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.

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