Monday, December 23, 2013

Synanon & The Game

In many ways, the roots of the Troubled Teen Industry can be found in Synanon, the California community that started in 1959 as a rehabilitation program for drug addicts.  Over several decades, Synanon evolved into a huge, cultish network with thousands of members.

At the center of the Synanon program was a practice called The Game, wherein community members would meet in a large circle to confront and berate each other on perceived shortcomings.  The Game could be a cathartic process of purging negative feelings - it could also be a powerful tool for social control through public humiliation.  The Game was played three times a week (a pattern very similar to TTI programs such as CEDU) in sessions lasting several hours.  Games were recorded and could then be reviewed at listening stations.  Apparently, certain Games (or edited versions of them) became classics and would be listened to and studied over and over.  Later in the evolution of Synanon, Games were broadcast over a low-watt radio station called The Wire and could be tuned in from various places throughout the commune.  The Game became a bonding exercise, communication tool, therapy, psychodrama and entertainment all in one.  It was the defining feature of the Synanon experience and it had a huge impact on community members.  When former members left to start their own programs, they brought The Game with them.

There is one fundamental difference between the use of The Game at Synanon and in the TTI, however.  Despite the cultish, manipulative atmosphere of Synanon, members were there by choice and more or less free to leave at any time.  Teens in TTI programs have been coerced, tricked and often outright kidnapped.  They are not free to leave, and they are not free to opt out of Game-like "Raps", confrontation therapy sessions, traumatic reenactment therapies, etc.  While the Game was never an exercise in honesty (creative exaggeration and hyperbole was an aspect of successful "play"), similar practices in the TTI encourage and even enforce false confessions.  Ever more extreme "truth telling" is required to demonstrate enthusiastic participation (and therefore movement through the levels and eventual freedom).  This severely compromises the essential structure of the group exchange.

Because of the extreme containment of TTI programs, along with the psychological manipulations of sleep deprivation, nutritional deprivation, solitary confinement, etc, the "reality" within programs becomes extremely malleable.  Teens find themselves trapped within the enforced Double Bind of "playing at not playing", creating an atmosphere where one begins to believe one's own lies.  The TTI uses these techniques to create the illness which it then proposes to treat.

Despite having read many accounts of The Game, the specific dynamics of play are still obscure to me.  I'm considering a trip to UCLA to access the Synanon archives that are held there.  In order to understand the coercive application of group "therapies" in the TTI, I need to better understand the social experiment of The Game.

To read about Synanon in more depth, I would recommend starting with this insider account or this balanced but largely sympathetic study.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Double Bind / Critical Pedagogy

Reading through the many survivor accounts, journalistic stories and angry rants about the Troubled Teen Industry, it's hard not to be overwhelmed.  A few concepts have emerged recently that help me to organize my reactions.  They're new to me and deserve more research, but here are some initial thoughts.

First is the notion of the Double Bind, a form of coercion that creates an impossible contradiction, such as the command to "Be Spontaneous".  The Double Bind is a form of psychological manipulation, and it's at the heart of the TTI.  Contradictory commands (especially when applied with harshly punitive consequences) create a state of disassociation, a separation from the self.

Within the TTI, Double Binds pile on top of each other and compound: "You don't admit you're sick, therefore you must be sick.", "Rules are agreements, agreements must be followed.", "I am punishing you because I care for you.", "You're here, therefore you want to be here." and "You will learn self-control by giving up all forms of self-control."  The resulting state of disassociation produces binds within the mind: "To become well, I must become sick.", "To be real I must pretend."and "I must play at not playing this game."

The world inside Troubled Teen programs is completely isolated and produces its own reality.  Complex jargon is used to re-name things, producing linguistic Double Binds.  For starters, what should one call people who are held, against their will, in Troubled Teen programs?  Clients?  Patients?  Prisoners?  Usually they are simply called Teens.  The identity of each "teen" is constantly assaulted - through sleep deprivation, nutritional deprivation, forced restraints, isolation and physical labor.  The more resistant they are, the more they are punished:  "The more you struggle, the more you will be restrained."

At the largest level, the structure of the TTI is itself a Double Bind, because it is a for-profit enterprise - and a very lucrative one.  Care for teens is contradicted by the desire to maximize profits.  This creates a Double-Bind for the (poorly-paid, underqualified) staff who must learn to disassociate from any sense of human compassion in order to fulfill their role.

The second set of concepts I've encountered recently are the theories of Critical Pedagogy, which reside on the opposite end of the spectrum.  This set of ideas and practices advocates respect and equality for students, an awareness of social power relations, and a call for integration and action within the real world.

It's Critical Pedagogy that I plan to employ in the devising and rehearsing of this project.

(Thanks to Awake for the thoughtful and informative posts about the Double Bind on

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Culture of Behavior Modification

Why is the Troubled Teen Industry an important topic for artistic exploration?  (I'll leave aside for now the larger question of whether Art may or may not be useful  for addressing social topics at all.  I sometimes wonder... recalling the famous Adorno quote.)
For one thing, there is the broader cultural drift I've been noticing - toward a widespread use of extreme penalization in new and increasingly "ordinary" contexts.  The use and abuse of solitary confinement in prisons has been in the news lately and is an important human rights issue.  Solitary isolation has been recognized as a form of torture.  But until recently, I was completely unaware of the use of isolation chambers in public schools (often used for students with autism or learning disabilities).  I find this to be extremely disturbing - a clear example of police state creep.

Isolation chambers in public schools are disturbing for a couple reasons.  First is the way our public education institutions are becoming ever more transparently mechanisms of control with the rise of "zero-tolerance policies". Our schools have become increasingly harsh in their enforcement of "normality" and increasingly punitive in how they deal with undesirable behaviors.  Of course, these punishments are enforced discriminately, along lines of race and class.  Students become familiar with extreme punishments at an early age, as the prison system is literally imported into the school.  This has come to be called the "school to prison pipeline" - a subject I would like to research further.
Second is the way these isolation cells represent the increasingly common use of psychological manipulation.  These dark, padded rooms are tools for sensory deprivation - a technology for altering perception.  It's one thing to choose to be in such a space, for purposes of meditation or psychological exploration.  It's entirely another thing to be forcibly placed in such conditions, as a form of punishment.  School officials state that students often appreciate the quiet time, but I have my doubts.

The Troubled Teen Industry as a whole is founded on the misapplication of therapeutic and behavior modification techniques ("re-enactment therapy", "confrontation therapy", "bioenergetics" and so on).  (And has also been known to use isolation for extended durations.)  There is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of these "therapies" (especially when conducted by untrained staff), and much anecdotal evidence that these experiences are incredibly harmful for survivors, leading to symptoms of PTSD and other trauma.  The spread of psychological manipulation from extremely specialized contexts (torture, interrogation, POW camps, etc.) into everyday life strikes me as extremely dangerous.  Additionally, shifting therapy from voluntary to involuntary leads to a very vulnerable position known as the "double bind" - a concept I will explore further in my next post.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Therapeutic Boarding Schools

On July 11, 2011, I heard a Think Out Loud radio segment about the now-closed Mt. Bachelor Academy in Eastern Oregon. The experiences described by survivors of this so-called therapeutic boarding school reminded me of something out of Passolini's Salo.  The descriptions of psychological abuse at this remote facility seemed unbelievable, nightmarish and very bizarre. I wondered if such places could actually exist, outside of official scrutiny and regulation.  The topic immediately struck me as a rich vein for exploration - material for a quasi-narrative video installation.  I did some quick online research and bookmarked a few promising sites but, being in the middle of another large project, I postponed any serious inquiry.

Over the last year and a half, I have been reading extensively in an attempt to come to terms with this subject.  I learned that Mt. Bachelor is one small part of a network of programs referred to as the Trouble Teen Industry (TTI), which includes drug rehabilitation facilities, wilderness camps, boarding schools, boot camps, etc. These programs share many qualities, most obviously their use of a so-called "tough love" approach to behavior modification.  The more I learned (especially through survivor accounts such as those found on Fornits) the more those initial stories of abuse were confirmed - and exceeded.

Given the horrific nature of these programs and the brutally real traumatic experiences of survivors, how could I possibly transform this research into a work of art? Even a phrase such as "rich vein for exploration" evokes a paltry aestheticization of the pain of others.  At the same time, this topic begs for more attention.  While there have been articles about the TTI in mainstream publications, most people I've talked to are unaware that these programs even exist.  A documentary film is currently in production, and a fiction film was recently released.  I'll be interested to see both.  How does one approach The Real within these institutions? Not surprisingly, the most successful accounts that I've encountered so far have been memoirs created by survivors - such as the film Over the GW and the book Straightling.

The most helpful text I've found in understanding the larger philosophical issues surrounding the TTI is Phillip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. But, watching The Experiment loosely based on Zimbardo's 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, shows just how wrong a fictional translation can be.  The film completely misinterprets the fundamental thesis of Zimbardo's experiment and book by ignoring the institutional and situational factors that lead to an abuse of power, instead falling back on the usual dispositional explanation (best summed up as the "few bad apples" theory).

I have been somewhat paralyzed by the many ethical and moral dilemmas this project raises, but the idea has stuck with me.  How can I create a work of art that honors the real experiences of survivors?  How do I engage actors and participants without traumatizing them, given the intensely damaging techniques of the TTI?  And how can I do justice to the huge themes which are emerging as I peel back the layers of such a complex subject?  It's only in the past month that a possible way forward has presented itself and, over the next few weeks or months, I will think through potentials on this blog.