The Rise Of The Phoenix
Phoenix House was started by Mitchell Rosenthal, a psychiatrist who had spent enough time with the cult Synanon to decide to replicate their program. Synanon was a recovery cult which spawned basically the entire “troubled teen industry” and tough love movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s. The Synanon methods, including shaving member’s heads, forced vasectomies, attempted murder and sending rattlesnakes to members who tried to leave, were more admittedly more extreme than Phoenix House, but the emotional abuse and work camp models used by both are the same. Synanon came up with “The Game” aka encounter groups, the truth-telling sessions known as Guilt Sessions and work-based shunning punishments for behavior or speech which went against the standards and rules of the program, all used to this day by Phoenix House.
My Introduction to Phoenix House
In the early 90s, I was a depressed and traumatized 16-year-old who had been literally living on the streets, in parks, dope houses, wherever I could for a couple of months after being kicked out of my house by my alcoholic mother. I was really sick and tired and called my grandmother, who lived in Indiana, and she talked my mom into letting me come home…with a caveat that I would go to a treatment program. I reluctantly agreed. I detoxed and primarily slept the next six days in an inpatient detox facility, then went to the treatment program that my mother had arranged for, which was a very long-term adolescent facility for ages 13 to 17 in Descanso, a town in the mountains outside of San Diego. My mother was instructed on what she had to buy for me to wear while I was there, as I wasn’t allowed to have any other personal items of any kind, and traveled through the winding mountain roads to the program.
Out of the approximately forty two residents of the co-ed Phoenix House program, I would guess that half were court-ordered as an alternative to a long sentence at a juvenile detention facility, most of which were drug or gang-related, although two were convicted of attempted murder. They were definitely grateful to be there instead of “The Ranch” or “Campo” as the juvenile detention facility in San Diego was affectionately coined. The facility backdrop was a repurposed, previously closed campground with a series of seven cabins sprawled across the grounds. When you arrived, you were assigned a “big sister” or “big brother”, another resident who had been there longer, who was responsible for showing you the ropes and teaching you the rules, guiding you in following them and avoiding punishment. One of the things that was of utmost importance was that our beds were made “tightly” with “military corners” every morning, using a clipboard to perfect it so that you weren’t punished for it not being made “tight” enough. You learned this immediately.
On my first day there, we had an evening group and I was caught completely off guard when a counselor said that “The Game” was “on” a particular resident and everyone in the group took turns screaming at the individual whose “game” it was. The screaming consisted of the alleged offenses they believed this person had committed since the last group, some residents so angry they were spitting while screaming at them and after what felt like an hour, but was probably less than a minute, the counselor yelled at everyone to stop. The only rules of these “encounter” groups were that you were not allowed to curse, you couldn’t leave your chair while yelling at the subject of the “indictment” (their term, not mine) and the subject could not yell back or react in any way, including facial expressions, nor leave their chair. When the yelling stopped, the expectation was that the subject would see the error of their ways, often crying at this point and whether we believed what we were saying or not, would be expected to respond that we understood that our behavior must be modified and how we planned to do that. If we showed any anger, the counselor would usually start their own yelling indictment against the subject. Having grown up in chaos and domestic violence, I had practice for the 18 months I was there of dissociation and I would almost be viewing the group from above like a mere spectator, even when I was the subject of The Game. The way the counselors decided that it was “your Game” that day was usually when enough residents had “dropped a slip” on you, or wrote on a pre-printed post-it sized paper their complaint about some behavior that went against the rules or standards of the program, from not doing your chores properly to more serious offenses like alleged stealing (usually food or using too much toothpaste) or flirting with the opposite sex. We were encouraged to “drop a slip” if we saw someone exhibiting undesirable behavior because we were not allowed to confront each other throughout the day between groups. Untrained residents were responsible for policing their peers. The training or professional background of the staff at Phoenix House was often limited to having been adults who had graduated from one of their adult facilities.
Most of the staff that were responsible for us on a day to day basis had no human services education or experience at all, let alone certifications or licensure.
Another practice that would occur from time to time was a “House Meeting” where residents were expected to “drop their guilt” at a “Guilt Session” during which residents would stand and share anything they had done that went against the rules in front of the entire co-ed resident population and counselors. This was very similar to confession at church and a Resident would stand and reveal that they had broken a rule or standard. The nature of an adolescent co-ed program was, of course, that many of these offenses were sexual in nature and we were expected to share as much detail as possible. The session would last for several hours until residents stopped popping up and saying “oh yeah, one time I used too much Pine-Sol while mopping, so I have stolen”. Certain people would receive punishments after these sessions, depending on the “guilt” they had dropped and there was no set standard or formula for this. Punishment was usually manual labor, which we did all day every day when not in school or at a meal or sleeping, but the difference was that this work punishment would last for days during which time no other residents were allowed to speak to you from sun up until sun down, even at meals or while walking by. They weren’t supposed to speak to you back at your cabin at night, but that was harder to regulate. If someone did speak to you, they would be on work punishment as well. An example of other forms of punishment was the time I had to stand at the top of “ the hill” the top of a dirt path before and after meals as other residents passed yelling “my behavior has been inappropriate”, which you had to scream so loud that counselors better hear you yelling in their office with the door shut. My throat would hurt and become raw, but I kept screaming it because I didn’t want to know what the next level of punishment would be. Another form of punishment for breaking a rule would be an on the spot “haircut” which was being yelled at in a manner that I can only describe as like a drill Sargent in front of the rest of the residents. Any misbehavior would be characterized as “dope fiend” behavior. We were referred to as dope fiends routinely by the towering Director of our program as he barked cliches, threats and predictions that we would die “just a dope fiend” if we didn’t comply with the rules and standards of the facility.
I would say that all of the labor was unpaid, but we did receive a stipend of two dollars a week, which we could use for “walking around money” or at the little country store down the hill if we were able to go on an “outing”. The country store also “employed” exclusively unpaid residents to work in their stockroom and shelving items in the front. This meant that you worked for a local business-owner without receiving wages.
Sometimes a teen resident would decide it was all too much and set out down the maybe twenty miles down the mountain to the nearest civilized town, usually in the dark of night, braving the possibility of encountering mountain lions, coyotes and other weird California mountain shit.
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