaker was careful not to react verbally or even facially under threat of further punishment. This was called a Blowaway, and they went on all day. Residents with newly acquired status would practice their Blowaway techniques in empty rooms.
Once a week you’d knock on a door.
(scream) Who is it?
You wait for a long while.
(scream) Get in here.
Inside two residents are sitting down holding the list of your guilt that you handed in for that week. At the top of their lungs they scream admonitions at you for each of your infractions, always ending it with the harsh, Now get out of here. These were called Haircuts.
You were punished even if you did nothing wrong, because it wasn’t punishment, it was therapy. If staff felt you were “hiding in the woodwork, not fully participating, your Object Lesson (OL) could be to stand in a shower stall all day holding weights because you were “dead weight” in the program.
And the staff believed in the program with a pedantic, fervent zeal. They spent their days going up to residents reciting this script: “Can I confront you? Do you have any guilt?” Or “Can I pull you up? You shouldn’t talk negative. You should cop to it.”
Some of us would subtly, tentatively, wink at each other, but it was dangerous to explicitly criticize the program or break any rule with someone—you never knew who would turn you in (to save your life). You had to memorize the House Philosophy and recite it each morning in unison with the Family. You were never to criticize or mock The Philosophy. That would be considered serious guilt, and you’d be severely punished.
Break a Cardinal Rule in the program—fighting, getting high, splitting, physical intimacy—and things get serious. You would be made to sit on the Prospect Chair (a wooden chair with the back cut off) for weeks. The Chair is placed inches away from a wall that has a photocopy of Our Philosophy taped to it. You sit on this chair, back straight, feet flat on the floor, arms at your side, staring at Our Philosophy—all day, in complete isolation. You talk to no one and you made eye contact with no one. You were watched constantly.
After two or three weeks on the Chair, you get stood up in a Family Meeting, your knees a bit weak from the change in posture, facing your peers who are sitting out in the audience in rows of chairs. The staff then attacks you, screaming in your face, creeping up behind you and exploding, trying to making you jump, trying to make you cry. Then they order the Family to “take care of feelings.” One at a time family members start to scream at you, curse you, insult you. With two hands they hold onto the seat of their chair while rocking and seizing back and forth, the chair jumping spastically, as resident after resident is pushed toward catharsis.
Then you are “shot down,” “put on contract,” given an “Object Lesson” or “Learning Experience.” You scrub floors with toothbrushes, wear large oaktag signs around your neck that say PITY ME or I NEED ATTENTION, sing self-deprecating ditties on the hour. You are then placed on a ban with the entire Family for approximately a month. Then you’re taken out to get a crew cut, or, for girls, the stocking cap. At home you are allowed no television or music.
I was on the Chair eleven times. The monotony of the posture you had to maintain felt unbearable sometimes (especially for a hyperactive teenager)—keeping silent all day, day after day, staring at a piece of paper with three paragraphs of Hallmark self-help blather on it. The tremendous boredom and loneliness, the aching in your back, the sickening thought that there was nothing to look forward to except more monotony. And you never knew what day you would finally be taken off. To distract myself I’d change the pain. I’d place my finger—the soft skin where the finger meets the nail—on the bottom rung of the Chair and carefully grind it as hard as I could until the warmness of a new injury flowed through my body. I’d forget about my spine and it gave me something to do.
I spent most of my time in CDC in trouble—on my knees scrubbing hallways, gagging on the baby food I had to eat as punishment for not bringing my lunch, wearing a body-length sign around my neck that said, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” I was dressed as a hobo (until they concluded that that was “feeding into me).
I split several times: slept outside, crawled through windows into pitch black boiler rooms of apartment buildings looking for shelter, then came back for another Family Meeting, another crew cut, another stint on the Chair.
Late in the program I had a “negative contract” with three or four boys in my weekend group. We were drinking, cutting up whatever was in the medicine cabinet to snort, breaking all the rules. Toward the end I was lying in bed using a lighter to heat up a razor blade and carving the word HELL into my arm. I knew I was gone soon.
After eleven months I was “terminated” from the program, ushered out without being able to speak to anybody. I was on Bad Standings and so were my parents. We were not allowed to ever associate with anyone connected to CDC (at one TC they would have a funeral for people who split). I was referred to a residential TC, Phoenix House.
At Phoenix House, in 1983, my parents signed the paperwork to make me an emancipated minor, a ward of the state, and I was put on welfare. “We gave the kids over to them. You were their kids now,” my mother says today, remembering the “low class shit” in the waiting room of Phoenix House.
In Phoenix House, teenagers were mixed with adults who were serious drug users or who were coming out of prison. A majority of the teenagers had been arrested, done time on Rikers Island, the main city jail, or in state prisons. Most of the residents were in the program as an alternative to incarceration; if they split or were kicked out they’d go behind bars.
I was first placed in a tenement in Manhattan for a few weeks for what was called Induction, in a room with about eight residents. Green, an older black man who used to peddle Sam Cooke songs on 125th Street, sweated out his dope habit night and day on an army cot in my room. Eager to play nurse, I brought him my juice from breakfast and gave him some of my allotted no-frills cigarettes. He later took me under his wing, along with cool-ass-criminal-ladies-man Kevin (so cool he wore his leather pants in the dish room to scrub pots), who called me by the affectionate Kevi-kev. Kevin was a twenty-something with numerous arrests for dope and coke sales.
The population was predominantly black and Latino, and the two of them adopted me as a crazy white boy mascot. I fronted for their doo-wop group in morning meeting in my polyester pants and silk shirt (I had only the clothes on my back when I entered, and the institution had given me a wardrobe from what was mockingly called the Phoenix House Boutique—out-of-fashion charity clothes). There was an ex-con in the room who directed very odd, persistent rape jokes, mostly toward the white teenager in the bed next to mine.
I was out of my league. I once stepped on someone’s foot on the basketball court, and he started yelling, jailhouse style, Yo, you better watch your back, you better sleep with one eye open. I watched a teenage girl dish it right back in therapy group to men who were telling her to suck their dick. Her screaming comeback—surprisingly just as violent as theirs—was that she’d sit on their face and grind her pussy into their mouths. I went into Phoenix House more a troubled adolescent than a criminal or a hardened substance abuser, but I learned the part. I used my junior high school Spanish on the handball court, embellished my autobiography, learned the slang, and gave up any hope of ever getting back on track. I reasoned that I had gone too far and my life was pretty much over. There was very little to be afraid of. This led me to do things like talk back to kingpin adult residents who were running things—people who a little bugged-out 125-pound white boy had no business even addressing, according to the social code of the facility.
At an Encounter therapy group I was casually ripped for not dressing properly and not combing my hair (scrawny white kid looking like a derelict—the group members saw me as a pathetic creature and they were going to score points with staff and release a little venom). I told them to go to hell. That’s when Jim stood up. Jim was a white, middle aged, powerfully built junkie from the Midwest who wore plaid shirts and was melodramatically serious. He had wrist-to-elbow razor-blade scars on the inside of each of his arms from a suicide attempt. He once told the story of how he got drunk when he was twelve years old and chainsawed the heads off his father’s pigs. Jim walked across the circle toward me; I assumed he was going to attack. Reflexively I stood up to accept whatever was coming. He reached out and grabbed me in a tight hug. Later he’d smile at me psychotically and insist that I was just like he was as a boy.
After a few weeks I got transferred to another facility in the Bronx, another tenement in the ghetto. This was a world of speedballing, of staying away from white dust patients from Queens who were drinking cranberry juice to detox. Residents talked about getting high on boiled nutmeg, filtering Aqua Velva cologne through slices of bread for drinkable alcohol, coating menthol cigarettes with toothpaste to catch a buzz.
We played hyper-aggressive basketball with a milk crate nailed to the wall for a basket. We slap boxed, played the corner (a jail fight game), played spades, did push-ups for card values. I was one among the junkies with collapsed veins and abscesses where the coke had missed. Residents gleefully yelled out drug dealing and prison phrases: Pass me by you don’t get high; on the juggle no struggle; on the lock in.
There were also the penitentiary Muslims, threatening to put crushed glass in pork dishes:
I don’t eat no swine.
Yo, swine is divine.
There were irks from orphanages, the odd intellectual, old timers who told stories about zip guns and shooting LSD and what a trip it was, or of shooting coke to speed up their production as piece workers. Prostitutes, hustlers, regular Joes and Janes who didn’t seem to belong there, the bugged out, the earnest strivers carrying around briefcases, the veteran convicts, the flaming gay I’ll-whip-your-ass kid with the long nails.
I split one time from the facility in the Bronx and tried to hold out until I turned 18 and could join the military. With the help of some friends I stole wood from houses under construction and built a chest-high shack in the woods of the Long Island high-tension fields to live in. I’d fall asleep each night with alcohol or marijuana. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in complete darkness and await morning by burning leaf after leaf of the Suffolk County Yellow Pages in a metal garbage can for warmth, light, and activity. I’d masturbate as many times a day as I could to interrupt the monotony. I’d wander the roads, hitch-hiking back and forth, making up songs, breaking into houses, breaking into school cafeterias, briefly working as a caddie. My friends thought my place in the woods was an adventure at first and visited for a while, but soon they stopped coming (SATs, finals, dates) and I was alone. I held out for about a month and then went back, and was eventually transferred to a facility in upper Westchester (Yorktown) specifically for adolescents.
In Yorktown we played handball for gym credits, worked in the kitchen for shop credits, and ate blocks of welfare cheese at meals. Coffee was put on a ban because it was wildly abused (we’d smuggle around envelopes of Café Bustelo). Residents broke into the facility’s bomb shelter and took the Phenobarbitals they found there. We broke into the kitchen, stole the staff’s shrimp, and cooked it in our room on an overturned iron in a tinfoil tray. In group therapy, a resident vaguely but emotionally alluded to a murder while his co-defendant tried to shut him up. Residents screamed, cried, and beat pillows in stay-up-all-night “marathons.”
I was running a little wild. I came across my roommate and my friend, a stuttering bisexual-marital-arts-expert-dust-patient-armed-robber from Hollis, using his belt like a whip to fight off the overweight adult resident from next door, who had been busted for stealing girls panties from his job in the laundry. Not quite sure why, but hyped up on pure unfocused energy, I snatched the belt and gave it to the panties fiend and ran off. When I came back to the room that night I was pinned down while one resident hit me, the other kissed me on the chest. I had an iron in my hand and I was going to hit them in the head, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
We played crazy, gleefully masochistic, exuberant games of football in the snow. We’d run into the arms of the largest boys and they’d throw us as far as they could—hurt us, hug us. We were going crazy in there. I’d get stoned all night on coffee and sleep deprivation and hang out in the morning talking maniacally with the matronly librarian.
We flirted in the kitchen while wearing Hefty bags as aprons and scrubbing dishes and pots as punishment. An emergency Family meeting was called in the middle of the night because a grown man was found in bed having sex with one of the boys, a boy I had been shooting pool with the day before. Two girls copped to having sex in a janitorial closet. Rick, a flaming white teenager, would provide Herbie, a barely literate Latino from Rikers, with blow jobs.
The boys stole me some cupcakes for my birthday. Where you going to get that among teenage boys in 1983 if you’re not locked away?
I got to know some people in there.
The only white girl in the facility who would go on the dance floor with the black and Latina girls and be accepted was Cindy from Queens. There was a meeting one night where the Family was to decide if a young man who had been probated to the program would be kicked out and sent to prison for smoking marijuana. The Family became a lynch mob—jeering, gleeful, one speaker after another whipping up the crowd. He was made to scream over and over,
(At the top of your lungs, like you mean it)
I’M SORRY, FAMILY!
The Family was giving him the thumbs down, thrilled to see him shipped off to prison. I sat there disgusted but said nothing. And then Cindy spoke up. She made an impassioned speech that turned everything around and saved the boy.
One day Cindy herself was caught getting high and placed on a work contract and made to wear a stocking cap, covering a full head of long, black hair. In the mixed up bureaucracy of an institution, I had taken over the position of kitchen department head. When the family was given time off to watch television, a staff member told me to take all the “contracts” up to the kitchen to clean (they weren’t allowed any privileges). I led a parade of people in signs, costumes, stocking caps, and shaved heads up to the kitchen to work.
Cindy and I were friends. I would steal her loaves of bread from the kitchen and food from the chow line. She and her roommate would horseplay and wrestle around with me on the floors. After she got high and was placed on a ban with the Family, they moved her into an isolated empty room. I was Nightman then, and I’d wake her up gently (at a very early hour to start her scrubbing and other punishment duties). She’d reward me with a sleepy, sweet Thanks, Kev.
So once in the kitchen I told her not to worry about working. Although she was banned from talking to anyone in the facility, I ignored this and started speaking with her, knowing she was probably lonely. But she was stammering, lowering her eyes, acting uncomfortable. I didn’t know what was wrong. Then she started to cry. After many What’s the matters, she told me that she couldn’t talk to me or even look at me because she felt so ugly without her hair. C’mon, Cindy, you look okay. Get back on your waitress/secretarial track. Let’s just pretend we’re at the Bandshell in Forest Park and you’re not wearing pantyhose on your head.
My roommate was Anthony, a black teenager from Brooklyn who dreamed of entering the Air Force. Each night we would lie in our beds talking and we became close. But when staff made me visit home, Anthony was my escort, and he had to sit in the car outside when we went to visit my quasi-girlfriend because the girl’s father didn’t want a black person in his house. Earlier in the day, at my house, he saw an old photo of me wearing a yarmulke at my sister’s wedding. Then, back in the facility, I was escorting a server out into the dining facility with a tray full of plates (it was my responsibility to verbally beat back the residents who tried to steal extra food). I had a little bit of juice at this time. One resident who I threatened stretched out his arm, finger pointed in accusation, and loudly announced to the dining hall, “Yo, he’s a Jew.” Anthony had spread the word back in the facility that I was a Jew, and I had to answer for it.
At one point the director ordered that all tables in the dining room be integrated. There was a small pocket of whites, mostly from Queens, who stayed separate from the black population and would use black slang as a form of mockery—Yo, yo, yo, I’m down. Some blacks returned the racism and called the white man a devil with dog hair. A few whites were accepted either for their sheer strength or their affinity toward black culture and were referred to as mighty whities.
Cindy’s roommate was a pretty, anorexic-thin, ghost-pale blonde girl, also from Queens. The rumor that preceded her entry was that she was dusted out and had let neighborhood boys sodomize her with a fence post. She was extremely quiet and shy. When we talked privately, though, I was taken aback by the venom with which she condemned the “niggers” in the facility. For some reason the black population was being solicitous and gentle toward her—girls would stroke her hair during Family meetings—and they had no idea.
Timothy was a black teenager who was good with his hands, a natural athlete, and so street cool and suave that the adults let him sit in on their Spades games. I got to know Timothy because he used to come to my room to visit Anthony. Initially, he was contemptuous and amused by me, a loser white boy. But in the classroom I became a peer tutor and started helping him with his schoolwork. It was a situation Timothy hated (a white boy who doesn’t even know how to clean his ass teaching him), but I treated him with respect, deferred to his juice. I helped him write a card to his girl. We partnered together on the handball court. We’d talk.
I made a conscious effort to bridge racial and social gaps. I took it as a challenge, thought it was a good, decent thing to do, and it gave me satisfaction. Though I had never used an iron in my life, I made a transition into homeboy (this was years before wiggers, Vanilla Ice, etc.) and began to iron my pants and shirts meticulously each night, creating patterns and creases under pockets and along sleeves. I listened to slow jams on BLS—Peabo Bryson, Luther—at night on the radio in the room with Anthony; heard about the drug kingpins Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas from the adult residents who knew them; read Iceberg Slim, Eldrige Cleaver. I was taken under the wing of the strongest, smartest man I’d ever met, a hardcore black Muslim who ran everything and could run anything. Jimmy George, the coolest man in the facility, spoke his own special slang.
But I was still a foolish child—I was going to be the Jimmy Stewart of the cell block, trying to be both black and white. Once, I psyched myself up for months, and then one day at the pool table, said the word as if it were natural:
Damn, niggers be talking shit.
No flak, all was natural. It was the first and last time I ever used the word in my life.
Every day we had to recite The House Philosophy (Rise from the ashes of our defeat and take our rightful place in society…) in unison.
Then residents were required to stand up in front of the Family.
(In unison): Morning.
My name is Jan G. I’m 17 and I’m from Money Makin’ Manhattan.
(Sotto voce): Monkey Makin’ Manhattan.
Or it was Crooklyn, the Boogie Down Bronx, or the Burnt Out Bronx.
My concept for the day is, ‘When you get to the end of your rope tie a knot and hang on…It all comes out in the wash…Teach a man to fish…’
My color for today is blue…
My word for today is ‘behooves…’
And I got a little song for you…
Can I get some of these? (finger snapping)
Good Morning Heartache… (A young black girl, Kelly, would sing this every morning at Induction. She split, and they announced one morning that she had been found dead on a rooftop from a heroin overdose).
Lord, I was Born a Ramblin’ Man… (The mostly city population would call out ‘Yee-haw,’ mocking goofy Chuck from upstate, who had been busted for holding peyote at a legalize marijuana gathering in DC).
Welcome to the Hotel California… (Two white girls from Connecticut—we’d decode the lyrics, insisting it was about a TC, from the lyrics—‘Nightman,’ ‘programmed to receive,’ and ‘You can check out anytime you want but you can never leave.’
Two or three times a week, staff would announce Encounters. This was done to take care of hostile feelings that otherwise might spill out onto the floors.
Eight to ten people sit in a circle, and the leader (the High Hat) announces, “This game is open.” All the members compete with one another to scream at their chosen prey. Whoever screams loudest, wins. The High Hat then tells all others to back off and remain quiet. The winner announces to his prey: “X, you got this motherfucking game.”
X must then sit silently while he is “indicted” by his original attacker and whoever else in the group has “feelings for him.” He is screamed at, cursed, insulted, mocked, hurt, toyed with. You are encouraged to be as brutal, as confrontational, as nasty, and to scream as maniacally as you can. The only rule was you couldn’t attack someone’s “inborn dignity.”
Ideally, when the indictment is over the prey is in tears. He is admonished if he seems to be being insincere: Come for real or don’t come at all. Then he is supposed to be “patched up by the group,” given comfort and support. At the completion of this process he has the option of giving the game to someone else, and it continues.
If you disrespected a female they could sit you in the middle of an all-female Encounter circle on a spinning chair. The game was often used to keep each other in check, to show off. The most respected were those who were particularly vicious and clever at humiliating a person.
In Yorktown, I got back into school, got into the sharing and valuing of myself and my education through the peer tutoring program the teachers set up, and started working obsessively on independent packages to complete school. There was also a creative writing teacher who let me go off in his class.
I was made a peer tutor, helping gangsters, my fellow students, write cards to girls. Nightmen would come into my room—it was supposed to be lights out at 10 p.m., but I had a flashlight, reading. They said, “Get that piece of paper, Kev,” and they didn’t turn me in.
Intelligence was respected. Round-the-way girls who had never paid me any mind started flirting with me. It gave me purpose, pride. The teachers respected me, mostly. My counselor, she wanted me mopping floors, not studying. But four of us stole away to an off limits part of the facility that had been burned out (previous residents had torched part of the facility). We had a coffee pot and ran our own little SAT study group. I took the SAT with a dictionary hidden in a restroom trashcan to consult on bathroom breaks (by this time everything was a hustle).
By May of 1983 I had been in Phoenix House almost a year already. School was over and there wasn’t anything to do except play cards for cigarettes. I was done, very ready to be clean cut. My plan was to go directly to college in September, about five months away, and start living my life.
The teachers there were agreeable and supportive. Staff was not—success in school wasn’t success in treatment. I’d have to stay at least two years like everybody else, they said, then maybe move into another facility for what was called the Re-entry phase, with a menial job on the outside. My first counselor was supportive and liked me, my second counselor pretty obviously didn’t and seemed to view my college plans as haughtiness. I was starting to feel pride, feel good about myself, which is always a tricky thing in these kind of places—Whoa, mister, you’re here for a reason.
My counselor said, And besides, didn’t you get caught smoking weed—rolled in toilet paper in the shower not too long ago? Yeah, I did. I don’t know why. I hated weed. You just rebel all over the place like a caged animal, or like a caged teenager.
After some incident with her I ended up sitting on a tree stump in the lobby (their version of The Chair) while various residents tried to convince me to stay or hugged me good-bye and gave me their phone numbers and addresses on scraps of paper (scraps I still have today). I was by then 18, legal to leave the program and roam the world on my own, but had nowhere to go and no resources.
Eventually, reluctantly, staff dropped me off in Penn Station with two garbage bags filled with my possessions. I found myself on a pay phone, begging my mother to let me come home. I said I love you for the first time in my life (it wasn’t true but I was desperate). I’m gonna’ change, I want to get a job, go to college, please.
She was supposed to say No Way, the program or the streets, as she had been saying for two years, but she relented. The next day I got a job working in Toys“R”Us. It didn’t last. I’d come home from jogging with my eyes red from the wind and there’d be screams and accusations that I was high. She eventually found some beer cans in my room and I was about to be thrown out again. Maybe you need to go back to the institutions. I thought this would never end.
I got high on some of the Valium she had in her medicine cabinet for my own private going away bash and I asked for just one favor—a ride to a military recruiting office (years later she told me she agreed because she was sure they wouldn’t accept me, I couldn’t even walk straight). My recruiter told me not to mention anything about drugs or drug treatment and I joined the US Army and got my life.
I kept a list of CDC residents from when I was there—forty-six teenagers. And over the years I tried to look some of them up.
Anthony. My roommate Anthony and I had visited each other’s homes and talked into the night. His mother, shocked and wary when I tracked her down (Who are you? How’d you get this number?), finally told me that Tony had been in and out of programs and jumped off a bridge in 1992, killing himself.
Tara. She was a sweet, caring, introverted 15-year-old from Levittown who was constantly being told by staff to take her long brown hair out of her face. She had smoked a little pot and was put in the program because three of her brothers had been residents and her mother was scared. I used to spend hours talking to her as we scrubbed floors together on our knees; she used to “drop concern slips” for me in group, and it was her name I’d give when they’d come around and ask us who we had eyes for (a crush on) for their records—yeah they did this too.
That girl is gone. Fifteen years later, when I met her, she was on-and-off-again homeless, sleeping on the streets of the Lower East Side. She had serious drug and psychiatric problems, a hardened version of a 15-year-old CDC girl still trapped in a 15-year-old girl world: her mother still threatening to throw her out of the house. I spent eight hours following her around the city in the freezing cold as she ran around like she was possessed, hugging homeless men she knew, racing around trying to find blankets or clothes to warm them. She was also on a mission: obsessed with pulling the plastic covering off of baby carriages, to save the children from suffocating. She already served a year in Rikers for this, but she won’t stop.
We parted in Penn Station with the requisite CDC hug which felt unusually meaningful; it was the only connection we made all day. Tara was eventually arrested and spent three years in jail on vague kidnapping charges (trying to save those suffocating babies).
“L.” I found out my program quasi-girlfriend, L, lived five minutes away from me and was doing fine with a year old baby after a few years of crack and spousal abuse. She still hated the program. The girl she split from CDC with is dead. The boy from CDC she dated attempted suicide. I walked around a few times with her and her baby and tried to be as close as we were in there; she tried too—brothers and sisters, that TC automatic intimacy—and we managed for a little bit.
J. And there was J (“don’t use my name”) a wild, fearless, athletic, crafty daredevil—“the sickest kid you knew in high school,” his lawyer told me (CDC once dressed him as Dennis the Menace as a punishment). I visited him in a penitentiary in upstate New York, where he’s serving a 32-to 64-year sentence in prison for two counts of attempted murder—his parents, along with two counts of assault, robbery, and grand larceny. He’s already made two suicide attempts.
J made the front page of Newsday in 1989 for engineering a fairly ingenious, complicated jailbreak with two other inmates—a drug dealer and a murderer by the name of Shi Fu Huang, who once appeared on an episode of America’s Most Wanted. J told me that during Monday Night Football they used fire hoses to rappel down the side of the jail. Shi Fu said Sayonara motherfuckers, while climbing down. He was still at large years later.
CDC was “the beginning of the downfall I think,” J said. “Their hearts were in the right place, they meant to help everybody. I just think that that tough love concept works with older people, but not with kids. Tough love kids get rebellious…I used to be petrified of them fuckin’ people up there. I hated going to that place. I used to have a knot in my stomach constantly because you never know when you’re gonna’ get in trouble for something, even if you try to do your best, you’re gonna’ get in trouble for something.
“See, they never knew how I thought, because I was like the only person in that place that never talked to them and they fuckin’ hated that. They hated me for that. I never spoke in a group. Never. And they used to try to get it out of me and I’d be like, ‘I got nothin’ to say’.
“I’m still traumatized from that shit,” he said, laughing. “I should sue.”
Nina, Steve, Brian, Lee. L’s friend Nina was the central casting rich girl from Great Neck. She’s dead now—a car, Quaaludes, and telephone pole.
And Steve, the coolest, craziest resident, who everyone wanted to be like, is said to be psychotic and dangerous.
And Brian, my Orientator, who’s spent the last ten years drinking and failing, is now back in the same program for night groups with a wife and four-year-old child.
Lee was a teenager from Harlem who I met in the Bronx facility of Phoenix House and we buddied around together, good friends. He took me to meet his family when we were out on a field trip to Orchard Beach and his people happened to be having a barbecue there. He did short stints in two TCs and spent three years in Phoenix House over a cab-driver robbery he did with a rusty gun. He’s seven years into an 8-to-16-year sentence for burglaries. He’s got a lengthy rap sheet, his arm is mangled from a car accident. He became a drug dealer, suffered from depression, and finally, developed a crack habit for a little while. His father doesn’t take his collects anymore. A couple years older than me, he says he’s worn out.
Russell. Another close friend I had in Yorktown, Russell, is also in a New York penitentiary, bulked up, covered in tattoo ink, arrested for DWI and parole violations a few years ago on his way to Sturgis for the biker rally. He said his latest brush with rehab was in prison, where they made him watch the movie Rudy over and over as part of a mandatory DWI course. He was telling me because it was just as ridiculous as he and I thought saying Good Morning Family, my concept for today is… back in Yorktown when we were teenagers.
He hated Encounters. For twenty years he’s been in and out of prisons and jails and he still says Phoenix House was his worst experience. To him it was a “group home without cops” with some silly brainwashing that he never bought. That’s basically what I thought. But it was a place for me to escape, and any kind of treatment took place hanging with Russ or talking to my roommate at night as we lay in our beds after lights out. You were never lonely in there.
In 2001 I got permission from Phoenix House and went up to Yorktown as a reporter, as an adult. I wandered the halls going in and out of rooms with a group of teen-age residents.
Not much has changed: a couple residents bored out of their minds were playing cards (What do you do all day? I ask. This.) Boys in one room cliquing up by ethnicity, playing dominoes; others sleeping in the middle of the day; an adult resident in the courtyard cursing like mad at the air; a younger resident talking melodramatically about splitting; a couple of residents saying they lied about having a drug problem, just trying to beat prison, beat a case (same as when I was back there); a forty-something female “retread” (TC term for residents who are in and out of rehabs) saying she’s uncomfortable among all the hyper teenagers—she had been sent to Yorktown because she was sexually acting out in another facility; a group of good kids earnestly trying to do the right thing with 18, 20, 24 months in the program.
You gotta’ meet ’Caine, Kev. You know why they call him ’Caine? Kev, is it the same as when you were here? Kev, did the program help you? Did you want to leave when you were here? How’d you handle staying here? Did you get sick of it? Was it hard for you when you got out? Kev, did you have a nickname when you were here? It’s good to see someone made if from here. Is there anybody else from here who made it big? You really inspired me, Kev.
I hugged and hand shook the residents like I was back in the program.
The director, who was in Phoenix House as an adult resident when I was there as a kid, asked me if I want to give a seminar (a TC staple—basically a speech to the House.) I kind of jokingly reminded him, “But I’m a splittee,” which means I’m officially poison, on a lifetime ban with the program, to be shunned as a negative influence, “on bad standing” with the Family.
He kind of jokingly agreed. So, no seminar. We weren’t really joking, though. Treatment is no joke, even when it is. And it stays with you forever.
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